“Wiiiiild F—ing Beeeeeasts!!” yelled the guy standing behind me last week at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right. The Iron Effin’ Maiden-style chant — directed at a foursome known more for pithy observations, romantic come-ons and lilting melodies than raw and hard-rock riffage — was so incongruous that it provoked some laughs in the crowd. And who knows? Maybe that fan was being ironic. Or not. Because the Wild Beasts you thought you knew, the one that for the better part of 10 years turned out sumptuous art pop steeped in social commentary and seduction — more velvet jacket than leather jacket — has hopped into a muscle car and fishtailed in the parking lot with its aggro new release Boy King.
No 21st century band has had more of a single-minded raison d’être than Wild Beasts. Even down to its name, the group was born as a knowingly fey, in-your-face response to the thick-headed lad culture the musicians grew up around in England’s northwest Cumbria district. Their 2008 debut LP, Limbo, Panto, offered track after track of arch, Wilde-worthy stuff: bros preening and showing off for the ladies then fumbling around when it was time to deliver. They doubled down on those themes on the Mercury Prize-nominated Two Dancers in 2009, with the “brutes” of “Hooting and Howling” and the exquisite “All the King’s Men” (still the band’s signature track) with its view of women as shoeless “birthing machines.” It was a delicious, baroque punk skewering of what it often means to be a male.
But all that detachment, observing and judging can make Jack a dull boy. So after two more albums that moved in directions both erotic (Smother) and electronic (Present Tense), Wild Beasts decided it was time to stop, in vocalist Thorpe’s words, “circumnavigating the abyss”, and get in the game. If they were going to move forward, they figured, they had to do so in a less calculated, cerebral way. As Thorpe pointed out in interviews prior to the record’s release, the band become the very lads they’d been going on about for years — so why not embrace that identity in all its swagger?
So they’re back with Boy King — brasher, more visceral, and definitely with more guitar — an “American” record in a sense, created in Dallas with John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans), whose production style is not what you’d call “shy.” Over grinding riffs straight out of Monsters of Rock, “He the Colossus” casts the boys as “vigilantes” on the streets, running free. “Alpha Female” seems to flirt with misogyny; the predatory “Get My Bang” and “2BU” slather on the lust; “Celestial Creatures” celebrates heavenly hedonism; and right off the top comes the self-indictment: “Big cat top of the food chain,” sings Thorpe. Of course, he does so in that unmistakable falsetto — Thorpe’s otherworldly voice rivals that of Jónsi or Anohni, and along with the groove that’s still at the base of their music, assures that Boy King is still very much a Wild Beasts record.
No, Thorpe and guitarist and co-vocalist Tom Fleming assure me, as we’re tucked into a booth at lunchtime at New York’s Ace Hotel, they haven’t checked their brains at the door and become Whitesnake overnight. And although taken on their face Boy King‘s lyrics might seem a statement of solidarity with the embattled “big cats” — the straight white bros of Gamergate, of the anti-Ghostbusters backlash, and of countless Donald Trump rallies — it would be a mistake to read anything Wild Beasts do so simplistically. The wisdom is still there, if not the distance.
You recently said that with all the added guitar and working with Congleton in Dallas that, at least on paper, Boy King has the potential to connect with American tastes more than your previous records.
Hayden Thorpe: I do, actually. I think the sensibility of it is more gung-ho than our kind of British codings would allow for. I think there’s an ownership of the emotion of it, which is more un-self-conscious and far more inherent to American culture. British culture is built around trying to put what you’re saying in a way that people don’t know what you’re saying. Whereas American culture, it’s much more like, “You need to know what the f— I’m saying right now, very clearly.”
Tom Fleming: It’s sort of like a pop performance art. It can kind of be seen as our Sunset Strip record. Kind of like a band from the provinces of England going to America and trying to out-America the Americans. It’s like hating yourself, but trying to wrap yourself in a sleeve of confidence and hoping people don’t notice.
You’re only doing one U.S. show here in New York, but you’ll be back here in the fall. How have the new songs been going over live?
Thorpe: Good! The set is deliberately picked to be more of a party. Which is different — you know, we’ve always kind of gone for the more fey, art-band line. It’s always been kind of, “Come see this band, and watch and consider.” And now the kind of message is, “Come and get fucked up and have a good time.” And that’s an important aspect of the record in some respects — it’s just letting go. I guess it’s kind of a joyous abandon.
So with all the newly present guitar, these raunchy riffs, Tom, are you going out with more and different gear this time?
Fleming: Certainly. For the first time I’ve got Floyd Rose bridges [locking tremolo device, associated with ’80s players like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai] which makes me happy even to just look at, let alone play. And then Benny [guitarist Ben Little] has these mad fuzz pedals to make those sounds on the record, which I think are also visual signifiers of what we’re doing.
It’s still essentially a groove-based record and it’s got Hayden’s amazing falsetto on it, which means at the end of the day, Boy King is still Wild Beasts, no? It seems to me it’s more your take on a rock band — your iteration of one.
