- Wild Beasts »
Doesn't it just irritate you when people claim there are no UK based guitar bands creating innovative and original music? What they really mean is that no one worth mentioning sounds like the artists they're most familiar with. Which is surely a good thing, right? RIGHT.
Thank heavens then for Wild Beasts, a band who wouldn't know the meaning of the word "plagiarism" if you tattooed its definition on each and every one of their collective foreheads. Having formed in the Cumbrian town of Kendal - famous for its Mint Cake and very little else - almost a decade ago, their relocation to Leeds proved to be the catalyst that launched them to an unsuspecting nation.
While 2008's debut long player Limbo Panto divided listeners still getting to grips with Hayden Thorpe's unique falsetto, the follow-up a year later Two Dancers confirmed them as one of the country's brightest emerging talents. Now, having released album number three Smother to an unprecedented wave of critical acclaim - DiS scribe Krystina Nellis described it as "Timeless...an album for anyone who’s ever engaged in a relationship best defined as ‘it’s complicated’" while its high ranking position in this year's end-of-year polls both here and elsewhere is almost certainly guaranteed.
Having been on the road almost constantly for the past six months, DiS caught up with Wild Beasts songwriter, vocalist, bass player and occasional keyboard tinkler Tom Fleming and drummer Chris Talbot prior to their recent sold out show at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms.
DiS: How's your year been so far? You seem to have been on tour permanently since the release of Smother in May.
Tom Fleming: That's quite true to be honest in terms of touring. As far as this year goes, it's been great. I don't think any of us could have imagined it being better. We've made an album and gone out and played shows and all the shows have been good, better than we've done before, certainly in this neck of the woods. We spent a lot of time in America and that's a different kettle of fish altogether. We haven't really made the same progression over there as we have here. People still tend to see us as "that weird band from England!"
DiS: What kind of response do you get from American audiences?
TF: Amazing, but on a much smaller scale. American audiences really are some of the warmest in the world. They're dying to see you and some of them literally spend days travelling to the shows.
Chris Talbot: We have people coming from Nebraska to Minneapolis, Oklahoma to New York. Sometimes we're talking an eight hour drive or train journey or even a four hour flight. We met these people who'd come from Mexico to the LA show because they couldn't make the Mexico one; it's insane!
TF: It is insane. It's not even possible to do that over here. You know, it's almost like going to Beirut just to see a show!
DiS: Do you have to tailor the set specifically for the American shows? Are they still a couple of albums behind the UK in terms of familiarity with your material for example?
TF: We're kind of a bit stubborn about doing exactly what we want to do. Two Dancers was our breakthrough record over there, albeit on a small scale, so there's people who've bought that and suddenly realised we've got another two albums so it's starting to progress quite quickly now, even if it's a while later than over here.
DiS: Your current album Smother has received an almost universal wave of glowing reviews. Are you perfectly satisfied with you everything turned out, or is there anything you'd change about the record if you had the benefit of hindsight?
TF: No, we're not perfectly satisfied. I mean, there are things wrong with Smother but equally if we went back and tinkered with everything the record would be much worse. It's supposed to be an interaction of time, so for that reason it stands up quite comfortably.
CT: I think we've overcome most of our limitations so I wouldn't change too much about it really, and at the end of the day, what's done is done. We can't go back. As musicians and creative people we're always looking to better ourselves, and it's easy for us to listen back and try and find faults. For me though it isn't about changing anything we've done previously, it's about making sure we don't make the same mistakes on the next record.
DiS: Are there any songs or ideas readied for the next record?
TF: Ideas, yeah. I think we're going to take a bit more time with the next record. I've been telling everyone this when I probably shouldn't be because it might end up being a lie and the next album could be ready in 2012...but no, we're not planning on rushing things.
CT: I think it gets misconstrued as a hiatus when in actual fact it's just a natural process in the band's evolution. For the first time ever we can afford ourselves the time and space to do this. Probably not as long as we'd like, but we don't feel under any pressure to deliver something within a certain time frame any more.
TF: It's like we can do the proper band thing, you know, say to the label "Here's your record!" rather than them chasing us. There are ideas but we don't want to rush anything. We certainly haven't got together and really tried to organise stuff yet.
DiS: Richard Formby's produced the last two records. Would you work with him again in the future?
TF: Possibly. I don't want to close the doors on anyone or anything else, but certainly working with Richard has been a massive pleasure. He's really brought out the best in us on our last two records, and he's kind of encouraged our natural sensibilities. When we write songs he's always urging us to continue with our left-leaning approach while at the same time play around and have fun. I remember reading about Derek Bailey, who was always trying to find new ways of playing the guitar like he never had done before, and Richard tries to instill the same kind of mindset in us.
DiS: One thing that stands out with Smother is that it flows as an album rather than a mismatched collection of ten individual tracks geared for radio. Was that your intention?
CT: We've always considered ourselves to be an albums rather than singles band. Whenever we write it's from a wider rather than singular perspective.
