"Back to being pissed off," is how bassist Tom Fleming put it, in describing Boy King, the fifth album from this Cumbria-to-London alt-electro-indie band. "What I think he means by that," says Chris Talbot, drummer with the band, "is this is album number five and although we're not getting on a bit just yet, we're thirty years old and I suppose it's the next bench mark after you've turned 18 and 21. It feels like the end of your youth. But I think if you want to still be creative and making music and art you have to have fire in your belly. I think that's what he means by being pissed off."
And they've got their guitars back out for this one, in creating a bigger, more snarling and funked up sound. "I think Boy King is an apocalyptic record," says singer and lyricist Hayden Thorpe. “It's about swimming in the abyss. When you think about sex, you've got to think about death, they're one and the same.”
Indeed. Sex and death are continuing themes for the aptly named band, one who has never shone away from describing our basest desires in sometimes, frankly, lurid ways, but always with a touch of poetry to soften the, er, blow.
Meanwhile, Chris has been spending a fair amount time in France, watching England getting battered in the Euros, as he explains to me while he is briefly back in England, in-between games, promotional duties calling. “You’ve caught me at an end of a long day,” he says. “We've had a couple of photoshoots, couple of interviews, and I've just come back form France this morning, from the football. I'm heading back out there today.
“I missed the Wales game but I was at that Marseilles (versus Russia) and the St. Etienne game (versus Slovakia). The football has been mixed,” he laughs. “I imagine the violence aspect of it has been getting a lot of coverage, but I haven't seen that. It’s difficult to portray the actual spirit of the places I've been in. It's so big. There have been pockets of disruption, but a lot more people are just chilling out and enjoying a sporting event. I'm having a fun time!
“I’ve been with a few friends from back home; it may be the last chance they get to enjoy something like this without the girlfriends, before life gets more serious,” he laughs.
Obviously, this is written with the benefit of hindsight and we know what happened, but when I was speaking to him there was the small matter of the second round knockout stages game with little ‘ole Iceland (population 325,000). “I’m going back there tonight, heading to Nice for the Monday game, and then I’ll come back, win or lose. I don't hold out too much hope (correct!), but if we win I'll go back! I’m not sure if it’s passion or stupidity!" He laughs.
One of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the summer, Boy King marks a slight return to the guitar sounds they employed liberally on their earlier releases, before they had discovered synths and keys. “We were writing that first record from the ages of 17,18,19,” says Chris. “We've been lucky enough to do it as a job since then. I won't say it's a normal or a comfortable existence, you're never too far away from oblivion with it, but we've been fortunate. People want to see us and are interested enough in our records.”
Formed in Kendal, Cumbria (the breeding ground of similarly like-minded mavericks British Sea Power), they were all childhood friends with each other, forming a rare bond that only exists between people who knew each other from a very young age. “We're all school friends; Hayden Thorpe (singer, keys) and I have known each other since we were four years old at primary school, and we met the other two (Ben Little and Tom Fleming) at secondary school. Ben is a year above us, but the rest of us have been close friends for a long time. I think it’s pretty unique in this day of age, a collection of musicians who have been and remained friends, and to make a living in the music industry. Obviously relationships can get very fractious.
“The seeds of the band started with Hayden and Benny; they would write these beautiful songs. They were both guitarists at the time, and we had this little music jam night in Kendal, where kids and older people would get up and play. Generally, that would be the first place to show the fruits of your labour. I was there one night, saw these two play, and thought, ‘blimey, that's quite something’. And then they asked me to join the band.”
Originally called Fauvre, the band decided to change their name, if not the meaning, once Chris and original bassist Gareth Bullock joined. Indicating their interest in art, Fauvre is French for ‘the wild beasts’, and was a name given to a loose group of early twentieth-century artists, whose work aligned with that of the impressionists. “Henri Matisse was the most well-known member that group,” says Chris. "They generally were very creative in their absurdist work, but within it there is something quite beautiful. We have a kinship with that kind of ideology. I guess when you're growing up in Kendal and you're calling yourself the Fauvre, you open yourself up to unnecessary trouble. So we thought we'd call ourselves Wild Beasts.”