Thorpe: It’s an interrogation of the self-loathing that comes with being “that guy.” It’s kind of negotiating the terrors of that journey. Because it’s an isolating experience in some respects, to be that guy. Although in many ways it’s life-affirming and invigorating and a privileged position to be in, sometimes you have to stand along in it, and stick your head above the parapet. But I guess for me, every song has a built-in clause, which is the emotional hinge. And it normally falls in the middle eight of every track. So a song like “Big Cat”, a song about sexual prowess and domination, the middle eight talks about how it “takes all of me” — sort of aware of what I’m giving for this. Or even “He The Colossus” which is completely balls-out and ham-fisted in a way, it has this middle eight of “everything just dies in these arms.” This is the price. It’s a record about the price.
Fleming: I think what you say about an iteration of a rock band is a really good way of putting it. It’s like we’ve got the tropes that we’re using for our own means, do you know what I mean? It’s like in some ways it’s in quotation marks. We’re kind of trying to re-contextualize ourselves.
For those who saw you guys as outsiders’ champions, sort of the ultimate contrarians, punk in an anti-alpha male way — are you at all concerned those people might feel let down that this record is less oppositional?
Fleming: I think that we were aware this record could be divisive, and I think it has proved so as well. But it just felt like we couldn’t do that forever. It felt like with Present Tense we had completed that phase. It’s still very much from the same stable as all that stuff, but it’s a bit less earnest. I mean, we’re all past 30 now, and so being a teenage outsider, it starts to feel like a weird put-on. I mean we have to engage with where we’re at right now.
Thorpe: I would also not want to be part of an art form that was reliant on just staying the same. I’m not gonna tolerate that. That sounds like a graveyard to me. But I guess the key thing is, you can make people get it in the head, but you can’t make them feel it in the heart. And I guess that’s the difference with this record. You have to feel it in your heart.
It’s an interesting time to put out a record that sort of channels hetero male swagger. The “big cat top of the food chain” is feeling his dominant position challenged or seemingly wants to turn back the clock. You see it from Gamergate to Ghostbusters to a lot of what accounts for Trump’s support, and I can only imagine that some of what drove Nigel Farage and Brexit.
Fleming: Oh yeah.
So is this record expressing some solidarity with that mentality?
Fleming: No I don’t think it’s solidarity at all. The lyrics aren’t to be taken at face value. It’s still a send-up but it’s something we’re involved in. We see the problematic aspects of it, but we see them repeated in ourselves. There’s a real expectation by a lot of people that all artists should be fourth wave feminists, and should be right on about everything. But that can make for a very timid and bland backdrop. I think we count ourselves — and our music speaks in a way that is — possibly even ahead of the curve in terms of problematizing masculinity and discussing feminist concepts or the troubles and concepts of being male. But I think you’ve got to stare it in the face sometimes. Like online, it can become this self-perpetuating echo chamber where you’re only talking to people who agree with you.
It’s not just a swaggering party-rock record then. Because I think a lot of the early press has focused on that aspect of it.
Fleming: There’s so much doubt in terms of the lyrics and in terms of the over-performance and the over-swagger. There’s so much doubt suggested by that, and there’s always an undercurrent of weakness and despair and stress. I find it impossible to conceive that someone would think it’s just a party rock record.
Thorpe: If that’s been the focus it’s because that’s the tag line — that’s what’s different about it. But the moral behind the whole record is the projecting — the huge projection that is only ever as big as the huge insecurity that it’s masking. But yeah, I guess the USP for this record is the unlikely story of us becoming that band. The unlikely and, to me, beautiful symmetry of becoming “wild beasts.” It’s a kind of realization of self that feels quite profound.
Where did the whole “Big Cat” imagery come from? It’s reinforced in the video, with all kinds of cat and wild animal imagery?
Thorpe: It has to do with my own romantic notions of what this would entail — although it’s very different to my boyhood notions of what being in a band was about, I think I kind of held it in as high esteem as being an astronaut or a firefighter. I was at a barbeque the other night, and there was a little boy there. There was music playing and for some reason there was a mic stand and a mic. And he quite intuitively went up to it, leaned down the mic stand and started singing down the mic. And I said to the guy next to me, “That’s my job. That’s unbelievable. I do a job that five-year-olds dream about doing.”
And is this turn toward a new harder sound and attitude something you’re going to stick with, going forward?
Fleming: I don’t know… it’s just something I really enjoy right now. Just to play, it feels really vital, do you know what I mean? I definitely feel like we’ve cracked something open that we can run with. Whether the next record will sound like this is something that I’m unable to say. But certainly it’s another color to paint with.
Boy King is out now. Wild Beasts return to North America for two weeks in November:
Nov. 3 || Santa Ana, CA || Constellation Room
Nov. 5 || Los Angeles, CA || El Rey
Nov. 6 || San Francisco, CA || The Independent
Nov. 9 || Chicago, IL || Lincoln Hall
Nov. 10 || Toronto, ON || Lee’s Palace
Nov. 11 || Washington, DC || Black Cat
Nov. 13 || Boston, MA || Middle East – Downstairs
Nov. 14 || Brooklyn, NY || Music Hall of Williamsburg
Nov. 16 || New York, NY || Le Poisson Rouge
Nov. 17 || Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts