Wild Beasts formed in Kendal, a small town in Northern England, nearly a decade ago, when its members were just teenagers. The band's first album, 2007's Limbo, Panto, displayed the traits the band continues to refine: ambition, artisness, intensity and grace, in shifting measures that keep the audience off balance.
The voice of Hayden Thorpe is a major ingredient in that turbulence. A singer with an exceptionally high, clear voice that can sound delicate or almost violently aggressive, Thorpe (his co-lead singer Tom Fleming performs in a solid baritone) instills the band's topics — love, romance and, most frequently, sex — with playfulness, seductiveness, and a touch of menace.
The band is now based in London, and their new album, Smother, out today, sounds quieter and more settled. A sort of boiled-down essence of earlier, wilder themes, concentrated and no less intense for maintaining a constant simmer. We asked Thorpe about his favorite song on the album, and why so many of his band's songs are about sex.
Why did you pick "Loop The Loop" as your favorite song from Smother?
Hayden Thorpe: "I think because when I listen to it it brings to mind the fact that we've been trying to write that sort of song for ten years, really. It's sort of like the crystallization of a lot of years of practice."
What kind of song is it?
HT: "To me it's a very human song. It's sort of a song about human acceptance. It's the tone of it and the consciousness of it that I'm most proud of. to me it's got a humbleness and an acceptance of difficult things and yet it draws a positivity from those things. to me it sounds like positive music."
Is that in contrast to the band's older songs? I think of some of them as being quite aggressive.
HT: "Yeah. Well, I think on this album in general there's a sense of we're not angry any more, you know? I think in a sense we have been brutal in the past and we have been frustrated, and that has led to a more confrontational tone on songs and our consciousness. But you know, people have told me they fall asleep to loop the loop, and I think that's a good indicator that the song has good karma in a way."
What does 'more human' mean for this song?
HT: "I think the lyrics are almost conversational. Most songs take on the front of, 'I am singing to you,' but this song has more of a sense of 'I'm singing with you.' It's posing questions. And it's also really simple. There aren't a lot of words. I think another thing I'm pleased with is it doesn't really need any more lyrics to explain the tone. I think musically it's sort of like a soundscape created that the words just narrate, really. Musically, also, the bongo and the drums almost become one of the main melodic features. And there's lots of ghost notes — by ghost notes I mean almost imaginary parts. Sometimes when you're recording a song it just hangs together in an effortless way."
A lot of Wild Beasts songs seem to be about sex. Was there ever a decision made that this was going to be the band's chosen subject matter?
HT: "I don't think there was ever a roundtable decision. I think it was an initial fascination. It was an initial thrill in that we felt starved of music — and art in general — which was taking this subject head on in an every day way. We had struggled to find art that was not making Hollywood out of sex. Especially [with] music, there's a great facade and illusion as to what sex should be and we just felt really out of kilter with it and felt it was important to us to make sense of it and picked this eternally troublesome dynamic in human behavior really. It's not really resolved and it probably never weill be. That's part of how we are. That's part of why we find it endlessly fascinating and that's why people do also. When we're making music we sort of constantly refer to our sixteen-year-old selves and think, 'What do we want to hear? What do we need to hear at that age?' Because that's I think when youre in a sense most puerile about what you're hearing and most dependent. I think we sort of understand that importance of breaking down those barriers."
It's sort of the age when music has the most influence on you and sex drives you the hardest as well.
HT: "And the great illusion is that it stops becoming confusing and you settle, but it's not. And I think we're just trying to be three-dimensional in a sense. You can have ulterior motives. You can do the most lovely thing with the worst of intention or you can do the worst thing with the best of intention. I think there's a humanness to that. A lot of my favorite works are the ones where i look and think, 'Oh thank f---, you feel like that as well, I'm glad I'm not the only one.' I think we try to be open to that sort of feeling."
The lyrics start out very intimate, and then seem to broaden midway through the song, with the line 'How many must I forget?' Where did that come from?
HT: "One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this song is that it captures a moment in time more than any other song, really. It's really the most evocative of a certain day. It's a day where I watched an Almodovar film, uh, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and that line, "Forget now," is really taken from that film. There's a moment where a character is speaking on the phone and a woman asks him, "How many have there been?" and he says, "As many as I can remember, as many as I forget." And I think there's just a real simple beauty to that."
Where were you when you wrote it?
HT: "I moved to London and through convenience moved into this big empty seven bedroom house in north London through a friend of a friend of a friend who needed a house looking after for a couple of months. So I was feeling quite dislodged in this huge city that I'd never lived in before, in this huge house, empty no furniture. My main memory of the guitar part and putting things together was just setting up an amp in the top room in the attic of this house and actually borrowing my brother's Telecaster, which I've never really played on before. And then we first started rehearsing it together in the first week we'd been creative together for 18 months. So there was a huge sense of release. We'd felt so pent up and heavily, heavily pregnant and it was a certain sense of a pretty glorious feeling of this song coming together quite effortlessly. I don't think we thought about it too much. It just felt right early on."
On this song your voice is very sweet, but it's much harder in other places — almost a growl. Did it take you some time to figure out what kind of a voice you wanted to use as a singer?
HT: "For me, singing is cathartic. I get a huge sense of physical and emotional release from it and in that sense I suppose I let it be as unconscious as possible in a sense. But I think that's fair enough. When you're 14 or 15, you're angry and you want to sing like Kurt Cobain. When you're 17 and 18 you're a bit more world-wise and you start to appreciate Jeff Buckley for his sensitivity. And then when you're 19, 20 you start to discover the artistic possibilities of the human voice and you discover Thom Yorke and Bjork and Antony. It's an unraveling. You're picking threads off what you're really trying to get at. But I think my voice is probably an amalgamation of all those sort of stages because I've been in this band since I was a teenager so I think all those things have sort of amounted to this." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.