THEORY OF EVOLUTION
Heading down under to play Splendour in the Grass Wild Beasts bring with them a new album Smother that is already garnering critical acclaim for its further refinement of their literate and nuanced art pop. Hayden Thorpe talks Chris Familton through the changes.
The UK quartet from the Lakes District have upped the ante with each of their previous two albums, peeling back the instrumental layers surrounding the angelic voice of Hayden Thorpe and the huskier tones of Tom Fleming and on Smother they continue to refine this winning approach. The band still trade in literate and knowing lyrics with twisting gorgeous melodies but they are now ensconced in a lighter musical palette where subtlety and texture reign supreme. In some ways they are traveling down the same path as bands like Radiohead and Talk Talk – introducing electronic flavours and straying from conventional form and song structure.
On the second day of a run of UK dates and under cloudy Glasgow skies Thorpe explains how the new record was informed by both lengthy touring and a desire to satiate and musically challenge the fans they met along the way.
When we came off the last tour with a record that we’d tried to make people dance to, with quite upbeat music – we found that most audiences chose to stand and listen and watch and hear the sonics of it so we thought that let’s embrace it and make the most out of that fact that people are listening and sort of try and expand their minds sonically and we’ve become a bit more immersive in that sense. Gigs have to be a mutual thing and work both ways and I want to play what people want to hear, I think that’s really important. I think it’s really mean-spirited to not play the songs people want to hear so it is a case of rewarding people for their patience and thanking them with the songs they would expect to hear.”
“We had some amazing touring experiences, we really did and I think the effect of those experiences was that we came out of that Two Dancers campaign as different people to when we went into it – that’s for sure. It was really empowering in a lot of ways when you come to realise how your music translates. We felt really emboldened to go away and make another record”
“We started writing it three days after the last gig for the last album so we were exhausted and it was quite a transitional time in our life so we wanted a place to rest our head and have this enveloping thing to look after us – it was a consoling, comforting thing. We could have gone and made Three Dancers – a faster, harder record or we could look inward and actually be a bit more dynamic and that is what we chose to do,” says Thorpe.
The band’s writing sessions progressed quickly and recording was an even faster process but Thorpe points out that things were never rushed or forced. In fact, the quick flow of ideas from creation to hard disk was a key part of what they wanted to capture on Smother.
“We wrote for 6 weeks and recorded for a month. We had five months of ideas collected over 18 months so it was just a matter of piecing them together but after five weeks we were twiddling our thumbs wondering what to do which was worrying. We were staring at each other thinking “Shit I thought we were supposed to be panicking”. After 5 weeks when we knew we had a week’s space before recording we didn’t want to take the songs any further before being able to record them because we wanted to capture this element of spontaneity and almost capture an epiphany. The greater the distance between that initial spark of an idea and its realisation on record means you have to pretend to make this sound you never originally thought of so we were really trying to make that gap as small as possible and I think it translates as an energy on the record. It translates as an honesty and though its not always perfect that character of that way of working is far more endearing than any polished, over-edited photoshop face,” remarks Thorpe.
The title of the album works in two ways, one immensely positive, the other destructive, as Thorpe explains when discussing some of the themes of Smother and whether his lyrics are primarily fact or fiction.
“It sums up many of the themes on It’s a feeling really, that sense of immersion, that sense of ‘I love you too much’. That sort of duality between the dangers of too much of a good thing in a way. To smother someone with love is a beautiful thing but if you smother them too much then you kill them, you kill off that beautiful thing. Lyrically we use selective truth. It is about what you reveal and what you don’t reveal and it is about suggesting enough to imply what’s going on without saying what is going on. You always have to leave room for people’s imaginations and allow them to place their own selves in the song. There are autobiographical elements in our songs but they are always embellished and in songs the most normal things are blown up 1000% and magnified. It’s a strange sort of dynamic,” Thorpe muses.
Returning to the live stage has meant figuring out how to play songs that were carefully constructed rather than coming from loose jams. Subsequently Wild Beasts have taken on an additional live member in order to make sure to new songs work in front of an audience.
“I think live you can rely on a directness and human contact to let ideas carry so we weren’t too concerned with replicating the songs exactly, the spirit is the same though. We hadn’t really thought about the live thing so it was a bit of a headache when we came to it. We produced this baby and we hadn’t really built a cot for it. It was important to us on the record and in general that it is always our fingers and our hands making the noises, we didn’t want to strip that away live and become a slave to a laptop or a backing track. That would be really against the spirit of what we do and against the spirit of what people admire us for. We just wanted to maintain the dynamic that we’ve worked on for ten years and just build on it.”
With such a prolific rate of releases the obvious question is… Where to from here? Will Wild Beasts continue to strip back the layers of their music to reveal more of the skeletal purity of their songs or will they begin to return to a denser form? Hayden firmly believes their future lies in the former.
“Ultimately we do have a pop mentality and a fascination with pop in that it has to be functional. Function to me means having the greatest effect on the smallest part. What we’ll continue to do is try to condense things into being as efficient as possible. I can see us going further down that line.”
this interview was first published in The Drum Media (Sydney)