They’re barely out of their 20s, but Kendal’s Wild Beasts say Boy King might just be their ‘midlife crisis album’. Not necessarily a bad thing, the band’s Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming tell ANDY WELCH
If you’ve ever heard a Wild Beasts song, you’ll know the band have long been preoccupied with sex and masculinity.
From the first chorus of their debut album’s opening track, Vigil For A Fuddy Duddy - “Men to be men, must love and pity, so deeply and secretly” - the band have examined what it means to be male in the 21st century.
It’s an area often explored with tongue planted in the cheek, even contempt directed at unreconstructed ‘hardmen’.
Their breakthrough All The King’s Men, from 2009’s Two Dancers, for example, at first appears to be an ode to women, before referring to the females of the species as “birthing machines”.
Of course, there are those who don’t get the joke. The band have spoken in the past about being labelled misogynists because of their lyrics, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Sipping a coffee in a cafe around the corner from Wild Beasts’ studio in hip East London, frontman Hayden Thorpe says he’s not too bothered about giving people the wrong impression.
“To make an impression at all now is taboo,” says the Kendal-born 30-year-old. “It’s unusual in the bland world we live in. But we’ve continued to make records with the same sense of fearlessness we did with the first, when we were teenagers.”
Their new album, Boy King, will be released on August 5. It was written here, and recorded mainly in Dallas, Texas, with esteemed producer John Congleton, best known for working with St Vincent and Anna Calvi.
“Musically, we’ve become the band we objected to when we started out,” says Thorpe. “We started a band to rail against the band we’ve become, and I think there’s a beautiful synergy to that. We started a band in protest against faux-Americanisms, cock-rock gestures and masculine swagger.
“Our earlier records were very effeminate, almost peacock-like and camp. It was a response to the stoic, masculine environment we grew up in. There’s a direct line between our early days and Boy King.”
Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts’ second singer and guitarist, chips in: “We’ve lost a lot of subtlety in our music. “This is not an unsubtle record, but there is an element of us ceasing to care. We do some things that might have made us queasy until now. The album is nihilistic, and a complete rejection of adulthood and growing up.”
The thing he’s referring to particularly is the guitar, played by Fleming, that washes all over Boy King.
There have been guitars on Wild Beasts’ albums before now, that’s nothing new, but this specific guitar - the kind of squalling, noodling guitar you’d normally expect to be accompanied by preened Eighties rock star hair - is new ground for the band. And what better instrument to use as a weapon against adulthood than the guitar, the symbol of adolescence?
“I remember the day Tom started playing those licks, and it was very much like he’d just pulled up in the car park in a convertible,” says Thorpe. “But then it became such an artistic tool, we started thinking about why men have those cars if they can’t open them up. What are they compensating for? What has broken within those men that they need that sports car? Why do you have to front it with such aggression and macho behaviour? Tom’s guitar stands for the same thing.”
“It felt appropriate to the lyrics,” adds Fleming. “The songs are about this broken masculine character - so the stupid riffs and dive-bombs - made sense. Only, this being us, they’re in the wrong place with the wrong effect.”
Death also makes an appearance throughout Boy King, and the growing realisation we all have as we get older, that we’re not going to live forever. That, they say, comes from some serious things happening to them and people close to them.
“We’re always told things will be fine in the end,” says Thorpe, “but as you get older, you realise that’s not really the case.”
The band - Thorpe and Fleming, plus Ben Little and Chris Talbot - formed in Kendal (although Fleming joined later when they relocated to Leeds) in the Lake District in 2002, releasing their first EP in 2004 and their debut album, Limbo, Panto, in 2008. Rapturously received, they’ve been a critics’ favourite ever since, while also winning more and more fans, headlining festivals all over Europe. This summer sees them top the bill at Green Man and By The Sea.
All that, deduce Fleming and Thorpe, means Wild Beasts are in their midlife as a band.
“Maybe this is our crisis album then,” says Thorpe. “If it is, we’re going to embrace it. And in any case, the joke is on us - we’re the guys in a band.”
During their time together, Thorpe particularly has become a great performer, although he says it doesn’t come naturally to him.
The video for recent single Get My Bang was another leap.
Filmed in Belgrade, it sees the self-confessed useless dancer seductively strutting down the street as he sings, with a model-looking woman.
“When we were driving to the shoot for that video, I genuinely thought if the car crashed, at least I wouldn’t have to do it!” he confesses. “What was I inflicting on myself and on the world?”
In hindsight, he says dancing like no one was watching lit some creative fire in him which helped the rest of the record flow.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do that day, and Serbians by nature are very straight-talking, so there were some words of encouragement from the sidelines; some told me I looked like a pervert, others told me I moved like Mr Bean.
“But I learned to let go of my inhibitions, to let go of my body and to respond to the music. I cut out the overthinking, which was something that happened across the record. I’m not a natural dancer, but then I don’t think of myself as a natural singer or performer and I still do it.”
They have high hopes for the album, but believe Boy King’s blatant nature might be an open invitation to critics to give them the kicking they’ve yet to receive. Refreshingly, however, they say there’s very little pressure this time around.
“When we started, there was pressure,” says Fleming. “We had nothing; no money and no prospects for the future. What we didn’t want to do is settle, so we went all out with the band.
“There’s this thing called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, where you make decisions because you’ve spent a lot of time on something, thinking, ‘I can’t mess it up now’, so you play it safe. We’ve come so far already, it’s no time for playing it safe,” Fleming adds. “This is the time to really go for it.”
l Wild Beasts release their fifth album Boy King on August 5. They play a handful of live shows from July 26, festivals throughout August and tour the UK throughout September. For full information visit wild-beasts.co.uk.