The Evolution Of Wild Beasts – On The Road In France

Laura Snapes checks in with the band in France as they near the end of their tour. Photography by Richard Johnson

“Balzac? I thought you said ‘ball sack’!” Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming cackles uproariously, shattering the peace on the frosty streets of Vendôme, two hours south of Paris. “Ah, I should be above this by now!”

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We’re idling around the freakishly pristine, chocolate box-perfect town, as frontman Hayden Thorpe brightly exclaims that he saw a nice statue of French philosopher Balzac earlier. But Tom’s testicle-based quip destroys any notion that we’re passing an average afternoon with the supposedly urbane Wild Beasts – y’know, where you’d expect them to be indulging their highbrow peccadilloes, getting artfully drunk and reciting Rimbaud at each other. It’s day two of their European tour, playing a 20-year old festival called Rockomotives after a date in Nantes last night, their pockets are jangling with jelly sweets rather than opium bottles, and they’re joking about how similar Vendôme is to their native Kendal. “Though there’d be a Greggs opposite the Gothic abbey if this were Britain,” laughs Hayden.

As you read this, Wild Beasts will be at the tail end of their second UK jaunt for their latest album ‘Smother’ – and it transpires that it will have been one of the last chances you’ll have had to see them play it. Why? Having toured ‘Two Dancers’ for two years, they learned that “things fall apart,” as Tom will gravely say later. Although they won’t go into what specifically crumbled, you can hear whispers of relationship breakdowns in the regret-laden ‘Smother’.

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It wasn’t trouble with the law (more of which later), decaying in the back of their bus – which Hayden confesses often resembles “a stag night on wheels” – or concern for their welfare that brought on the decision to put ‘Smother’ to bed. It was never designed to last, they explain, a sacrificial lamb of a record. It’s the record that changed them, where they audibly grew up – yet the decision to kill off their most successful album to date is all part of Wild Beasts’ unique approach to maintaining “creative indestructibility,” as Tom puts it. It’s not a manifesto on paper or indelibly inked into anyone’s skin, but an inexplicable understanding that only comes from a friendship bond as long and intense as theirs, dating back nearly a decade. At this crucial stage, as they prepare to disconnect from the record to allow the next phase to begin, we sit the band down in a tacky, moodily red-lit bar to find out what they’ve learned on the journey that’s brought them here, and what the future holds.

“‘Smother’ was almost deliberately made to be un-tour-able,” explains Hayden. “It’s an invigorating feeling, knowing that we’re going to leave it behind. Once the songs are written, I disown them straight away – they’ve fulfilled their value.” The fact that they’re soon willfully shattering their buoyant little world is proof of Wild Beasts’ ever-progressive nature. Where the likes of The Ting Tings spend three years dining out on one album and The Vaccines have released six singles from their 11-track debut, Wild Beasts have put out three magnificent albums in four years, translating the oddball idiosyncrasies of their debut, ‘Limbo, Panto’, into a subtly experimental hybrid that’s all their own. But for the Beasts, there’s no such thing as old glories.

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Hayden describes a bittersweet occasion where ‘Smother’’s renown led Andy Rourke to come and see them play in New York, and leapfrogs from the sadness of seeing The Smiths in bits to calling “this whole Stone Roses reunion thing pretty disgusting.”

When we spoke to Hayden in the summer about missing out on a Mercury Prize nomination, he said they were perversely pleased – it was their chance to “keep wriggling” forward. Despite a consistent run of brilliant records, legacy building and getting fossilised in some rockist canon holds no appeal for the band, who are quick to lash those who indulge in wallowing in the past. “Stay the fuck out of things that are relevant!” exclaims Tom of the Roses’ claim to returning to right 21st century rock’s wrongs. “Also, they’re claiming no-one’s saying anything? They know Reverend & The Makers are still going, right?!”

As ‘Smother’’s reach swelled, the Beasts veered off the usual tour track – their strongholds of Chicago, LA, New York, Toronto – in order to test new waters, to keep continually challenging themselves. Unfortunately, that led to a few scrapes along the way…

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“We got pulled by Canadian border control, that was scary,” recalls Hayden. “It was -18C outside, freezing cold, and they were determined to find something on us. They got us out the van, brought a dog, had us standing in a line, shivering visibly.”

