What do you do after three acclaimed albums but little in the way of commercial success? It’s a question many bands have had to grapple with, and one that Wild Beasts took time to ponder between 2011’s Smother and their latest effort, Present Tense. The wreckage of their third album was a troubling sight the band were forced to take in for a further 18 months as they toured the world. Taking time last year to recover after three albums in four years, the band had to decide how they wanted to progress Did they want to continue in their same established furrow or try something new and exciting?
The contemplation is there to see on Present Tense. ‘Mecca’ and ‘Sweet Spot’ find vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming chronically in between two poles – what’s established and what they hope is oncoming – but, as a whole, the album sees the Kendal quartet continue in their bid to make music as spare and emotionally pungent as possible.
Speaking to State, the pair are keen to make the point that their’s is a situation many band would kill for, but despite their practiced humility, the prospect of greater success has never been extinguished in their minds. One doesn’t gets the sense that they are anything less than true to their art, just coming to terms with themselves and their place in the industry.
Between Smother and Present Tense, did splitting up ever cross your minds?
Hayden Thorpe: I think we were trying to hold it together, weren’t we?
Tom Fleming: [Laughs] It wasn’t exactly about wanting to continue; it was more like how to go forward properly – like make an interesting record, rather than repeat ourselves – where to go next? Rather than ‘Are we gonna continue?’, it was ‘Where are we gonna continue to?’
HT: There’s a danger to figuring yourself out after three albums. “Oh, this is what we do now; this is what we’re good at; we’ll do a professional job” – and that kinda felt like a slight death in a way. It’s that kind of predictability and comfort that felt quite threatening really. I think we deliberately kicked against that and tried to do things that were out of our comfort zone to make it feel vital again.
We had six to eight months off from each other. To be honest, that probably did our sanity and relationships a bit of good – both internal relations in the band and personal relations outside. It’s important not to be that guy in the band all the time.
TF: The world doesn’t revolve around you, y’know? You’re just a person, and that sounds facetious, but that’s a big thing on the record too. You’re just one of billions.
It sounds like Smother really took its toll on you guys.
TF: [Laughs] Well, Smother was about the toll, and then we went touring again. Which was great, we played some great, great shows, but it was never designed for the sort if stages we ended up on.
HT: It was almost like a double bind, Smother, because it was an album about consequences, and then the consequences it created were kind of equally …
It’s a strange skin to live in for two years, an album about consequence and hurt and bruising, because you have to still embody that skin on a daily basis. And I think we’re very relieved with Present Tense to let the fog lift and come out far more robust. Albums are kind of reciprocal in that you tend to write the next album about how the last album screwed your life up. I mean, that’s an overstatement, but you do have to give yourself over to the pain and get lost in it.
It sounds like there was an effort to be more optimistic on this album.
HT: I do think that this album more than others is, it sounds over the top, but more spiritual in a way. I think there is a phenomenon now, and I might just be pontificating and talking shit, in my experience and with friends, of a mid-twenties crisis, where you’re kinda carried through that extended youth.
A delayed adolescence?
HT: Exactly, and now there’s a confrontation in your mid-twenties where you’re like, “Shit, I’m closer to 30 here, I haven’t done any of the …”
TF: “I haven’t succeeded! I’ve been fed a lie!”
HT: All the tomorrows you’ve avoided come at you at once, and, yeah, I personally think it’s a mid-twenties breakdown in a way.
I think there’s a sense of positivity and a sense of stepping-up to this record. You can hear that on the likes of ‘Mecca’ and ‘Sweet Spot’. It sounds as if you’re actively taking the decision to grow up and take hold of your adult lives.
TF: Yeah, there is that aspect happening, but what it really is is the realisation that you yourself are only so interesting, and there’s a whole world out there.
So it’s less solipsistic?
TF: Yeah, totally!
HT: There’s a sense, when you create work as a youth, that you’re all-governing, so you feel like Godzilla or something, but there’s also that sense that the older you get the less you know. That realisation can be very liberating.
Lyrically, this album is a lot more direct. There’s a lot fewer allusions, fewer metaphors, less intertextuality. In that regard, you seem to be allowing other people in, instead of just referencing other media.
TF: Funnily enough, we [weren’t] even referencing but directly taking from other stuff, there’s a lot of direct quotations. That straight-forwardness is definitely conscious, and showing rather than telling and being much more forthright. Like, no metaphors. There might be an allusion there, but it’s supposed to make sense. That is that, that is that, that is that – very literal, and let that do its work. I guess it’s a more confident way of writing, we’re not hiding behind “I’m intelligent, me”. It’s not afraid to be dumb.