TF: I guess where we come from it's still considered quite old fashioned. We don't have the mindset to go for radio. We haven't got the sound for radio. There's a skill to it, but it's not really art, tailoring your track for radio. It's like Chris says, we just think about things on an album-wide scale. We don't try to be macho or think "This is the best and most effective song for radio!" if you know what I mean? Some bands have this mindset that every song has to be written as though it were a single, and every song has to be better than the last. Better production, sounds amazing through speakers - those kind of thoughts never come into it with us.
CT: They are very matter of fact about it as well yet we can still do what we want. We grew up in the age of the CD where we were used to listening to whole albums. I guess it's all part of growing up, but we're a prime example of a band that can have a degree of success doing whatever we want to do and making albums as albums.
DiS: The sad thing is, many labels now aren't interested in signing artists on album deals as they're more likely to sell twelve individual, radio-friendly tracks as downloads rather than a full album.
CT: I'm slightly baffled by the rise of the EP too. Why release four or five tracks, most of which are inferior remixes of the lead track than save your best ones for an album? To me it just seems like a waste of material.
TF: Like the Animal Collective Fall Be Kind EP, which I absolutely love, and yet it got a couple of really good reviews then everyone seemed to forget about it. It fell by the wayside because it wasn't a full length yet the songs on that EP are incredible.
DiS: Songs like 'Loop The Loop' and 'Reach A Bit Further' suggest Smother was written in a much darker place than Two Dancers.
TF: I think it was, yeah. It was certainly built on the back of doing the Two Dancers songs for a long time. We kind of intended Smother to be like an anti-touring record. We were trying to get back to what is important.
CT: We didn't want to go over old ground again and everyone was knackered after Two Dancers, so in a way Smother was that consoling record. It kind of feels like we have to do another one after this tour. That doesn't mean we are because the only plans we have are to take some time out, but that's how it feels.
TF: I guess there was a certain mindset when we were making Smother. I don't want to use the word "melancholy" because that sounds a bit leading, but certainly reflective in terms of "What does all this mean?" The two songs you mentioned were the ones that were probably written most as a collective. They were both written old fashioned style, you know, let's play it all together boys...
DiS: For me, one band that draw parallels with Wild Beasts would be The Horrors. You both released incredible second albums in 2009 and both followed it up with astounding records this year. In many ways, you're the only two UK bands taking risks and creating genuinely unique sounds along the way.
TF: It's interesting you mention The Horrors as I don't think any of us really considers ourselves standing toe-to-toe with them in terms of commercial appeal or record sales. I guess they are similar in terms of lighting the blue touch paper; it's strange for us because we haven't had any big songs or singles whereas The Horrors have several.
CT: I think we've grown more through word of mouth than anything else. Take last night in Bristol for example. When we last played there eighteen months ago there must have been no more than 200 people. Last night we played to over 1,000 in a venue that was full to capacity, yet we've had no radio play, and not that much press coverage really compared to some bands.
TF: It's strange, because we've only released a couple of limited edition singles apart from the album since then. It's almost like six degrees of separation; people pass it on and then it gets passed on again and so on and so forth.
DiS: I think in terms of both albums Smother and Skying you and The Horrors have raised the bar somewhat, and hopefully other artists will seize them as a blueprint and follow suit in the future.
TF: Did you know we actually rehearsed next door to The Horrors while they were making Skying? There's a photo of numerous synthesizers on the inner sleeve of their album; that's what I saw every morning when I woke up! We'd make sure we got there early before they started recording and lock ourselves in the room for hours. We heard some of the embryonic squalls and drumbeats and to be fair, it did sound pretty amazing even back then.
CT: I'm sure The xx used the same room to record some of their new stuff as well?
TF: London is like anything really. It is a big city but extremely small.
DiS: I was going to ask you about re-locating to Dalston but you've beat me to it! What made you move down there?
TF: We're all living in East London, yeah. It just came to the point where we were always down there so we had to make a decision whether to spend all our money travelling to London every day or spend all our money living there and having some fun in the mean time!
CT: It was quite intriguing at first moving to London as someone in their mid-twenties, daunting even...
TF: A deciding factor was that we'd all got friends in other jobs who'd already moved to London, so although there's this kind of mystery about it the fact we knew quite a few people who were based there helped us settle in fairly smoothly.
CT: I think we realised pretty quickly that maybe we had shot ourselves in the foot because everything is so damn expensive. When we were rehearsing for the tour back in April we were paying £150-200 per day, whereas the place we used in Leeds cost £50 per week.
TF: And Wiz Khalifa was practicing next door! It was the only place we could find at the time that would accommodate a decent PA system and a band, but at the end of the day it's just a room, nothing special.
DiS: East London does seem to be the place to be at the moment. It's literally buzzing with vibrant, creative people.
TF: It is fun for sure. I hate to call East London "a scene", only because it doesn't feel very organic. It feels like a random collection of people from all over the place who've come to London to "make it". It costs so much to make music in London that you sense the feeling there's a lot of money coming in from elsewhere, whether that be a label or someone's rich parents. It's a little bit...it doesn't mean the music's false but the collective idea of a scene definitely is. It also feels a little too competitive, quite sharky in fact. Not necessarily between the musicians, but certainly there's a sense of who's on who's label, and if you're not making "this" sound then why on earth aren't you? You know, if you're not making a kind of vague James Blake/SBTRKT axis then why don't you sound like that? It never really manifests itself but it's a very different atmosphere to what we've been used to in the past.
