AN INTERVIEW WITH WILD BEASTS
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Hayden Thorpe is the lead singer of the Mercury Prize-nominated British band Wild Beasts. Wild Beasts have released five albums, the most recent being Boy King in August of 2016, which was produced by John Congleton in Dallas, TX. You can find Wild Beasts on Twitter at @WildBeasts and on Facebook at @wildbeasts. Their website is wild-beasts.co.uk.
TMR: Do you remember the first song you wrote, and the first song you were proud of?
HT: Me and Chris, the drummer, wrote songs when we were eleven. So I remember the first collaboration I made with a Wild Beasts member. We were eleven and it was a song called "Just My Luck," which is kind of like a melancholic song about an eleven year old's heartbreak. We were proud enough of it to play it for people.
The first song I was proud of to show probably would be with Ben - in the band, our guitarist - he inadvertently went to my hi-fi, we were in my bedroom, probably smoking some weed, drinking some beers, we were about fifteen. And he inadvertently played a demo I'd made on a mini disc. And he said, "I dig this, this is cool." And that was the first time I thought "Oh wow, maybe I'm not terrible."
TMR: What was that demo about?
HT: High school angst.
TMR: Can you talk about what it's like to work so closely with another person, like you do with Tom, as co-writers and co-vocalists? How do you guys handle conflict?
HT: Badly. Partly because we're in a band and we're maladjusted people, and partly because we're British and we're maladjusted people. But also because there is no right and wrong, and you can't force someone to feel in their heart what you feel in your heart, so patience and conflict is kind of part of it. It's a chemical reaction between two people, and you either harness that power or you don't. You do something with that energy or you don't. You've got to do something with it.
TMR: How do you guys go about writing songs? A Noisey interview for your album Present Tense said you'll go into isolated places and write separately. Have you ever written together?
I even hate the term "write," because it implies that somehow I know what I'm doing, when I don't.
HT: Not really, not from scratch. For me, that initial process is a very invisible one. I don't even know when I write. I even hate the term "write," because it implies that somehow I know what I'm doing, when I don't.
TMR: Do you work on strictly lyrics? Do you write poetry or prose on the side?
HT: I'm really squeamish about the word 'lyrics' as well. We did a cover at our Chicago show of Madonna's "Frozen," and I love that song. But when I printed out the words, there was the line "love is a bird, she needs to fly," and I thought, "Jesus Christ, how's this going to come out of my mouth?" But then you put this quite powerful melody over it and it's all forgiving. I think that's lyrics allows for the melody to kind of resuscitate it.
Again, it's an invisible process. I kind of don't see myself as having a process.
TMR: Another Noisey interview mentioned how your lyrics are often full of literary references. Who were you reading when you were younger? Were there any influences, like songwriters or other writers, that influenced you?
HT: I wouldn't say anything in particular. I don't think Roald Dahl was as big a deal in America as it was in England, but every English child grew up reading Roald Dahl. He had The Witches and The BFG. He is an institution and actually very kind of abstract and a quite rotten writer. He pushed things to the edge of acceptability. So a good diet of Roald Dahl, that's for sure. I think Wallace and Gromit, although that wasn't reading, but it was something quite abstract and quite creative. That was the British child's Disney.
It was the same diet of TV and cartoons and films that I was too old to be watching. I think I was lucky to be a kid at a time, as a lot of us were, when Tim Burton was going through his powerful phase, with Beetlejuice and the Batman movies.
TMR: In the Noisey article about Present Tense, you guys talk about how when Two Dancers was nominated for the Mercury Prize, things changed almost overnight. People were recognizing you, the band got a lot more popular. Were you afraid of trying to top that?
HT: Not really, because it happened by accident anyway. It was an accidental popular record, so it was like, How do you recreate an accident? You just create the circumstances whereby an accident can happen. And accidents usually happen through carelessness and absentmindedness. Not overthinking it was the key.
TMR: Do you pay attention to praise or criticism? How does that affect you?
HT: I look, but I don't feel like I'm reading something about myself when I look. Sometimes it hurts my heart, sometimes it feels reaffirming, but I'm in the business of, kind of, human sensation. So feeling hurt by it or feeling empowered by it is kind of part and parcel to the job. I kind of have a frequency going, and sometimes that frequency is white noise and sometimes something will drop into it whereby I'll hear it. You know, ultimately, making work is self-medication. You're doing it to appease your own pain, your own crises, what you need. It's like you're a cobbler and you're making a boot to kind of suit the job. So that's the boot, it doesn't fit someone's foot the way it fits yours, and that's okay.
TMR: The writer George Saunders, who we interviewed in the Fall, told us that he writes because "in being good at it (and trying to be better at it) I feel like my best self—smarter, funnier, more patient, more loving." What would you say is your reason for making music?
