New album Boy King is out now via Domino Records.
Tom Fleming (bass) is one quarter of the Kendal based indie rock outfit Wild Beasts. They just brought out their fifth studio album Boy King last year and it is a shift away from their previous four albums showcasing a rawer, more aggressive swagger of the band. As a result, I was keen to find out more about the writing and recording of the record.
I managed to catch up with Tom Fleming to discuss all things Wild Beasts before their upcoming 2017 tour.
Overblown: So how has your reaction been to Boy King?
Tom: It’s been good, obviously it’s a strange one, as it’s a slightly different record to what we have made before. I think it’s probably a bit more divisive than we appreciated when we made it. Obviously when you’re making something it feels logical. I think maybe we blindsided a few people who were expecting a bit more of a simple record. But yeah, I feel that once people got on board with it, as we put it in front of people and started to release singles, I think people got on board with it you know what I mean. I think superficially it’s changed but I think in terms of what themes and attitude and approach, I think it’s a very similar record.
O: It’s almost like you have donned the leather jackets in Boy King?
Tom:Definitely yeah, I mean first it was figurative, then it was literal. It’s about that kind of masculinity and toxicity of it and I guess also the inability to talk about vulnerability. I think we wanted to frame it in a different way, we didn’t just want to discuss it, we wanted to be totally involved in it. It’s not an observational record, it’s very much a self-loathing kind of record.
O: Do you think that you are now living up to your literal name of Wild Beasts?
Tom: Maybe finally. It’s only taken us 10 years. As a performer you start to think about it a bit more, you start to wonder about what you are doing. I think a good band name is one you can kind of grow into, that’s what we have done.
O: Personally, I felt that Boy King was a big shift from Present Tense. With Present Tense being a very love centric album, with Boy King having an almost cynical view point of love – is that something you thought when producing the record?
Tom: It’s not exactly cynical, there is a kind of hopelessness to the Boy King. It’s a defeated record in a lot of ways, and there is a bleakness. I guess in some ways the outlook of the record is cynical, it was more that we kind of ran out of hope. We ran out of hope with the time we live in. The shift to the powerful right wing government; all the fucking Brexit vote. We were actually in Texas when Trump was getting his nomination and then with Prince and Bowie dying it was relentless. The deliberate impoverishment of this particular generation. You know the Present Sense, it has it’s dark moments but essentially it’s an optimistic record, whereas I think Boy King is a bleak one.
O: So after 5 studio albums, do you think this aggressive nature was always there in the band waiting to come out?
Tom:We came from an environment where it was the very tale end of what we would term land of the Indy. Very macho, very Foursquare, lots of lyrics about fighting, drinking and shagging. We came from this kind of boorish masculinity background and when we started to turn that round a bit. Be a bit more literate, a bit more creative and then I think we kind of reached, not the end of that, but I think we just wanted to turn into something different. At the back end of 2015 we sort of felt that we had done this in a lot of places and there was a lot of people in that zone. The conversation had shifted. Which is great but it doesn’t make really good artistry if you’re just repeating stuff that people agree with. So I think we just wanted to put a twist on that, and to see what happened if we made ourselves the villains.
O: Do you think working with John Congleton had a big influence on this new found aggression?
Tom: Absolutely. What he done is a revelation. Good producers they tend to not obsess about the technical stuff, they listen. It’s about songs, it’s about performance. He was talking about records that he loves, records that were made cheaply for no money and to hear that out of the mouth of a brand winning producer is very affirming for me. He made this work quickly, he made this work together as a band. If the song was not there, then the song’s not good enough.
I think a producer’s job is to decide what is important to someone who knows nothing about the band. I think that was a bit of his skill as he presumably works with some of the bands for the first time and asks, “How are you going to do this?” To reframe it like that is a good reminder that l you can’t rely on what you done before.
O: So would you say that John unleashed the shackles on the band?
Tom: I would say so. His being American and having a different perspective on it and being with somebody who has so much experience, but yet so young. Also he has worked with so many people who have made records that we like. He propositioned us by saying, you’re a great band, you’re good musicians but that’s not good enough. That’s what we needed to hear.
O: Do you think that the latest album has taught you more about yourself than the previous?