CT: It's really easy to be cynical about it because of how long we've been playing and making records together and the length of time it's taken us to get to that point where we can afford to move to London, whereas you get the impression there's a lot of people here that haven't really put the work in to get where they are.
DiS: How would you compare London to Leeds in general? I mean, Leeds still has a very organic scene with bands breaking through all the time and musicians, venues and promoters all pulling together.
TF: Leeds could be the benchmark for every other town and city in the UK to be honest. It's cheap to live there, has its fair share of great venues and supportive people that are prepared to put the miles in, you know.
CT: There's no ego about Leeds. You can go to places like the Brudenell any night of the week and know at least 20-30 people, and that still exists. Whenever we go back there people don't treat us any differently. It's almost like we've never been away, and is probably the most sociable city anywhere in the UK.
DiS: Without dwelling on it too much, were you surprised that Smother wasn't nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize, particularly bearing in mind Two Dancers was shortlisted twelve months earlier?
TF: Essentially we don't care. When I say we don't care - obviously we want people to like the record - I mean in terms of being accepted into the club.
CT: I'm not sure we ever will be!
DiS: Considering the level of critical acclaim it received though; several DiS writers have named it as their number 1 album of the year for example; it must be disappointing that the industry chose to ignore it?
TF: It means more to us that people on Drowned In Sound like our records than any industry awards panel. It's much more important as it shows people are listening to it. Don't get me wrong, I think the Mercury nomination for Two Dancers went a long towards attaining recognition for the band, but equally I wouldn't want to be saddled with the win. It means we can - for want of a better term - stay dangerous. We're quite comfortable being outside of what is just acceptable for the mainstream.
DiS: Sky Larkin's Katie Harkin is now a main part of Wild Beasts live set-up. Is she now a full-time member of the band and will she be involved in the songwriting process in future?
TF: I dunno. When we play live she's essential and she comes everywhere with us. Katie's playing keyboards and samples with us but let's not forget she's also an excellent guitarist, songwriter and singer, so I think sooner or later she'll want to do her own stuff. Sky Larkin haven't split up. They're just taking a break while they renegotiate what's going on. I think they'll make another record sooner rather than later.
CT: It's just perfect for us and her; us to have an extra pair of hands on board and for her, an opportunity to continue making music while the guys in Sky Larkin finish their studies and get a couple of qualifications under their belt.
TF: Also, I love Katie's songs but I don't think Wild Beasts needs another songwriter. We have enough trouble deciding what we all want as it is! We love Sky Larkin's music and Katie as a person, and we've known each other for a very long time but I in terms of her becoming a permanent member of the band, I can't see us being able to keep her forever.
DiS: With regards to the live set, do you find it increasingly difficult to incorporate Limbo Panto material bearing in mind the majority of your audience may only be aware of the last two records?
TF: I see what you mean. I'm hoping the audience will kind of stitch together the logic between the three albums. Although they're all different, I think there is a thread to be followed.
CT: For us it has a weird atmosphere, yet at the same time it becomes quite a celebratory rise so we're not that fussed about patching the old with the new.
DiS: Are there any songs from your back catalogue which you don't see yourselves ever playing again?
TF: Personally, no, but I'm not sure everyone is in agreement about that.
CT: I think the older you get the more fonder you get of the past so I wouldn't rule anything out. I remember last year after the Two Dancers tour we swore we'd never play 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants' again but then it's been in the set most nights this year. I guess you can't become too precious about things like that really.
DiS: You've also remixed other people's work, most notably Lady GaGa's 'You And I'. Is that something you see yourselves doing more of in the future?
TF: Possibly. We've become quite electronic literate so it's something we're definitely interested in. It gives you an opportunity to do something else with what you've learnt, so I wouldn't rule out doing it again, although definitely not at the expense of our own material. At the same time, we've had some excellent remixes done for some of our songs, especially on the Two Dancers material from people like Junior Boys, Oneohtrix Point Never and Banjo Or Freakout. It's nice to hear someone else's interpretation of our music.
DiS: Finally, you've already mentioned taking most of the year out, so what are your plans for 2012?
TF: It's not going to be a year as such. We're touring again in the early part of next year.
CT: Just playing places we've not been to in a while or never visited before, then we're heading over to America and hopefully a few festivals. Other than that, 2012 is mainly going to be a studio based, work space year rather than being constantly on the road like this one has been.
TF: Our next album has to be another turn. We keep talking about the logic between the three records but the fourth album really has to blow the doors off.
Wild Beasts can be seen at the following venues:-
31 Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party
11 Warwick University
12 Norwich Waterfront
13 Colchester Arts Centre
14 Exeter Phoenix
15 Falmouth Pavilion
16 Cardiff Coal Exchange
17 Liverpool Masque Theatre
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