*I’ve loved Wild Beasts since the first time I heard their debut album Limbo, Panto (and reviewed it in July 2008) – so it was a pleasure to talk to Hayden Thorpe for my first Ticket feature last year.
Originally published in The Irish Times, July 26th 2009
KENDAL ISN’T really the sort of place you’d expect a band like Wild Beasts to have grown up in. A small town in Britain’s Lake District, it holds the esteemed honour of being twinned with Killarney, and is more famous for its Mint Cake than its individualist indie bands. The band’s former secondary school is hosting a summer production of The Wizard of Oz, and the local Museum of Natural History’s most exciting exhibit is a stuffed polar bear.
But Hayden Thorpe, the main protagonist of the Cumbrian quartet, believes their small-town upbringing was an advantage.
“It was sort of ultra-normal,” the 23-year-old says, his plain northern accent a stark contrast to the astonishing falsetto that buoys his band’s music. “Maybe that was something we reacted against, in a way. Growing up in a small town where there wasn’t very much going on at all, you did have to make your own fun, and I think that definitely has an impact on you. We had to seek out the music we wanted ourselves – there wasn’t bands coming through, and there wasn’t cool older kids to tell us what to do, ‘cos they’d all either left or were just doing the same normal things. It was unusual for us, when we left school, to tell our families and friends that we were gonna be in a band. It was quite a statement, so we had to stick with it, and work hard to prove that we did the right thing.”
Despite their refined musicianship and aristocratic song titles (like ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’, ‘Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye’), there was no classical training or posh education, either. Thorpe’s pitch-perfect vocals may sound like they’re channelling the spirit of some long-forgotten opera star, but he and his cohorts Tom Fleming (bass/tenor), Chris Talbot (drums/baritone) and Ben Little (guitar) are all very much self-taught. He laughs at the romantic notion of Wild Beasts forming in the common room of some upper-class boarding school. “I think that’s a funny thing about music at the moment – all the posh kids are trying desperately to be cool and rough, and look like they’ve never been to school in their lives, and there’s us – working hard to be good musicians and trying not to be stupid,” he chuckles. “It seems uncool not to be stupid for some reason, at the moment.”
The spark that lit their creative flare came from an unlikely source, too. Having witnessed the same Strokes gig at London’s Alexandra Palace in 2003 as Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, Thorpe and his then-schoolmates were galvanised into a similar course of music-making action.
“British Sea Power supported, who were half from Kendal, and that was pretty amazing for us – that they should be from where we were from, and be supporting a band in their prime at the time, like The Strokes,” he reminisces. “That era sort of kicked things off a bit; it sort of swept aside all the really stale, middle-of-the-road indie-pop, which has unfortunately started to rear its head again. I thought that might have been the death of it, but it’s never really gone away.”
Wild Beasts are doing their utmost to trounce their indie landfill peers, though. Last year’s debut, ‘Limbo, Panto’, was a deliciously odd album, brimming with theatrical flourishes of chamber pop, throbbing glamour and unusual lyrical phrasing. Its peculiarity won comparisons with Kate Bush’s best work, while critics’ attempts at classifying their sound usually hovered uneasily around the term ‘pop’.
“I think you can hear the naivety in that album, but I’m really proud of it because we didn’t care what people thought,” Thorpe says. “The important thing was that it existed, and that we’d made it how we wanted to make it. In that sense, I think it’s unique for not being meddled with, and not having the jagged edges taken away from it. It is what it is – the pretty side and the ugly side.”
That theme of duality runs through Wild Beasts’ second album ‘Two Dancers’, too. Aside from its title, it balances a preoccupation with movement and brazen bombast with a new-found prudence. There’s even a song about the Fathers 4 Justice organisation (‘The Fun Powder Plot’), which Thorpe says came via an urge to “throw caution to the wind” and adjust his songwriting method from inward-looking “self-indulgence” to a semi-political critique. Coming just one year after their debut, he claims that it’s a more considered, better-paced album than its predecessor.
“When we were making ‘Limbo, Panto’, we didn’t really know what we were doing,” he admits. “It was very much an apprenticeship. We were sent to work with Tore Johansen, who’s a world-renowned producer, and it was a very steep learning curve. I think we learned a lot of amazing things, and it gave us a lot of confidence. I think once we’d got that off our chests, we could think a lot more clearly about how to go forward. We’re happy just to be a band that progresses, and builds on what’s come before. We know the way our music works, and there wasn’t going to be one defining album that we released straight away, and that’s going to be it for the rest of our career. And I’m pleased about that, because I don’t know what we’d do if that had happened. We need to keep working towards something, I think.”
Thorpe does acknowledge that the inability to categorise their music has proven to be a talking point, rather than a bona fide problem. In that respect, being one of several young bands in the Domino Records stable provides a sense of stability for their off-the-wall vision, rather than the alternative of floating around the dungeons of a major label who wouldn’t have a clue how to market the foursome.
“We didn’t feel that we were making music that was for a particular group of people, or deliberately difficult,” says Thorpe. “We were open, but we very quickly learned that a lot of labels who play it very safe, and sign a lot of very safe bands, were all very scared of us. They wouldn’t have gone anywhere near us. Domino were the ones who ‘shared the vision’, and we were made for each other, in that sense. That label has a lot of integrity, a lot of blind belief in their artists, really. There’s a lot of things that labels can’t do anymore – like put music out for the sake of it, because it’s worth putting out, rather than worrying about what audience it should meet, or what the stats are gonna be on it. And that’s why it’s still going, that’s why it’s one of the few indies left – because it sticks to those important principles.”
Sticking to principles is obviously something Thorpe and his bandmates feel strongly about; their determination to make music on their own terms is something to be admired, in a scene awash with indie bands conforming to a jaded pattern. But does that mean that he’s happy when people call his band ‘weirdos’?
“Ummm… I think it’s a bit tragic that people are force-fed such meaningless stuff, and forced to feel like it’s worthy of their attention,” he says with a humoured exasperation. “There is so much music out there, that to be called ‘weird’ is probably an achievement. When you think of how much music people hear, to make something outside of the millions of other albums… well, it just makes me proud, really.”