Sex obsessed and scrupulously polite: Wild Beasts interview

Scrupulously polite, overtly literary and obsessed with sex – Wild Beasts are not your average indie band, but their cult is growing fast. Caroline Sullivan met them

On a balmy April morning in east London, Hayden Thorpe is remembering the night last September when Wild Beasts failed to win the Mercury Prize for their second album, Two Dancers. "Being nominated was like being on the Alton Towers ride Oblivion, where you're suspended over a chasm – and we saw the xx disappear into it. The morning after, I woke up and was relieved that our world was still intact."

Bassist and co-singer Tom Fleming worries "the double-edged sword of the Mercury" has landed them with a fanbase of bandwagon-jumpers who had barely been aware of them before. "The album had been out for a long time [when it was nominated], and we had people coming up [at the ceremony] and saying they liked our album, and they'd probably only heard it on the night."

The Mercury nomination ensured Wild Beasts' idiosyncratic world – meshing theatrical art-rock with highly literate musings on love and erotica, sung by countertenor Thorpe in a jaw-dropping falsetto – is no longer a domain known only to a small clutch. Their schedule this particular Monday reflects the change in their fortunes: there are six hours of interviews ahead, they've already squeezed in an MTV appearance, and it's not even noon. The band clearly have mixed feelings about their new promotional workload – as they arrive, almost the first thing Fleming says is: "I don't like MTV and I don't like bands."

If he doesn't like bands, he's come to the wrong place – Shoreditch, where three of the four Beasts now live, is full of them. Wild Beasts' skinny jeans and tufts of facial hair make them physically indistinguishable from the other hipsters, though their scrupulous politeness marks them out as non-locals. Obscure Cumbrian weirdos no more, Wild Beasts are now what their local paper, the North-West Evening Mail, hails as "the biggest band to come out of south Cumbria for decades – if not ever".

Anyone attuned to English indie knows who they are now, meaning much anticipation surrounds the release of their third album, Smother. There's a good chance casual listeners will be turned off by the double whammy of Thorpe's falsetto and the quivering, almost ambient arrangements – "We divide camps," Thorpe says modestly – but others are likely to be floored. Smother isolates the elements that made the first two records so compelling – delicate, multi-layered soundscapes and a preoccupation with carnality that ping-pongs between the poetic and the explicit – and builds on their foundations. While Two Dancers was what Fleming calls "a bit of a dance record", this time the tempo has been slowed to a slow-burning half-speed, with a sense of space both luxuriant and eerie. Rhythms pulse and creep, and things happen in their own time. If their collective favourite band, Talk Talk, happen to hear it, they might feel Wild Beasts are kindred spirits.

"Smother is a document of our lives," says Thorpe, a quietly-spoken counterbalance to the forthright Fleming. "A huge amount has changed for us, and there was a sense of wanting to make something beautiful from difficult things." By "difficult", he means the nearly two years they spent touring Two Dancers, which had a detrimental effect on the group. Fleming says: "You're removed from the people you care about, and it's hard to keep relationships, both romantic and family, together. You become more and more distant from people who aren't in this position."

Most bands are a closed circle, but Wild Beasts are unusually tightly knit, a result of having known each other since childhood. Thorpe, Fleming, guitarist Benny Little and drummer Chris Talbot all went to the same school in Kendal, and formed a group because, it appears, it wasn't the done thing. "The isolation was really important to us. Being in a band and spending four nights a week in a dank basement wasn't the social thing to do in Kendal," Thorpe says. "When you grow up in a remote town, that's your circumference – in Kendal, everyone knows everyone. The bands there are pub bands covering Def Leppard." A song from Two Dancers, Hooting & Howling, encapsulates their ambivalence at witnessing a Saturday-night scuffle in the town: "A crude art, a bovver-boot ballet, equally elegant and ugly/ I was as thrilled as I was appalled, courting him in fisticuffing waltz."

After A-levels, they decamped en masse to Leeds, where three of them enrolled at Leeds University and Little worked at odd jobs. They thrived in the city's musician-friendly arts scene, but eventually found they'd outgrown it. Fleming says: "We started to exist in a creative ghetto in Leeds," which presaged the inevitable move to London, where they were spending more and more of their time. So far, they say, the best thing about living in the capital is that its size provides endless surprises.

Their love of language – Thorpe confesses to being pleased with the alliteration of "bovver-boot ballet" – and tendency to load songs with quotes from favourite books and films has led to assumptions that they're posh. They profess themselves outraged at this. "We're not from great wealth – there was this misconception, which was rich when you think there are certain bands who sound like they're making music for the peasants," Thorpe says testily. Genuinely put out, Fleming takes up the thread: "We grew up with Oasis and the idea that that's the kind of music working-class people listened to. But the wrong assumption is that to make music for the masses you have to dumb it down. We think pop music can have depth, but people are too quick to cry 'pretentious'."

If anything, they should sprinkle their literary references more liberally, just because they have a knack for choosing the most ear-catching source material. One of Two Dancers' most quoted lines – "His hairy hands, his falling fists, his dancing cock down by his knees" – was inspired, Fleming says, by Jake Thackray and Henry Miller's Sexus. On Smother, they've turned to "classic tragedy – Frankenstein and Hamlet" for the song Bed of Nails, which manages to work both Ophelia and the Shelleys into the lyric. The Almodóvar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is referenced on Loop the Loop, and Hemingway's treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, exerts a presence over Reach a Bit Further.

Miller's licentiousness seems a natural fit for a band who, for all their songs' romance and vulnerability, write unusually prolifically about sex. Smother is full of it, from Reach a Bit Further's "bull" metaphor to Plaything's invitation to "take off your chemise and let me do as I please."

"We openly admit to being obsessed with sex," Fleming says. "We say things really bluntly at times – we like to be earthy. The effects of sex and sexuality are really interesting." Thorpe elaborates: "We've been drawn to works like Miller and Delta of Venus [by Anaïs Nin], and the power relationships behind sexuality." Fleming blames it on "growing up in a small town and nobody talking about the things you wanted to hear", but Thorpe sets down the mineral water he's been sipping and disagrees. "This fascination with sex … we've just run with it because there's a thrill in writing about it. Supposedly, to sing about sex, you have to be an exotic R&B singer from LA, but it's all the same if you're an R&B singer or a pensioner in the Lake District."

Just out of curiosity, do they get embarrassed when their parents listen to their music? Fleming laughs quietly. "My mother occasionally says: 'Why can't you write a nice one?'" Thorpe, meanwhile, remembers a gig where his mum and sister were in the audience, and he "dedicated a song called She Purred While I Grred to them. Afterwards I thought I shouldn't have done it."

At any rate, Wild Beasts' families have had a lifetime to get used to their sons' unique talent. The new fans they're likely to attract with Smother have a steep learning curve ahead.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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