"After five records there had to be an element of 'what the fuck?'" reads the press release that announced Wild Beast's latest offering, Boy King. The art rock four-piece hailing from Kendal, UK delivers that sentiment in spades on an album that sheds all that is calculated and coy for unabashed, knowing virility.
The day after the United States elected its own boy king, Transverso Media sat down with Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, the vocalists and multi-instrumentalists who share frontman duties, to discuss English expression, carnal desire, and coming full circle in their combination of the two.
TRANSVERSO MEDIA: On “2BU,” one of Boy King’s best tracks, Tom sings “Now I’m the kind of man / Who wants to watch the world burn.” Have you been enjoying politics lately?
TOM FLEMING: This whole record is a bleak response to a bleak time, really. I think that song in particular is about class envy in the UK, and a kind of destructive, masculine rage leading to absolutely nothing, which I think is a big thing on the record. [Before playing "2BU"] I actually shouted out in San Francisco, the last show we did, “This is for you guys, I want to bully the bully," but [I thought] that might be the last opportunity I got to do so, and it turns out it was, because [Trump] won. He’s not too bullied anymore, is he? [Laughs]
As a touring band from the UK, have you been affected by any of the political changes lately, from US visa policy updates to Brexit?
FLEMING: Well, nothing yet, ’cause [Brexit is] yet to happen, but it’s possible. We’ve lived our whole adulthood as free European citizens with essentially free movement and freedom to operate both physically and financially in other countries, and [could] live there if we pleased, and that might be under threat. So yeah, I guess in terms of impact it’s more psychological, but I think there certainly are a few parallels; If you look at a map of the US it looks very much like the Brexit map. It’s the same kind of resentment of political classes in our country that have led to most of the things in the country as well, and obviously in the States there are more international ramifications than the UK, but it’s still a dark time.
You often mention the English tendencies towards being apologetic with less emotional projection. American audiences, especially hearing Boy King, may not understand this background. Can you elaborate on that?
HAYDEN THORPE: I guess the album for a British band is quite forward. It’s quite unapologetic. It’s perception to a British person might be arrogance, but I think essentially it’s a broken heart record. There [are] two ways of responding to a broken heart, and in some circumstances that’s either to recoil in pain, or to kind of approach that broken heart with aggression and to kind of confront the world and to kind of express that pain in a bit more of a kind of an outward manner, and that’s kind of, in many ways, quite un-British. And the circumstances of us going to Texas at that time and where we were at in our lives and where I was at in my life and as people it was a pretty healthy dose of Americana, I think. I find it very nourishing and engaging being here how people act with one another; It’s so, for me, invigorating. In Britain you have a conversation with someone and in five minutes you will know their kind of class, their schooling, their financial position, and I guess maybe there [are] different codes in America for it, but certainly the expression of individuality here seems to be very much different in a way that being an outsider is nice, you know? I do think the healthier kind of America is very good to outsiders. Nerdiness and geekiness isn’t a thing in Britain, it gets beaten out of you at a young age.
FLEMING: [Laughs] I like to think our record is a pretty good typifying of that kind of pervy repression of the UK. There's a sort of calm surface, and what seems like a conservative outlook can actually be quite an odd place just beneath the surface, and it feels from the outside that America is much more of "This is what it is, fuck you!" which is fine, but the more I come here the more I realize I’m not from here. Even though it's familiar to me in certain ways it's definitely very, very different.
So is there a noticeably different reception to the record and the live show on different sides of the pond, then?
THORPE: Again it comes down to expression. British expression is sort of stiff upper lip; you don’t want to cruise too far outside the shallow waters ‘cause you might be seen as weird, you know? We made a career out of being weirdos, so we’ve always kind of ventured out into those waters, but you get the sense that here people are just a bit more vocal, both metaphorically and in speech.
FLEMING: [To] an American audience it takes the British audience maybe five minutes to get there to the same spot, the way America always turns up. And that’s not to denounce the British audience, it’s been amazing to us and it’s definitely our people as it were, but it’s just a completely different way of projecting.
