A FEW days ago Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe picked up the phone and called Domino Records, the band’s label of eight years. He had, he felt, some explaining to do.
“We made a comment that was wrongly interpreted as having a go at Arctic Monkeys,” says the singer. “We are not stupid enough to disregard the fact that Arctic Monkeys are the flagship of Domino and are doing fantastic things around the world. It was kind of embarrassing. So I had to speak to the label, to say ‘Sorry about this’.”
The controversy flowed from an interview Thorpe gave to music website Pitchfork in which he lamented the vogue for British artists singing in ersatz American accents. With the Arctic Monkeys having relocated to Los Angeles and just released their most American-influenced LP to date, the musings were understood — by some excitable British newspapers at least — to be a pot-shot in the Monkeys’ direction. What Thorpe was getting at was rather more subtle — a point lost in the ensuing conflagration.
“The Arctic Monkeys are the epitome of Yorkshire,” he says.
“They have songs about spilling drinks on settees. I mean, what American says ‘settee’? Come on! The point I was making was that, if you are singing in a tongue that has nothing to do with your roots, don’t expect me to engage emotionally. You might as well be reciting Shakespearean verse.”
Emotional engagement is what Wild Beasts are all about. Their latest album, Present Tense, is an art-pop epic that juxtaposes haunting Antony and the Johnson vocals and ominous electronic swells and throbs. While not the most immediate of records, it rewards deep immersion: spend time with it and you will find that the untethered melodies and disquieting lyrics stay with you for days.
Weightless and eerie, Present Tense sounds effortless. In fact, the recording was deeply anguished. Having established a template of unorthodox guitar rock with their previous two LPs, Wild Beasts were determined to employ a new box of tricks. This proved harder than expected. They went back to the drawing board only to find the blank space a terrifying vista.
“We needed to take time out,” says Thorpe. “We were signed to our record deal when we were 21. For the two years previous to that we’d basically mucked about in a rehearsal basement. Music had been our entire lives. We needed to be grown-ups for a while.”
He loves touring. However, the road can be a destabilising environment. Stay out there too long and your grip on reality starts to slip. You forget who you are, why you’re doing this.
“In rock music we are in the business of myth-making,” says Thorpe. “Once you inhabit the skin of being that guy on stage you can ignore real life. Up there is a very dangerous and beautiful space. There is no before or after — on a good night, there is only the ‘now’. That is addictive. You have to go away and be a real person so that you have something to sing about.”
The band formed in Kendal, a small town in England’s Lake District. Initially, they performed as Fauve — French for ‘wild beast’. Moving to Leeds, they acquired a large local following, and were signed to Domino Records. In 2009, Wild Beasts released their second LP, Two Dancers. Nominated for the Mercury Prize and named Hot Press album of the year, the record announced their arrival as a new voice in UK music.
They followed that with Smother in 2011, an uneasy project that saw the group trying, and mostly failing, to come to terms with success. “That was a strange record for us,” nods Thorpe. “We were in a peculiar headspace.”
Wild Beasts have a very British fascination with sex, an interest that sets them apart from other rock bands and instead marks them as kindred spirits of figures such as poet Philip Larkin and novelist Martin Amis.
On Present Tense the song ‘Nature Boy’, for instance, takes the form of a young man addressing a husband whom he has cuckolded. It’s lusty and strange — a deeply warped trip to the dark side.
“Outsider-dom is hugely important to us,” says Thorpe of the group’s unusual perspective. “An important part of our job is to be on the fringe of things and to observe. We travel a lot. And yet our music is in many ways about northern British-ness.”
Present Tense is also a record about income divides, he says. Solidly lower-middle class, Wild Beasts were lucky enough to come of age when it was still possible to obtain a decent education in Britain without going deeply into debt.
“It now costs nine grand a year to go to university. Look, I understand we’re not talking about war or famine here. However, we are going to end up in a situation where you only get art made by rich kids. And I don’t want my music to come from rich kids. It should be available to everyone.”
* Present Tense is released February 24. Wild Beasts play Olympia, Dublin on March 29.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved