There comes a time in every band’s career when they have an itching desire to shake things up and make a scene. For Kendal quartet Wild Beasts, the last ten years have seen a gradual climb from oddball indie outsiders to becoming one of the most well-respected, critically acclaimed bands in Britain. That’s in the past though. With their fifth album ‘Boy King’ the band are now ready to shock, challenge and thrill while changing every preconception you have about them.
Speaking from their rehearsal room as they fine-tune a brand new set for summer festivals and beyond, multi-instrumentalist and co-vocalist Tom Fleming is full of confidence for a record that the band believe is their best yet. The fact that they’ve certainly paid their dues plays a part in their desire to do something different this time around: “In some ways it’s unexpected to still be here,” he begins. “But I think in life we’d be unemployable anywhere else,” he laughs. Wild Beasts are a band who have always been artistically forward thinking but this time around, their attitude was one of regeneration and revolution rather than consolidation. “We felt this album was a re-engagement with a lot of our youthful passions. It’s much more of a rock record,” says Tom. “There’s quite a lot of energy in it. We’re re-engaging with stupid guitar hero playing.” The freedom to be stupid and cut loose runs through all of ‘Boy King’ or, as Tom explains: “This record was an attempt to shake off some of the layers we’ve put on over the years. It’s more direct. We wanted to unburden ourselves of any self consciousness.”
In some ways, you can consider ‘Boy King’ almost like a debut album by a refreshed and hungry band. It’s certainly Wild Beasts’ most vital album. While the band are suitably excited, they do concede it’s an album that may confound some long-term followers. But that’s all part of the thrill. “There’s always nerves,” says Tom. “It feels natural though. It feels like the shoe fits. You always hope for everything and expect nothing with these things. Every time we put a record out the ground is just beneath our feet. You kind of just have to surf the wave a little bit.”
Musically ‘Boy King’ can be considered something of a reset as the band hold nothing back. There are no boundaries here. The freedom to allow the band to cut loose and indulge in all their rock star fantasies in part came from a change of recording environment and change of producer. The band decamped on an adventure to Dallas to work with esteemed producer John Congleton who has had enormous recent success with like-minded pop creationists like St Vincent. “It’s the first time we’ve been to the US,” says Tom of the recording process. “John was great; he’s kind of a punk rocker who happened to be good at recording stuff. He wanted us to work quickly and not respond too much. We wanted to bring our A game. That was an amazing motivator.” Aside from the actual process of recording, their time spent in Dallas allowed the band to reconnect with each other: it was just the four of us on this amazing adventure living in the suburbs of Dallas, driving around in the sunshine and eating burgers. It felt like an adventure, it wasn’t everyday and we have to make the most of this. Equally, we could have done it in Prestwick or something away from usual but it was Dallas and John and he brought a lot to the record.”
The album is full of brash statements and bold expression. The band revelled in being silly and having fun. “I was the one who bought the pointy guitar,” confesses Tom. “A white Jackson, it’s quite a statement to walk in with a guitar like that to Wild Beasts. I wanted one for a while; I was like, can I pull this off? Fuck it just do it.” That carefree attitude was part of a feeling of kicking against people’s preconceptions of the band: “It’s also a bit of a wink as people see us as an effete art band and when they meet us and we all have Northern accents and are drinking beer they’re a bit shocked. We tried to do what’s not expected of us but in a natural way.”
While the music is big and bold and in stark contrast to the refined beauty of the band’s last three albums, the album has a link with themes the band have explored throughout their career. It’s an album that pushes towards the future but is informed by the past: “There’s definitely a line you can draw between the albums,” says Tom. We’ve always spoken about macho fallibility and feminist thought. ‘Boy King’ is about macho performance to disguise weakness. It’s going right back to our debut ‘Limbo Panto’ really. I think a lot of themes on this record are about male performance, stupidity and hurting people and not caring. It is consistent with what we’ve done before but we’re doing it in a much more obvious and upfront way. That suits what we’re doing musically, it’s a lot more brash and forward.”
The album is also a response to a change of circumstances within the personal lives of the band members and a reaction against getting older: “Not to get too heavy or too personal,” says Tom. “But we’ve all had some difficult adult stuff to deal with since the last record where life gets a bit more real as you start to get past 30. Things have heavier consequences and you have to face more things. The outcome of that is that you give much less of a fuck.”
When you give yourself in to doing what you want to do rather than what people expect suddenly life becomes much easier or, as Tom puts it: “We felt an unburdening of insecurities. If we’re going to do this then let’s just do it.” ‘Boy King’ is about trying to tear down the reputation Wild Beasts have gained: “We felt frustrated at being typecast as a clever band or an art band, not because we don’t want to be clever or arty but because those connotations can be quite negative and it puts you in a certain box.”
Lyrically the album takes Wild Beasts’ obsession with sex and desire to new-found extremes, led by the astounding voice and rich imagination of co-vocalist Hayden Thorpe. “There’s lots of sex but there’s no love on this record,” says Tom. “It’s quite nihilistic.” The interplay between the two singers provided the opportunity for the band to inspire each other during the recording process. “I see this as something of a sunset strip record, a smooth processed rock record,” he says. “There’s sequenced synths, big drums and distorted guitars. This shit-storm going on while Hayden is crooning about his pain. That’s the sound. There was a one-upmanship between us all. The more ridiculous it got, the better it felt. We were trying to invert those rock’n’roll tropes.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about ‘Boy King’ is the emergence of a brooding, sleazy but deeply addictive pop sound. Present on slinky, filmic grooves like ‘Big Cat’ or on the outlandish processed funk of lead single ‘Get My Bang’ the album flutters between styles and approaches effortlessly, a push-pull between the differing approaches of the band members: “Hayden wanted to make a soul record and I wanted to make a rock record,” says Tom. What they ended up with is an album that marks the start of a new phase for Wild Beasts and points a way forward for a hugely exciting future. “It’s energised and we feel that we’ve really cracked something open that’s got legs,” says Tom confidently. “It suggests things and this record suggests what we might do next. I can see there’s plenty of space here to run with.”
The band are in a combative mindset as they approach the album’s release. They know they’re onto something special despite the risk that some people might take their sordid songs of sex and grim despair the wrong way. “It’s always a risk that people don’t understand but you can’t concern yourself with that,” says Tom. “You don’t hear most people’s opinions. Whenever I think something has missed the mark I’m usually wrong and someone gets it.” “I’m quite prepared to be considered an arsehole,” he laughs. “That’s what you do when you put stuff out. We’re not trying to come over as nice people; we’re probably nicer than we come over. You have to be quite precise with your meanings but ultimately you throw it to the dogs when you put it out into the world.” “We’re not doing our jobs if it’s all comfort and cosy,” he adds.
The band’s fighting talk extends to their relationship with their peers and challengers to the British indie crown. Wild Beasts are ready for the fight and ready to enthral a new audience. “I do think there’s a lot of people out there who’ll enjoy this who have never heard of us,” says Tom excitedly. “I hope it is a short, sharp shock that will differentiate ourselves from the sea of British indie bands. I think it’s our best record and we’re really pushing at what we can do. We’ve redrawn the map for ourselves.”
Wild Beasts' album 'Boy King' is out now. Taken from the August issue of Dork - order a copy now.