You say you’ve used your intelligence as a shield in the past, I suppose there’s an added realism to how you depict your relationships this time round.
HT: Yeah, I suppose when you make songs you’re kind of a myth-maker, and I think it easy to become embroiled in your own myth, and you don’t know where what you are and and what you want to be kind of begin and end. And that can be a bit messy – the fallout of not being that guy can be quite hurtful, but it’s also, as I say, quite emotionally cleansing.
I think, personally, when you first start out in a band, you almost think the more beautiful your work the more you are a romantic and audacious person … but it’s just not true. Your work is always better than you; your work is always the best version; your work is always the best you can be.
The art is not the artist.
TF: Oh, absolutely.
HT: There’s also a strange habit that I have – and that we all have – to think that artistic pain is far more visceral, far more real and interesting than normal people’s pain; or that artist’s joys are far higher and have far more ecstasy than a normal person could experience, but that’s just nonsense really.
TF: But there’s also the temptation to think that you’re somehow party to a higher power or, like, more intelligent. We’re silly people. We’re artists: we feel things, we don’t think. So remembering that it’s just music. I’m more in love with it than I ever was, but no one’s gonna die. It’s supposed to do something to the world around it; it’s not a closed feedback loop.
I spoke to Tom before you were here for Other Voices in 2011 and he said that you were portraying versions of yourselves in your lyrics, and you’ve affirmed that here, but I’m just wondering if Present Tense is the closest we’ll get to a mirror image of yourselves.
HT: At points.
TF: Uuuum, yeah. I do think, yeah. I’ve always said, you shouldn’t trust the ‘I’, don’t trust the ‘me’. It’s wearing different hats: you tell things in different hats and try other voices on.
HT: More than ever, on this album, there were a few points where I did wince a little hearing it back, like [feigns a wince], that’s too real. Sometimes it can reveal about you something about you that you didn’t realise and you sort of don’t like the look of it, but that probably makes for better listening, I suppose. That, again, felt like an important thing to do, rather than build the shroud of the rock star. It felt more vital to risk embarrassment.
Now, Grizzly Bear would be the most vocal example of a critically-acclaimed, mid-league indie band decrying the lack of financial stability in making music for a smaller audience. Would you sympathise with their complaints at all now that you’ve had this time to reflect on whether it’s worth continuing as an interesting band?
TF: Well, there’s a lot of ways to make money, and we’re very fortunate to make any living out of it. It is tricky, I think; it is harder than it ever was to make a living,so you end up with lots and lots interesting but very, very low-key stuff you hear about on the internet and megabands.
The music industry is fucking fine. That will continue to make money. It is the artists who have been poorly rewarded for their work [who will struggle]. I tend to think the ability to make millions out of records was a blip.
A 50-year anomaly.
TF: Entertainers, bards – which is what we are – travelling musicians; it was never that lucrative. So, yeah, I do sympathise. I’m not gonna sit here and complain about my lot, because I do feel very fortunate, but I do sympathise with what they’re saying.
HT: It’s human nature, isn’t it? There’d be guys, undoubtedly, who’d give a limb to be in our position. And equally, we have to be careful not to gaze upwards all the time, thinking about those guys in the cosmos wondering what us Earth-dwellings are doing down here.
TF: I think the point is that, for anyone listening to it, I hope that’s never in their heads – how much these guys earn – because it’s not important.
HT: The music industry has a warped value system in that there isn’t common sense. Things that, to me, should be disregarded and never listened to again are worldwide phenomena, but that’s also part of the thrill of it. It’s part of the game. It’s not uncommon for us to have friends or colleagues either to be desolate, out on the streets or become millionaires within a year, and there is no value system behind how that comes about. But that’s part of the allure, to be honest.
TF: Absolutely. I mean, the curve is extremely steep. We’re probably, like, somewhere hovering here, and then it’s vertical. But then, beneath that, it’s flat.
So the allure is still there, is it?
HT: Absolutely. It has to be. To completely dispel the romanticism of being able to pull it off, as it were, and do something both creatively ambitious and ambitious for yourself [commercially] at the same time. I don’t think that’s foul language; it’s just hard to pull off, and that is the allure.
Art and business coexist, they’re mutually dependent. It’s just how you judge that, and I think as we go on we can judge that line better. But to say that the belief isn’t there and the allure isn’t there is to continue going to church and not believe in God. If you’re going to go to church, you sing it like you mean it.
At the same time, I think it was either in an interview with Pitchfork or The Fly that you used the phrase “justifying our existence” with this album.
