This article originally appeared in issue Q381.
Wild Beasts emerged in 2008 as an antidote to lumpen lad rock, delivering a unique brand of rakish, ambitious and emotionally intelligent pop. Their star seemed to be in the ascendant ever since... until they suddenly announced they were splitting in September last year. Laura Snapes meets them to find out why.
In 1996, Kendal’s Ghyllside Primary School hosted a momentous gig. On the bill were the Spice Girls and Oasis, both replicated by groups of year six students. The latter, slimmed to a duo, comprised 11-year-olds Hayden Thorpe, as Liam Gallagher, and Chris Talbot as Noel. Moments before their performance of Roll With It, Thorpe became poleaxed by stage fright, and hid in a cupboard. Talbot stepped up as frontman. “It was classic Oasis, Noel always having to pick up the pieces,” says Thorpe.
This June, the pair felt the moment come full circle when they stood on Glastonbury’s Other Stage to watch Liam Gallagher perform. Their band Wild Beasts – which started in high school, just a few years after Ghyllside – had just played their last ever Glastonbury set, although nobody outside the four-piece knew it yet. “It was neat,” says Thorpe. “It was exquisitely right that that should be the case.”
Nonetheless, he still had to sit quietly after Gallagher’s set, coming to terms with the end. It was one of several strange circular moments this year. Dreamliner, the last song off 2016’s Boy King, became prophetic. “Begin again,” Thorpe croons. “You can’t come with me, dreamliner.” They announced their impending split this September, and released the farewell EP, Punk Drunk And Trembling. The title track is one of the first songs Wild Beasts ever wrote, but it had never found a final form, or a home, until now. “Sometimes the neatness is eerie to me,” says Thorpe. “Like, why would you worry all this time when it was always going to be like this?”
Now 31, Thorpe – a loquacious romantic – likes to see the split as the noble fulfilment of their destiny, and says he never envisaged them performing into their forties. But Wild Beasts have always run on bravado, and different stories emerged as Q visited each member at home in late November (bar guitarist Ben Little, who called from his new life in Kendal). Why would one of Britain’s most innovative and acclaimed bands call it quits? And what do they all do now?
Many bands of blokes started as knockabout childhood friends, but there are few catalogues that trace men’s emotional maturity as sincerely and beautifully as that of Wild Beasts. Their 2008 debut Limbo, Panto was a riot of innuendo made by young pups straining at the leash. Just a year later, Two Dancers refined their advances, turning the sloppy seductions of any parochial Friday night on the town into rakish Chaucerian vignettes. They wandered the ruined palace of heartbreak on 2011’s Smother, and flirted with happiness on 2014’s Present Tense. Each record sophisticated their signature sound – ricocheting guitars and Chris Talbot’s slinky drums – balancing electronic texture with assured pop craft.
But on Boy King, Wild Beasts balked at obvious linear progression. Out went subtlety and vulnerability; in came brawny riffs, grimy synths, and DNA nicked from Justin Timberlake and Nine Inch Nails. The raunchy lyrics harked back to Limbo, Panto, but swapped innocent lust for something more malevolent, mirroring the ascent of Donald Trump as they recorded in Dallas last summer. It became their most divisive album (though their highest charting, in an increasingly low-stakes Top 10), leaving the former critical darlings AWOL when critics’ year-end lists were totted up. That said, they’re all still proud of it.
“Even before we released the record, I think I knew that I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if I could do it again,” confesses Talbot, the quietest Beast, who lives in a South West London houseshare with his girlfriend and several others. “Maybe feeling the wind go out the sails a little bit, personally. Wild Beasts has always been quite a human and quite an honest representation [of us], and I’ve always felt that kinship. I think it was the first time where it didn’t really feel like me anymore.”
He says he knew they had to take a risk. Thorpe, sitting on the piano stool in his minimalist Walthamstow living room, calls the record “carnivorous and slightly reckless. Sloppy and grubby in the right ways, but in ways that don’t look after a future too well.” They’ve never finished an album with a plan for the follow-up, but Boy King had a clear element of self-destruction. “That record was the start of the end, in many ways,” he says.
