A Sense Of Clarity: Wild Beasts Interviewed

With Wild Beasts' excellent fourth album Present Tense released this week, they sit down with Luke Turner to discuss blurring the line between myth and reality, and how their music has evolved through growing older and (not necessarily) wiser

Wild Beasts have always dealt in duality, whether through their lyrics of love and lust, the contrasting vocals of Tom Fleming and Hayden Thorpe, or their contradictory nature of using the basic tools of the British indie group to access something much, much more. This extends to the recording process of fourth album Present Tense, which took part variously underneath a dirty railway arch in South East London and a studio out in the Cotswolds countryside, with a view over fields towards a hillside carving of a horse.

Present Tense finds Fleming, Thorpe, Ben Little and Chris Talbot pushing themselves still further beyond the confines of the bass-drums-guitar-vox set-up as, lyrically, they deliver more direct, heartfelt songs than ever before. This may be the result of the band now being at the point in their lives when the youthful caper of touring starts to lose its allure, when a certain amount of slowing, if not settling, down is inevitable.

"When you’re young you have this compulsion to get everything out at once, to be charging and youthful and angry. When you first join a band there’s no sense of tomorrow, never mind being 30," says Fleming. "You have to step back, and it’s very important that you retain what you started with, and you don’t pretend to be 21 any more."

How did the contrast of the recording spaces, the railway arch and the rural studio, affect the record?

Ben Little: It’s like being on a train journey. It starts and you’re in the city, it’s claustrophobic, it’s aggressive, and by the end it’s switched through a few gears and you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

Hayden Thorpe: The record does inadvertently have that passage, from the concrete to the fields.

Ben Little: It was a gorgeous time. I’d personally not been out of London for a time, and most of the studios that we’ve been in don’t have windows, and that studio was a window.

Tom Fleming: I do like the alchemy that can take place when you’re in a really cramped, confined place in a dirty city, and there’s this lush synth. I’m thinking of Kate Bush, the landscapes of her head. Wow. There’s something to be said for that, the longing for space, I hear that in some records, and I think it’s bled into our stuff.

On Present Tense, did you feel you had to react against people’s ideas of what Wild Beasts are?

HT: I don’t think we’ve ever placed restrictions on ourselves, but it’s also very easy to buy into an idea of yourself that you’ve had previously. We were trying to have a broader palette, to try and be capable of taking stuff from elsewhere and applying it to what we were doing. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but to make music in the current period it has to be strong enough to survive. It isn’t this precious delicate flower, it has to be robust, it has to exist in the world. People have to hear it, they almost have to know what you’ve done. There’s something good aesthetically about things being really obvious. All the criticisms I saw of the last single were the criticisms that everybody makes about electronic music. ‘Give me a Bontempi keyboard and I could do that’. I like that – I invite that.

It’s a rockist thing. You’re going to upset a certain amount of the Wild Beasts indie fanbase.

HT: Deliberately so, deliberately so. I think there was a sense at one point that we were being translated for the wider audience [by critics etc]. We wanted to cut out the middleman, and that’s where the bluntness comes from. We’ve dumbed ourselves down for the sheer thrill of it. What’s the most difficult thing to do? To make complex ideas simple. We’re always of the opinion that a good idea, if it’s a genuinely good idea, will endure regardless of the final aesthetic it takes on, whether it’s a rock song or a synth, krautrock thing.

One of the things that strikes me about the album is that there are fewer lyrical gymnastics going on, though you are still playing with language. Was that conscious?

HT: It’s less coded. Again, that was a feeling that to make something simple was far more of a task than to wrap it up in fancy code. It takes a sense of confidence to say ‘this is what I mean, right now, for better or worse’. It might make me sound syrupy or soppy or whatever, there’s a sense that you can take that on because it’s more honest.

Do you feel it is more syrupy and soppy?

HT: Definitely. In a kind of risqué way that I sometimes worry about, but I think that level of being able to say ‘well that’s what it is’ is very strengthening. I think we had to earn that right to be that simple, that was the power of the fourth album, to say ‘we have this code, if people understand this, then they’ll know we’re doing this with thought’. That’s what my favourite writers have always done, they’ve taken away. Lose the decoration – what’s essential to make this a functional and moving piece of work?

If you carried on being quite as fruity as you were on the other records you could have lyrically tied yourselves up in knots, thinking that you had to keep outdoing yourselves, becoming more and more ribald. It’d have been all panto, no limbo, it wouldn’t work.

BL: We do have a tendency to disappear into black holes if we’re not careful.

HT: You do tend to react to your surroundings as well. When Limbo Panto came out – this might sound arrogant and it probably is – but it is more leftfield and genuinely weird than most debuts, and it was in an environment that was completely anti that kind of thing. It was a response to an environment, and now that environment has changed, I think it’s less of a reactionary record in that sense.

