'The leather started to chafe' … former Wild Beast Hayden Thorpe on going solo

After Wild Beasts split, singer Hayden Thorpe was left in a ‘strange, cryogenic state’. But a new solo album helped him let go of the past

Hayden Thorpe is driving his mum’s Fiat Panda back from a favourite spot near his Lake District hometown of Kendal – a hill called Gummer’s How. The views of Windermere are breathtaking, although Thorpe is more impressed by a huge white bull trampling down a country lane. “Did you see the size of his nuts?” he marvels. “Spectacular.”

It was on Gummer’s How that Thorpe, now 33, started to make peace with the demise of his former band, Wild Beasts. Colombian friends had talked him into a ritual: writing down the things he wanted to happen on one piece of paper and burying it in the soil, and writing down the things he wanted to be free of on another, then burning it. He can’t remember what the first note said, but the second had a lot “about letting go of the past and certain aspects of myself,” he says. “When you’ve been in a band from the age of 15 and come out the other side, you’re in a strange, cryogenic state.”

Wild Beasts announced their split in late 2017, playing their final shows in February the following year. The brash machismo of their final album, 2016’s Boy King, marked an unexpected break from their earthy flamboyance and carnal sensuality: Thorpe described it as them becoming “the band we always objected to”. Over fish pie in a cosy Kendal pub, he admits that he had a “herniated ego … it takes a bit of time to push it back in”. He maintains that Boy King was a record the band needed to make, although the changes didn’t stick. “The suit didn’t fit. The leather started to chafe,” he says, with a characteristic flourish. “So I went back to my reference points; I went back to my gravity.”

Thorpe’s debut solo album, then, is all about rediscovery. Called Diviner, it is a tender, mystical record about piecing a splintered identity back together after a period of tumult, anchored by elegant piano, glimmering synths and his silky croon. If his old band’s songs were often charged by the transformative thrill of desire, Diviner makes sense of what is left. He is the first Beast to strike out alone, although a solo career wasn’t on his mind when they first agreed to split in late 2016. Thorpe reiterates there were no major ruptures or reasons, just a shared sense that their time was up.

“I know the bones of those boys, and they know mine,” he says. “You know in each other when that alignment becomes less easy. In synchronised swimming, when it’s not right, it’s a fucking mess, there’s a lot of splashing.” He talks warmly of them whenever they’re mentioned. “They still surprise me as people, in terms of their decency and honour.”

Thorpe performing with Wild Beasts, 2016.
Thorpe performing with Wild Beasts, 2016. Photograph: Jordi Vidal/Redferns

Contractual commitments meant the band couldn’t tell anyone about their decision for most of 2017, which Thorpe calls a “really contorted year … it stunk for everyone”. But he started writing songs in LA at the start of the year, and carried on back in London. His bandmates didn’t know (“they’ve got much bigger fish to fry than a Hayden Thorpe solo album,” he insists) and he wasn’t that forthcoming with himself, either. “I was kind of nauseated by the idea of fulfilling the quota of ‘the singer becoming a solo artist,’” he says. “In some ways I tricked myself: in my mind I was writing an album for Hayden the Hologram, a man in an apocalyptic bunker who only had a piano left.”

During its making, he developed quinsy, a tonsil infection that rendered him temporarily mute, and camped out at his dad’s house in Kendal to recover. Losing his voice changed his perspective (“I can sing … other people have different gifts but that’s mine, I should take care of it”), but so did playing his new songs on the piano he learned on as a boy. That instrument, says Thorpe, “is definitely the house’s emotional kidney ... everything passed through it.” One of Diviner’s songs, a shadowy instrumental called Spherical Time, is built around a loop he wrote on it when he was 16.

Although ending the group left him unmoored at first, he didn’t find working alone daunting, largely because he sees Diviner as a record made on intuition: the title reflects his belief that songs are “foot-soldiers of the subconscious”, and that this album was already there, just waiting for him to write it. There are differences, though. “In society now, the individual is king,” he says. “The individual success is absolutely placed at your door, and therefore the failure is absolutely at your door, so the scrutiny, self-interrogation and attention on yourself to make a record on your own is something to behold.”

Most of its songs search for clarity and catharsis after confusion and chaos. Every morning before writing, he says, he would watch YouTube videos from philosopher Alain de Botton’s The School of Life. “You be my diviner / Show me where to go,” he sings over the title track’s shimmering pianos; “A world is waiting for us outside / No more hiding in plain sight,” he promises on the dreamy Impossible Object. Thorpe describes it as an album about breaking up with his idea of who he was, which isn’t as fraught as it sounds. “If people go through a struggle, they have a breakdown,” he says. “But why can’t you break up? When people go through these phases, are they not going through some necessary reincarnation?”

Among devastating sketches of regular heartbreak (“even the greatest of loves can be given up,” he croons on the bruised, beautiful Love Crimes), one song, In My Name, was inspired by Wild Beasts’ emotional farewell gigs. Originally, admits Thorpe, “the toddler in me did not want to do any of the closing stuff”, but he decided they could say goodbye without “dining out on nostalgia”. He stayed in a hotel for a few days after the final show, reluctant to go home; when he did, the song came together instantly. Its sentiment, he says, was simple: “I can’t be that guy for you any more.”

I ask if the record’s penchant for spiritual sensuality, instead of the wordy sauciness of songs past, means he has changed in other ways. Thorpe agrees it’s “less Viz”, but says there is still sexuality in the record, and he never got tired of people harping on about Wild Beasts’ fondness for sex. “I revelled in it!” he hoots. But, he says, “there’s a limit to how sexy things can get when you spend a lot of time on your own”, and that he does feel less cocksure nowadays. “Don’t things get more wondrous and confusing as we go on?” he asks. “It’s more of a mystery now, in a beautiful way.” Out of the blue, the automated voice on his phone interrupts to ask if he wants to open an app. “Tinder!” he says in a stage-whisper.

Diviner is out now on Domino.


Ben Hewitt

The GuardianTramp

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