Wild Beasts: 'Our songs must work at 3pm in a field in eastern Europe'

The ambitious quartet from Cumbria on their aversion to timid indie rock and why Miley Cyrus is inspirational

The Observer's A-Z of festivals 2014 – in pictures

Ed Vulliamy: my life in festivals

Win a pair of tickets to the festival of your choice this summer

Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe is showing me a photo on his phone of him standing somewhere in the Brecon Beacons sporting a reflective white suit on the set of the band's video for A Simple Beautiful Truth. Apparently it will feature choreographed dance routines. Like the Backstreet Boys circa I Want It That Way, I suggest, to which he looks slightly aggrieved. But while Thorpe, co-vocalist Tom Fleming, drummer Chris Talbot and guitarist Ben Little aren't quite boyband material yet, their current album, Present Tense, which peaked at No 10 when it was released last month, reflects a definite streamlining of their sound and a more confident approach to their image.

"I think it's important to not don the leather jackets all the time," says Thorpe. "We have a humour and a self-awareness about what we do. It is ridiculous and sometimes it's kind of nice to embrace the ridiculousness."

For Fleming, the band's new-found sense of showmanship is in opposition to indie's general mediocrity. "It's about that timidity of a lot of British acts too. That kind of 'don't look at me – what we do isn't good.' No, fuck it, stand up. Be prepared to be judged."

So while the Kendal band's profile has mushroomed, their sound has been refined, from debut album Limbo, Panto's kaleidoscope of sounds via 2009's undulating Two Dancers and 2011's sombre Smother.

"There was a deliberate attempt to cut the fat on this new album and to hide a little bit less behind what we thought was intelligent," explains Fleming. "That thing of hiding behind artistry – if you can't write a pop song then let's have a wig-out."

Recorded in London and built more around laptops and synths than guitars, Present Tense is an album that reflects its surroundings ("It's concrete and claustrophobic at times. It's quite aggro," says Thorpe), and continues to track the band's obsessions with masculinity (Nature Boy is inspired by the macho pantomime of WWF wrestlers), British culture and swaggering libidinousness.

That's not to say they're afraid to show their softer side. During a recent performance in New York, Thorpe and Fleming covered hammer-licking twerk expressionist Miley Cyrus's ballad Wrecking Ball. "For me, that song is about craftsmanship," explains Thorpe. "When we first sat down and had meetings with Domino [their record label] we were talking about Michael Jackson and Abba and this work that is so audacious, it's art in itself. I think that's the allure of the way we went with Present Tense – it was almost more artistically sound to achieve that kind of pop craft. Wrecking Ball is that beautiful realisation of craftsmanship, bloody-minded business and heart. It's kind of the holy grail, that song."

With a summer of festival appearances across Europe and the US ahead of them, including slots at End of the Road and Bestival in the UK, chances are the Miley cover may crop up again, but the focus will be on an album shaped by previous festival experiences. "We played a big slot at Primavera in Spain at midnight in 2012 and I think that show had quite a big impact on the record," says Thorpe. "We were playing Smother that night and there were a few moments of, 'Man, if we had this [audacious pop] song in our arsenal.'  I think it reflected quite heavily on our approach going forward."

Other pivotal events include a headline slot at London's Field Day in 2011, which Thorpe describes as a "statement piece", while they look back on festival lows as an indication of how far they've come. "One of the worst experiences was at this beautiful festival in Norway called Hove. We were in a tent and about eight people turned up," laughs Fleming. "We thought we were the shit at the time."

So what can we expect from the festival slots this time around?

"We've got the white suits so the natural progression from that is lasers," says Thorpe.

He's not kidding either. "In the same way as the camera tells a different story to reality, it's the same on stage; the gestures that might seem incredibly overblown in the moment are played out differently. The grand gestures are important."

Ditto selecting the right setlist from a back catalogue that's prone to end-of-the-world doom-mongering. "It's another thing we talked about when we made the album – is this song going to work in a field at 3pm in eastern Europe with people walking past? It has to be translatable. We tried hard for it not to be so coded that it's almost arrogantly niche."

So the next album's going to be full-on pop? "Well, my current listening habits have involved Pentangle and Swans, so maybe not," laughs Fleming.

Perhaps it could be the perfect combination of Miley and Swans?

"To be honest, I think that's what we do anyway."

Wild Beasts play End of the Road on 29 August and Bestival on 4 September


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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