We Mostly Talked to Wild Beasts about Sex
After all that's what drives everything in the world anyway…
Wild Beasts - "A Simple Beautiful Truth."
You can’t really fuck with Wild Beasts casually. With a cascade of interlocking guitars and florid caterwauling, their songs are too ostentatious, too declarative to fade into the background. When the Kendal quartet arrived in 2008 with their debut, Limbo Panto, even their song titles—“Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants,” to name one—seemed over the top. Meanwhile, Wild Beasts’ lyrics were gluttonous, visually rich, and viscerally sexual. On “She Purred, While I Grrred,” they offered, “My fruit was ripe, she bit/In her belly lay a pip/A’brooding in the oozing.” It’s just one the many unabashedly carnal couplings littered across their four albums. That such lines are delivered with unwavering confidence, from the mouths of soft-spoken English boys, remains integral to the thrill.
Built on opposing but complementary tones—Hayden’s Kate Bush-like falsetto versus Tom’s earthy baritone—from the off Wild Beasts encouraged raw intimacy. It was too much for some, yet with each passing record, and in particular on this year’s Present Tense, Wild Beasts have matured by exercising increasing sonic restraint. Now they allow the melodies, unexpected rhythms, nimble licks and the increasingly prevalent synths, the space to sigh and swell.
Although the two singers say they’re now looking beyond the licentious for lyrical grist, to me it still sounds like they’re singing about sex. All the time. So I thought I'd largely center my conversation with Tom and Hayden around what I perceived to be their erotic obsessions. But perhaps that says more about me than them as I took “Palace” to be about the shivery anticipation of exploring someone new. Hayden says for the most part, the song’s about his dingy basement apartment in east London.
In any case, I spoke with them both separately, about sex, keeping their egos in check, the mid-20s crisis, and the secret of maintaining a successful decade plus long relationship.
Wild Beasts—Tom Fleming—first on the right.
TALKING TO TOM
During Smother both you and Hayden appeared to be in a similarly discombobulated head space. Were both dealing with bad relationship situations or what?
Tom: I don't want to speak too much about specifics, but I think there's definitely a case of we'd been on the road for a long time and post‑25 the things you find important change. You start to leave people behind and people start to leave you behind, and you're either equipped to deal with it or not. Even in a band that's pretty small there's a certain amount of craziness goes on that's not real life. There’s a lot of things which can be quite difficult to deal with without going insane. Two Dancers was by far our most successful record and a lot of things changed very suddenly—almost overnight. We would walk around London and people were recognizing us, they’d want to talk to us and I didn't know how to deal with it. You become a caricature of yourself, or you feel like, “What am I doing here?”
Was there ever a specific moment where you felt like a caricature of yourself or a specific situation that felt unnatural to you?
Tom: Oh, regularly. I wish I could pinpoint one. It’s more that you get essential regret. The whole politics of being in a band, is taken everywhere: you stand in front of hundreds of people, they sing your songs, everyone's telling you you're great, no one ever tells you that you're being a cunt. If you speak to someone that's a fan of the band after the show, unless you’re a total asshole, people think you're a wonderful person, and that's not real. Plus you're on tour the whole time. It gives you a risky perspective.
Have you guys ever had to check yourselves ego‑wise within the band?
Tom: [Laughs] Of course. To be honest, the people around us do it for us these days. The thing is you have to thrive on equal parts of blind confidence and desperate insecurity.
Yeah that’s the tricky balance being a musician.
Tom: It's one in the same thing—it's all vanity really!
Let’s talk about "Daughters." That line—"All the pretty children sharpening their blades"—is pretty eerie.
Tom: Well it's about childhood and motherhood and the cruelty of bringing a child into this world. There’s this idea of children as weak, helpless and unwilling participants in the world, when in fact I've always thought how cruel children are to each other and how they'll do things just because they want to, and then they have to be disciplined by the adults. But in a lot of ways that song is about reversal. I think about the mendacity of the people at the top of society and how politicians behave like squabbling children, and then the awful world they’ll leave their children. And we mentioned the London riots—what prize is it? Regarding the mention of blades in the lyrics, it really, really creeps me out, the violence in London and in Britain, and all over the world: the way kids will kill each other over bullshit, you know? It's frightening and it bothers me, and if something bothers you, you should be doing something with it.
“Nature Boy” is in part inspired by the wrestlers Jake the Snake and Ric Flair, while “Wanderlust” has a slight political bent. Would you say you're looking more outwards than inwards in this record?
Tom: Trying to, yeah.
Although Hayden still has his brain between two thighs.
Tom: [Laughs] Yeah, well, certainly sex is one of the big themes for us. Even "Daughters" and "New Life." I don't want to say children are sexual, but what I mean is, the inevitable result of sex for most people is children. The reason people are sexual is to perpetuate the human race. And how unfair that perpetuation is and what trick your body plays on you to get you to perpetuate the human race!
