Blue Romantics: Wild Beasts on their reflective, elegant new album

Conscientious and contemplative, Wild Beasts' fourth album reads like a coming of age. Vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming discuss selflessness and the practised art of marrying simplicity to detail

Feature by Lauren Strain | 17 Feb 2014

When in mid-January the first single from Wild Beasts in two years, Wanderlust, appeared online, a thousand outcasts' hearts hurt. As its video's four 'stock' characters – The Thief, The Good Lady, The Quarterback, The Girl – ran urgently against a scrolling darkness, then came to a halt, they seemed to do so not out of exhaustion but defiance, the redhead in her party dress mouthing the song's disarming coda: “Don't confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.”

Calmly delivered in Hayden Thorpe's quilted tenor and borne aloft on a cresting wave of synths and processed chorales, the refrain is an unexpected summation of a track that celebrates the exhilaration to be found in not becoming the person society wants you to be. It's also a succinct introduction to a fourth LP, Present Tense, that repeatedly returns to a sense of self-acceptance; of finally figuring out who the hell you are, and being okay with it.

“The video does have a sense of end-of-days in a way,” Thorpe says, clasping a latte in a Deptford deli close to one of the locations in which Present Tense was written. “It's supposed to seem apocalyptic in a sense because it's suggesting, 'All these things we strive for and spend so much time and attention trying to attain, what's it worth at the end of the day?”

It's a conceit that he quickly extends to the process and purpose of making music, observing that “when you're making art you can go to great lengths and morph yourself into something entirely warped to try and attain these supposedly useful things – like Shazam hits or something – but you denature yourself, you become kind of far removed from that initial pure idea that you had. I think this album is definitely a case of trying to get back to knowing what that idea was, because it gets lost in the mist. We realised after four days together writing this record that that was the longest we'd spent together in years, just the four of us in a room.”

In contrast to the frenzied eight-week period – two weeks writing, six weeks recording – that birthed the band's previous record, 2011's lustily claustrophobic Smother, the making of Present Tense could almost be seen as languorous. Pieced together segment by segment, initially on computer – the first time the band had worked so heavily in this way – and then taken out into the room over a period totalling nearly a year, its process afforded the four childhood friends (Thorpe, co-vocalist Tom Fleming, Chris Talbot and Ben Little) the opportunity to analyse every aspect of their method. The idea of peeling away layers of expectation and artifice to identify the 'real' impulse behind creating art is something that Thorpe and Fleming revisit throughout their conversation.

“Our lives are far more intact this time around than they were last record” – Hayden Thorpe

Indeed, this ideal of locating an “inner beauty,” a simplicity in both intent and execution, seems mirrored in the songs themselves, which, though sonically emboldened by electronics, are structurally their most pared-down to date. After the frescoed excesses of Limbo, Panto and the Mercury Prize-nominated Two Dancers, and, latterly, the sore physicality of SmotherPresent Tense is certain and stately, even restrained. It still sounds like Wild Beasts, of course – Thorpe's vocals the silk to Fleming's velvet, Talbot's drums as nuanced as to be almost corporeal, But where their first two LPs flounced and flicked Vs, and where Smother gasped with intimacies explored in exacting, explicit detail, there's a collectedness to Present Tense that clearly comes from having achieved a personal as well as musical peace.

“Our lives are far more intact this time around than they were last record,” Thorpe offers. “Smother represented a lot of solace, a lot of comfort, and it sonically played out that way. This record, we're far more grounded, more settled as people, and more confident in a way. We also felt kind of galvanised by the fact that we could put out as bruising and vulnerable a record as Smother, and for it to do the things it did... I think we felt reassured that we can actually do anything. It instils a lot of belief in you.”

Smother was quite an insular and inward-looking record,” says Fleming. “As you get a bit older you start to feel a bit guilty, because you realise your life is very much me me me, and music is me me me, and I think this record was a slight attempt to have a different perspective on the world, like, maybe we shouldn't just be talking about our feelings, maybe we should be looking around a bit and seeing things in a context.”

“There's an acceptance of the fragilities of being human, and accepting that we are imperfect beings,” Thorpe continues. “You think if you achieve certain things... you will as a result not feel these things anymore, or be this different person. If you've lived longer you kind of realise, 'I still feel like this regardless of what I've been through or achieved or where I've been.' We still always have to take ourselves along.”

Acquiescence does not necessarily equate to contentedness, however. Present Tense is an emotional album that, as much as its title suggests an attitude of living in the present, refers frequently to moments passed and feelings lost – and, in the ominous, processional Daughters, imagines the questionable future we have created for our children. (“There's a real futility in thinking about yourself as an island,” Fleming says of the track.) The brute ardour of Smother reappears in Fleming's smug, strutting Nature Boy; and, as his character goads the man he's cuckolded ('I am the thing you fenced in / I'm ten men'), the song matches Wanderlust in its fierce fuck-you to all the men in suits who'll never really know what it means to live.

