Of Music & Men: Hayden Thorpe Of Wild Beasts Interviewed

As Wild Beasts release brilliant new album Smother, Luke Turner sits down to Hayden Thorpe to explore the darker side of masculinity

It’s fair to say that, reviewing Wild Beast’s second LP Two Dancers, I became somewhat tumescent in my praise. "Oh Wild Beasts," I cried, all a-swoon; "come clasp us close to your sturdy chests, and do your very, very worst." And do their very worst, while doing their very best, is what Wild Beasts did, gradually winning over what had been a sceptical public with their joyous and bawdy oeuvre.

This reached its climax, to my mind, at last summer’s Green Man Festival. Wild Beasts were the headliners of the large second stage, located in a tent. Where previous encounters with the Kendal boys at Festivals had seen a crowd split between confused enthusiasm and horror, this performance was a triumph, the thousands in that tent singing along, and rarely for a Festival, moving with gusto. Now, they hit us with the brilliant Smother, a record that, with a smoother tone and far less caterwauling, is set to seduce even more. You’re mistaken in thinking that the Blubstep Jims (James Blake, Jamie Woon, Jamie XX) are the gentlemen purveying sultry and inventive British romance – it’s actually these four boys.

It’s an amusing coincidence that Smother drops the same week as Tyler The Creator’s Goblin, and indeed is currently battling with that record for a place in this week’s top ten. Both albums deal with what Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe will say is a contemporary crisis of masculinity, and young male identity. This is not the place to make an evaluative comparison to the relative strengths and weaknesses of either, but Wild Beasts certainly succeed in subverting accepted roles of the young male –and especially the young Northern male – in contemporary music, with their saucy farmhand hair and attire, vocal delivery, and lyricism, which deals both with the worst excesses of male desire, and its frailty and weakness, all themes explored by Rory Gibb in his review of Smother for the Quietus, and also in Laura Snapes’ fantastic piece over at the NME.

They’re a uniquely honest and eloquent group, as Hayden will prove in our chat about the new record, and engagement with these ideas that somehow, manhood might be on the wrong foot. As a footnote to this introduction, I present a text I received last night from a friend in the North, a man I’d describe as straight as a Roman Road through the desert, who has had his head and more turned by Wild Beasts and their remarkable music: "Liking the new Wild Beasts album Luke?" he wrote. "Great isn’t it? When I saw them live the other night I think that’s as close as I’ve ever come to wanting to do rude things with men."

So Hayden, has your new found popularity acquired you the usual curse of the rising guitar group, uncouth gentlemen flinging weak lager over all and sundry? Have you found a group coming for a "bovver boot ballet"?

Hayden Thorpe: Not at all, not one bit. We get more middle aged couples now. I think we scare off any of that element, and if they come looking for it they’re not going to get it. We spent years trying to manke people get rowdy at our gigs, and failed miserably. So instead of taking that as a curse, we took it as a blessing and realised it’s a real privilege to have people stand and listen and take it in. That’s probably a bit reason why the new record has turned out the way it did, because if we have people’s attention then we really can start doing something with them sonically. We thought ‘let’s create this immersive thing, and draw people into our world, rather than trying to get faster and harder’.

Will this also make them pay more attention to the lyrics?

HT: I suppose. Everything is a bit more understated with this record. We’re singing more softly so people are going to have to listen harder, it’s a bit more human I think, the voices aren’t as loud, the playing’s not as heavy. In that sense people are drawn to it like they are a flame on a cold night. And it’s creating that divide

And an intimacy too.

HT: Yes, it’s about saying, are you going to come in and listen or not? Because if you’re not, we’re not going to accommodate you, to let you be part of and involved in this intimacy.

The lyrical voice on Smother seems to me the voice seems more like a whisper than the rallying cry of yore.

HT: I think we looked inwards. We had a few options, one being to get faster and louder, to become more wild beasts, in a sense. I heard someone coin the phrase ‘make a Three Dancers‘. But we wanted to be more dynamic and daring. We felt really empowered by knowing that people were listening, and if you know people are listening you can be a bit more subtle and a bit more collected. With the first two albums we were taking a battering ram to the door because we were desperately frustrated, and we wanted to be heard. We were so frustrated by the non-adventure in British music, and the cause was more important than the consequence. Often we were a bit over the top to try and be heard. In a sense that paid off because we proved a point that we don’t have to prove again.

There’s a sense that you’ve won everyone over, from the initial skepticism that greeted Wild Beasts because of your means of delivery and so on.