THORPE: I’m kind of hesitant to talk in huge sweeping statements here because when we talk about America we’re talking about a thousand Americas, as is plainly apparent, and when we’re talking about Britain we're talking about many microscopic Britains that can really differ from town to town. Towns from coast to coast are a sort of ancient formation of towns; you can go eight miles and have a completely different accent, completely different food, and have a completely different way of being. We sense that ourselves, we play shows in the south of England and in the north of England it’s different, then you go to Scotland and it’s completely different again.
FLEMING: It does vary from town to town, and in Scotland, Glasgow is very different than Edinburgh, for example, and they’re like 30 miles apart.
One really unique place you've been is Texas, when you went to record Boy King with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, Spoon). Is it true he keeps a Grammy in his toilet?
FLEMING: He does, yeah. Knowing him I don’t think it’s an obtuse move, I think thats just where he has the space. He just works so hard all the time that he doesn’t really have the time to reflect on past glories. Obviously I think he’s done rather well as a result, he made a great record, so why not? But yeah, it’s true.
THORPE: Yeah, I’d always beware of the gold disk in the work space. You don’t need that visual prompt.
FLEMING: Yeah, it’s fine to be proud of it, but you don’t need it where you work.
I hear a bit of St. Vincent in “Alpha Female”’s guitar. Is that his influence?
THORPE: Sure, I think by osmosis, for sure. She is a guitar hero in the classic sense, she’s sort of audacious and quite gifted in a quite visionary way, so absolutely. Actually we’re quite taken by the fact that we were using the guitar as a macho object but were inheriting so much from this woman playing; theres a natural shape to that especially with songs like “Alpha Female,” these sort of sickening slick lines. We’re talking about tools and machines here, that’s what we inherited. When you boil guitars down it comes down to electronics, and we kind of shared some of the same circuit boards, I guess.
Between “Tough Guy” and “Alpha Female” there are two incredibly exciting guitar solos that are highlights of the record, and they take on a sort of dueling quality back to back. Was that an intentional juxtaposition?
FLEMING: There is something in that, yeah. “Alpha Female” is maybe a bit more genuine, whereas “Tough Guy” is a bit more embittered. Like we were talking about it’s about taking that pain and shoving it deep, deep down and not showing any of it, and I think that’s sort of what “Tough Guy” is doing, whereas “Alpha Female” is a bit more positive. But yeah, certainly there’s always a play on gender going on in the record, and I hope people notice that the display of machismo is supposed to look like a performance, and not a very convincing one at that. And so the foreground of the guitars is very deliberate; let’s use them to play with that trope, let’s demonstrate that A) we can do that and B) that we know what were doing with it.
“Get My Bang” is about American consumerism, not sex per se, but as a single on an album as sexual as Boy King many are going to miss that. Is the interchangeability of these themes a statement in itself?
THORPE: It wasn’t so much American consumerism so much as just consumerism in general, in terms of we have Black Friday now in Britain. We inherited it off of you, but we took it gladly. It’s more about the sense of gratification and the unashamed lengths you will go to to seek that gratification, and in a suppressed society where, for good reason, you can’t kind of be cavemen and -women, it expresses itself in other pores. I just remember watching the Black Friday footage head in hands; people beating each other up for a flat screen TV, this is what western civilization has come to this end for? I just felt you are either not having enough sex or you’re not doing enough exercise, something has got to give here! [Laughs] That is not a healthy way, and I guess humans are bad at finding healthy ways of kind of getting out these carnal sensations ‘cause we’ve kind of been told the lot of them are sinful or unforgivable, and I guess that song is about stripping yourself of that inhibition and saying, “Fuck it, this is how I get off!” And that’s a song about self-interest, which is healthy and good for people to follow those self interests sometimes. For god’s sake, you need to release, you know?
Creating a record does seem marginally better than beating the shit out of someone in a Walmart.
FLEMING: [Laughs] Hopefully!
THORPE: I feel very privileged that we get a safe space where we can sort of act these things out. I mean, the stage is a fucking boxing ring; you come off and you do have s a kind of transcendental sensation. You feel bigger and mightier than you actually are, and therein lies a lot of the historical problems that musicians face with how am I supposed to quantify being, feeling like that guy, and shrinking to normal size again. There’s always a kind of navigation.