Elsewhere, Mecca seems to suggest that, despite coming to terms with our histories, we retain the wish to relive the best parts of them; and that, on our basest level, we are governed by instincts too ingrained to control ('All we want is to feel that feeling again,' 'We move in fear or we move in desire'). Perhaps most notably there is an express awareness that we are neither new nor unique in our loves and pains, that whatever we're going through has gone before us, and will come after us ('You’re the shrine to / All the lovers that loved before us and breathed in this ether;' 'All we want is to know the vivid moment / How we feel now was felt by the ancients.')

“There's a realisation that you're not the first to do this; you won't be the last and you won't be the first,” Fleming says. “And also that people won't learn; just as you haven't learnt the lessons of people before you, they're gonna make the same mistakes. There's allusions to that all over the record. I think it's a really interesting idea, it's part of what being a human is about, that kind of uncertainty in the future. Well no, sorry – uncertainty is the wrong word, it's actually certainty. You know, the absolute knowledge that this is going to come to an end. That absolute knowledge.”

In spite of its precision stitching, Present Tense breathes as perhaps none of its predecessors did; it's difficult to believe these songs were first constructed through patchworking and programming, rather than played through from the outset. “That was kind of the holy grail,” Thorpe says. “For something to sound effortless and like it always was requires a huge amount of meticulous and detailed work. I think we always felt that it was something intrinsic in the piece of music; that it just kind of happened. There was a realisation that it's not. It's something you really have to strive for.” All the preparation and patching, however, could only take them so far – and it wasn't until the band left Homerton (“we partly got evicted and partly threw ourselves out”) and were reunited with Talbot that the blood began to course through Present Tense's intricately mapped interior. “Rhythm and beats are the most primal and physical aspect of music,” Thorpe says, and “when Chris wasn't involved initially I think we probably lost quite a bit of our mojo”; the band also frequently point to the importance of the spaces on the record. (Most emotive are A Dog's Life and New Life, where yawning voids allow for upswells of shimmering surf, and feel a far cry from early singles like The Devil's Crayon or the ballsy, busy wheeze of Brave, Bulging, Buoyant Clairvoyants.)

“You should hear the process,” Fleming says of leaving some things unpolished. “What does it tell you about that time, and the person who made it at that time? We're not saying our other records are perfect, but we got used to the idea of imperfection with Smother, and for it to age... I think that's kind of what we were left with with this record. We tried to pare stuff down, but we didn't clean up everything. There's some element of accident – I think you can still hear decisions being made on the record. I hope.”

With a fourth album that, as much as it's a cliché to say so, feels like a coming of age – and with their fears as to whether, as Chris laughs, “the three people who cared are still interested” allayed by the reception to Wanderlust (“There was 24 hours where we felt like we'd won the internet,” jokes Tom) – Wild Beasts are something of a rarity among so-called UK 'guitar' bands, occupying a position perhaps matched only by Foals in terms of enjoying the luxury to work and develop at, relatively speaking, their own pace (though they “did think we'd probably be in a penthouse by now,” Thorpe deadpans). Their longevity is due in no small part to the strength of their togetherness: an almost audible sixth sense to their group musicality derives from friendships formed as teenagers in Kendal (Limbo, Panto was released when they were just 21) that have lasted through “tumultuous,” “transformatory” times. Thorpe describes the group as a “liferaft,” and notes that “this record is definitely about our kind of shared history.”

“There's a shared consciousness, definitely, that can't be replicated,” he says. “I think always in a weird way it was really important to us that we all came from the same town; it kind of felt, for this to make sense internally, you needed to have the same reference points. And y'know, we've seen so many people fall by the wayside because of not having that kind of unity, and not maybe having the care in terms of someone to look out for them, be it tough love or just love. And I think it comes through in the music unavoidably, that collectiveness. I think we always feel that a piece of music is kind of finished and right if it has been through our four brains and come out the other side.

“It's kind of beyond friends, in a way, because you're making work together,” he considers. “But it's a strange thing,” he pauses, looking up from his cup, eyes lit, “because it doesn't make you a better person. I think the great myth of art is that if you create a beautiful piece of work, it makes you a beautiful person, and it's not true. You know, it doesn't count for shit on real-level terms. You just are in a lucky position to be able to – maybe – create something of beauty.”

Present Tense is released on 24 Feb via Domino. Wild Beasts play Manchester Albert Hall on 26 Mar and Glasgow The Arches on 27 Mar