Text Khalid Azizuddin
Hayden Thorpe (guitar, falsetto), Ben Little (guitar), Chris Talbot (percussion, baritone), and Tom Fleming (bass, tenor) have released four studio albums since 2008. Each subsequent release was the sort of Britrock indebted to drearily weathered London’s new wave past (think Japan or Talk Talk); emotional with a fixation for the erotic. Fourth album Present Tense though, one of our favourites from early this year, took a decidedly different turn – it was infused with electronics and arrangements extended to the more elaborate side of things; a direction that validates their leftfield pop credo. No wonder then that their producers this time around include Leo Abrahams, whom had worked with two important electronic figures of two generations (Jon Hopkins and Brian Eno), and Alex ‘Lexxx’ Dromgoole, one of UK’s best mixers and engineers in the electronic scene. Since the release of the album in February, Wild Beasts have been touring relentlessly. A few hours before jetting off to Latin America, Chris phones in from rainy London on an equally miserable Malaysian afternoon to talk to JUICE about Jon Hopkins and being decidedly (and lyrically) British.
Present Tense’s aesthetic incorporates electronics on a much larger scale compared to previous albums. How has that translated to a live setting?
Playing around with a large bank of sounds has required us to utilise laptops and other various electronics in a way we haven’t before. We have always been a good live band and we wanted to maintain that human element but yes, this has changed our aesthetic somewhat. For us it’s always been a dirty idea – “going electronic” – but it’s been a natural trajectory and this is the type of music that interests us now. If you told us seven years ago that we would break out of the traditional four lads in a band mould, we would have laughed in your face. But even though there are a few more gizmos onstage, I like to think we are still a decent live proposition.
If electronic influences are a relatively recent development, what sort of music did the band listen to growing up and what are you lot listening to now?
I suppose we were more in touch with our inner British lad then, I used to be a massive Oasis fan growing up. But your awareness grows and you are able to take more in as you grow older. Four years ago, I don’t think we would have been listening to Four Tet, and there’s a lot of new music now that fascinates us like Clams Casino. I’ve actually been listening a lot to the Darkside record. We also get a lot of promos in the post before album launchings, and Jon Hopkin’s Immunity came in and we were like, “This is some serious stuff.” We are playing a couple of shows with him when we are in Asia and he’s a real hero of ours. The band doesn’t always agree on music but his album is one of our favourites from the last two years.
In the past, Wild Beasts have always taken pride in categorising its music as leftfield or fringe. Since your last album, we have seen an uprising of indie bands with mainstream crossover success and as a direct result, we feel the centre has shifted leftward. Will the band keep making progressively obscure and impenetrable music and try to one-up the status quo?
Knowingly or not, I think we have always come from a position that’s left of centre. But when we write we always try to come up with what we think is good pop music. People might not think that way because of the way it’s dressed or executed. I don’t think we go consciously leftward, in fact I don’t think we know where we are going at all. I cannot give you a straight yes or no answer but hopefully it will be an interesting little journey.
Wild Beasts’ lyrics are rather dense, florid compositions with clear literary aspirations; it is quite clear that a lot of thought goes toward them. Does it get frustrating when you go to non-English speaking countries where it is clear that most of it will be lost?
Don’t think so. There are distinctive quirks to Hayden and Tom’s words that may not be understood but hopefully for the audience, there’s enough going on elsewhere to occupy them. We are decidedly British and the lyrics reflect that, but I don’t think they are impossible to decipher. Morrissey and The Smiths have an enormous following in Mexico despite the Spanish language and culture, so I don’t think that it prevents people from relating. It’s the beauty of the world we live in, that we can take something from a specific culture, bring it to the other side of the world, and give it a platform for 80 minutes.
With regards to your personal contribution, percussion arrangements on your past records were significantly more elaborate than on Present Tense. Was there a conscious effort toward paring it down and what were the reasons behind this?
I guess it was conscious. The drummer’s ego always wants to play the loudest and brashest thing onstage and when you need to pipe down, it always is a leap of faith. There are certain songs that are more drum heavy, but sometimes it just wasn’t right for the song and the one who writes the song has the deciding vote. On ‘Wonderlust’, the drums don’t change but the miking does and there are little accents here and there. We have always shied away from really loud cymbals and hi-hats because they can sound quite abrasive on records.
Present Tense seemed to be more politically aware than its predecessors. Do you plan on including more social commentary in the future?
We always want to remain current but I don’t think we will become a soapbox band (like Billy Bragg, Manic Street Preachers), that’s not our area. I think Hayden and Tom are more concerned with looking inward, at things that affect people on a day-to-day basis. Also the best pop music is timeless and that’s hard to do if it’s too rooted in a specific time and place. We want our songs to age well in the next twenty or thirty years. There is a brief flirtation with political issues on Present Tense but it was always at arm’s length and never too preachy.
Thanks for your time, mate.
Cheers, thank you.
Wild Beasts will be playing at The Bee, Publika for the Upfront series on Sunday 9 November ’14.