Wild Beasts from Kendal, close to the Scottish border in the north-west of England, are a case in point. With their first album Limbo, Panto they served up a complex stew of dramatic melodies with an odd twist at each turn; falsetto singing and a hint of Bowie-esque and Sparks-ish pop fizz. The debut marked the band out as a truly innovative force. Their recently released second album Two Dancers sees the focus becoming sharper. Instead of a dozen mini-riffs, each song now contains two or three proper, meaty hooks. None of their previous charm is lost, and a great deal of dynamism is gained.
We meet Wild Beasts’ guitarist and singer Hayden Thorpe and co-singer and bassist Tom Fleming in a pub in King’s Cross. Thorpe is wearing a tinted pair of those super-size Wayfarer glasses with plastic frames that have become unaccountably fashionable in the trendier parts of London. ‘I know …’ he chuckles. ‘Years ago when my dad had them I swore to myself that I’d never wear anything like it!’ Never say never, a clichéd but true phrase that seems to sum up the spirit of the band nicely.
Sublime: My first impression of Two Dancers is that it is more focused than your first album. Where previously each song had six ideas fighting for space, you now seem to have discovered that it might be better to concentrate on three ideas and properly do them justice.
Thorpe: What we’re trying to do is make very human pop music, and humans are very complex creatures. There is an intricacy and a denseness to the first album that came across. It’s actually quite a skill to make an abstract and strange thing sound digestible and easy to interpret. I think we got better at doing that. That’s why it seems there’s less going on. There’s actually more going on underneath the surface but it’s gone through more processes.
S: Bands that create complex or challenging music are often accused of selling out when they make a more accessible album. Was that something that worried you in any way?
Thorpe: It would be nigh on impossible for Wild Beasts to sell out. There are always going to be some people who will say that what we do is nonsense, which for us is actually quite a valuable tool. The ability to make people choose is quite a power, and we do that because we think it’s important to take risks. We find ourselves asking those questions: What is tasteful? What is distasteful? What is acceptable? How far can we push it? Surely that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to push the boundaries of what you feel is acceptable and make you question yourself.
Fleming: A lot of records are made for that middle ground, that middle person who’s scared of everything. Who is that person? They don’t exist. And if they do exist, they’re no friend of mine. Inevitably, if you’re going to please people you also have to annoy them.
S: I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but I have to ask, how did you end up singing that way?
T: I’ll start on a very simple level: because that’s the way I sing. That’s the way I hear melody and the way I express myself. That’s the way the band developed. The songs, the words, the instruments developed together. I’ve been singing in this way since I was 16. When I came to sing like this it was less of a physical reaction and more of a mental one. It takes a certain level of self-assuredness and maturity to sing like this in the environment we grew up in, which is very old-school British.
F: ‘White bread’, if you know what I mean. Very macho, not necessarily repressed but certainly very curt.
T: The important thing is that the words and the singing developed together. Once I discovered you could say quite ugly and disturbing things in a beautiful way, it was a real tool. I felt I had something to grasp on to there. And that’s how it developed.
S: So one day you were sitting at home writing a song, when suddenly you realised that this song would come out better, more emotionally, if you sang it in falsetto?
T: Well, I heard the melody and that’s how I felt the song should be performed. At the time I was discovering people like Jeff Buckley, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, and I really enjoyed that vulnerability, that willingness of people to open themselves up to you. It takes a lot of balls to let yourself be almost ridiculed in a way. But for me it was always an endearing trait in singers to put themselves out there and express themselves and perform.
S: This kind of arty campness has quite a tradition in the North of England and in Scotland. From Orange Juice in Glasgow through to various Leeds bands like Mekons and Soft Cell, there has always been a tradition of trying to provoke a reaction by undermining stereotypes, an ironic way of flying in the face of that Northern machismo.
T: The inbuilt machismo in the North of England is quite unlike anything else we’ve come across. It’s so embedded. But it’s it so embedded that it allows you to play with it.
F: It’s very buttoned-up, it’s all repressed emotion. And of course part of that is always its opposite, melodrama, which also has a massive tradition. So this album is very high and very low, but it’s always delivered in the same kind of way. It’s trying to take a look at things from a different viewpoint. Even if you’re involved in it, you’re talking about it rather than actually being in the moment. It’s a way of talking about things, I guess.
S: A few years ago you moved from Kendal to Leeds. What’s better about leeds?
