Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe goes solo: “it’s like playing chess against yourself…”

Former Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe tells NME’s Tom Connick how the dissolution of his old band, and the subsequent rediscovery of his own, individual identify, informed ‘Diviner’.

The spilt of Wild Beasts was a knock for fans. Held up as one of British indie’s most individualistic talents, the four boys from Kendal held a mystery that set them apart from the trilby and winkle-picker-wearing hordes of noughties indie boys. At the heart of their appeal was frontman Hayden Thorpe, a whisper-delicate vocalist whose lyrics targeted toxic masculinity and latent sexuality long before such things became regular headlines. Their final shows, a sold-out trio of mid-February gigs in Dublin, Manchester and London, were treated like a “funeral”, he admits.

But last month, Thorpe returned from the dead. ‘Diviner’, his debut solo single, is an atmospheric cut of piano-led balladry, Hayden singing of the titular “diviner” like a man discovering a new spirituality. “I’m a keeper of secrets,” he sings in hearty falsetto: “I’ll be your disciple – show me where to go.” It’s that sense of relinquishing control that informed ‘Diviner’, and paved the way for Hayden’s singular return, he explains.

Now, Thorpe has announced a full-length release under that ethereal new guise, also titled ‘Diviner’. A record of “torch songs about intuition, belief and mysticism”, ‘Diviner’ is set for release on May 24 via Domino. We discussed its creation, and the “gargantuan abyss” left by the dissolution of Wild Beasts, with Thorpe himself.

Welcome back, Hayden. How have you found it, returning to music solo?

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Hayden Thorpe: “It’s a huge relief, to be honest. I always remember a documentary with Gary Barlow, saying how quiet it went after Take That, and how the phone wouldn’t ring. I always thought, ‘Oh, get over it, Gary, pull your socks up!’ But it turns out Gary Barlow was right. It does get quiet.

“For a while there, my internal world and my external world weren’t matching up. The reality of having music ready to go and it not being out, it’s kind of like a secret pregnancy. It feels good just to have my inner world and my outer world finally in sync.”

So much of your life and identity has been wrapped up in being creative. Is it nice to have that element of yourself back out there?

“Yeah, totally. I often think musicians are kind of like tennis players, in that they become so hyper-specialised at that one very specific thing, they’re actually ultimately very useless at other ways of being. I kind of feel either hyper-specialised, or completely maladjusted – or maybe both at the same time. The thing is, once you’re used to crafting beauty and the cadence of your life is towards trying to create beauty, that becomes the compulsion, and nothing else matches that. That is everything.”

Those final Wild Beasts shows must have been incredibly emotional. How did the comedown after all that feel?

“It was a public funeral. I feel like I lived that life, and I no longer live it. The beauty of doing this is that I’m in a game which is constantly looking for the fountain of youth. We’re all absolute slaves to finding that, and music, in itself, is kind of a form of reincarnation. It doesn’t degrade, it doesn’t erode; music stays the same. The forces of time don’t apply to music. So, in many ways, music is the best way to deal with these things, because you can kind of get away without time passing.

“There was, I’ll put it mildly, a gargantuan abyss, that it was a joy to explore, in truth.”

Had you always intended to go it alone, once the band came to an end?

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“I had no idea what I wanted to do, because I had always relied on music as a compulsion. And you can’t rely on compulsion – it’s either there or it’s not. To start to make plans upon a compulsion, it’s a bit like navigating by the stars, it’s trial-and-error. I didn’t want to bank on it, and I had no expectation that anyone would want to listen to my [solo] music. There was no sensation of inheritance or righteousness to this position. All-in-all, what happened felt so right – the alignment and the perfection of the ending of the band, and how much closure and peace it gave meant that there was a massive forward propulsion from that. Which I hadn’t expected.”

 So, you used the break-up as a springboard, rather than a dead end?

“If you’ve lived a musical life your entire adult life, then the only response to the ending of that musical life, is music. It was the only appropriate response, really.”

Wild Beasts live at The Roundhouse, London
Wild Beasts live at The Roundhouse, London (Photo: Getty)

When did you start recording these things? Was it straight off the bat, or did you take some time to process it all?

“I went into the studio the week after the last gig. It felt kind of essential. There wasn’t a distinct plan, that was just the office. I remember, it was in London, and it snowed that week – the ‘Beast From The East’ rolled in – and London was covered in white. It was a renewal – I remember feeling a great sense of it being literally a blank space. That felt very empowering.”

A blank space can be quite scary when you’ve had all this noise going on for a decade.

