The Force of Wild Beasts

Published February 26, 2014

ABOVE: TOM FLEMING (FAR LEFT) WITH HIS WILD BEASTS BANDMATES. PHOTO COURTESY OF KLAUS THYMANN

When they released their debut album, Limbo, Panto, it seemed inconceivable that Wild Beasts could possibly be named anything else. The four lads from the north of England came out swinging with both winky, book smart cleverness and an untamed, continually unspooling masculine energy. The combination gave rise to what might be termed “chamber punk,” exploiting vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s striking head-voice tenor and rich baritone, respectively, equally for showy melodrama and base, growling indulgence.

Six years and four albums later, the quartet has only benefited from a little increased refinement. Now in their late 20s and living in London, the band has distilled its sound down to an essence no less intense for its focused, rather than sprawling, energy. On their newest release, Present Tense, themes the band has toyed with for years—sex, masculinity, tension, disappointment—nestle into R&B-influenced grooves even bolder, simpler, and more foreboding than on 2011’s Smother. It’s a gorgeous record, particularly for its vocals; Thorpe’s mannered falsetto and Fleming’s strong, clear depths are both unusual for the indie-rock soundscape, and they’ve never been used more effectively, together and apart, than they are here.

We caught up with a very affable Fleming last week from his home in London, after seeing the band debut some of its new material at a show in Paris.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I saw you play two nights ago—it was a terrific show, and it seemed to me like the audience was really receptive to the Present Tense material, even though obviously they hadn’t heard most of it before. How do you handle that?

TOM FLEMING: Yeah, well, I guess it is. The thing is: Yeah, it is nerve-wracking, but at the same time, if we can’t do this by now, then what have we been doing?

SYMONDS: Yeah, pack it in. [laughs]

FLEMING: But it was just so good to get it played. It’s been a long time in the offing now, and it feels like it’s definitely time.

SYMONDS: Yeah, this album has taken a long time, it seems, to gestate.

FLEMING: That’s definitely fair. I think in part it was deliberate, but it even also went on after the deliberate period expired, you know? We’re really glad it’s going to be out in Europe on Monday, and in the States, the following Monday, I think?

SYMONDS: Tuesday. Yeah.

FLEMING: Tuesday, sorry, yeah. Oh yeah, I forget about that, of course, the size of the country. [laughs]

SYMONDS: [laughs] It takes another day just to roll it all out.

FLEMING: I think that’s a holdover from when they used to send the records out.

SYMONDS: Yeah, actual physical music.

FLEMING: Exactly, which is so fucking quaint now.

SYMONDS: You guys have spoken to Interview several times now, and in the last interview you did, for Smother, you mentioned for that album your M.O. was to be spontaneous, with lots of one-takes. Were you in the same musical place when you were putting together Present Tense, or was it more deliberate?

FLEMING: Well, as we just spoke about, the album’s taken a fair amount of time, but honestly you’d be amazed at how much of that is first-takes-at-the-last-minute sort of stuff. We started out with the idea that we wanted to make something different, and it was these grand ideas of what we wanted to do. We always start with a kind of road map, and inevitably you take a wrong turn and it all goes to shit. We spent a long time thinking about what this album needed to be, but I think all the time it took was done [by the time we reached] the studio. There are a lot of first takes on this record—we talked a lot about protecting the space, and being instantaneous. If it’s right, leave it. If it’s not, change it. We have to be quite brutal, because we’re a band that could, as people, just go and go and go and pontificate. I think Smother was very layered, and it was very much an additive process, whereas this was very much a subtractive process—what is the absolute essential of this song?

SYMONDS: So more like sculpting than painting?

FLEMING: Yeah, that sounds about right. I forget which sculptor it was that said the statue is already in the rock.

SYMONDS: [laughs] I feel like that was Michelangelo…

FLEMING: It’s probably someone huge and pretentious.

SYMONDS: Yeah. [laughs] Actually—maybe I shouldn’t frame this question this way, but speaking of pretension… Over the last four albums, you’ve gotten a lot of attention for your literary sensibilities as a band, and for having a diverse array of cultural influences—other music, but also films and books. I’m especially curious how that sort of thing worked this time around, since you had such a long time to sit on influences and let things marinate.

FLEMING: “Marinate” is a good word. This time around, we definitely tried to obfuscate less—allude less, and sort of say flat things more. Certainly, the thing about this whole gestational period was like, there was a lot of inaction; we work in a very inefficient way. I think what started out as a lyric tended to end up as a lyric, so there’s a lot of direct quotes and things ripped off from like YouTube memes. Stupid stuff. I think that’s the important difference this time; we feel less inclined to try and prove we’re clever.

