Hailing from Kendal in Cumbria, the Mercury Prize-nominated WILD BEASTS took inspiration for their name from the so-called ‘wild beasts’ of early 20th Century Fauvism, a movement of artists known for using bold, strident colour. As they’ve moved through the gears in their career, Wild Beasts have stuck to these defining principles, delivering a fine suite of albums that are characterised by their innate flair.
For their fifth album, Boy King – a concept album of sorts taking an ironic, sideways view of society’s definitions of masculinity – the four-piece travelled to Texas to work with Grammy-winning John Congleton, who has produced albums by Angel Olsen, The War On Drugs and Bill Callahan. Singer Hayden Thorpe describes to Cath Bore how the desires of the flesh came to define their latest work.
Kendal is a very conventional place, where all the shops close at 5pm sharp, no messing about. How do you go from a Kendal schoolboy to being in a band named after an arts movement linked to Henri Matisse and André Derain?
Kendal is a very traditional farming town, hardy and quite robust. It’s pretty and not in any way hard-done-by, but it’s structured and built on quite rugged, old fashioned farming ways. As a teenager with high ideas, high ideals and a bit of flamboyance it felt necessary to kick against it a bit. Flamboyance and individuality risk you getting your head lopped off if you stick it out too far, but I was thrilled by that risk as any joyriding teenager is.
I read somewhere that you view being in a band as the ideal way of avoiding growing up, which I thought at first was hilarious – but then reflecting on it further, I reckon you’re right.
It’s a denial of ageing. It’s a denial of responsibility. I always thought that, being in a band or creating art and devoting your life to trying to create something beautiful would maybe grant you immunity to the uglier stuff, but in fact it’s been a recent revelation that it’s rather the opposite. You have to create things of beauty from the emotional onslaught and pain that everyone feels. Artists don’t feel it any more than anyone else, but artists making work from that space end up residing in it longer sometimes because they’ve got to draw from it; that’s your well.
Your new album Boy King is darker than your previous work, and it has an awful lot of sex in it; Get My Bang is particularly strident. You’ve ditched romantic love for this record, pretty much, and turned your attentions instead to carnal pleasures of the body. What’s all that about, Hayden? You can speak freely here, you’re amongst friends.
It’s a human fascination in itself. It’s definitely a convoluted British obsession; we have pretty strange and often confusing sexual practice and sexual norms. We [the British] regard ourselves as high-minded people who have our sexual agenda that’s quite straight: but Page 3, for example, is in itself a reminder of how very traditional ideas of sex are thrust upon us in our everyday lives. Yet there’s still this hush-hush nature and squeamishness. What is music for other than soothe us and respond to the body? Who wants to listen to unsexy music? Who wants to eat undelicious food? Why have porridge when you can have steak; in my opinion you have it as rare as possible, and as bloody and as close to the animal as we can become.
The British attitude to sex is very northern, very buttoned up. I’m from Lancashire, I reckon it gets more like that the further north you go.
I thought sex in Lancashire was outlawed in the 1990s! And I don’t think Kendal had any sexual connotation in its history. Kendal mint cake may have been used in some sort of energy-providing exercise, other than that I’m not sure…
Wild Beasts have a summer of festivals ahead. Festivals are often like a buffet, where you manage a taste of everything, but don’t always feel fully satisfied.
They’re a bit like an all-you-can-eat in that you can’t help but walk away overstuffed, having your plate filled and being slightly embarrassed at having three or four puddings. They’re an institution really, the summers of my adult life have been filled with festivals – for me it’s very much part of my existence and practice, being in wet fields for most of the summer. It’s great because you get to play to people who otherwise wouldn’t have crossed your path and that for a band can be a joyous experience. It requires a different kind of performance I guess. To get that response from people who haven’t heard you before, that’s a pretty inspiring exercise.
I heard that you prefer creating – writing, recording – to playing live. Is that still the case, and why?
The studio is my natural habitat. That’s my daily practice. My life is structured around trying to sieve through the white noise of everyday life to find ideas of value. I wouldn’t say I was a natural performer; it’s a version of myself, a facet of me I’ve had to learn and grow into. It does something to me, performing. It’s a lifetime’s work to figure out quite exactly what that is. I don’t think I’ll ever know what it does to me. It definitely stirs something very deep.
In the video for Alpha Female, directed by Sasha Rainbow, young women and girls in Bangalore skateboard, with groups of men standing and watching, some unimpressed and resentful, some passive. Donald Trump’s election, his boasting of “grabbing” women “by the pussy”, and the noisy feminist response to that means the imagery and message in Alpha Female is right on the nose in 2017.
The song itself is a tale of how love only grows through really showing yourself. It’s like pushing off the earth to gather momentum – these girls on the skateboards have found a vessel for cutting through time more quickly, like they’re in a hurry, they’re trying to get the world to catch up with them. The world’s not spinning fast enough for what they crave and deserve. The video is so fitting, but it was never designed to be a zeitgeist-catching good spin on the current times – the idea came about before Trump even got in – but as things have played out with the momentum that was gathered while the video was being put together, when it landed, it felt fitting for now. We’re proud of it.
There’s a very real possibility Alpha Female has potential to be a feminist anthem. How do you feel about that, and are you a feminist?
I absolutely am. Growing up with the mother I grew up with, I couldn’t help but be. We rather jokily, yet half-seriously coined Alpha Female as ‘feminist cock rock’. There’s something about the juxtaposition of quite solicitous male gestures, but they [the girls in the video] were fists in the air for alpha females.
What’s in store for Wild Beasts over the next year?
We’re in Boy King mode, we’ve still got a bellyful of Boy King. When you go shopping on a full stomach you’re not sure what you’re going to buy. We’re still metabolising where we’re at.
What can we expect when you come and see us in Liverpool at the end of the month?
We’ve got five albums, a lot of material and we design the set to be a party, a good time show. That’s the most urgent point to make with this campaign. We just want to have fun. Our songs are meant to be a response to the body so we’ve curated our set like that.
Wild Beasts headline FestEVOL at Invisible Wind Factory on 31st April. Boy King is out now on Domino Records.