“Yeah, but I didn’t find it scary – I found it peaceful. A blank slate; a blank canvas; as long as you don’t start firing blanks, then you’re alright! My main compulsion, if I see anything blank, is to fuck it up a bit. So, it served my psyche.”

How was the process different? Was it hard not to have bandmates to bounce ideas off?

“It was a lot of alone time, I’ll be honest. If you’re in a band, you’re in a family, you’re in a gang. You have your community, and that was the main, stark difference – the amount of time spent inward was long and intense. But, ultimately, it was right.

“In terms of bouncing ideas, that was a funny one. When you’re bouncing them off yourself, it’s kind of like playing chess against yourself. There can be days sat in your dressing gown thinking about the next move. By nature, I’m a pretty reclusive person who has to be dragged out into the daylight, so it kinda suits me in a lot of ways. I had to interrogate myself.”

And what did you discover?

“You have to look at yourself cold and hard, that’s for sure. All sorts of ideas of identity came up. I guess I broke up with myself – the idea of myself as the frontman, the idea of myself as the guy in the gang he has always had. Even the idea of me being the singer wasn’t really definite. I had to break up with the idea of myself. It felt like a privilege to be able to do, to be honest. I can be beautiful, that process. It can be really empowering and essential.”

What kind of things did you find yourself exploring during this process?

“I guess belief, and ideas of belief, because the band was my religion and the band was my belief system. Once that went, I had to build my own new belief system through scraps of whatever I could find lying around… mostly YouTube philosophers and Instagram [laughs].”

“I also became very compelled by how I had experienced a living funeral. I felt so privileged to have experienced that, to have survived it, to have walked away and to have seen so many people crying in front of you, for a part of you. I saw so many people crying over that time: close friends, people I had never known, strangers, family. I didn’t cry once.”

“I became really fascinated with what music means to people and what belief means to people. To be honest, I became quite obsessed with mysticism, became convinced that there is no such thing as a coincidence. I became completely convinced this was always going to happen and this was how it was meant to be. I am completely non-religious but I became more and more engrossed in the kind of mysticism of our days today. Especially when we are in an era of science, and technology, and fact. To me, to get sense and meaning to this, I still had to look to superstitious reasoning.”

Is that where the YouTube philosophers came in? Is there anyone in particular or ideas you were drawn to?

“I would watch The School of Life cartoons every morning. I felt like a little kid again – eating my cereal, watching the cartoons. Those cartoons used to be moral tales and these are now our moral tales. It’s just trying to teach you ‘how to adult’. [laughs] That is something I had not encountered fully – a band does allow you suspend that process a little bit. I had to figure out, a little bit, how to do this ‘grown-up’ business.”

Anything you struggled with in particular? Having to do your own ironing?

“[laughs] I guess it is, how do you do people? When you have brought your world to the world. I never stepped into the world – I created a world within which I could live, and that existed within the wider, ‘real’ world. So, it was more – ‘how do you people?’” [laughs] 

Is that something that inspires the record? Your rediscovery of how to interact with people?

“Yeah. I guess the record, in a sense, is a break-up record, about me breaking up with myself, and therefore my new relationship with my new self. But I’m not sure how strongly it informs the record. I’m not sure.”

Wild Beasts
Hayden Thorpe performing with Wild Beasts (Photo: Getty)

A lot of the ideas Wild Beasts explored were about the expression of masculinity. It’s become a hot topic in the months since Wild Beasts split up. How do you look back on it now? A lot of people were kind of saying you were perhaps ahead of your time exploring these things.

“Yeah, I still live those things. In terms of the notion of toxic masculinity, I felt like I’ve been kind tolerating the intravenous of the toxicity of it for the best part of my adult life. It comes as a great relief that these outmoded ways of being are being called out. I got a no sense of satisfaction that this was something I had expressed before. It was expressed in anguish, and is still expressed in anguish. But, the rebalance is true and the rebalance is right. I think it feels like it’s time.”

What are your plans for your solo work? You say was such a personal pursuit – a break up from yourself. Do you think people will relate to it, and what would you hope they get from it?

I actually think we all exist now in the church of self, where we all have available to us all ways of seeing the world and believing in the world. We believe what we need to believe. But what we believe is also changeable.

That’s something that we all have to face, and we all share – the sense of, ‘I have to believe this to get through this thing, and then, in the next bit, that might change.’ The beauty of it is that change is constant; flux is the nature of our lives. Therefore, thematically, I don’t have to worry about people getting something from it. Unless someone has been frozen, they are facing the forces of change at all times. That can be both beautiful and terrifying.”

Hayden Thorpe’s debut solo album ‘Diviner’ is out May 24 via Domino Recordings.

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