SYMONDS: We already know that by this point, I guess. [both laugh]

FLEMING: Well, or you know that we’re not. Whatever we’ve proved, we’ve proved, you know? I felt like it was more interesting to mine the kind of—fucking awful term—but, “popular culture,” you know what I mean?

SYMONDS: I feel like I can hear the quotation marks in your voice there. [laughs]

FLEMING: Well I’m glad—for want of a better phrase. The things that you’re bombarded with every day. I guess if you’re a journalist, you live a lot of your life online, and it’s the same if you’re a musician. It’s things just coming at you all over the place—mixed media, the tone isn’t consistent, you can switch from funny cats to hardcore porn in like two clicks. What do you do with that? I do think it’s important to kind of speak about your moment a little bit. Obviously I’m not saying we’ve left the library, exactly, but we’re much more reluctant to be “clever” in quotations.

SYMONDS: Just because you said that, I have to ask whether there’s anything on the album that did actually come from a YouTube meme.

FLEMING: Well certainly, the song “A Dog’s Life” is very much from that sort of thing. There’s a picture of a dog answering a phone and saying, “Hello, this is Dog,” and so the idea of a dog that thinks it’s a person is kind of tragic, because we all kind of think we are what we’re not. We all think we’re more significant than we are. We all think we’re going to live forever. And, of course, dogs have very limited life spans, which is one of life’s great tragedies.

So it was that, and I’ve talked a lot about wrestling, about the WWF, as it was. Obviously, when it became the WWE, it became a lot more adult. But when I was a kid I’d be kind of like watching these 6’4″ beefcakes, 250 pounds, sort their disputes out with violence. So something like “Nature Boy” came from that, the homoeroticism and the ultra-machismo and that kind of thing. And for example, like the line in “Wanderlust,” “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” that’s something that someone said to me in an altercation.

SYMONDS: Which is like the meanest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s such a perfectly distilled little crystal of cruelty.

FLEMING: Well, welcome to the north of England! I know, right?

SYMONDS: Are you still in London?

FLEMING: I am in London, yeah. I’m speaking from my flat in London right now.

SYMONDS: And it’s been several years at this point, I think, right?

FLEMING: Yeah… Oh, god. Four and a bit, yeah.

SYMONDS: A lot was made, earlier on in your career, of the fact that to be a musician in the Lake District was not a cool thing to do—the four of you came together because you were the only people who wanted to play music that wasn’t stupid pub music.

FLEMING: Yeah, exactly.

SYMONDS: Whereas to be in a band in Shoreditch is, I would imagine, quite the opposite of that.

FLEMING: That’s fair enough. I think again, simply by the fact of actually wanting to make music, rather than just wanting to be a musician, you do set yourself apart a little bit. I think also we’re quite a bit older now, and there’s less of sense of having to dive in knee-deep to something. We are kind of hunter-gatherers of the city. We kind of take what we want from it. Also, we’re old enough now to know that the “London scene” isn’t London. London is a big and complex city with constant stimulus; it’s not about who’s got the best tattoos, who’s got the hottest girlfriend, and who’s got the tightest jeans, or whatever. If you’ve ever been backstage at a music festival, that’s what it’s like, you know? I have a love-hate relationship with London; I think any sane person does who lives here. Ultimately, by not being here, in a small country like this, you do yourself out of opportunities. We have much more control over our work here, and our stuff is much more visible, and we can do things that aren’t possible when we’re living up North. At this stage of our lives, it’d be silly not to.

SYMONDS: And I’m sure that sort of managed to mine enough of that experience of living in the North as you needed for the rest of your life.

FLEMING: There’s a pejorative phrase in London that goes, “Professional Northerner.”

SYMONDS: [laughs] That’s so good, wow.

FLEMING: I take that criticism, it’s fair. [laughs]

SYMONDS: I’m from someplace fairly similar, I guess, to an American version of the North of England, and now I live on the Lower East Side in New York.

FLEMING: I’ve been there a few times—similar aspect. Even more heritage for this sort of thing.

SYMONDS: Yeah, it’s strange. And it’s full of people just like me—we all sort of form a colony. And then it’s very easy to get lost in that hive mind.

FLEMING: No, I quite agree. It takes a little bit of diligence not to be, I think. Of course, another advantage of being a Professional Northerner is you are a natural and dyed-in the-wool cynic.

SYMONDS: [laughs] Exactly. And very prone, I’m sure, to self-awareness about that kind of thing.

FLEMING: Yeah. To the point where it’s not a good thing, but yeah. [laughs]

SYMONDS: Exactly. [laughs] You made a joke in an interview several years ago about how your mother wishes that you’d just write a nice song. Has she heard “Palace”? Is she happy with it?