Do you worry some people might completely miss the point of this record similar to how "All The King's Men" was misinterpreted at times?
FLEMING: Potentially. I think it’s been a bit more divisive than we appreciated. I think some things have been taken at face value which weren’t intended, but I think ultimately if you leave ambiguity in you have to trust people to get it, and I think it would be a big mistake to let the tail wag the dog, in that respect. Not to sound arrogant, but I think that, generally speaking, you trust people to sort out what’s what.
THORPE: I think it has in some sense but that’s okay, that’s sort of our job. You gotta hold your nerve at the borderland, and how else do you get the kick you get from doing what we do without that sort of sense of risk and danger?
FLEMING: There is a narrative that is fueled by the sort of self-reflecting echo chamber of social media that every artist has to think the same, that every artist has to be super right thinking [and] intersectional, and it can’t possible true. I think we’ve got a pretty impeccable track record in that regard, but people are very quick to jump on if they think something is kind of out of line. But there is a kind of satire going on.
THORPE: Well it’s a satire, but at the same time its a very heartfelt record, and that’s the only thing I can go back on. It’s my full heart, it’s not me trying to be clever, it’s not me trying to outthink someone, or trying to outsmart someone, it’s a heartfelt, true record. That’s the ultimate spine of it, and if anyone doesn’t feel that in their heart, then thats cool. I mean, I can’t make someone feel that in their heart. The analogy I always think of is when the plane is going down, you put the oxygen mask on yourself first; it’s like no, this is my medication, this is what i need for this sensation, this is my crisis, this is my oxygen mask, and if people don’t feel that that sort of suits their crisis or their place that’s totally cool. But I think one thing that it shocked people on that they maybe need to grow up with a little is that nice boys and girls like to do nasty things, you know? That’s just a fact of human nature, and I’m sorry if that’s a shock for you, I’m sorry if you have to find it out through us, but I tell you what, the internet is probably a far harder school than we are. [Laughs]
It’s interesting how in some ways there’s a sort of full circle in those lyrical themes from Limbo, Panto to Boy King, but the ways in which they’re conveyed and the music they’re set to have changed drastically.
FLEMING: I’m so glad you noticed the similarities between Limbo, Panto and this one. Some of the lyrics on Limbo, Panto could be on this one, which we didn’t really notice, and then we listened back and were like, “Oh yeah, that’s just the first record.” I think certainly the change in instrumentation and presentation has kind of been following our curiosity; we’ve had half an eye on what’s going on around us and half an eye on what we were going to do anyway, so we tried to incorporate stuff that without just kind of following trends and trying to hit every box that people expect us to do.
THORPE: When we made this record first time round Limbo, Panto could’ve been this record, it’s just that we decided to turn left, and eventually we circumnavigated the abyss and came back to that point again. But I think we had to go that way round to inherit the craft and the deftness to pull this off, if you can say we pulled it off, and we obviously think we have, but…
FLEMING: [Laughs] That’s for you to decide.
THORPE: …to kind of keep the plates spinning that we’ve been spinning has taken a kind of an apprenticeship.
Obviously it’s still early days, but in moving forward do you think you’ll follow up Boy King with yet another left turn to continue reinventing, or do you find yourselves wanting to explore this direction a little longer?
THORPE: It kind of feels like talking about breakfast with a mouth full of steak for dinner; there’s a sense of having to digest and metabolize what you’ve made. I think we have in some ways reinvented a method for ourselves.
FLEMING: It always happens by accident, that sort of thing; we just realized the last couple weeks of recording, "Oh, we should’ve done this all along!" But, then of course, it would never be as good if you hadn’t, like [Thorpe] said, completed the apprenticeship.
THORPE: But every record anyone makes is a completely remarkable feat of human endeavor, you know? It takes a huge amount of things to align and to come together to get this shit into something kind of passable, so we're just kind of enjoying the fact that we’ve made something which we feel is kind of speaks for us in a life affirming way. I guess you’re looking to do something thats kind of life affirming, and taking this record out feels that way, which is how it should.
Boy King is out now via Domino. Read our review here.