I feel lucky that I get to make something tangible of this confusion, and I think I'm alone in the confusion, but I feel lucky that I get to make some kind of map
HT: There is definitely a best self complex. I feel lucky that I get to make something tangible of this confusion, and I think I'm alone in the confusion, but I feel lucky that I get to make some kind of map. I guess discrepancies are a part of human behavior, like, "Why the fuck did I do that?" or "Why can I not do that?" It comes off as self-medication. You do it as a coping mechanism, and everyone has ways of dealing with that. That's always gonna be my natural go-to, since I was a kid: "This is a soothe, this is a balm, this soothes this irritation. This is a shot in the arm. This kind of gets me going."
TMR: We had John Congleton in our previous issue, and you guys worked with him on Boy King. What was it like with him in the studio?
HT: 10 a.m. start, strict, every day. Turn up fed and sober. Get some strong coffee, get some Topo Chico, which is the best sparkling water in the world, don't listen to what you did the day before, just start going on something new that day. And keep going until you make something of nothing, basically. Keep going until something has been made from nothing, and that's kind of the magic trick that we pulled off in the studio, where you begin the day with fragments of ideas and you end the day with a song that will outlive you. You end up with something that will be there beyond when you will be. And that day set out with you trying to get some breakfast and get to this studio in time.
I found the experience with John to be very life-affirming. Very profound at times. Incredibly traumatic at times. And incredibly joyous at times, just so fun. Usually we'd have some lunch, probably not too late -- we're good old fashioned British boys, we like to be fed -- and John doesn't eat as much as we do or need to. So normally we'd eat a bit late, maybe two or three in the afternoon, by which time we were grumpy and tired and then we'd eat, and then there would be kind of "the magic hour," after we'd been fed and the evening's coming in -- its a pretty incredible time of the year in that part of the world, in January, where it's blue skies but crisp outside, just kind of still. It was the magic hour, normally just before we finished up, where we would just think: leave it all in there. You need to leave everything in there today. We'd close the door with all the demons, all the blood and the guts, gotta be closed in there at night. And then the day would end, and you could hit the bar very quickly.
TMR: What would you say was the most difficult album to make?
HT: Present Tense. Just because it was so microscopic in design, it was a huge tapestry made of very tiny stitches. It was a bitch.
TMR: In an allmusic.com interview, you mention the song "Dreamliner," that it's at the end of the album, but at first you had it in the middle; you ended up placing it at the end because it's about this reversion, back to "the boy."
HT: The main line is "begin again." I have a habit, like a lot of people do, of liking to kind of have an arrangement whereby the love and energy you invest in a relationship or someone, is somehow stored within you and there for when you need it. But you can't store the energy. It's not even there. You can't return back to it.
I thought I had amounted this wealth of emotion or this connection -- this poem. But actually, without the completely abstract thing, which is being in love with someone simultaneously -- all those things evaporate very quickly around you.
TMR: In a Billboard interview, you mentioned being at a barbecue where a little boy started singing karaoke, and you realized that you have a job that young kids dream of. Do you have any advice for kids who aspire to be musicians someday?
HT: Picasso always said that he spent his whole career trying to learn how to draw like a kid again. I'd say just don't take too seriously what other people expect of you. Kids naturally sing and dance because they don't have learned inhibitions yet. So don't learn them too much. Don't confuse A to B. It's simple. Don't try to stick in a few different pathways.
That distance between logical thought and emotional feeling is kind of the space in which all music exists, isn't it? It creates a pathway somewhere for you. I just say, don't make that space too big.
TMR: Your new album Boy King has been described as "a concept album dealing with the self-destructive effects of modern-day masculinity." We are often faced with expectations of masculinity and beauty, alongside waves of intolerance and hostility. What might we do to counter this?
HT: I think the only response you can ever make to narrow-mindedness and hostility and intolerance is to just do what you do as unapologetically, as loudly, as they do. That's the big imbalance right now, is the voices of intolerance and hostility are louder and prouder than the voices of patience and understanding. Because patience and understanding, by nature, aren't loud and proud things. But I guess we all have to learn that we can't take those things for granted right now.
So I just say: do what we do, which is to be as proud and unapologetic and as uninhibited in our pursuit of self-expression as they are in their massacre of self-expression, by which people aren't allowed to be a wide bandwidth, whereby people have to be "good." There's a very mythical sense of what it is to be "a good American" or "a good person." It's mythical. It's never existed. It doesn't exist. Sometimes it's hard to think of yourself as a good person. I find it hard to think of myself as a good person. If you have your heart as your ally, you can go forth. Go forth and multiply.