“The phrase, ‘Put your hand in your pockets and we’ll think you’re reaching for a gun, so we will shoot you,’ was used!” laughs Tom. “We assumed that they might be a bit friendlier than the US, but apparently not. Getting pulled over in Mexico City was frightening. Instantly, I thought, oh god – I didn’t know if they were checking that our taxi driver was legitimate, as that’s a big problem there, or they wanted a bribe to go away because they saw people photographing us.”

And that wasn’t their only mishap as they criss-crossed the globe. Tales of leaving band members behind are part of the lore of the road, but are rarely more dramatic than the bassist having to borrow a quid for a Ginsters whilst the bus does a motorway u-turn. “I was stuck in a toilet in a Holland service station, vomiting,” remembers Tom. “I didn’t have my phone on me, and no-one there believed me because I was an Englishman coming from Amsterdam. I fell asleep in a toilet. Eventually a woman let me sleep in her car, and I finally managed to ring my dad from the garage phone, his was the only number I remembered. ‘Could you look up a few numbers dad, I’m having a bit of trouble here…’”

“We got a text saying, ‘Tom’s in trouble’,” remembers Ben. “But it was April Fool’s Day!”

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If we learn anything from our time with Wild Beasts, as we move from Vendôme to Paris the next day, it’s that they thrive on channeling negativity into something fierce and progressive, taking any fuck-yous they encounter, trebling their virulence and hurling them right back at detractors. In the early days, they conquered not being heard by making ‘Limbo, Panto’, a borderline obnoxious album that was impossible to ignore. Its awkwardness meant that subsequent records had to leap over hurdles to get heard, a fight that the band didn’t just tolerate, but fought – and continue to. Having played to last night’s “almost excruciatingly polite” crowd in Vendôme – perhaps confused or enrapt by the amazing description of Wild Beasts in the programme as “gay-friendly”, which has them all in bits over dinner – it’s meant that “the shows have become angrier,” according to Hayden. “You feel like you’re on a crusade, which sometimes you need to pull you through.”

A look at the sonic trajectory they’ve taken through their albums – from the cock-a-hoop, jarring spike of ‘Limbo, Panto’, through the refined but saucy disco of ‘Two Dancers’ to the sleek, bruised ‘Smother’ – suggests that album four will be an even more pared down affair. “We work by osmosis, we’ve always got one ear on what each other’s doing,” says Tom, “but we never sit down and plan things out. There’ll need to be a depressurisation period, but we’ll be back in the studio when we’re good and ready – which will still be fairly quick, I think.”

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“It’s the first instance we’ve been afforded the luxury of taking our time,” says laconic drummer Chris. “But we could find ourselves starting in March and done by May.”

While Hayden says the band “want to make a positive album, a feel-good album in a way, as we’re in a happy place as people,” Tom notes, “It’s been quite an electronic year, so a lot of what we’re listening to is electronic. Unquestionably, it’s going to bleed in. The three records we’ve made have had a logic, but you have to keep evolving, there has to be a curveball.”

They’re clearly incredibly aware of their creative process. This August, Hayden remixed Lady Gaga’s ‘Yoü & I’ – and while he’s not about to split from the pack to carve himself a mantle as some knob-twiddler du jour, his digital dalliances taught him a few tricks that could manifest themselves in album four. “Laptops are exciting because they’re so empowering,” he says. “You learn that you don’t need big, grand studios, and it should be that way around. Grand studios demand grand ideas and you get big overblown music! We had that with our first album. I’m glad we did it, but we don’t have to do that again.”

For all that Wild Beasts are locked into their own world where “everything is secondary to this,” as Tom puts it, they’re still well aware that it’s all one big façade. “I think people sometimes expect us to walk around like Baudelaire with a glass of absinthe and a cravat,” Tom says of their reputation as wordy decadents. “It’s important to make the point that it’s not actually like that, it doesn’t really exist.”

As they’re milling once again in front of La Grande Halle, an old slaughterhouse, there’s no greater burst to the bubble of pretence of rockstardom than the sound of four kids bounding across the fountains yelping, “We’re from Kendal too! My brother was in you guys’ year! Chris, your dad taught me music!” Talbot Jr laughs and rolls his eyes – the legend of Mr Talbot Sr is inescapable. For all that these kids drag the band right back into debating the pubs and people of their youth, what’s clear from the past couple of days, and their fierce-eyed, triumphant performance in Paris later, is their evolution as a band – from those gawky, wordy Kendal lads to a band possessed of foresight, shedding old skins for an unpredictable, exhilarating future.