The vulgar, decadent world of Wild Beasts
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Leeds-based band Wild Beasts creates "erotic downbeat music," which is a slick PR compression of something that requires far more explanation. Basically, its sound involves a triangulation of the already eclectic stylings of Kate Bush, Antony And The Johnsons, and Suede, plus errant strains of Afro-pop and smooth jazz. The band's two singers are interlocking opposites—Hayden Thorpe with his vaudevillian falsetto and Tom Fleming with his deep, cool croon—who spar stylistically even as they agree on the songs' lyrical content (typically, ill acts committed by desperate, hubris-racked men). Last year, Wild Beasts released their second album, Two Dancers, and their profile has been rising steadily since. Prior to the group's Feb. 17 show at the 7th Street Entry, The A.V. Club caught up with singer/keyboardist/bassist Fleming at his parents' house in his hometown of Kendal, England, a place famous for its mint cakes and, increasingly, Wild Beasts.
The A.V. Club: Some reviewers have picked up on what they see as a narrative thread in your songs, where wanton hedonism is characterized as bright and bold in the beginning, but by the end, it's gotten dark. Was there an intentional arc?
Tom Fleming: Well, we definitely focus a lot on sexuality—on its perils and joys—and also how every step you take, and every breath of the day, has an effect on someone else, whether you mean it to or not. It does get pretty sad and dark. We were as surprised by that as anybody when we heard it back, how up-and-down it sounded. Ultimately, I hope it comes across hopeful. I hope it's kind of forgiving of people's vagaries.
AVC: Why do you think sex is so central to the band's lyrics?
TF: I suppose it's a reaction. England is quite conservative in a lot of ways—if you're a man, you're supposed to be a man in all its negative connotations. We play to the more feminine aspects in some ways, you know, it's not necessarily rock music—it's a bit more textured. But I've been asked that question a lot, and I don't know that I've come up with an adequate answer. I don't particularly know how to do anything else. All my favorite writers tend to write about the same thing over and over again in different ways. You don't have to have a million ideas; you just have to be able to treat them well.
AVC: Hayden has mentioned an affinity for Rimbaud in interviews. Do you relate to an older time period, say the Decadent movement of France, or are these modern stories?
TF: The Decadent thing is definitely a part of it. Rimbaud, Baudelaire, even people like Kafka, that stuff is almost pornographic at times. It's very gothic, about death and sex and the glory of decay. That kind of heaviness in writing, that syrupy atmosphere, is definitely something we aspire to. Obviously, we don't claim to do any more than dip a toe in the ocean, but all that sort of writing, that's what a lot of 20th-century art was founded on. It's a continuation of that open look at sexuality as something far more interesting than the act of reproduction alone. Sex isn't just about what it's for, you know.
AVC: These themes have been present in British rock music over the last few years, with band names like The Libertines and The Rakes reflecting that. Do you see yourself as part of that continuity?
TF: I suspect that exists, but I feel as though we have absolutely zero in common with The Libertines. I would say they're aware of the irony of their name, of the image of the British as uptight and repressive against libertinism and, yeah, that's kind of what we're playing with as well, but we like a lot dance music and hip-hop, and in some ways this record is a reaction to that kind of cartoon sexuality—starting every song with "no homo" and maintaining that R&B gloss where everyone has bodies to die for.
AVC: The lyrics on "All The King's Men" include references to "girls astride me" and women as barefoot "birthing machines." How do you characterize what may outwardly seem like misogyny?
TF: [Laughs.] It's like a bawdy joke—this idea of this small-town lothario being a woman-hater. It's being aware of that nastier edge of sexuality, knowing what people do, and realizing that these old guys who go on like this might not actually like women very much. You know, there are the towns listed at the beginning of the song—Shipley, which is a small mill town, and Roedean is actually the best girls' school in England—and they're these places where guys show up in their Range Rovers and sharp suits in order to wine and dine girls who are 15 or 20 years their younger. The song is supposed to be funny, and yet, at the same time, it's not funny at all.
AVC: Could you speak on the narrative behind the two-part song "Two Dancers"?
TF: It's very much based on this old English poem called "Wulf," and it's supposed to be through the eyes of somebody—more about the way things are experienced, rather than the way things actually are. That goes back to the Fauvists, which is where we got our name. They tried to do the same thing through painting. And with the French Decadence as well, in that it's more than a bare statement of fact. The song it pretty frank, deliberately vulgar, as if you're hearing something you maybe shouldn't.
AVC: Your role changed moving into this record, taking on about half of the singing in addition to your previous duties. Any trepidation going head to head with a voice as bold as Hayden's?
TF: [Laughs.] Always, yeah. I think we realized on the first album that me and Hayden have become two characters vocally, that our voices deliver in different ways. Do you know much about football? In any sport, really, the people who do the hard work don't really do the fancy stuff, if you know what I mean. You have somebody on the frontline who scores all the goals, and somebody who stays behind as a defender. The former is a more visible role, but neither is less. The writing of the music is very much the same way. It's more of a multifaceted thing.
AVC: Even though Limbo, Panto essentially comprised songs written years before, you could have waited longer before releasing Two Dancers. Why follow up your debut only a year later?
TF: I think we were just ready to do it again. We learned loads on the first record and we wanted to put some of that into practice. Plus, Limbo, Panto took longer to come out than we would have liked. We didn't know how the industry worked—how long it took to get something out once it was made—but by the time it was released, we were already rehearsing and taping, and we had plenty of songs cooking that reflected where we were at that point. And so if we were to make a new album now, it would sound completely different, because it's very much a snapshot of where we are at the time.
AVC: Many reviewers have described Two Dancers as being more restrained and less vaudevillian. How do you describe the difference between the records?
TF: I think this one is much more focused in the sense that there weren't as many ideas on it. There are only really three or four melodic ideas, and two or three chord sequences, and they're all made to do more than their work on one song. We took more risks too. We sorted out the right things, and left the right things to chance. We were more sure of what we wanted, but less sure of how we'd get there.
AVC: In an interview last year, you were quoted as saying that the band was "trying to eliminate the songwriter-ly aspect" of its music.
TF: We're getting more collaborative. The first decisions you make are very often the right ones, and it's about capturing those—the sound of you, as a band, a collection of people, rather than someone that's written a song whose structure you learn to play. With a lot of my favorite bands, there's a lot of accident there, a lot of spontaneous stuff that, if you're not careful, can get lost in modern recording.
AVC: Did the location of the recording, being somewhat remote, out in Norfolk at an in-residence studio, greatly affect the outcome of the record?
TF: I think it did. We didn't go anywhere else but the studio, really. It was cold, and the middle of nowhere. Maybe that focus and intensity is reflected on the record. And the fact that we always knew where we were, which was "at work." It became very much that, which I think is important, to treat recording as a job. You can only get the best out of yourself if you actually try. Before I started making records, I assumed the way they were made involved sitting around and waiting for the muse to attend. It's not that. It's about working. It's about making decisions.
AVC: Last but not least, is touring with Wild Beast a hedonistic experience?
TF: [Laughs] I mean, honestly, I would say no. It's not that we're immune to it, but your body can only take so much. Generally speaking, it's just about staying healthy and making sure you're in form. But you know, occasionally it's nice to let your hair down.