One of this year's most eagerly anticipated releases just happens to be Present Tense, the fourth long player from perennial DiS favourites Wild Beasts. With three critically acclaimed albums already in the bag, expectations are high for their next record, out on Monday 24th February. Last November's low key tour gave onlookers a mouthwatering preview, with four unreleased songs featuring in the set every night. Recent single 'Wanderlust' confounded those expectations last month, its euphoric battle cry "We're decadent beyond our means" introducing Wild Beasts' latest chapter in all its electronic-based glory.
With the band set to embark on a string of dates later this month starting in Paris and finishing in Brussels two months later, DiS caught up with bass player, vocalist and songwriter Tom Fleming during rehearsals in London.
DiS: What are you up to at the minute?
Tom Fleming: We're currently in rehearsals. We came to the US Embassy this morning to sort our visas out for when we play there next month, and in between we're doing lots of promotional stuff as well. This is my third interview today, so it's been a pretty busy day I guess!
DiS: How have the rehearsals been so far?
Tom Fleming: Really good. Obviously we have road tested some of the new songs now so it's just a case of making sure they're right. We're preparing ourselves for what could be quite a long stint on the road so we want these songs to sound good and everything we want them to be.
DiS: Will all eleven songs from the new record be incorporated into the live set at some point?
Tom Fleming: At the moment it's ten out of eleven so it's all possible. There's nothing we can't do live. There are a lot of electronics on the record but the songs themselves are actually quite simple and clean. There's four of us on stage and each song kind of has four parts, so it can be done. It just requires a bit of a change in set-up. Obviously our new set-up requires a lot more electronics and toys on stage but its' still just the four of us again.
DiS: Does this mean Katie Harkin from Sky Larkin won't be involved for the live shows?
Tom Fleming: No, it's just going to be the four of us on stage just like the old days. Katie was always going to be temporary. She's such a good singer, musician and songwriter and she has her own band. The new Sky Larkin record's great. In a way I'm actually pleased she's not with us because it meant she could go and make that. We knew she wasn't going to be with the band forever. Her presence is missed, both as a person and a musician.
DiS: I hear you christened the band's laptop "Katie" as a tribute to her!
Tom Fleming: We did. We've still got Robot Katie.
DiS: I saw your show at Sheffield's Queens Social Club just before Christmas and the four new songs you played seemed to work really well within the set.
Tom Fleming: We really enjoyed that. It was a proper club show.
DiS: Even the power cut during 'We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues' didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits!
Tom Fleming: No, the power cut probably helped us raise our game to be honest. When things go according to plan it's easy to just coast along and become complacent. Whereas when something goes wrong it's like, "Fuck! Are we playing a show or aren't we?"
DiS: Your fourth album Present Tense comes out on the 24th February. How long did it take to make the record?
Tom Fleming: It was recorded in bits, so I'd say in total it took a period of about a year. That would incorporate several sessions that we did. Both in our own studios and then real studios in London and Bath, plus all the sessions to finish it off along with mixing and mastering and stuff. It definitely took much longer than we have done in the past. I'd been saying for a while that we needed to re-engage with what we did, but honestly, we had to be sure we wanted it again. That's why it took us a long time.
DiS: Was there a period in between Smother and making the new record where you'd become disillusioned as a band?
Tom Fleming: There was never a sense of we weren't gonna do another record. Or that any of us wanted to stop at all. At the same time, we didn't just want to make a record for making a record's sake. We wanted to make sure we had something to say and that it was for a reason other than having to make another record. We wanted to make sure it was a record that justified its existence rather than just being a tour facilitator.
DiS: Has the band's relocation to London had an impact on your approach to writing songs? I guess a change of environment must play a part to some extent.
Tom Fleming: I think I'd be lying if I said it didn't. Even in practical terms, it's very difficult to just get in a room and bash something out. Which is how we've done things in the past. This time there's a lot more been done using computers and electronic gadgets. More because everyone's living in small flats where it's cramped and you've got babies crying next door. There's a lot of luxuries that aren't afforded to you unless you're on a £200,000 salary. So in that respect, yeah. London's a very interesting place to work. It does force a reaction. Although even after all this time I don't think any of us still feel at home here. But then that's fine because we're supposed to be transient people and citizens of the world.
DiS: In terms of the songs that made it onto the album, are they a 50-50 split between yours and Hayden's? Certainly from a perspective of who takes the lead vocally that seems to be the case.
