Wild Beasts: "We don't have to scream from the top of our lungs anymore"

With the follow-up to their Mercury-nominated <i>Two Dancers</i> due to drop any day, <b>Wild Beasts</b>' <b>Hayden Thorpe</b> talks progress, success, and Bono's big yap

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 03 May 2011

“It’s almost like saying you're a fan of Ford, McDonalds or Coca-Cola. I think they’re an amazing model of what you can get away with in this capitalist society.” Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe is possibly not the world’s biggest fan of U2, with whom the Lake District boys will be sharing space at Glastonbury this summer.

“They’re like these big trees that grow tall, in the woods," he elaborates. "They suffocate and don’t let the light through to the smaller trees. The more they grow, the more nutrients they suck up. When U2 put things out, they take up so much press and airtime. People all around the world know what they’re doing and they don’t need to be these all-consuming creatures. I think there’s this sense of egotism that really needs to be put an end to. It’s not like they should just go away but there are a lot more exciting acts to see in this day and age than U2. I think it’s fair to say that Bono likes the sound of his own voice.”

As it happens, the subject of voices, specifically Thorpe’s own distinctive countertenor, invariably occupies any discussion of the English quartet; and it is as much a feature of their aesthetic as their arty, progressive pop and sexually charged lyrical tendencies, drawing frequent comparisons to the otherworldy vocal of Antony Hegarty. Thorpe admits that people can be quite divided on the issue, but explains that this was pretty much the point when he first started performing live. “It was part of a specific ‘project’. We grew up playing in pubs and clubs where it was all AC/DC cover bands and heavy metal groups and it was more of an ‘up yours’ to arrive at these places and sing in a more sensual, effeminate way than it was to go in with a leather jacket screaming down the mic.”

But does he really think it’s ‘effeminate’? “It probably isn’t actually, but I think that’s what’s been drilled into me. From day one it’s always been quite an expressive thing, almost spiritual. I don’t want to get cheesy about it but I think that’s the way I feel about the release from singing. It’s quite a cathartic process, it unburdens me; a kind of coping mechanism. That’s why my voice has progressed and changed over the records, expressing different things, different faces as a person, different ways of seeing things.”

The nature of progression is a motif explored on Wild Beasts’ third LP Smother, released on 13 May. Thorpe is of the opinion that the record is an indication of their increasing maturity as a band, but is keen to point out that this shouldn’t be confused with the notion of playing it safe. “Normally maturity would mean a dulling of the edges and a sanding down and taking away of those jagged bits. I don’t think that’s the case for us, we’re actually learning how to be more raw; almost do less. Trying to be a bit braver and stripping the songs down, making them more simple in a way.”

Musically, that bravery is marked by the introduction of elements of electronica to their sonic palette, a move designed, according to Thorpe, to add to the overall atmosphere, rather than simple experimentation for its own sake. “We had one mission statement, and that was to make a beautiful record, everything else stems from that. And we found that this involves imperfection, being daring... and spontaneity. Capturing the spirit of those things rather than trying to polish things, which is a difficult thing to do because it can’t be faked. I think the layers, the density, are more atmospheric really. There are a lot of invisible sounds I would say.”

The Wild Beasts’ career trajectory graph is one which is currently headed in the right direction as far as they are concerned. After Thorpe and bandmate Ben Little started calling themselves Fauve (French for wild beasts), they expanded to a four-piece on relocation to Leeds, changed their name and produced a couple of EPs. After signing to Domino Records they released their well-received debut album Limbo, Panto and followed that up in 2009 with Two Dancers, a record which was nominated for 2010’s Mercury Music Prize with all the attendant increase in exposure. But has this nomination affected how the band approached the making of Smother? “I think it did affect us. We had two options really. One was to make a record which caricatured ourselves even more, make Two Dancers Mark Two, we knew that formula would probably work, or we felt we could be a little more introverted and daring. I think we took option two, definitely. We don't have to scream from the top of our lungs anymore, we can speak a little more calmly in that sense. If you know people are listening, you can do the same thing that they liked or you can take advantage of the fact that they’re going to give you time.”

Certainly, Thorpe speaks with a calm sense of determination, it’s evident that they (and when he is referring to the band and their ambition, it’s always with the collective ‘we’) have a certain career path in mind, and a defined way of going about that. “From day one we’ve said we’re making pop music and I think that got a certain type of monkey off our back, there’s no pretence. We want to be popular and we think people deserve to hear intelligent, meaningful music.”

Of course, ‘meaningful’ is a subjective term, so Thorpe elaborates what it signifies from a Wild Beast’s perspective: “There is a lot of bravado that goes on and maybe music made by design, just to fulfill certain roles. When we make music we often think of our 16 year old selves and how we felt, trying to take in music from places like New York, LA and even London. So there was all this exciting music from really exciting places but they never spoke about us, or our lives. By meaningful, I mean we’re speaking about our lives rather than as a character that we’ve fallen into. We never had the advantage of coming from New York, Paris or somewhere romantic where we could lean on the bravado and the legacy of these other bands. We had to start from scratch.”

Since starting from scratch, one overarching theme of the group’s lyrical output has been dealing with notions of sexuality. The band are perfectly conscious of this association and Thorpe suggests that it is something that they play with, perhaps to parodic, burlesque effect. “To be fair, since we were handed the baton in terms of our sexual content; maybe it’s been blown out of proportion a little bit but we really took that baton and ran with it [ooh matron]. There’s plenty for us to go at there because there isn’t a lot of music which speaks of heterosexual males, in the vulnerable open sense.”

So is this a theme which continues on Smother? “Well, it’s less slap and tickle, and more sensual I think. I think a lot of male music is dominated by expectations of an all-conquering testosterone-fuelled life, where you have a girl in each paw and you can’t get your trousers on quick enough before getting on the plane to the next place. I know that’s a bit OTT but there is a fascination for us in picking those complex dynamics in sexuality, with all the emotions that come into play. In general, all these songs are about love but they’re maybe three-dimensional. We try to allow for complexity and hypocrisy. Like it or not, people are that sort of species, it doesn’t mean we’re bad people.”

Renowned for what is often described as a ‘keen sense of literary history’, Thorpe also claims that the cinematic endeavours of Pedro Almodóvar proved inspiring for the latest album because films such as Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown “details people in a really imperfect way, it was daring enough to make a film which didn’t really have a happy ending. The classic text of choice in this instance is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because we are faced with addressing the question of whether or not the monster is good or bad.

“It’s about people who feel maybe they’re outside of things looking in," he continues, "and that is probably a reflection on our lives. We don’t have normal routines, with a predictable structure. We’re always moving around a lot and I think that comes across in the record. I think a lot of people feel like that at least at some point in their lives.”

So, with all that circumspection, and the admitted pressure of following up a successful record, does Thorpe have any specific ambitions he’d like to see realised as a consequence of this latest release? “I’d like to widen our net. There are places around the world where we have good followings, but maybe make more friends around the world, places we haven’t played before, Japan, Iceland, China. Those ambitions can be fulfilled I think, but on a creative level, just to keep learning, to keep making. Keep feeling that what we do feels essential and that when or if that stops happening, we’ll have the dignity to call it a day.” Over to you Bono.

Smother is released 13 May on Domino Records.

Wild Beasts play Òran Mór, Glasgow, on 6 May