TF: Yeah, we didn’t want to make another ‘Wild Beasts album’, another good – “Oh, that’s a good Wild Beasts album”. Repetition is death, and we don’t know what we are. We set out to make our defining statement, and we haven’t done that. I’m really pleased with the record. We wanted it to be listened to in its own right, as its own thing, not just for fans of Wild Beasts. People who would be interested in music in general might be interested in it regardless of who it was made by. I think that was the point of it.
There’s a lot of music around, and there’s a lot of musicians coming up who are a lot younger than us, so we’re just trying not to settle.
Do you find there is value in purely being alternative, counter-programming to the charts?
TF: We’re definitely outside polite society, and that’s important – that’s your job. You’re supposed to be interrogating, you’re supposed to be provoking and provide for people who hate the mainstream, who can’t live in that world. We always felt like that, we couldn’t be that. That constant mantra of success is impossible; and that incredibly anti-septic, healthy, happy, heterosexual – fuck it, it’s not interesting, it’s not real. And I think we wanted to provide a different voice.
HT: We never wanted to be the vegetarian option.
So you’re reconciling these two sides. Let’s say Limbo, Panto and Two Dancers were quite out there – you had the sharp voice, it was so different to what anyone else was doing – and now you don’t have to be so self-consciously different.
HT: Exactly. For a start, the state of mind we made those records in is not now. I couldn’t think of anything more sad than guys in their late twenties try to recapture their late teens.
TF: The first flush of youth is embarrassing.
HT: Yeah, embarrassing. On a personal level, the late twenties suit me a lot better than the early twenties. That sense of awkwardness and out-of-placement was kind of a nightmare, and Limbo, Panto was a reaction to that.
We’ve hopefully built for ourselves a world that we can inhabit now, and I think that’s what we were always setting out to do; I don’t think we were ever one of those bands that could say it all in one mouthful, in on breath.
You can barely say your song titles in one mouthful.
HT: Exactly. Our early music was very coded and it was kind of like language in and unto itself, and we can enjoy the freedom of people knowing that now, knowing when we’re joking, knowing when we’re serious, and we can play with those characters. It creates all kinds of possibilities.
‘Wanderlust’ is very probing and not quite political but defiant. You sound reinvigorated.
HT: There’s a sense of bravado about it as well because we’re not in poverty. It’s extreme. We’re sitting in a nice, chic-y Dublin hotel right now.
TF: It’s not bad, is it? I think you’re right to think of it as not directly political, but defiant is exactly right. Do you like the world around you? The answer should be ‘no’ if you’re gonna make stuff. I think that’s what that song is, very much kicking the door open and saying, “This is what we sound like now”.
HT: We’re just marking our patch again, re-remembering and re-imagining those initial reasons of why we got together in the first place. That became quite an important manifesto for us to say “This is out patch; this is how we do things”. We believe in self-sufficiency, and I think the best things should always transcend their origins, as it were.
Which you have, but I suppose this song is saying, we are who we were but also who we are now.
TF: That’s kinda what we wanted to do: This is what we sound like now; this is what Wild Beasts are.
HT: It’s a song about us, to be honest. The gaze you get to look through with what we do is kinda priceless. As much as you’d like to afford it and buy it, it’s not something that can be attained like that.
It seems this album indulges primal, carnal language and desires far less. I’m just wondering why that is?
TF: It’s less in in-yer-face; it’s less of a young man’s game.
HT: Exactly. We don’t have the audacity of youth. I think if were still making songs that were that overtly sort of ‘rimbo sexiness’ it would be a bit awkward beyond a point.
TF: Yeah, I think that’s very true.
HT: It starts to become Page 3. It starts to become slightly perverse.
TF: Obviously, we didn’t do it deliberately. It’s not something we pursued per se. It’s just always been a feature of our music and a way into everything else, because obviously it touches on everything in your life – that need for somebody else; that biological need and the tricks your body plays on you to get you into certain situations that you can’t handle. That was always a tangential way into it. As I say, I still think we’re on that, it’s just not as ‘fuck you’.
So you’re reinventing the Wild Beasts wheel by paring everything down and taking away the extremes.
TF: I think just taking away is the thing; make it as small as it can be. Don’t decorate. Try and be as straight-forward as you can. Don’t try and prove you’re clever or good; just be good.
So what changed for you when working with Lexxx and Leo Abrahams as producers?
HT: They’re both threateningly capable; it’s quite intimidating to be in their presence, to be honest. It was the kind of situation where you’d play the song to them once and then Leo would play it in front of you on whatever instrument, and he plays it better than you could.
TF: “Shit! That took me ages.”