T: It’s comfortable and cheapish. There’s a really good nursery there for bands, there’s a lot of good ears there to listen. There are people there who care. Leeds has 70,000 people under 25. It’s an exciting place to be. There’s quite a bohemian atmosphere, there’s an edge where things can go out of control at any point. At the same time, people respect each other and behave for the sake of others. That’s quite a rare thing.
S: How does Kendal figure in the DNA of the band?
F: Kendal is unavoidable as we all pretty much grew up there. My parents are from Kendal originally. We grew up outside of the loop, so there was no music for us. There was only music happening elsewhere for somebody else that we could tap into if we were so inclined. Kendal is not a big city on its own, it’s the centre of a lot of villages. It has a very definite culture and it actually has a lot of musicians per head. Because you’re forced to listen to stuff that’s far away if you want to listen to music at all, you have to engage with the internet, and as a result you get more curious. I think we will always have that in us. We don’t want to sound like we’re representing Kendal or anything like that, but we definitely thought there wasn’t anything talking to us when we lived there. Now we want to talk to those people who feel the same as we did.
T: What gives you the compulsion to write music is that vision of a role that you think needs fulfilling. You must see a chink in the armour, a place for you to fit in. There was definitely a sense of ‘we felt this and we can’t be the only ones, so there’s got to be a music that speaks to us that must speak for other people as well’. We saw that and went for it, really.
S: It wasn’t so much trying to find a music that transported you out of that situation, as the desire to find a music that spoke to you in that situation?
T: It worked in two ways. Speaking about our situation and making our own tools to speak of our lives gave us an escape.
F: You make your own mythologies. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t talk about my life, it’s too mundane, too boring.’ Then I thought, ‘Actually, I need to get over that, I need to find a way to reconcile that and to make a music that is our own.’ We came from a place with no real musical expectations, so we could almost make what we wanted out of it.
T: We could build our own myths. Manchester and London have already been so glamorised by generations of London and Manchester bands, it’s difficult for new bands to come up with anything that doesn’t sound as if it’s nicked or clichéd.
S: Is there a pub in Kendal where all the bands play?
T: There’s a place called Dickie Doodles …
F: Apparently there’s a historic charter somewhere that denotes part of Kendal as ‘Doodleshire’. He was some eccentric old landowner, I think.
S: That, frankly, sounds quite obscene!
T: A lot of obscene things happened down the alley where it is. Really obscene! That’s the sort of stuff we mythologise. Dickie Doodles is off the High Street, and off this little alley. Just down from it is a tattoo parlour and above it is a Scalextrix club. Opposite is a pet shop and above the pet shop is an antiques shop.
F: And behind it there’s a way you can get on the roofs of all the main-street shops of Kendal. If you can climb you can get to the top and walk all over the town. It’s pretty obligatory to do it. It’s there, so you’ve got to.
S: When you were 15 what kind of records did you buy?
F: To be honest, I got very much into American music. This isn’t representative of the band, but I was very much into American Metal. The thing with Metal is you get heavier and heavier until you think, ‘I’m not enjoying this any more.’ At the time it was NuMetal, Korn. I got into Tool, then tried Napalm Death, Norwegian Death Metal, and then I thought, ‘I’m done now.’ Then you go backwards, I suppose, into singer/songwriters. We’ve mentioned Jeff Buckley already and it would be wrong of me not to mention Britpop. For all the damage it’s done, it was the main form of English music at the time. I remember loving Oasis when I was 11 years old and thinking, ‘I wanna do that!’ Oh, and of course Ice Cream For Crow by Captain Beefheart. That’s one of my favourite records ever! Beefheart was big for me when I was 16.
S: If you like Jeff Buckley, what do you think of Tim Buckley, his father?
T: To be honest, that’s kind of a different era. It’s interesting how Jeff sort of finished the sentence for Tim.
S: Personally, I found Tim always a lot more interesting, particularly his free-form stuff on Starsailor and Lorca.
F: Actually that was something I thought when we made this album. ‘Is this hornier than Greetings From LA’?’ I hope it is because that’s one of the horniest albums I’ve ever heard! I remember thinking, ‘I’m here! Look at me!’ That record is a load of fun.
S: What have you listened to lately?
F: A lot of Derek Bailey, the great guitar improviser. It’s the intellectualism and at the same time the humour you can hear in his music that gets me. It’s not just clever or cerebral, but there is a cleverness to it. There should be a sense of humour, too. Not exactly self-deprecating, but a sense of awareness of how absurd it all is to stand on stage and look like you’re baring emotions, as if you hadn’t rehearsed it a hundred times.
Wild Beasts, Two Dancers, is out on Domino