Maybe you helped clear the indie landfill…

Tom Fleming: It’s funny you should say that, because we’re out of the same soil as that kind of stuff, in a lot of ways we’re about the same things, but it’s just with a different eye, a different kind of mentality. I think we were very anxious not to be a ‘clever band’. We wanted to be direct and say things that were heartfelt rather than a construct. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to nudge and wink, it’s always supposed to be sincere.

HT: When you’re younger you’re trying to say everything in one mouthful, but there’s less of a desire to do that as you go on. 

When I spoke to you for Q Magazine you said the album was about going from "younger men into shit men". Is that part of it?

TF: I think it has to be, or just a recognition that your failings are everyone’s failings.

HT: There’s a sense of idealism that dies.

With everything? Life, love, music, everything?

HT: [laughs] That sounds awful!

Are you more realist now? Is this a realist record?

HT: The longer you do it the more you exist comfortably inside the skin of what you do. People would listen to the record and expect you to be someone, and I’d always feel that there is a slight sense of disappointment that I’m not this wacky bastard who walks around smoking a pipe.

Do you really think people got that?

HT: Off Limbo Panto, maybe. And with Two Dancers it was expected that we’d womanise every person in the room… The womanising was quite hard to uphold. There’s a realisation that this is what we do, and this is what we do well, and the longer time goes is the only thing that we’ll do really well. There’s a sense of acceptance of that, and less of this trying to uphold this imaginary responsibility to embody someone who somehow has to impress in every way, in every second. 

A Casanova, a Byron…

TF: That Byronic thing is absolutely hysterical, and I speak for myself and absolutely indict myself in this – the romantic, tortured, genius, singer-songwriter whose parents put him through art school in San Francisco and chooses to look like bohemian, but on a trust fund. Those archetypes lose their magnetism as you get older, and you think ‘well fuck it, I’m going to be me’. It’s so obvious, but you have to get there. That’s part of getting older – you realise the idiot you’ve been and will continue to be. 

That’s the honesty that comes out of being more direct.

HT: We were doing some interviews last week and Ben was talking about how we’re keeping it real and stuff, [we’re] down to earth guys, and I realised I was drinking a soya chai latte. And it didn’t have a handle.

Is that you feeling the north-south divide now you’ve moved to London?

HT: We’re wary because of recent press where we’re portrayed as patriotic in some way, or trying to uphold some kind of British value. It’s a bugbear of mine.

I think you’re very English, but it’s mistaken for something else. I mean, you’re a product of where you’re from, it doesn’t mean that you’re flag-wavers.

HT: Exactly. It’s hard to say ‘I’m real, me’. It’s hard to claim that you’re sincere without seeming insincere. The more you try and drive the point home the more you seem like you’re desperately trying to prove something you’re not.

One of the things about ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ that I’ve picked up on, and elsewhere in the LP, is that there seems to be a lot about doubt, searching for truth, what’s defined and what isn’t. You were talking before about the internet and being able to just dive in and find anything – is that partly what the record is about?

HT: The internet is a useful tool for being able to self-mythologise. Anyone can be anyone, and you can catalogue your life in quite inhumane ways. It presents a sense of order to things which are really very disorderly. It’s a really dangerous thing that you can look back at photos from five years ago and everything looks very neat, and this is how you want to be presented. I think maybe the record is a reaction to that, and a collection of small realisations, a sense of clarity. A sense of safe distance, I hope a human touch in what can be quite a cold-making tool. It’s a brilliant human invention, but most human inventions do anything but help a human need, which is a sense of togetherness. I think the consciousness of the times as well.

In terms of politics?

HT: I think relationships. There’s that decision now, if you’ve got to deliver some bad news, how do you do it? Face, phone call, text, email or Facebook. There’s now that choice, which consciousness do I have to live in. And I personally find that quite a difficult thing to comprehend. We’re kids of that first internet generation, where you still had to wait for the dial-up.

Would you say the record is optimistic, though?

HT: Definitely. And that’s a difficult thing to achieve, to do it sincerely optimistic rather than… 

TF: … for the tape, that’s a Paul McCartney gesture.

HT: That took a lot of navigating, there were a lot of near misses, a lot of last minute swerves.

How so?

HT: A song like ‘Palace’, for instance, was very difficult to walk that tightrope. It could very easily spill over into something far more syrupy and disingenuous than I hope it is. Even down to picking the right day to record it and to actually genuinely feel like that. Like I say, the album has a lot of realisations and lots of moments of clarity, and you don’t always feel like that when you’re putting those things together. That was a challenge with making it – what’s artifice and what are you genuinely feeling? Because you can’t embody that very thing on that day.

Why is that different from before?

HT: I think before it was upholding more of a separate self, this is the performance self, this is the Wild Beasts me. Now the lines are more blurred. 

Does that go for all of you?

TF: I’d agree with that. Making peace with yourself, and when you’ve done that, make peace with the world. Don’t do the same thing when you’re 30 as when you’re 20.

Wild Beasts’ Present Tense is out now via Domino

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