Love them or hate them, Wild Beasts is a band worth knowing about. Formed as Fauve in Kendal, England, near the birthplace of fellow British indie-rock band British Sea Power, the teenage band quickly realized the serious lack of a healthy music scene around them and relocated to Leeds in 2005. In 2007 they were signed to Domino Records, and since then they have been busy reconciling the current pop traditions with much older ones. Despite the fact that lead singer Thorpe claimed not to know what vaudeville is, their first album, Limbo, Panto, would certainly carry such associations for American listeners. The old-timey sound is offset by the modern rock-star energy created by Thorpe's unique countertenor voice and lyrics adroitly celebrating the the libidinous lives of libertines. 2009's Two Dancers smoothed out this sound, making it lean and bracing, and gave Thorpe a chance to trade some vocal duties with bassist Tom Fleming. The album was recently nominated for a Mercury Prize. We caught Thorpe on his way to New York for the second time this year —Wild Beasts play the Highline Ballroom tonight—and discussed his views on the American indie scene, his performer's philosophy, and the value of bravado.
How do you see yourselves in relation to the American indie rock scene? I've noticed people trying to set up kind of a rivalry between British indie rock bands and American indie rock bands... what do you think of that? Um, I don't know. I think, especially with our music, and especially with a lot of the best music, I think, is reflective of its origin and where it came from, and it's part of the scenery.
It can't be better or worse, just different. Exactly, and I think there's a bit of cross-pollination and that's brilliant. But I think a lot of my favorite bands at the moment, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, Beach House, are American. I think there's a very healthy scene over here and I think what's really been an inspiration, on either side of the Atlantic we're on, is just that people can be confrontational and be quite left-field and not afraid to be artistic. And that's getting appreciated out here. I think it happens in the U.K. but I do think the states are a little ahead of the field. You know, it's just a bigger place. But I don't really think about music in that way. It's just good music. I'm glad we're just sort of communicating.
Also, England also has this incredible legacy of... The Beatles! The Rolling Stones! The Who! to live up to, whereas the U.S. actually didn't start the whole modern rock-band thing. Perhaps that's a bit intimidating. I mean, we have had a lot of amazing bands, but... I think we're a long way from them now anyway. It's not that those bands are obsolete, but it's like reading the first chapter when you could be reading the 50th chapter, you know? I think when we talk about it now we should probably just skip to the end of the book, because we don't know how it begins but what matters is what's going on at the end of the book.
I hear sort of a vaudeville influence in your music. Could that be a product of your environment? A what element? Sort of a vaudeville influence? What is that? Vaudeville music? It's actually a very American thing, but it was a popular thing from the 1880's to the 1930's. I was just looking it up on Wikipedia. So I guess that wouldn't be a part of your environment. But if you look that up, it's definitely something American listeners would hear in Wild Beasts. What is it? Vaudeville. How do you spell that? V-a-u-d-e-v-i-l-l-e.Oh, vaudeville. Right. Okay. I don't really know... what that is.
Yeah, that was just kind of out of left field, but it's an interesting connection, maybe even something you guys picked up without even realizing it. Cross-pollination again. What would you describe vaudeville as?
Sort of showbiz-type tunes—maybe a little bit saucy, or something. A lot of people would describe it as "old-timey" since it's from around the turn of the last century. I mean, definitely our music, especially from our first album, and sort of on our second, is definitely that prewar tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. It's slightly risqué.
That's the word. That sort of strange but very familiar combination of funny and sexy. Yeah, exactly. It's like a flash of the leg. Wearing denier stockings. It's suggestive and knows what it is without ever giving too much away. I think that's quite intrinsic to what we do - I think use of humor, in all art, is really important. It's like a speed-dating tool. It's like "Do you get me, do you get where where I'm coming from, or not?"
A constant check on the listener to see if they're really engaged. Yeah, there's not really a middle ground. I think we quite deliberately use humor, and we're not afraid to really. I'd think of nothing worse than people being fearful, not being open. It's just one layer of reality, not necessarily the most obvious thing but it's a level where you can be quite personable.
Any song of yours that you can think of that embodies that? Not really. I think it's more coming through the music.
Just the general sort of mood. The courage and bravado. I think we try to generate our own bravado. We know what we are, we know our limitations and our abilities, really.
And you're making a personality, also. Exactly. It's funny because it's a self-fulfilling prophecy - we're jokingly painting ourselves as these old, laughing Lotharios and in a way we're painting ourselves as being these Vaudevillian—if you'll let me use that term now. We don't romanticize stuff. And you know, it's fun to play with that. And it's important because still a lot of jobs can either be the show career thing, then yourself. It's a powerful thing, to be able reconfigure yourself in front of people's eyes.