The band recorded their debut EP in 2004, before deciding to all head (bar Bullock) to Leeds, to further their education and at the same time continue with the band. “We knew Tom was already at university in Leeds, and we were looking for another member. I went for a drink with Tom one night, to catch up, and we went back to a band practice that night. He's never really forgiven me for that since."
Whilst in Leeds, they recorded two more EPs, gigged around the area, signed a deal with the tiny Bad Sneakers Records, released a couple of singles including ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’, and started attracting attention beyond Leeds, including that of the legendary Domino label. “When Laurence (Bell) from Domino came to see us we were half way through the second year, and it was the reason we came to Leeds, for this moment. It wasn't a tough decision to make. I know me and Hayden don't regret it, and Tom had already finished his year.”
The debut album, Limbo, Panto, was released in 2008 and immediately made an impression. But their sound then is almost unrecognisable to what it is now. “At the time, we were in the spirit of four guys doing a British indie guitar band thing,” say Chris, and which reached its zenith with the Mercury-nominated second album Two Dancers, a record that displayed their musical and lyrical ingenuity and pop nous, topped off by that winning falsetto of Thorpe, where Jimmy Somerville meets Thom Yorke, pop meets rock.
Subsequent albums saw them reach for the electronics, culminating in the almost guitar-free and more aggressive Present Tense album of 2014. “There came a point with this record that we wanted to rediscover – without it sounding like a clique – our youth. We fell back in love with the guitar," says Chris. Meanwhile, for Thorpe, the libido continued to play a big part, albeit this time more explicitly from the male perspective: "It became apparent that the guitar almost became the character within the songs, that phallic character, the all-conquering male," he says. "I'm letting my inner Byron fully out, I thought I'd tucked him away, but he came screaming back like the Incredible Hulk."
"We spent a year writing," says Chris, "from January to January, and then went to Dallas to record it, with John Congleton (known for his work with St. Vincent amongst a plethora of alt-indie UK and American bands). I think the record is reflected in that experience, when you go to a place like that where everything has to be a big gesture. You can't just walk to a restaurant, you have to drive there! It's quite a grotesque way of living. We paid $13 to fill up a huge people carrier, which was absolutely ridiculous. It naturally fed into what we were doing, these British guys for the six weeks we were here, trying to be all-conquering and more confident. What's there to be afraid of? We're thirty and on album number five now. Let's do this!"
"On album five it felt like an important point to press the 'fuck it' button," Thorpe has said. "It was a bit of a gamble, flying to Dallas and working with a guy you'd never actually met. But that to me is why the record sounds like an adventure and an affirming undertaking. It was a very joyous and wholehearted experience."
The quartet’s ever-present knack for sensual melody combined with an exploration of the darker side of masculinity makes Boy King a truly remarkable record, a soundtrack to the early 21st century male malaise. "I think Boy King is an apocalyptic record," says Thorpe. "It's about swimming in the abyss. When you think about sex, you've got to think about death, they're one and the same.”
Boy King is elasticated electro funk-rock; from the vaguely menacing and sleazy vibes of ‘Big Cat’ and ‘Get My Bang’, to the mechanised electro-soul of ‘2BU’, the driving grooves and massively distorted guitar flourishes of ‘He The Colossus’, the warped funk of ‘Ponytail’, and the narcotic night-time drive of ‘Celestial Creatures’, the album positively reeks of hormones, adventure and danger.
While guitars have been brought back into the fold for Boy King, it is still largely an electronic album, supplemented by orgiastic synths and Talbot’s thoughtful and inventive drumming. But the guitars give it a raw, base feel that they have perhaps been missing of late. Electric guitars aren’t called electric for nothing. “I think we all felt with our last record that it was quite meticulous. We call it ‘in the box’, when you're making it on a computer. I would say we had lost the chemistry, it was just the process we had. For the first few weeks of last year I wouldn't say we were going down a similar route, but we weren't challenging ourselves like the way we knew we had to be. But everyone ended up working towards the same goal and in the same direction. It’s never taken personally, but if someone wants to take charge and say it’s going this way now, we're in it together.”
Read our review of their album Boy King here: http://brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1650-wild-beasts-boy-king