Tom: I think it’s just different points of life. Obviously with each record we needed to make at that time. This time around I think we just needed to shake it up a little bit for ourselves and because the world changed. Most of the bands we came up with have either long gone, are splitting up just now or are at an arena level. The industry is not the same as it was, it’s a different environment, if you dare to call yourself an artist, as I always hesitate to do, you are going to have to change and adapt to play what’s in front of you.
O: Having followed your progress from 2008, do you feel the records fall into a linear trajectory of lustful and horny youths to like confident bold men? Is this a process that you have went through yourself Tom?
Tom: A friend of mine said to me when we put out Present Tense mentioning we had just hit 30 eventually, we had transitioned from being young men to shit men. That’s kind of what it is you know. When you are young you make mistakes and you do stupid things and then you try to learn from your mistakes and when you get old you just repeat the same things and you see the same things but you repeated both behind you and ahead of you. I would say that Boy King is a more grown up record in a lot of ways but I think that’s probably why it probably sounds so juvenile.
Certainly in the days of Limbo Panto we were definitely trying to point out we had read Julia Kristeva. Now it’s like by the way I love Van Halen and Def Leppard. There is an element of when the world around you is horribly intellectual and the whole world around you is too overthought and over-raw, you want to cut through that a little bit. I think that’s what this record is, it’s a deliberate, provocatively done recording. But I think in a weird way, in a very bafflingly juvenile way, it is a grown up record.
O: Having read a recent article from yourselves, you mentioned you wanted to make a pure soul record. Can we ever expect Wild Beasts to go full Style Council on us?
Tom: I feel that we have often flirted with R&B and electronica stuff and I feel like the way Haydon and I sing, we approach it like folk singers almost. There is obviously an American soul kind of singing which comes from a certain culture and mindset place which has now been adopted by all and the sundry. That’s awesome and beautiful, but I feel we are all from that kind of folk traditions, from rural Northern England, where we started singing about farms and factories and football and fighting in small towns and stuff. The flatness and the undecorativeness of folk singers is what we have always been aiming for.
I want to say we have made soul records. Not soul music, but I think that is the approach we have been using. It’s been earthy and heart for 10 seconds.
O: So, going back a bit, to the first record. There is a line in ‘Please, Sir’ that I’ve always adored, ‘take these with cheese as an offering of peace’. I ask because there have been times in Scottish chip shops where there has been a bit of tension, where an offering of chips and cheese would have sorted this right out. Has there ever been a moment where you have given someone chips and cheese so you don’t get your face kicked in?
Tom: Well certainly, when we were in school you used to get chips, cheese and gravy for 55p. Thankfully they have stopped doing that, but I guess people do come together over food and you know that is something that anyone of that age will remember. I had forgotten about that as I’ve been obsessed with this fucking Brexit vote, I had forgotten what it’s like to be British! Having said that, when you pass any chip shop, you’re hungry. Nothing else is going to satisfy you, it’s cold outside.
O: What’s it like to performing songs from Boy King and altering to the almost fidgety Two Dancers tracks? Do you still enjoy playing the older stuff?
Tom: The new stuff definitely has a real confidence to it. It’s a real kind of performance, without having silly guitar solos and stuff, and it’s a lot of fun to perform. Talking about Two Dancers, I remember at the time we were as broke as shit and we were rehearsing like 5 times a week. I do think we were really good live band, but if you look at us back then we all had ridiculous clothes on, ridiculous haircuts and all thin as fuck because we had no money, there is something to that but you know it is sonically different, whereas Smother and Present Tense are more studio albums.
Boy King is very much like we are going to put this on stage tomorrow and that’s the attitude really. I think in that sense it’s a little bit more stripped down.
O: That brings me onto my final question, what is your favourite Wild Beasts tracks to play live, out of the whole catalogue?
Tom: Oh Christ. While I’ve got a lot of affection and a whole lot of love for the old stuff I feel like we are making our best stuff now. While there are some songs like ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’, which people want to hear, I’m self-aware enough to realise what people want to hear, I certainly feel that I’m having the most fun with the Boy King stuff at the moment.
O: That’s a very Prince answer, he would always state his favourite song is his next one.
Tom: That’s the truth because he was always working you know. I don’t think Prince ever took a day off in his life.
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