Wild Beasts’ Sincere Yet Problematic Performance of Masculinity

Discussing the sincere yet problematic performance of masculinity on Boy King with Wild Beasts’ co-frontman and bassist Tom Fleming.

Images Tom Andrew

When the music video for Wild Beasts’ lead single ‘Get My Bang’ from Boy King was released, fans were slightly shocked, maybe even appalled by how they looked and sounded different from their baroque rock band demeanour. The video was a macho display by frontman Hayden Thorpe, clad in a leather jacket and swaggering with sexually-charged desire. But upon closer viewing, there’s a clear inhibition with Hayden whose meekness in his movements is accentuated by his partner’s feral assertiveness during their mating routine of a dance. One can indeed tell that it’s unnatural for him to woo the alpha female with the gyrations and thrusts of his hips – a fact that’s supported by Hayden’s statements to The Guardian about modern masculinity, who received feedback on his dancing that compared him to Mr. Bean or a pervert. “These are hugely emasculating things!” as he exclaimed in the article.

Wild Beasts have a reputation for being these clever men who write about sex, sexuality, and masculinity in fanciful rhymes. They were literature-referencing art rockers with high libidos but were presented as unthreatening and maybe even unsexy in the classical sense. But with Boy King, they’ve frequently talked about “[becoming] the band we objected to being.” They’re now presented as these uber masculine men who are much more aggressive in expressing their sexuality, masking the fragility and insecurity that come with the posturing of machismo. However, this isn’t to say they’ve decried the similar themes and ideas in previous works, it’s just that their presentation and tone have changed. Take for example ‘The Club of Fathomless Love’ from their debut Limbo, Panto, Hayden sings, exasperated, “But I’m not a soft touch and I won’t been seen as such, so full with/ Fierce fathomless love, I spit and have spats to be tough/ Show I’m not soppy and stuff.” Here, it’s indicative of a looming evolution of becoming the big suave blokes they’ve so hated and defiantly resisted to be.

They liberated the repressed side of their maleness, which in their terms is considered to be unseemly, brash, and pompous. Fans and critics read their assimilation to their new selves to be a concept made for their art. Well it is, to some extent. Co-frontman and bassist Tom Fleming, whom we interview, explains that it is indeed a performance of masculinity, but he insists that it is a sincere one – an image that’s not an ostentatious farce constructed from thin air in an attempt to stay relevant after four albums. “It wasn’t a concept that was produced, it was a record that was made,” he asserts. Boy King leers, it is lascivious, domineering, “Gratified, big cat got a birth right,” and going by ‘2BU’; possibly obsessive. However, ‘Alpha Female’, in its persistence that the man will let a woman, of his equal or of a better rank, to lead can sound like a peddling of feminism. But at turns, the posturing of hyper masculinity becomes exhausting, a crack appears in their manhood of an armour, “Now I’m all fucked up and I can’t stand up, so I better suck it up like a tough guy would,” or the crumbling hero complex on ‘He The Colossus’, “Oh, I mean you no harm, but everything just dies in these arms.” A petering whimper before the song implodes with guitar distortion.

From our conversation, he also makes it known that Boy King was a record where the men let loose and just have fun – revelling in the dark side, letting their inner beast run wild. However, there is a reason to their irresponsibility, Tom frankly revealed some solemn details for their becoming more of their brazen selves – there are many dawning realities such as deaths of loved ones and the contemplation of “Is it too late for me?” It seems they’ve squashed any existential questions and launched head first with reckless abandon, and it does sound exhilarating.

JUICE speaks with Tom over a phone call and it begins as he laughed when we try to seek some explanation on their prolific Texan producer John Congleton’s (St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky, Swans) reported brutish methods of willing something hidden within the men of Wild Beasts.

Hayden said that working with John was quite “psychological” in that he was beating the doubts out of the band. Could you talk a bit about that experience?
That’s a really good question. Recording the album was a huge adventure for us. It kinda felt like being a young band again; going away, going so far, to this place we’ve never been before. We were there for a month, we were not intimidated but we definitely needed to bring our A game because his resume is amazing, but the way he worked… he is an amazing technician, but he really understood from the perspective of the musician. So, he knew how to get inside our heads and get the best out of us. It was a really fun experience, sometimes he was quite hard on us, but generally speaking, it was joyous. Essentially, the album is the sound of a band having fun in a room together – and that was something he brought to us. He just reminded us that it could be fun, you know?

Working in a new environment with a new producer, did it affect the decade long dynamic of the band?
We worked with a producer who can be objective – someone who was not totally involved in what you’re doing, so it did, but I think we needed that. He was never like the big man like, “This is how you do it.” It was like, “I’m gonna make you the best you can be.” In that respect, yes, it did change it but it was very much for the better. He took the pressure off us and let us do what we want to do.

source: Wild Beasts/ Tom Andrew

“This record is a performance of masculinity.
It’s not about being male;
it’s about pretending to be more macho than you are.”