Oh, my God, I never thought about it as a trick to make babies! This whole time my body's been trying to fool me into giving birth. This is unbelievable.
Tom: [Laughs] This is it! It definitely—ack, once you start talking about sex there's no way to avoid innuendo—but it definitely looms large.
Personally I think this record is incredibly carnal. In terms of musicians writing erotic lyrics, Interpol are up there for me, but their stuff is pretty shrouded. Can you think of any other bands that are as poetically sexual?
Tom: To be honest, I've always really liked folk and blues singers and people who didn't really address sex, but had it. It was about human stuff and bodily stuff and it was kind of raw. The idea of being sexy is entirely the opposite of that, it’s antiseptic sex: it's not sexy and it's not believable. I like singers and musicians who are kind of unvarnished. I know as a band we're quite poised, but I'm pleased that you say you found the record quite carnal because that's there for balance, that slight sheen we put on things, it's there to take away the macho. Machismo is not interesting. For example Antony [Hegarty] is so sexual, and even Swans are sensual, because of the sonics of it. They're angry and aggressive but they're not macho at all. It's all broken and self‑loathing, and there's something very sexual about that kind of sadness, that kind of confusion. Rather than being like kind of like, “I'm the big man, I've got the biggest dick in town,” or like, "Hey, baby." You know, that's not what people do. That's not what makes people tick anyway.
Thank goodness you guys don't write like that.
Tom: There’s still time. [Laughs]
In terms of the lyrics you and Hayden write largely in isolation. Are you ever shocked by anything that Hayden comes up with?
Tom: I think shocked is a wrong word. Occasionally I’ll think, "I can't believe you said that." But I like that we're constantly surprising each other. There's a friendly one‑up‑manship that goes on, but it's always willing each other to be bare and push it a bit further, you know?
TALKING TO HAYDEN
On the last record both you and Tom seemed to be going through a bit of a Rough time…
Hayden: Well I think it was kind of a self‑made problem that a band type existence exacerbates. I know that sounds ridiculous. In some ways it is a dream existence and I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm kind of too mal-adjusted to be any good at doing anything else anyway. But you know, it's strange when you realize the thing that you've worked so hard to achieve won't necessarily deliver on the happiness that you think it will. It's a great myth of art that if you put all your efforts and energies into creating something of beauty it will somehow create this beautiful life for you. It's not the case.
A more fragile way of looking at it is that [your art] is kind of the best of you, but it doesn't mean it counts as shit when you're trying to be a good person with your family, with your loved ones, and your friends. They don’t love you because of the stuff you do. You do fall in love with the idea of being this kind of Hemingway/Baudelaire-type man—gallivanting around the world—but at the end of the day, you come home and you have to look yourself in the mirror. There was a collective realization of this.
Was that during the recording of Smother?
Hayden: Yes. Smother was definitely put together in a time where that transition was really apparent and we were quite fragmented as people really. Also we started recordingSmother two days after we finished touring Two Dancers. We took the weekend off!
That's crazy. You should’ve taken a proper break. On Present Tense I'd say you're still looking inwards for inspiration, but with Tom it's less so.
Hayden: Yeah, I'm still kind of self-obsessed. [Laughs]
Actually I told Tom that think your lyrics are still stuck between two thighs.
Hayden: [Laughs] Yeah! But also on this record I wanted to build something out of the ruins of Smother because in many ways it was quite defeated. On a brutally truthful level—and I see this in a lot of friends—there is a mid‑20's crisis now. It’s a result of this kind of prolonged youth that we go through. We kind of leave school, go to uni, float around, have a gap year, do an internship. And then in your mid-20s you’re like “Oh, God, I've got to actually be a proper person now.” Smother was in the depths of that crisis. Towards the late 20s there’s a sense of relief and acceptance and I personally wanted reflect that and became really interested in the kind of psychology of that. I got kind of obsessed with self‑help books.
Really? Like which ones?
Hayden: Alain de Botton. I've read everything he's done. He's kind of a pop philosopher, but I don't think what he does is cheap and dumbed down at all. It actually remarkable to take those quite grandiose ideas and make them really helpful in everyday life.
But seriously. Your lyrics are extremely sexual—even when they’re not overt—at least that’s my reading of them. I was curious as to which artists you feel tackle sex and eroticism well?
Hayden: I think Frank Ocean's "Thinking Bout You" is really, really sexy, but in a very unnerving way. And I find a lot of Beach House's songs oversexed in some ways.
Hayden: Yeah, I do. And I know it's strange. My usual go‑to for these things—to seek and find where the line is, what's too far and what's too near—is normally Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, or Leonard Cohen. I like Cohen's brutal honestly, but his majesty on these things is always pretty moving. Also, if you really want the god of sexual intonation it's got to be Marvin Gaye. But these are the heavyweights, I'm just a mere mortal picking the crumbs up, you know?
But you've managed balance writing lyrics that are very sexy, but also just really beautiful. One lyric that I was interested in was "Where the body goes the mind will follow soon after," which I would disagree with. Sometimes the body wants what it wants and the mind really has zilch to do with it and ultimately does not follow in due course!