HT: I suppose we handed over a lot of trust to them. Sonically, they really had a vision of their own for it that, at times, I don’t think we could see. It was a leap of faith in some senses. Sometimes you’d be going in a direction where you’d literally be like, this is dangerous water, this isn’t us, but then we’d be asking “What is ‘us’?”.
They bought a lot of joy to it. They love what they do, and they instill a lot of energy – I think they re-energised us.
TF: It’s important, I feel like a stuck record, to keep going forward and keep changing and we love Richard [Formby, producer of Two Dancers and Smother], we love his work and we’ll work with him again, but this time we wanted to do something different. It’s a record very much conceived and made and played in and, in some ways, about a city. One of the things about living in London is that you have much more control of your work, and you have access to all these people – I think we wanted to take advantage of that a little.
You’ve said leaving the north was a betrayal to yourselves.
TF: Yeah, in some ways, it feels sad, it feels like we didn’t have a choice. I mean, I’m sure there’s plenty of people to prove me wrong, who’ve done very, very well elsewhere, but it felt like deliberately stopping our horizons. Because we’re so obsessed with the idea of Britishness and northern regional Britishness and making that speak …
HT: I suppose the origins of the band were making music from isolation. That sense of isolation and difference and indifference to the outside was kind of a really important part of what we did, so it did feel like we were joining the great migration.
Tom, last time I spoke to you, you said not winning the Mercury Prize [in 2010 for Two Dancers] was good because it allowed you to stay dangerous. So, do you still feel dangerous?
TF: [Laughs] I still feel dissatisfied with the world; I still think we talk about that dissatisfaction as well; we still refuse to be something we’re not for appeasement. I don’t think we’ve made it any easier; things are as small as they can be.
HT: It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s a funny thing to say after not winning the Mercury, because what else could we say? “It’s the death knell! This is the end of the band!” Of course we’re gonna say this is the best thing that can happen, because you constantly have to play that trick on yourself for the greater good.
TF: There’s no ‘what if’. It’s gone. Deal with it.
HT: The kind of incredibly forward-facing and obsessions with the new of this industry suits us. Your past work counts for shit really. If were here having to talk about ‘All the King’s Men’ still, we’d be bored and you’d be bored. If we had to keep explaining ‘Brave Bulging…’, it would just be …
TF: Jesus Christ. I think one of the luxuries our trajectory has afforded us is the ability to keep moving forward and not being tied so much to an old record.
Now, you’ve used the phrase ‘keeping it as small as possible’ with regards to the new album. but there are times when you seem to be rebuilding after Smother. ‘Palace’ sounds completely new, for instance.
TF: We took a little while over it, and everything has been considered, and the difficulties present are not deliberate. We tried to make it simple, but we didn’t want to simplify. We’re not gonna get any more palatable than this.
So, this is the pop album.
TF: Well, kind of, yeah. This is as close as we’ll get.
HT: The nature of some of the song’s demanded that they become pop songs.
Those suits you’re wearing in the press shots (pictured above).
TF: Quite something, right? They’re much more visible than we thought they might be. They were to make the lights look good.
Miami Vice style.
TF: And again, it’s flirting with disaster and pulling it off. And how are we gonna pull it off if we don’t try? It’s having a pair of balls to say – not just pontificate about stuff – but just to go like, “Right, this is us out there. This is our blood on the line here.”
HT: We work in ridiculous parameters, we really do. It’s a ridiculous job and we do ridiculous things. We’re not on the frontline … and it’s OK to flirt with that sense of ridiculousness and to know it and inhabit it.
I remember when we put on those white suits, and I was upstairs. I came down and these guys had put them on, and I literally thought they having a joke:
“Nice one, guys.”
“No, this is what you’re in too.”
But that’s kind of part of the thrill of it, taking on different guises and trying to pull it off.
TF: Also, with press shots: it’s your face. What can you do with your face? It’s there to show that we’re back.
Finally, I just want to ask both of you what your favourite song on the new album is and what it means to you?
HT: I think ‘A Dog’s Life’ shows the mechanics of the album and how it was put together. It’s kind of a collage: it’s made up of elements of some very crude, literally thrown-together sounds in the bedroom, combined with highly orchestrated and expensive production, and it’s widescreen in that sense.
TF: I’m gonna say ‘Sweet Spot’ because I think it’s the first time we’ve had a song that does all the things that we do. It’s kind of got everything, but it wasn’t deliberate.
HT: If there was ever gonna be a Wild Beasts cartoon, that would be the theme song.
I’d watch a Wild Beasts cartoon.
TF: I’d like to make one. I don’t think anyone would give us a budget though.
Present Tense is out today. Wild Beasts play the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on 29th March. Tickets (€23.40-25.40) are on sale now from Ticketmaster.