FLEMING: Absolutely. The thing is, I’ve always thought that our job as musicians, or as people who make things for the world, the intent is to disturb and unsettle and poke a little bit. To suggest to people that maybe their cozy little world won’t exist forever. But equally, that sort of thing can include some real positivity. I’ve come to that when I got a bit older, that it can include real love and real happiness and real hope and stuff. It’s doesn’t all have to be Swans—as much as I love Swans, it doesn’t have to be that kind of aggression and that kind of pain. I do think my mother does wonder… She’s heard it, but I don’t think it’s nice enough for my dear old mother. There’s still a fair bit of Destructor on the record.

SYMONDS: I think there’s an extent to which something like positivity or a sense of peace, in art, has to sort of be earned.

FLEMING: I quite agree. I think that’s spot-on. Like this Paul McCartney, thumbs-up, “Everything’s okay, lads”—fuck off.

SYMONDS: Yeah, it takes growing up to be able to write positivity in a way that isn’t saccharine and unearned and stupid and melodramatic.

FLEMING: Absolutely, and also there’s a kind of young man’s disease of trying to be as dark as possible, trying to be as offensive as possible, and that’s—to be honest with you—why a lot of my favorite writers are female, because they tend less to indulge in that kind of stuff, that kind of like…

SYMONDS: Angry young man?

FLEMING: “I’m the big man.” “I’m transgressive.” It’s like, come on. One of my favorite writers—a Brazilian writer called Clarice Lispector who I’ve chatted ad nauseam about before—her last book, when she was very ill and dying, is called The Hour of the Star, and it’s about a young girl who comes down from the jungles and comes to Rio, I think. And basically it’s about how un-cut-out she is for the city, and how naïve she is, and how everyone disrespects her, and then she dies in an accident. She goes to a fortune-teller and goes away believing that everything’s going to be fine, her luck’s going to turn around, and she gets hit by a taxi and dies. End. And it’s like, it’s 100 pages long, and it’s that sort of thing, it’s that kind of confrontation: Well, this is what life is like, what are you going to do about it? And I guess, don’t be a victim, but—you’re going to be a victim. It’s a dark book but equally, it doesn’t have to be taken negatively.

SYMONDS: Yeah, it’s strange. There’s a sort of paradoxical thing that happens, where the more you kind of think about death, the easier it is to be content in the world, which seems like a balance on this record as well.

FLEMING: Well, it’s kind of part and parcel, I think. Obviously, as you say, there’s a sense in which it has to be earned. Some people don’t have to earn it, and God bless them, but Jesus Christ, most people aren’t one of those people.

SYMONDS: To go back to what you were saying about the angry-young-man archetype, which is very both rock music and also very British…

FLEMING: [laughs] Oh, is it? Okay.

SYMONDS: It seems like, throughout your career, you guys have tried to both indulge and interrogate that at the same time.

FLEMING: Yeah, I guess that’s true. I think because we definitely were that, we’re uncomfortable with all the tropes we’re presented with to be that. We’ve attempted to kind of—I don’t want to say intellectualize, but it’s kind of that, and kind of feminize it—and speak a lot about male weakness and male delusion. And the illusion of strength and being a charging young thing, and what nonsense our experience has bought it out to be. I hadn’t realized it was a British thing, but maybe that makes a lot of sense. Definitely our first record, and probably our second as well, was a kind of “Out of a small town,” and “Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me.” It was different refractions of that.

SYMONDS: Are there any bands whom you guys see as models for having a sustained life in music? You mentioned Swans, and Michael Gira is probably not a terrible role model as far as that goes.

FLEMING: Yeah, he’s the closest I come to having a musical hero. Let me think… There are obvious touchstones. We seem to be continuously compared to Talk Talk, which I don’t mind at all. Equally, you know what, Talk Talk, by the end of things, are dead ends. Laughingstock is kind of a dead end. It’s like minimal techno. It’s like, how much more minimal can you be?

SYMONDS: You’re John Cage after that.

FLEMING: There’s a lot of longevity that I really respect—Kate Bush, for example, is someone whose work has continually gotten better. I know how good Hounds of Love is, but there’s something interesting to keep you coming back. I’ve always been really liked by old folk singers, people like Sarah Davey Graham, or Shirley Collins, people who kind of like go about their business as if the career is secondary. I know that’s really utopian and hippie. I feel like the realization that they came to—that actually, this is part of a tradition, and all I can do is just keep doing this—I appreciate that, too. You know what I mean? And you can apply that to, like, Derrick May, or Slayer, or something; people who’ve decided what they want to be. I feel like there’s a fork in the road somewhere: Do you continue to go forward until silence, or do you keep going in the same vein? I don’t know; maybe I’ll grow vegetables in 10 years.

WILD BEASTS’ PRESENT TENSE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.