You kind of become a different character, almost, when you're performing. Not exactly who you are in real life. That's one of the skills I've always looked up to performers for being able to do, in general. It's strange, because normally you have to step outside yourself to do the job.
Otherwise you become too vulnerable. Which some people can do extremely well, but that's a pretty rare skill. There's also something very lonely about constantly trying to be real. You've got to respond to your environment every night, when you're in a new place, and I think a lot of people, I think, get the wrong idea by thinking they need to constantly be real. What is real? Our reality changes every day. My social reality—I can't keep track of it.
Also, people are constantly looking for novelty and fresh things, kind of step outside their lives when they listen to something. Absolutely. It should transcend. Also, I think what we do with the music we make and how I work. I'm terrified of becoming that person who only and entirely exists in his own songs. Because there's nowhere left to go with that . You start building your cage.
Right. So you can't go to the other extreme either. Yeah, exactly. You're a constant tyro. But that's my sort of job to worry about that. I suppose other people don't have to.
So your voice is quite unique, and it's described as countertenor - do you have classical training with that, or did you discover it on your own? Yeah, I think training in general is sort of - we don't have any training, we don't really know what we're doing. We don't claim to know how to write a song. I can't think of anything worse than knowing how to do all those things properly. It becomes like doing a drill. This way it's way more confrontational, way more invigorating, way more life-affirming. I mean, you may think I'm preaching here, I'm not. There are people who think they know what to do, but what they do is very routine, very drilled. For example, people who work a desk job. They might think they know what they're doing but what they do very routine and well-drilled and well-executed.
But with art you have to go beyond that. Yes, I was kind of arriving at that - I like to find the little gems rather than have the lights on and walk straight up to one, because when you go the longer route you see and learn so much more than you thought you wanted. What we do - we express ourselves, we try to be as uninhibited as possible. We try to be expressive but it all has a purpose for us, personally. And that's kind of the whole point of it—performing the purpose professionally.
So is there a moment that you remember where you discovered your voice, or your persona? People talk about your vocals as one of the more distinctive aspects of the band. Quite naturally I don't really care too much what people think, because it's used for my own self, for my own purposes, in a selfish way it's way more important to me than what someone thinks about it. What I get out of it is way more crucial to me really, in terms of a release, it's sort of a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with things. Everyone has their ways of doing these things, and I sort of have different ways that I'm getting release and finding peace of mind.
So it's a very directly cathartic sort of thing. Yes, definitely, and that's why I can sound really ugly, or to reflect something beautiful, I try to sound beautiful. My brain isn't too engaged when I do it, to be honest. It sort of just comes out. My brain's engaged when it thinks about the words, but in terms of the physical performance it's more a physical thing, you know.
So it's a holistic thing, merging your mind and your body. That is the sort of aim really, yeah, to release all this.
That's really fun. Yeah, a lot of fun. It is.
So are you guys into M.C. Escher? I think it was maybe two years ago that my friend sent me the video for "Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants," with the spiraling picture frames. That was just crazy. Have you guys ever seen his work? No, no, I haven't to be honest, no.
You should look him up. They're just drawings, it's not animated, but his drawings bring you in in a similar, hypnotic way. Yeah, really, the idea behind that was really about trying to recreate the falling-down-the-staircase feeling when you're drunk and happy and sort of uninhibited, you know? That was basically the philosophy behind the video.
How does that picture-within-a-picture aesthetic figure into that? Yeah, it's just sort of about falling, really, and just trying to capture that emotion of youth. Wanting to catch it and hold it in one place, but it keeps slipping away. I totally get it now! Yeah, in its way it's sort of pointless and beautiful, and it's sort of inconclusive.
What are you guys planning in terms of future albums, future work? What directions are you thinking about going in? Well again, I think it would be ridiculous to think about what direction we're going in. Because you are Wild Beasts! We'll have an album out next year, and that's because we're in a different place than we were when we finished our last album a year ago, and we need to be making music that reflects our realities, that represents us now. I'm always a believer in just sort of... doing it. You know.
Doing what feels right for the moment. Have you been recording at all?
Exactly. If we overthink things, we start to become too overcomposed, too formulaic, and eventually just miss the mark and don't capture the actual essence of what we're trying to capture. So, we're just gonna wing it and make an album and the rest will look after itself, you know. Just kind of roll with the punches. Exactly, it's not like that - it involves a lot of hard work, but you are also forcing yourself to go with your instincts. But what we really do is back ourselves into a corner that we have to fight our way out of. We book a studio and play, we gotta make an album in this month, and if we aren't backing ourselves into corners there'll be nothing to fight for, you know?
Yeah. So you're kind of finding a way to be on the edge of rebelling against the system a little bit. I think we're not ones to get comfortable. I don't see how you can make art from comfort. It happens but it doesn't happen often. So in a way we're giving ourselves a great chance of something good happening by forcing it and seeing that we have to.