From an early gig in Cork, to their Lady Gaga remix, Wild Beasts have long been one of the most fascinating bands around, writes Ed Power
THESE are strange days for Wild Beasts. The British art-rockers have squeezed the brakes, following 18 months of touring their fourth album, Present Tense. They are thinking ahead to their next LP, but there are still a handful of Present Tense dates outstanding, including a performance at the inaugural Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival in Cork. The band has one figurative foot in the past, one in the future.
“I never like to say we’re ‘winding down’,” says singer Tom Fleming. “It makes it sound like we’re being half-arsed. We are definitely coming to the end of it. This year has been a quiet one for us. There are people who want to hear the songs. Ultimately, we’re concentrating on the next record.”
For those not au fait, Wild Beasts’ music sounds as if it has leaked through from a parallel dimension. Their songs are frisky and free-floating, seemingly unacquainted with chorus/verse/chorus convention. Melodies twinkle in and out of ear-shot, as barely human voices burble from the depths.
And that’s just the catchy stuff. Their obtuse output feels intoxicatingly alien, as if it exists outside the context of popular music. For the listener willing to go all in, the rule-breaking is thrilling and forbidden.
Though the sun is setting on their current tour, the group said ‘yes’ to Sounds From A Safe Harbour, not only because of the involvement of The National’s Bryce Dessner, who curates the festival, but also because of a memorable gig they played in Cork many years ago.
“None of us had been to Cork, to that point,” says Fleming. “It was in a tiny club called Cyprus Avenue. The place was absolutely stuffed and the atmosphere was fantastic. It was that moment where we thought ‘Woah, people might actually be into what we are doing’.”
THE LADY GAGA DILEMMA
Success has brought them to some strange places — such as an offer from Lady Gaga to remix one of her singles.
“For us, it posed real questions,” the band’s Hayden Thorpe told me once. “Firstly, can we get away with it? Secondly, do we want to get into bed with someone who is, in many ways, the antithesis of what we stand for. What impact can we have on music so alien to our own?
“She is a very interesting example of the modern, multi-faceted pop star. The way she enters our psyche all guns blazing, someone who dabbles in the avant-garde and does extremely bubblegum pop. Remixing her posed a challenge to us. However, I think beautiful and intriguing things are often the things that seem the most unlikely.”
The group come from the north of England and their perspective is unique. Some commentators interpret Wild Beasts’ lyrics as mildly pervy and and have detected parallels with the poetry of Philip Larkin, whose intellect and hormones seemed locked in a perpetual, deeply depressive battle.
Growing up in the bosom of British lad culture, Wild Beasts update Larkin’s questioning attitude towards sexuality and borrow some of his self-loathing, for good measure. Often, their songs wrestle with the conundrum of whether it is possible for young men in their position — high-flying members of a popular band — to behave with honour towards the opposite sex without ending up virginal losers. There are no clear answers — but they, at least, have the courage to ask the question. Think of them as the anti-Oasis.
TORTURED BUT FUN
Such emotional murkiness could make their music sound an ordeal. Mercifully, the psychoanalysis is offset by finely-judged humour. They’re tortured young men — but tortured young men who make for good company over a few beers.
In their early 30s, with a successful body of work behind them, Wild Beasts are at the point where a band traditionally starts fraying at the edges. Perhaps some of them them nurse solo ambitions? Maybe some wish to take a break, where others do not? With the romance surely gone from the relationship, this is the stage where things can turn fractious?
“It’s true that being in a a band necessitates you are living in each other’s pockets all the time,” says Fleming. “As you get older, there might be a time limit on that. Presently, there is so much we want to achieve. Frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the day. We don’t have time to worry about other things.”
Right now, Wild Beasts find themselves in the logic-defying position of being quite successful. Mercury-nominated for their second and third LPs, and with a loyal following, they have outgrown their initiation incarnation as plucky upstarts.
They’re a widely adored group, at the peak of their abilities. For a bunch of natural-born underdogs, it’s a weird position to be in.
“We’ve just toured two quite successful records — quite an odd thing, by our standard,” says Fleming.
“We’re absolutely spent. The last record took quite a long time. This time, we’re determined to do it more quickly.
“These things always take time, of course. But we’re making good progress. Then again, who knows? We may just decided we dislike it, throw it all out and start over. You never can tell how it’s going to go.”
He is vaguely aware that the Cork performance is part of something larger.
However, Wild Beasts are fuzzy on the specifics, beyond understanding that Bryce Dessner is involved and that the emphasis will be on music that regards it as its duty to break boundaries.
“We’re heard a few things on the grapevine,” says Fleming. “I’m sure we’ll find out about it when we get there. That is always the way. You arrive and there’s a fantastic festival going on and you’re going ‘oh, wow, why didn’t we know about this?’ When you’re in a band, you can spend a lot of time in a bubble.”
Wild Beasts play Cork Opera House, September 20, going on stage at midnight, as part of the Sounds from a Safe Harbour Festival
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