In the run-up to Heineken Green Spheres, Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming discusses love, war and Westlife with George Morahan.
“I think we’ve become more conventional in a lot of ways,” says Tom Fleming, without a glimmer of irony. Anyone familiar with Wild Beasts would probably raise an eyebrow at that statement. Musically at least, the Wild Beasts singer/bassist has a point. Their third album, Smother, sees a quieter and more considerate side to the band – sparing, delicate use of guitars, ambient electronics and an increased focus on space, timing and dynamic progression sets it apart from the “Grease-y dance music” of 2009’s Two Dancers. Lyrically however, they are still circling the same subject matters – sex, love, masculinity and more sex.
The contrast works to arresting affect on Smother; the restrained musical template serving to accentuate the lyrics. Tracks such as ‘Plaything’ (sample lyric: ‘New squeeze, take off your chemise / And I’ll do as I please’) and ‘Burning’ (with its message of disintegration and rebirth, ‘I’m saved / You pull my fingers out the dirt / You pluck me wriggling from the world’) are proof of the distinct lyrical personas Fleming and co-singer Hayden Thorpe have developed over the past four years. Thorpe, the more eager to indulge the listener in his carnal pleasures, displays a love of bawdy, archaic language, while Fleming explores pain and vulnerability in far more humble terms. Their sensibilities inexorably clash, yet also dovetail rather beautifully. The same can be said of their sparring voices, though that would be a polarising statement considering the inherent hostility of Thorpe’s aggressively androgynous yelps. With that said, Thorpe’s falsetto and Fleming’s rumbling baritone combine in a way that he can only describe as a “happy accident”, and there are many advantages to having two frontmen (the “Westlife model”, as Fleming puts it. Wild Beasts on stools is “not far away,” apparently). One advantage is the different effects their two voices can bring to a line; “it can be ugly or really gorgeous or rough or smooth. I think so few men sing, like properly sing; it’s the one thing, in a band, that everyone is embarrassed to do and it’s not good enough.”
Admittedly, their lyrics can easily be construed as “predatory and sexist,” but don’t always give an accurate representation of Fleming or Thorpe. “It’s always a fictionalised version of yourself. It is me in that position, but I’m not spreading my soul like butter over the record.” He believes that having two singers allows them to approach such deeply personal topics from different angles. They can “interrogate” each other on record, but they’re careful of not presenting themselves as “lover boys or Lotharios, or at least not convincing ones.”
In fact, there is quite a disconnection between the man and his words, as Fleming’s lyrics tend to use images of war and conflict to communicate the pitfalls of romance. Tales of enemies slain on Smother’s ‘Invisible’ or the ‘Deserter’ refrain at the end of ‘Two Dancers II’ are a necessity in Fleming’s mind, as the tropes of love are tired and fail to represent how he and many others experience it. “Love is violent … I think it’s important to not be too soft when you’re writing love songs, ’cause they’re not soft emotions.”
When speaking to Fleming, one would suspect him to be more suited to a bar stool in the Rovers than fronting a theatrical, Mercury-nominated art rock band. Despite their frivolous reputation, the band is not from a well-off background – a common misconception in their early days. He found it absurd that they would be lumped in with “skiffle-y pop” artists coming out of Britain’s finest public schools and it annoyed him to no end that the band would be “branded as posh boys for liking The Smiths.” Don’t even get him started on their reputation for pretension. “I think pretentiousness is a killer word used by the powerful to keep the lowly climbers in their place.” However, he has clearly made his peace with Wild Beasts’ detractors; “It has occurred to us that our music might be considered pretentious and we’ve decided it isn’t.”
Such criticism stems from the great number of literary references littered across their albums. Among them are Frankenstein and Hamlet on Smother’s ‘Bed of Nails’, Thorpe’s ode to the madness of intense monogamy. The issue is further complicated by their use of literary animal metaphors – Coleridge’s albatross, Hemingway’s bull-fighters etc. There is a dichotomy between the sophisticated and the primal created when they synthesise such images, which Fleming finds fascinating. “[That question of] being a civilised human being and yet, forgive the pun, releasing the wild beast inside you. How on Earth can you be a good person when all these things are happening to you?”
Their studious reputation was cemented on debut album, Limbo, Panto, specifically with the song ‘Please, Sir’, in which Thorpe pleads with his former headmaster to let him to come back to school in return for some “chips and cheese”. Fleming has no such wishes, “I felt liberated by getting out of school. I just hated being a teenager, growing up and being uncomfortable in my own skin. We’re coming into manhood and it’s a very painful process.”
Upon finishing school, the band relocated to Leeds, and after becoming the toast of London when Two Dancers got a Mercury nod, they relocated once more, this time to Hackney, “not Camden, but still a cliché”. The prize eventually went to the xx. The two bands are friends and it is easy to see how their roles could have been reversed had Wild Beasts won. Instead, they watched on as the xx were whisked away to superstardom in a media scrum. “In the cold light of day, I think it’s better we didn’t win it. I think it’s nice to stay dangerous and remain just outside that sphere.”
Success is creeping up on Wild Beasts however. They were recently asked to remix Lady Gaga’s ‘Yoü and I’ and their singles are being played on Radio 2 by “fucking Dermot O’Leary”, but for all they know this may be their commercial ceiling. That the band are an acquired taste is a statement to which Fleming sneers in agreement. “I think it’s one you have to reacquire. I think we’re asking people to come with us.”
Wild Beasts play the Academy on December 3rd. Smother is out now.