HT: We no longer need to and shouldn’t pretend that people aren’t listening, and shout even louder. The whole thing with Oasis was that they proved an amazing point that you could come from obscurity and a working class background, but within a week they were millionaires, yet spent the next 15 years trying to pretend they weren’t! Financially we’re very regular, but there’s no point in us pretending we’re having to bash the door down, because we’re not having to now. There’s a sense of acceptance, and on the record there’s a sense of ‘this is us now’.

Has that coincided with you growing older? How old were you when you started?

HT: We were 16. Me and Ben have been doing this for ten years, it’s our whole adult life. It becomes a dependency, it becomes your process, your way of figuring things out. It’s quite scary.

How so?

HT: It’s a crutch. And it’s a crutch that doesn’t belong to you. These songs don’t belong to us. When you write a song you give it away, I don’t understand people who are precious about songs on their albums years after, because they’re a byproduct of the process, the cathartic release that has gone into them is what they’re there for. I don’t feel any sense of ownership of what we’ve done.

Because you play as such a unit there are four individuals working towards this one overall thing, this Wild Beasts, that you don’t and can’t control.

HT: We don’t control it. It makes you human, I think. I think when the four of us are playing together it doesn’t really matter. There is a sense of over-thinking in that a lot of what we’re about is something I can’t quite put my finger on and I don’t want to, because I’m quite superstitious about it. There is something sacred that shouldn’t really be unravelled because that’s what holds it together.

That’s part of the at times lurid world you’ve created, be that through lyrics or atmosphere when playing live.

HT: I think that’s in part because we did start pre-adult, in a way, so we almost built a world for ourselves to exist in. And that world is actually built around hiding our, or hiding my, I shouldn’t speak for the others, hiding my weaknesses and exploiting my strengths. In that way it’s quite a unique and slightly dangerous position. It’s not as if you’re working in a team when you have to get on with everyone, we’re our own bosses, which means you can avoid situations, which I’m not sure is always healthy.

How so?

HT: I had a realisation at one point that I’d been doing this for my whole life it was like complete immersion, there was the worrying dividing line between where do I end and the band begin? It’s something I’ve resolved now, and I’ve resolved it by realising it doesn’t belong to me, it’s just something I’m really happy to be involved in, and the songs don’t belong to me, and I’d rather it be that way really.

But your lyrics are dark, very honest about masculinity and desire, without beating around the bush. Is that part of it, and difficult for you to do?

HT: Not really no. It feels really liberating, really cathartic, I get a great sense of release from it. I do thrive on the sense of danger, though, it’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning, that sense of adventure.

The sense of how much you can get away with, how much you can put in there, as a lyricist, you want to push things?

HT: Yes definitely, though not in a cheeky schoolboy way, in more of a sense of self-discovery, what I make of the world around me. Everyone does it, they try to make sense of the people who are close to them, they try to gather some sort of sense of reason for why people do things.

But thinking of masculinity, the male condition is all too often trying to hide that sense of the world around you, or suppress it, or react with aggression, or retreat into the pack instinct, or all of the above…

HT: I’ve taken on all those mentalities, the pack mentality, the sense that I am vulnerable to no-one, and all are at the mercy of my whim, but then I think that if you want to have any sort of relationship you have to learn that that’s flawed.

Has that evolved as you’ve got older?

HT: I think so. It’s quite a unique position when you’re egged on for being honest and vulnerable, when other people appreciate and thrive upon your misgivings.

And when we’ve spoken before you’ve said you feel there’s a crisis of masculinity, as to how you’re supposed to behave as a man, has laddism ever gone away? It’s supposed to have but it feels as if it’s still here.

HT: Absolutely, I think there’s a fall-out, definitely. I don’t know where it is, it seems as if it’ll never be resolved really. People often think we’re so modern, we’re modern people, but we’ve not moved on too far from the Victorians in terms of morality, and then even further than that, because without getting too stuck in the mud, there is something about the human impulse, and natural ways of people, that will mean things are always unresolved. You could almost say that guys need to be aggressive towards each other because it’s territorial. There’s a theory I read that depression and anxiety are actually genetic advantages because in primitive times it meant you had a sense of inadequacy and paranoia that would drive you on to become a successful mate, or a leader of a group.

And the insecure male instinct is to over-compensate by excessive displays of masculinity.

HT: Absolutely, and I think music often encourages that great illusions, preventing people looking and delving inwards, because you’re often not going to like what you see, and it’s shit scary. That’s the main point really.

Wild Beasts new album Smother is out now on Domino. The group are currently on tour, and headline Field Day in London on August 6th

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