Hayden: [Laughs] Yeah. There's a theory of Henry Miller's actually… if I'm talking about writing and sexual tones, Henry Miller is another go‑to guy.
I was just reading Tropic of Cancer…
Hayden: Yeah, exactly! Well his theory is that everything we learn draws us further from our primal instincts and clouds our real needs and wants. And I kind of agree with him in a way: there's so many codes of practice and ways of being, and beyond being rampant cavemen, I do think there’s a huge suppression that goes on. I do often think the body will tell you of things that you might not want to accept. Or at least be able to intellectualize. So much is intellectualized and it's just like, you can't put theory on what is sensual.
Well, “Palace” is a pretty sensual and uplifting note to end the record on.
Hayden: Yeah. That was a really tightrope song because those kinds of songs can very easily spill over into being something quite syrupy and disingenuous. It's hard. Sometimes when you try to come across as sincere, it can come across as insincere. That was a new thing to learn, how do I put this across in an honest way, but not in a way that's kind of, crying-from-the-rooftop-this-is-the-most-epic-feeling-a-human's-ever-felt-before, you know?
So were you actually feeling that at the time or were you drawing from a past experience or relationship?
Hayden: I was kind of feeling it at the time. You know, there's a strange irony about living where I’ve ended up living in London, in a kind of a basement flat [apartment]. It's kind of grotty and anyone who's lived in London will know, that you kind of live in this semi-inhabitable squalor. But equally there's a sense of acceptance and happiness to some spaces. "Palace" has always drawn out of that sense of what more do I need? There's a bathroom, there's a kitchen, there's a bed, and I'd be greedy to want any more.
It’s ironic that as a young teenager you think, “Oh, if I go into music and it goes really well, I'm going to end up beside a pool somewhere hot.” I’m in a basement [apartment] but there’s kind of a strange beauty to that, which I love. Also I think in many ways, songs elongate those very fleeting moments of clarity that you can sometimes have. They stretch out that feeling that is only very fleeting and “Palace” is definitely something I was trying to elongate—that sense of clarity that is very rare, for me anyway. I only get it when I’ve had a heavy night and I'm still kind of intoxicated the next morning, but there's a sense of feeling good. And all of the sudden everything comes crashing down, but it's about the crest of the wave rather than the crash.
I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that you guys have been together for 11 years. Congrats. That’s an intense relationship to sustain for so many years. You’ve lasted more than many modern marriages and you guys aren’t even 30.
Tom: I'm glad you called it a relationship because it definitely feels that way. Ultimately we share a lot of, not just common ground, but common soil: we grew up with the same kind of attitudes. We all felt like country boys and this was going to be the only escape. I didn’t get on a plane till I was 19 and I know a couple of the other guys were the same. Now it’s like, “Fucking hell, we're in Brazil!”
It’s constantly surprising how far music travels without you actually doing anything, which is one of the wonders of the amazing things about being alive today. Ultimately, we do look out for one another. Even though we try to sound a million miles away from it, we definitely come from a DIY, set-up-in-a-basement kind of aspect, you know? I think that memory of how far we've come probably drives us.
Hayden: I think what's kept us together is many small failures and many small triumphs. I don't think we've ever had any sweeping catastrophes and we've never had any sweeping successes in that. We're definitely the tortoise and that kind of suits us in a way: we've never had to survive a scene. We've always kind of slow and steady and it allows us to be quite considered and composed about what we do. I've known Chris since I was five and that creates a real atmosphere of understanding. We never have to do the small talk; we always could cut straight to the important stuff.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @theKTB
Wild Beasts Tour Dates
May 8 - Belfast, NIR @ Belfast Cathedral Quarter Arts festival
May 9 - Brighton, UK @ Great Escape @ The Dome
May 29 - Dudingen, CH @ Bad Bonn Kilbi
June 6 - Athens, GR @ Plissken
June 13 - Bergen, NO @ Bergenfest
June 15 - Aarhus, DK @ Northside
June 21 - Hilvarenbeek, NL @ Best Kept Secret
June 28 - Kiev, UA @ Park Live
June 29 - Moscow, RU @ Park Live
July 4 - Gdynia, PL @ Open'er
July 11 - Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer w/ Mutual Benefit
July 12 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club w/ Mutual Benefit
July 14 - Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair w/ Mutual Benefit
July 15 - Montreal, QC @ Corona Theatre w/ Mutual Benefit
July 16 - Toronto, ON @ The Mod Club
July 19 - Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival
Aug. 15 - Hasselt, BE @ Pukklepop
Aug. 16 - Budapest, HU @ ziget
Aug. 17 - Hamburg, DE @ Dockville
Aug. 31 - Dorset, UK @ End of the Road
Sep. 6 - Isle of Wight, UK @ Bestival
Sep. 9 - Rovinj, HR @ Unknown