If Wild Beasts’ last record was about love, the new one is definitely about shagging. Barry Nicolson meets a band channelling an inner animal “that needs to hunt, that needs to f**k, that needs to fight…”
Don’t be fooled by his erudite exterior: Hayden Thorpe is an animal, just like the rest of us, and on Wild Beasts’ new album, that animal has been let loose. The frontman describes ‘Boy King’ as an “unpleasant” and “apocalyptic” record, one that caused him to have a “minor breakdown” on the final day of recording, terrified about the parts of himself he was putting out there for all to see. “I have this litmus test,” he explains, “whereby if your grandparents or your future in-laws hear your record and still think you’re a nice boy, then your art is probably f**king terrible. So in some ways, the nausea I felt meant we were doing something right, but there’s always that worry – what’s dormant in me that I’ve allowed to come out? What if the mask slips and I can’t put it back on again?”
Over the course of their career, Wild Beasts have made a name for themselves as incorrigible bards of all things coital, a band whose central dichotomy, in the words of bassist Tom Fleming, is that “we might be referencing feminist theory, but we’re also lads singing songs about shagging”. The urges behind ‘Boy King’, however, are different – baser, uglier, more primeval. It’s a record full of alpha-male insecurities and compensatory swinging-dick guitar solos, whose lyrics abound with imagery of hunters and their quarry, carnivores and dark meat, big cats and ‘virgin killers’. No wonder Thorpe thought twice about playing it to his nan.
“The last record [2014’s ‘Present Tense’] was made up of love songs,” he says. “This one is all f**k songs. There’s no love on it at all. It’s a party record, but like any party there comes a point where it starts getting light outside, when your brain begins to glitch and you start to feel… doom.”
Prior to the recording of ‘Boy King’, a different sort of doom had been gathering around Wild Beasts. “We were in a bit of turmoil,” admits Thorpe. “There had been a few long, searching conversations about whether we’d still be able to create something that felt powerful and new to us.”
Ultimately, the breakthrough came by doing what felt antithetical to them: ‘Big Cat’, the pulsating electro-rock prowl that opens the album, found them “leaning into tropes and sensibilities we’d always deliberately neglected. ‘Big Cat’ is the kind of song we made our music to kick against – the cod-Americanisms, the macho presentation, that kind of cockiness. But when we started turning towards that aspect of our psyches, we realised there was a fruitful well there. It felt very powerful to become that band.”
Initially, there was some concern (or “negotiation”, as Fleming puts it) over how those tropes and sensibilities would sound on a Wild Beasts record – after all, this isn’t a band known for their love of a ripping guitar solo. Nevertheless, says the bassist, “it wasn’t meant to be funny or ironic – it felt consistent with what we were doing musically. And when it came to recording with [producer] John Congleton in Texas, the more ridiculous we got, the more it seemed to work. He’d say to us, ‘That’s so retarded, we need to keep that in!’”
“The rock band, in many ways, is a beautiful and absurd construction of masculinity,” adds Thorpe. “You know, the guy with long, flowing hair, shredding away on his guitar with that beautiful shred-face, as if he’s kissing his mother…”
Fleming nods his head in agreement. “There’s something very trans about that too, isn’t there? Look at any Van Halen performance: they’re macho as hell, but the playing is all quite abstract and delicate and careful – it’s very feminised, very effete. It’s odd – we thought we were playing around with macho tropes, but maybe there’s something else going on there…”
As the track listing (‘Tough Guy’, ‘He The Colossus’, ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’, et al) would suggest, this is an album about masculinity and machismo – the emptiness of it, but also the evolutionary necessity of it. As Thorpe says, “50,000 years ago we were cave-dwelling and now we’re iPad-scrolling, but we’re still the same animal. This record is an engagement with that animal, with this thing that needs to hunt, that needs to f**k, that needs to fight. Those instincts are now regarded – for good reason – as being dangerous or destructive. But that untamed aspect of ourselves is still there. It’s music that really engages that part of our lizard-brains.”
Is that why you’ve called ‘Boy King’ an album for the Tinder generation? “That idea came from how many people now have a separate digital persona – how our hearts are lived out online. You can transcend yourself online, become bigger than you are – that’s something you used to have to form a band to do. Tinder is a powerful and amazing tool, but it doesn’t exist because of technology, it exists because our hearts need it. It’s in our make-up to go forth and procreate, to spread and encounter new people.”
Thorpe’s own notions of masculinity were formed by the place he grew up in – “this stoic Cumbrian farming town where men are hardy breadwinners who work on the land” – and the wider cultural phenomenon of Britpop, both of which he ultimately ended up rejecting. “It’s no coincidence we make the music we do when that’s what our puberty was soundtracked by,” he says. “When someone like Liam Gallagher is being held up as the ultimate heroic male figure, that shapes you. When you’re a kid, you have to create this hyper-male front to protect your soft bits. You have to develop that just to get by, to jostle for position.”
Is this generation experiencing a crisis of masculinity? Have our ideas of manhood become skewed and distorted?
“I think it’s been going on for a long time,” says Fleming, “but it’s only now that people are starting to look around and go, ‘Hang on, a lot of young men are killing themselves.’ All the traditional roles we used to fill are collapsing or being outsourced. There’s no jobs and not much money around, but there’s a lot of violence.”
“Male emotion is a taboo subject,” agrees Thorpe. “There’s no strong, accepted form for men to open up and talk about their situations. We’re a danger to ourselves, really – the architects of our own demise. This album is us, as guys, looking around and saying, ‘F**k… I’m not OK, how do I express this?’” We live in an age of confusion and cultural upheaval, one that Wild Beasts wouldn’t claim to have any answer for, but with ‘Boy King’, they may just have made the perfect soundtrack to it.