A lot of the themes on this record have been explored on the band’s previous work but it became bolder with Boy King. Do you all feel a sense of liberation with this record?
Thematically, it’s cousins with our previous records, but I think it’s done a little more directly and less right-on, it’s more problematic. It’s a dissimilar sounding record but I don’t think it’s as far away as it appears. In some ways, it’s an extension… it’s all these problematic sexuality and all of its aspects. I think we got slightly better at expressing it but we’ve got less of a need to appear as the good guys. I don’t think this record cast us as the good guys.

Hayden often used conventionally feminine words like ‘effeminate’, ‘fey’, ‘gentle’ to describe Wild Beasts before Boy King. Now, the band’s persona is quite the opposite. Is this a needed change or something that was inevitable?
That’s a really good question. I think this record is a performance of masculinity. It’s not about being male; it’s about pretending to be more macho than you are. I think we’re always interested in female and gay artistes. While we love heavy music, like, I love Springsteen but I also love Soft Cell. We are kinda like an art school British band; there is a kind of fey-ness… (pauses) or for the lack of a better term, queerness to our music. I think we’re using a different technique this time around. Like you said, this time around the persona of the band is a little bit different. I think people have been surprised by that, maybe. But I think it was on the surface, like some of our old songs have that unpleasant machismo to them. I think we’re just kinda playing around with it this time.

“This time around the persona of the band
is a little bit different.
I think people have been surprised by that, maybe.”

So when the video for ‘Get My Bang’ was released, how would you say fans received it?
(Laughs) …as a single, I think a few people were kind of shocked, I think I heard people say, “Oh, it’s over, they’ve fucked it up, they’ve ruined it,” which I can accept because it is a different sound, and also, in some ways, it’s quite atypical of the record – it doesn’t sound exactly like the record. But video-wise, I think Hayden did a really great job to be honest (laughs). We haven’t really attempted a video like that, it’s always been more shy. So, I think it was great to do a video like that, to show that we could do a video like that if we wanted to.

Being the self-aware, self-satirising rock star is a narrative that’s quite prevalent in popular music now. Would you agree with that? How do you feel about contributing/adding upon it?
It is a self-satirising record but it is also a sincere one. It’s not supposed to be a wry observation, it’s something that we are very intimately involved in. These are the things that we recognise in ourselves and recognise in society at large as well. I hate to be seen as this sarcastic British thing, it’s something very heartfelt and we feel very definitely. It’s not just an intellectual construct.

On the record, you all used yourselves as the punching bags of the jokes. What do you think of the people who are quick to judge and can’t hear the self-laceration in the words?
Well, I’m glad you noticed it (laughs). Obviously it’s disappointing, at the same time, someone’s allowed not to like it. You can’t expect everyone to like it, especially someone’s who’s not a fan of our older work and doesn’t like this one, I can accept that. Like I said, we’re no longer the good guys – certainly on this record. But the ambiguity in there can be interpreted, I rely on people’s intelligence to get it. Also as musicians, you can’t think like critics, you have to do first, apologise later. We’ll see what happens and let people get used to the idea. If you’re fearful of what people are thinking, then you might as well as not do it.

“As musicians, you can’t think like critics,
you have to do first, apologise later.”

“In your 20s, you think you are invincible,
‘I can be whoever I want to be.’
But you grow older and think, ‘Can I?'”

Would you prefer not to discuss or intellectualise Boy King then?
No. I have no problem letting people taking it apart; it’s there to be taken apart. It wasn’t a concept that was produced, it was a record that was made. I am delighted that people think there is something there to be discussed. There is certainly more to be said about things, but I can’t possibly contribute that way. I can’t be concerned with every aspect of it, the whole craft of it; making record, playing on stage, the artwork, the lyrics, what each rhyme means, what it means as a whole, what our role is in this band at this age. You can drive yourself insane with this stuff, so I want to leave it to people who can do it.

You want people to listen to the record as it is without picking it apart?
I hope people can listen to it without picking it apart and I hope it warrants repeat listens, and there is something more in there other than just pretty melodies. But I hope there is more to it because we’ve been making records for a while now. I don’t think we need to beat people over the head with how right and how intelligent we are. I hope that kind of comes later.

You keep mentioning that Wild Beasts are “no longer the nice guys,” what made you arrive to this opinion about yourselves?
It’s a pretty turbulent record. We all went through some stuff in our personal lives, adult stuff. Once you’ve gone past your 20s, bad stuff happens, like friends get ill, friends die, relationships break up, parents die, you know?

(Tom stops himself and expresses a new point that seemed to come to mind)

And also, the best part of yourself isn’t around the corner anymore. In your 20s, you think you are invincible, “I can be whoever I want to be.” But you grow older and think, “Can I?” There is a certain kind of crisis involved. But also in some ways, you ceased to care about being this man you were before. We’re just putting something out this time and attempt to try not to second-guess what people want from us, it’s very much a kind of release from responsibility on this record. We’re just gonna do this and that’s very much what this record is about.

It’s a big “Fuck it!” with this record, right?
I hope you think so. Yeah, it is a bit – we have zero fucks left. We’re still very sincere with what we do, it’s about having fun, we were having fun. If we’re not gonna make it now, when are we gonna do it, you know?

Boy King is released via Domino Recording.