“It's a very different record, more aggressive, a bit more cocksure...” hmv.com talks to Wild Beasts
Just eight years after the release of their debut LP Limbo, Panto, Kendal quartet Wild Beasts are already gearing up to release their fifth album. Boy King was recorded in Texas with John Congleton, a man whose production credits include acts as diverse as The Roots, R. Kelly, Brian Wilson and John Grant, to name but a handful.
We caught up with bassist and vocalist Tom Fleming to talk about recording away from home, the ideas behind the album's title, and why frontman Hayden Thorpe felt like he was having a mini-breakdown...
So when did you start working on the new album?
“Writing-wise it would have been around February 2015. We toured a little bit last year but not extensively, we spent most of last year in our studio just working on ideas and stuff, but it always accelerates when it needs to, which it did by the end of the year. Then we went over to Texas to start recording in January.”
Do you write while you're still touring? Or do you need to hunker down in the studio to work like that?
“Oh, we hunker down, definitely. I mean, you certainly collect ideas on tour. Or, in my case, more a series of disconnected thoughts, titles, impressions, recording sequences on my phone and stuff. Inevitably, about 90% of that is garbage, or unworkable, or too opaque or whatever, but they become the seeds of something. The ideas behind a record come a long time before they actually happen, especially with this one.
“In terms of collecting ideas, we were writing for a long time but really it was in the last four to six weeks that we started to get everything together in terms of what the songs are about, what the sonic signature of the record is, what sort of sounds we wanted to have. We just need that pressure I think. Psychologically, there's something to be said for going away from home to make a record. While it's an amazing luxury, it can really focus your mind and force you to do something you might not have thought of otherwise.”
Does one of you take the lead or is it more collaborative than that?
“It varies. Songs tend to start with either Hayden or myself, as raw, core ideas and lyrics and stuff, but the four of us tend to write parts and have ideas about direction. I'm always keen to squash this idea of inspiration just coming from the ether, there is a sense of working on stuff. Something should be inspiring to play from the get-go, and I am a believer that a song should sound good just on an acoustic guitar regardless of any kind of production, but a particular sound or an effect can really inspire you to write something different. So that happens as well, you go in with some home demos and then something will happen and the idea gets flipped on its head, it forces you to completely think again.”
You've worked with John Congleton this time around, how did that come about?
“It feels like a long time ago now but he got in touch with us and said 'hey, I like your records, I'd really like to work with you guys, I think I can do something for you'. We obviously knew who he was, and we did talk to a few people but his name kept coming up, he just seemed to really want to do it and he had some really cool ideas. We spoke over Skype a bit and really seemed to get on with him. His effect on the record can't be underestimated in terms of a nebulous vibe, his approach, the atmosphere on the record; that's all him, really."
We hear that he's quite a hands-on producer?
“Totally. He's what I would call a working-class producer, he comes in, does the job and goes home again. He was involved in everything, it's his studio, he recorded everything, mixed everything, he was involved in the arrangements and choosing sounds and things. I mean, he gave us plenty of freedom to do what we wanted, but he's really good at stepping in and saying 'why don't you try this'? There was lot of us going 'John, what are you talking about?' and then going 'oh, wait, that's exactly what the song needs'. That happened a lot!
“He definitely showed his experience and his slightly more gonzo approach to music-making, we tend to be a lot more studied and intellectualise things, he wasn't interested in any of that and it really suited us actually, it was really what we needed at the time.”
Was there any particular song that set the direction for the rest of this record?
“I think 'Big Cat', which is the first song on the record. That kind of dictated things, and then also 'Get My Bang'. When we went to Texas that song didn't exist and it came out of us within a couple of hours of being there. So they kind of directed things a bit, as well as 'Celestial Creatures', which has these big, chugging guitars and psychedelic sequences, that was a big signpost as well. It's quite a sparse record, the ideas on there are quite discrete.”
Where did the title Boy King come from? Is that representative of a lyrical theme running through the album?
“It was actually the title of a track that got discarded, but the concerns we were talking about, the idea of this priapic male doing stupid destructive stuff, the spoilt child, power without responsibility, it seemed to fit everything. And yeah, I think it does represent the theme, not just lyrically but also sonically – the big beats and big guitar moves are very much designed to reflect something of that, this kind of impotent machismo.”
Hayden said something about having a bit of a breakdown at the end of making the record? Is he ok?!
"Haha, yeah he's fine. I think he felt he'd kind of unburdened himself of some stuff, because we've always had this kind of dual frontman thing and I think he probably felt like he was being more 'the rock singer' on this one, putting himself out there a bit more. I think it's worked really well, but I think it does require a bit of a leap of confidence when we play it live, because it's a very different record than we've made before in terms of feel, it is more aggressive, a bit more cocksure."
You're five albums in now, how has the band evolved over that time in terms of your sound and your approach to writing? There are more synthesizers these days...
“When we started out we were playing in a basement in Leeds, there was a lot more physical space, these days it's much more contained, so part of that is just a reaction to having less space I think. But also the musical landscape has changed completely. When we were kids growing up there was a distinction between synth music and guitar music, and that distinction just isn't there any more, if 'guitar music' is even a thing anymore. We've gone from being this shoegaze, C86 type thing to being almost a synth pop act, and now we feel like this kind of 'Limey band in America.' I don't actually feel like we've changed all that much, but we're better at using equipment, producing stuff, we can get things going a lot quicker now.”
Each album has done progressively better in the commercial sense, are you conscious of that when you're making a record these days, like thinking about songs that work for bigger audiences? Or does that not even occur to you?
“It'd be a lovely world if I could say it didn't occur to us, but I should stress that when we're writing we don't think about that at all. Ultimately as soon as an idea leaves your pen, people want to know about it, they're thinking ahead about all that stuff, so I think you do have to send it out into the world armed and ready for all that. Unless you're Radiohead you don't want to be putting out a seven-minute single because it will just get butchered, so you have to be aware of that.
“People always ask if there's extra pressure, I don't think there is at all. There was worse pressure when you couldn't pay your rent or even buy strings for your guitar, you know? We know what the industry is like and it's obviously easier to tour if you've got more money, but that's got to be a secondary thought. As soon as you start chasing the dragon with all that, then you are f*cked.”
So finally what are your touring plans for the new record? You've a couple of UK dates coming up, where else are you taking it?
“We're going to festivals all over Europe, so we're doing Green Man in the UK, then Finland, Holland, we're visiting New York in August as well, then after that we'll be doing a bigger UK tour in the Autumn and some European dates along with that. There will be some more American stuff too but that hasn't been announced yet. That'll take us into the new year, and then who knows?!”
Boy King is available in hmv stores and online now. You can preview and purchase the album at the top right of this page...