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Album Reviews Q&A: Wild Beasts

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Mike Diver Mike Diver | 15:03 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

Wild Beasts buy Paul Phung


Artist: Wild Beasts
Album: Smother
Recommended by: 6 Music Album of the Day, Marc Riley

Wild Beasts' Smother became one of the most anticipated albums of 2011 as soon as its release date was confirmed. Having listened to it, repeatedly, I can confirm it's also one of the very best records of the year to date. The follow-up to 2009's Mercury Prize-nominated Two Dancers (a close second to The xx, apparently) takes its predecessor's deepest, most luxurious textures and proceeds to craft an entire long-player from them. Gone are the scuffed knees, the back-alley fumbles; the big-booted rumbles and the kicking-out-time turbulence. Smother is elegance and beauty, effortlessly imposing itself on the listener - lead single Albatross (video below) sets a fine tone. Expect this LP to go around several times before reaching for any other record. Frontman Hayden Thorpe was kind enough to spend a little time on the phone with us...

- - -

Your debut album, Limbo, Panto, came out in 2008 - so that's three albums in three years for you guys. That's quite the productivity...
Well, our debut single, [Brave Bulging Buoyant] Clairvoyants, came out back in 2006. But there are no rules as to how this should be done: 'typical' record turnovers are completely an industry creation. For us, we try not to over-think a record - it's really not some sort of mythical creature. We're trying to make the distance between records as short as possible so we don't talk ourselves out of anything.

I love how Smother takes the richer textures, and the... well, smothering atmospherics of the last album, and effectively is built around these elements rather than the louder, more boisterous sounds of old.
We were really proud of the atmosphere of the last record. A good song is a good song, but if it has this majesty about it that you can't quite put a finger on, it's that much more special. We've stuck our necks out to really capture all the atmosphere we could - and it's something you can't fake. Nowadays you can make a bad song sound good with computers, but what you can't do is simulate a genuine atmosphere. I think that's come across consistently - and the final songs rather chose themselves.

And, despite the regular talk of your vocals, and of the band's eccentricities, this is pop music at heart, right? It's not complicated stuff... You're not setting out to be a cult band...
It's music made with the assumption that people don't need it dumbed down. I think that's the problem with a lot of pop right now: it's assumed that audiences are stupid. Which is bulls***. We've always made pop songs, and the strange dilemma is that the more we try to make pop songs the more bizarre they end up sounding. But from day one we've said, this is pop. We don't think that's a dirty word. We can't be accused of selling out because we've always wanted lots of people to hear our songs. They're not meant to be exclusive. We heard our music on Radio 1 a while ago - and it seemed remarkable that it was there in relation to what was around it, but also perfect sense as these are pop songs we're writing. Pop is all-forgiving - the great thing about the term is the music doesn't need to be justified.

You've reached album three having seen your profile grow steadily, but over that time many a new act has emerged, hyped, but crumbled on their debut. A product of the pressure imposed on new bands today?
Oh absolutely, there's loads of pressure. But at the same time I've no sympathy for anyone who flops after a hyped debut, as clearly it means it wasn't good enough. And most of the time these records aren't good enough. A debut album doesn't seem to be allowed to exist on its own terms, it always has to hark back to some nostalgic era. A lot of music being made today is safe, for a safe society - it's almost like right-wing music, made to keep the rich rich. It's predictable, and often made by people who don't actually need it to be successful. It should be accepted to be unique, that should be the assumption. But I'm just a passionate observer, really - we have introverted more. The great thing about moving on to a bigger audience is we've more room to manoeuvre within ourselves.

I have to mention the Mercury. Last year, it seemed like a shoot-out between yourselves and The xx...
Our initial suspicion was that The xx were always going to win it. Their success can't really be explained - it'd become a force, like a magnet. And we'd seen it happen before, but it's a rare and beautiful thing. And I think they deserved it. I had no complaints. They're very much in the spirit of what we do. We thrive off this feeling of everything being against us - and perhaps that comes from us being from such a rural place. We can be very guarded over it. We feel the same about our work with or without the nomination.

But now it's clear more people are listening, and the Mercury has been a great help...
For a long time we felt that we had to kick the door down - now we've been able to compose ourselves. Now people are listening we can speak a little clearer, more calmly. I think when you're away and spread out as a person, you try to scoop up the essentials and document the things that are getting away from you, because of successes or lifestyle. I think we've tried to document the great realisation that something beautiful is actually made up of a load of imperfections. Our one mission statement going into this record was to make a really beautiful album. We're going to be living inside this record and touring it for two years, and we felt that at this point in our lives we wanted it to be beautiful. And to do that we've had to include things we don't like, some ugly things, because they can be equally beautiful.

- - -

Wild Beasts - Albatross

- - -

You say you're going to tour this for two years - is that a side of the band you enjoy?
Personally I find touring very difficult - it's certainly not my first love. What I find really crazy is, while you're away, you live for that one hour on stage. The other 23 hours are completely expendable. But I get itchy when I'm home too long, as I do like to go away, and experience things. If you spend too long in your kitchen you end up writing songs about your kettle. But if you go to a new country, with fresh eyes, you see things that can be really fascinating. Equally, though, who wants to travel all their life, and return home at 50-something to nothing but a few records on the wall... and a damaged liver.

Surely the landscape around you when you formed, in Kendal, was inspiring...
Yes, I think the further we travel from the Lake District, the more we look back at the landscape that's helped inform the songs.

Regarding the songs, many a write-up has focused on your lyrics, which can get a little... saucy, I suppose. But not always in a pretty way.
That's the greatest purpose of art: to uncover what's ugly, to be a vehicle for these things to be realised and understood. Sexuality and violence, these are things that are suppressed and limited every day, they're to be controlled. So people become dependent on songs to reveal these things. They're entertaining because they pull at threads, because they're slightly perverse. To be cautious of what you're doing is really important. Say, Lady Gaga's version of sexuality isn't quite right to me. It's a bit of a double-bluff, really.

Have some of your rather more lurid lyrics ever landed you in trouble, though?
One of my most embarrassing moments ever was when I wasn't thinking, and I dedicated She Purred, While I Grrred to my mum. Perhaps not all that appropriate. But it's a lifestyle choice - you develop it, but you have to be careful. The inspiration you get from things far outweighs anything else. I would resent anyone who judges another person entirely on their art, without meeting that person.

Finally, what have been your favourite albums of the year so far? Or, what are you most looking forward to hearing?
Awaiting Kate Bush's return with Director's Cut, to me, feels a little like the protective and possessive worry that you feel for a parent with a new partner. Can this new whim really live up to the biblical expectation and belief you have instilled in this person? I've heard the new version of Deeper Understanding. The original is one of the most bizarre songs I've ever heard. The verse is really very sketchy, and hasn't dated well: "I press execute". This is pre-iPad era, for sure. The chorus, however, is a spectacular example of Bush's ability to turn on a sixpence. It lifts off in a blaze of voices and synthesisers. In the Director's Cut version the re-worked chorus has been overtaken by some maladjusted vocoder, as if an extremely high Kanye West picked the lock of her studio and started fudging things up. Okay, so I'll go with it for now and stay hopeful. She got Rolf Harris in on her last album and got away with it, didn't she? Well, just about. Tread lightly fair Kate, we love you.

Read the BBC review of Smother
Visit Wild Beasts on MySpace (external link)
Read more Album Reviews Q&A articles on the BBC Music Blog

Photo credit: Paul Phung


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