Wild Beasts

Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe discusses the band's transition from showy indie quartet to something much darker & weirder

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 11 Sep 2014
  • min read

It’s certainly not unusual for indie guitar bands to turn to the murky world of electronica to enhance their sound.

From the pioneering bands of the late seventies and early eighties like Devo and New Order, to more recent technological turncoats like Teleman (formally Pete and the Pirates) and The Horrors, synths and grainy drum machines have been providing indie connoisseurs with aural expansion for decades.

Kendal-born art rock band Wild Beasts, who have always positioned themselves far from the herd, are definitely not the first to dabble in the dark side.

Instead, they have been gradually lacing their guitars and falsetto voices with increasingly stark synths and raw drum patterns over their last four records – with refreshingly restrained results.

Their latest LP, the well received Present Tense, is their most boldly electronic to date. Boasting a sleek and supple sound, drenched in darkening electronic rumbles, the record has managed to encapsulate the dystopia of early synth outfits like Human League and Depeche Mode with the modern esotericism of James Blake.

Here we chat to Hayden Thorpe, one quarter of the band, to learn about their journey from flamboyant indie auteurs to purveyors of immaculate synth-pop…

is album number four. How do you think your music has evolved since you first started out?
When we were just starting out, we were definitely kids from a generation where the first thing you reached for was a guitar, not a laptop. We felt that was the only way into music. But there’s a significant difference these days. With the advent of software like GarageBand, it’s become a more intuitive process.

Our first album was like a teenage protest record in some ways. We were saying, ‘Fuck you,’ to a lot of the conventional guitar music that was around. It was pretty raucous and full-blooded and probably a little bit over the top. We were so determined to out-flamboyant anyone because we came up during The Libertines era and decided that stuff didn’t speak to us.

We grew up in a grey northern town and we needed to feel there was a sense of adventure and daring in what we did. We recorded [debut album] Limbo, Panto in Sweden with Tore Johannson [The Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand, St Etienne] and I think that really got us into the artistry of studios and production. It introduced us to the possibility of becoming students of sound, I guess. You can become fascinated with how sounds are made and I think that’s how it all started off for us.

What really blew us away with Limbo, Panto was that a lot of our favourite bits were made using really modest equipment – it’s just about the imagination that you use. [Follow up LP] Two Dancers is just really a bunch of beat up old keyboards and some love songs. Again, the learning process spilled over for us, with the keyboards becoming the centrepiece rather than the decoration to the guitars.

We pride ourselves on being old fashioned craftsmen. We enjoy putting together songs and we enjoy the nuts and bolts of it. Present Tense is, in many ways, the fulfilment of what we always wanted to achieve when we first started out but didn’t have the skills and know-how.

As you say yourself, technology plays a much bigger part in your sound these days. Was it daunting to get to grips with?
I think when you’re younger there are so many musical options open to you – and that can be the most crippling thing. Deciding what you are is harder than deciding what you aren’t.

With great glee we wrote off swathes of music - because it’s practical to do so – and what we were left with was a fundamental rock ‘n’ roll set-up of two guitars, bass and drums. Then it became about doing something with those that carried a sense of originality and a bit of bravery.

But we began to realise that our songs are of the body – we write physical music, we write about sexuality and the impulses of the body verses the constraints of the mind. We realised that, actually, the sounds you can create with synths are far more vivid and widescreen. They are so much more bodily, and they enabled us to tell our narratives a bit better.

Having said that, we still use guitars – just in a different way. They’re not the horse any more, they’re the cart, if that makes sense? We fell back in love with guitars through people like the Cocteau Twins, who used them in an abstract and textural way.

I think the core loves are still there – Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Antony Hegarty, Joanna Newsom, The Smiths, Talk Talk and The Blue Nile – they are all fundamental to our thinking. We have learned to do what we do by copying them.

They almost become a part of your emotional make-up in a way, because in many ways you start to see and feel things through those songs and they become part of your memory.

I guess we’ve always tried to keep an ear to the ground as well, because there can be nothing more galvanising than hearing something you are almost jealous of – music that you are blindsided by. I remember hearing James Blake and thinking, ‘Fuck, that guy has nailed it.’ He had captured something in such a way that I could only imagine.

Similarly with OneOhTrix Point Never – his sonics are amazing. We have the same tools as him, but the way he imagines those sounds is quite remarkable. Equally, before Present Tense, Frank Ocean’s album channel ORANGE came out. When that song Pyramids dropped, it was very eye opening because it was a nine-minute pop song with a synth breakdown in the middle. It was a whole journey and yet it was a slick single at the same time.

You worked with Lexxx and Leo Abrahams on Present Tense. What did you take away from the experience?
It was a very intense affair. I think the pair of them are used to working in very high pressure scenarios and our recording process before that point had always been very familial and relaxed. But this was weeks and weeks of very intensive work where we created version after version of a song but often it was not quite right and we scrapped a lot of it.

I think what they instilled in us was faith. We might have felt like we were going down a blind alley but you’re only ever a step away from a route out. By taking that journey down the blind alley, you’ve actually learned something that you wouldn’t have known unless you’d done it. So I think part of their process was to do everything and not rule anything out – which at times was incredibly difficult to make sense of in our heads. You’d think something was dead and buried and all of a sudden it would veer up at you and be there.

As a whole, Lexxx was the head and Leo was the heart. Lexxx was very much about programming and sonics and how to put them together, whereas Leo was all about the drama and emotion of the songs. They both fulfilled important and complementary roles.

What shape were the songs in before you started that process?
Really varied. Songs like Daughters or New Life or Pregnant Pause were pretty much done but the rest of them came together in the studio. They were sketches. Wonderlust was a skeleton which we fleshed out in a few hours. It was the first one we worked on and after that was done we kind of knew we might be on to something.

The record has been out in the world for a few months now. What do you make of it now the dust has settled?
Albums take on a different form in your mind once you’ve played the songs live. I always look back and think how I could have done it differently - but the day I stop doing that is the day I don’t make another album. At the end of an album there are always more doors left open than closed.

I think we achieved what we wanted to and I think when we play it live, the deep bass and the widescreen synthesisers work how we wanted them to. Ultimately we’re left in the same situation we find ourselves in at the end of every album though – we can do what we want next time!

Do the writing and performing sides all bleed in or do you take time out to write each album?
It all bleeds in. Sometimes I think the only way of staying sane during the album campaign is to think about the next thing, otherwise it becomes very claustrophobic.

Playing live is the antithesis of new songs because it’s all very structured and regular. It’s about precision and conciseness and consistency, whereas being creative is about none of those things. It’s about mess, getting lost and allowing things to happen. In some ways, the constraints of playing live create a dynamo that you want to react against.

When you’re in it, making music feels like the greatest thing in the world. But among the chaos, you always have to accept that the ideas you think are a stroke of genius might the next day seem extremely pitiful!