London-via-Leeds quartet Wild Beasts make yearning, operatic yet intimate pop that strikes with a kind of quiet immediacy rarely seen in the UK’s musical landscape of bombastic, hype-driven, NME-approved rock acts.
The band, specifically the dueling croons of frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, have drawn comparisons to fellow romanticists Suede, Antony Hegarty and Morrissey. These comparisons have never been more apt, yet wholly inadequate, than on their latest album Smother, a collection of dark, honest and emotive ballads buoyed by Thorpe’s longing falsetto, intertwining guitars and a bubbling electronic undercurrent.
We caught up with Fleming and Thorpe in their trailer before their Sunday performance at Coachella, where despite the blazing 110-degree desert heat, the gents were as dapper, composed and thoughtful as they are on record.
Portable: You guys formed Wild Beasts as grade school friends nearly a decade ago. What’s it like spending your formative years coming up together in a band?
Hayden Thorpe: I met Chris when we were 5, actually. We all went to the same secondary school, so in a way you all have the same sort of reference points and shared consciousness, in a sense. There are times when that mutual appreciation of where we’re from kind of helps with the sort of bizarreness and crazy situations that can develop from being in a band. Starting a band as a teenager and holding onto it, I think, is quite a rare thing, and I think if you manage to hold onto it, there’s an idealism there that you never quite let go of, that teenage idealism that you can do whatever you want and no one knows better than you. So I feel quite grateful that we’ve hung onto that initial crude, but genuine, philosophy that you have as a teenager. It takes a lot of collective belief, and it has to be an instinctive thing because god knows this business will try and unravel you, and to stay in a coil takes a lot of collective strength.
P: You formed in Kendal, a small northern town, before relocating to Leeds and later to London. Was that a deliberate choice, or as a UK band is that something that’s just inevitable?
Tom Fleming: I think it’s something we had to do. I like living in London but I kind of don’t think I had a choice. It’s weird; at the time we were living in Leeds it was really vibrant, but it’s a city that was built on finance, and of course when the market crashed it really kind of hollowed out and really everyone left. 90% of the people I knew in Leeds now live in London because it just became too hard to find work.
Hayden Thorpe: There was a good healthy scene there for a while. Leeds really had a feeling much like Portland, a place where you could afford to live and work and have the space to be creative. Affordability is really important because in London there’s no space, and I really struggle with it on a creative level. There’s no space for thinking, and you’re continually reminded of your status. We grew up in the country, so, on a psychological level I think being out in the open does wonders for your psyche. It’s a constant scramble, and Leeds never had that.
P: I’m curious about your songwriting process. Obviously there’s a lot ambience and orchestration in the production of these songs, but at its core, a tune like, say, “Albatross” strikes me as a song that was dreamed up as a stark, intimate piano ballad. How much of that orchestration happens in the initial songwriting and how much takes place after the fact in the studio?
Hayden Thorpe: I think our music in general tries to be intimate and close and kind of human, so that initial seed you have to try and preserve all the way. The production, I think, should be invisible. Keeping that humanism and intimacy is really essential. It means that our album, amongst other albums, is probably a bit quieter. I think in general, if the production and orchestration are maintaining or enhancing that emotive feeling, then you know you’ve got it right. You can only work instinctively, there’s no one method, and that’s as it should be.
P: Where do your voices come from? Are you formally trained singers?
Hayden Thorpe: No, absolutely not. Again, I think it goes back to this teenage idealism of… Just wanting to say something that’s true, I suppose. I think, on a kind of cathartic level, the music we make allows us to pull truths out of blind spots. That’s kind of the beauty of it, that’s our niche, I suppose.