Tom Fleming: From a writing perspective we've always shared things four ways. A song will tend to start either with Hayden or me, but then it does get bashed around a lot in the rehearsal room. We're a traditional band in the sense we're all equal collaborators. So when it come down to it, everything does go four ways.
DiS: So the songs where you're singing. Are the words primarily yours?
Tom Fleming: Loosely speaking, the ones I sing on are mine. But that's obviously a rule that's made to be broken! Sometimes me and Hayden do change or add lyrics to each other's songs.
DiS: One of my favouite songs on the album which is 'Nature Boy', which to me sounds like Songs Of Faith And Devotion era Depeche Mode. Was that a band you were listening to while making the record?
Tom Fleming: Not personally. I know that Hayden and Ben are much more fond of Depeche Mode than I am. I personally can't stand them! That heavy synthesizer sound and overbearing swagger is comparable I guess, although to me I'd say I was more influenced by contemporary artists like The Human League or the Pet Shop Boys. And also in the way those sounds have been adopted by hip hop artists like Kanye West. Musically it does sound a million miles away. And even some elements of goth pop as well. You realise how close different genres get to each other when you start to get older.
DiS: Another which stands out for me is 'A Dog's Life', which I also remember from the set at Queens Social Club. There's one part of the song where in the background it sounds someone's throwing a ball in a bin. Was that an effect that was used on the record or did you actually record someone doing that? What is the song about?
Tom Fleming: That was just a case of bouncing a stick up and down on a snare drum! The song itself can be taken quite literally as in it can be about the end of a dog's life. There's something very sad about the way dogs kind of think they're people even though they aren't. I'm a big dog lover yet there's so much we don't know about these beings that live in our houses. We take them for granted as if they're like children. We give them human attributes. I was very careful not to apply those to the dog in the song. But at the same time on reflection, I guess people might say it's about me. We all think we're something we're not. Wherever we are, we all exaggerate our stories about being the hero, but actually, we're all tiny specks on a giant landscape that will die someday.
DiS: It's interesting you say that because Present Tense does seem to represent all different sides of the band's personalities, lyrically at any rate. For example, the opening words on the album are "We're decadent beyond our means," before going onto songs like 'A Dog's Life' and 'Palace' which take in other emotions entirely. Was it a deliberate intention to encompass as many traits as possible throughout the album?
Tom Fleming: We didn't want to speak about the same things all the time. We tried to think about the world more. What makes the world tick. We certainly aimed to be broader on this record rather than having to be on message. Another thing about being older is you get a lot more confident about yourself. You're no longer trying to conform to ideas about what you might have been when you were younger. Maybe then you wanted to be Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley. Those things cease to matter. You become better at doing what you want to do. And as a result your channels become more open. There's more you can do, and more you can write with. There's no reason why stuff shouldn't stay interesting, but more importantly, why stuff shouldn't become more interesting.
DiS: Which is the oldest song on Present Tense? How far does it date back compared to the rest of the album?
Tom Fleming: The first one we recorded was 'Wanderlust'. 'A Dog's Life' was also recorded during that session. I think those two kind of informed us what the album was going to sound like. We went in with a vague idea of what the songs were going to be. It's almost like a Coca-Cola test where we all go and see what those songs were going to sound like. Once we'd recorded them we knew exactly where we were going with the record. And the whole attitude of the album was dictated by those songs as well. This is it. This is what we need to do now. And from then on everything just fell into place.
DiS: Are there any songs that didn't make the final cut? Will any of those be revisited in the future?
Tom Fleming: There were a few, maybe four or five which didn't quite work on Present Tense but might get used for other things at some point. But that's always the way. There's always bits and pieces that don't get used. We're not one of those bands that writes sixty songs in the attempt that might end up being a better thing. How many you write is no benchmark of quality.
DiS: I'd also describe Present Tense as a "headphones record", in that it sounds better when I'm completely cut off from everyone else and any other distractions. Is that how you intended the record to be heard, in isolation?
Tom Fleming: I certainly spend a lot of my time listening to music through headphones when I'm going somewhere or doing something. I do think that's a good thing when you're travelling by car or train and listening to music. What does it do to your perception of the landscape around you? Does it change anything? A lot of my favourite records are transportive like that so it's a compliment, definitely. To be honest, it needs to sound as good through headphones as it does booming out of a PA. Detail is everything.
DiS: You mentioned earlier that the record was recorded across several different studios with two different producers. What did Lexx and Leo Abrahams bring to the recording process compared with Richard Formby, who you worked with on your last two albums?
Tom Fleming: They're very different characters to Richard. Richard's a very low key, quiet person and someone who commands respect when you work with him because he's so good. We're London-based now and I think having access to all these different people gave us a wider scope to choose from for this record. Lexx did the mixing on Two Dancers and Smother so I think it was a logical step for him to produce this record. We were big fans of what he did to those records and also some of the other albums he's worked on as well. He's a very strident presence compared to Richard, but also very used to dealing with detail. Because he's a mixer which is essentially solo work, he's very intense. Leo Abrahams is more of a song guy. He's used to working with songwriters and folk singers. He's also played in several bands. He's a very good guitar player so that kind of marriage of the two was exactly what we were looking for. And as it went on, the two did become interchangeable. One would do one thing and one would do the other. I think they work beautifully together.
DiS: Did working with Lexx and Leo teach you more about making records, and going forwards do you see yourselves working with them again?
Tom Fleming: Absolutely to the first question. Quite possibly with the second. I'd never say never to anything. Every record is a huge steep learning curve to be honest. It has to be. You have to go that little bit further than before. Part of the reason for doing this is to learn from all the people around you. No one is born out of the womb instantly talented. You have to learn and then put that knowledge to good use.
DiS: Having released three critically acclaimed albums so far, are there any expectations from Domino with regards to this one?
Tom Fleming: You rely on every record to be able to pay your rent. It's always hand to mouth, so in terms of doing well it has to do well. Otherwise we won't eat! In terms of Domino they're very understanding. Obviously they want us to be huge, but there's no pressure from them. Put it this way, we're all quite united in that we want people to like the record. We made this album for people to get something out of. We want as many people to like this record as possible without compromising what we set out to do in the first place. Which is always true. I try not to think too much about it to be honest, although I'd be lying if I said I never thought about it. I think it's a lot more dignified to keep your eyes on what you're doing and just keep working. It's important not to disappear up your own backside. But that's all part of it. Keep your eye on what you're doing rather than how successful it might be. It's really important for your sanity. And for your music. There's nothing worse than creating something because you think you have to rather than because you want to.
DiS: You've just been confirmed to play Bestival. Is that the first of many festival appearances you'll be doing this summer?
Tom Fleming: Yeah we will be. I'm not sure which ones we're allowed to talk about at the minute. I know Unknown Festival in Croatia has also been confirmed. There's still one or two others we're pitching for as well. I think it's a guarantee we'll be busy all summer!
DiS: Will there be a more extensive UK tour once festival season is over?
Tom Fleming: I would like to think so although it's too far ahead to book. We're anticipating it.
DiS: With the live sets, you've only been playing 'Devil's Crayon' off Limbo Panto for quite a while now. Will any more songs be brought back into the live show from that record?
Tom Fleming: We're aiming to. I think as a band we're much happier with that record. We know what it was now. It sounds like a bunch of young guys from the provinces who are angry and pissed off, confused by the world. I'd like to play more from it, but of course the problem is we have four albums so we have to leave some things out. Equally, the shows won't be the same every night, so you never know. We have plenty of songs to pick from. We've been rehearsing some of those songs but I don't want to say which ones. I wouldn't want to put any false hope or false terror in your mind!
DiS: I have a question from a friend of mine who's in a band. How do you make that throbbing sound with your bass at the start of 'Lion's Share'?
Tom Fleming: I can tell you exactly how we made that. It was on a synthesizer called a Yamaha CS 15. Which is timed to a click through a computer so it's throbbing at exactly the right tempo. It's very Heath Robinson. It's very much like wires and wood. But it's great and it makes mad sounds. I wish I could say it was my bass that was making that sound but to the disappointment of guitar players everywhere it was actually a synthesizer!
DiS: Finally, have you been listening to much new music recently?
Tom Fleming: We're taking a band from Manchester called MONEY on tour with us. I really like them. Also, East India Youth I really like. Woman's Hour too, and Kwas as well. I'm sure there's loads more. I've listened to less music this past year than I normally would because my head's been into making this record.
Wild Beasts can be seen at the following venues:-
28 Manchester Victoria Warehouse (BBC 6Music Festival)
26 Manchester Albert Hall
27 Glasgow The Arches
29 Dublin Olympia Theatre
30 Bristol O2 Academy
31 Cambridge Corn Exchange
1 Brixton Academy
The album Present Tense is out on 24th February through Domino Records.
For more information on the band visit their official website.