“Boy King was a pretty turbulent record to make,” says bassist-turned-guitarist Tom Fleming, perched on the end of his couch in Finsbury Park, chin in hands. “There was a lot of demanding stuff going on in our personal lives.” The sound overhaul also came with a leathery makeover, as Wild Beasts “became the band we’ve always objected to being,” as Thorpe would say. “That record had a visible fronting up to the camera,” Fleming explains. “That requires a certain amount of taking your bollocks in both hands and going, ‘Okay, here we are.’ It became hard to sustain that veil of invincibility when people inevitably start throwing fruit. While the years have mostly been kind to us, I think 10 years of self-doubt, self-worry, and having to play this character of the rock star, it just takes it out of you.”
Still, they all call the Boy King tour one of their most fun. But touring America at the end of last year, they found their zeal unmatched by dwindling audiences in venues that they had sold out easily five years earlier: playing to 250 in Los Angeles versus 6000 in London. “We started saying, how are we going to come back and build on this?” says Little, who recently moved back north with his partner and their eight-month-old daughter. “It didn’t feel like people had noticed, almost,” says Fleming. “That’s a hard thing. You can deal with being hated, but you can’t deal with not being noticed.”
An uneasy spirit grew. On the penultimate date, in Mexico City, they finally acknowledged the strain. “It was the first time we mentioned not carrying on, almost vomited onto the table,” says Thorpe. Fleming and Little flew back home, and Thorpe and Talbot took a holiday to Mexico. They didn’t talk about it there, says Talbot – the band’s reputation for emotional vulnerability didn’t reflect their interpersonal relationships. “No, never,” he admits with a bittersweet smile. “We are four best friends, but a lot was left unspoken.”
Just before new year, they met for coffee and decided to call it quits, opting for a finite conclusion rather than a prolonged sabbatical. “I couldn’t put it on the simmer,” says Thorpe. “I only have one hob.”
“It’s been pretty intense, the last 10 years,” says Talbot. “Like, okay, we’ve had a great run at this. I think it’s time to stop living in each other’s pockets and get on with our lives.”
Each Beast is understandably forlorn about ending the band that’s been their entire lives, ever since they started doggedly rehearsing in mouldy basements 15 years ago. But the suggestion of splitting, says Talbot, “might have been a surprise to Tom.”
“I thought we were going to make another record,” says a downcast Fleming,. “I felt really energised by Boy King, it was like we found new muscles. But once it transpired that people were thinking of other things, it was like, well, that’s how it is.” It was a relief announcing the split, “especially because I was the least on board with it, keeping it to myself like, fucking hell. People asking, ‘are you starting the new record?’ and having to lie.”
They didn’t tell anyone earlier because they still had gigs booked, and wanted to plan a proper conclusion – namely three final dates in February “to make sure we don’t leave with our middle fingers in the air,” says Fleming. “The story of this year has been that lag,” says Thorpe. “My reality was the fact that the band was finishing and I had to start again, yet my lived reality was that everything’s normal. On the day of the announcement, the two finally aligned. It was a lot.”
There were deeper motivations for the split beyond the dispiriting US tour. Everyone talks about band life as a state of arrested development that impedes real life. “I do scare myself sometimes, like, Jesus, what has this cost me?” says Thorpe. Now a father, Little “was filled with dread, thinking I’d have to go on a two-month tour and miss out on a large chunk of the child’s life.” Talbot lost his mother to cancer during the Present Tense tour. “You realise that you’ve got something at home that you’re living for as well.”
Wild Beasts released five albums in eight years, a staunch rate of productivity. “That was the kind of momentum required to bind us, to keep it molten,” says Thorpe, with typical poetic flair. “We had to leave that atmosphere for a while, but it was the re-entry that became difficult – we couldn’t get back through without burning up.”
They clarify that the split had nothing to do with money. Publishing and songwriting royalties were always split equally, “and we are, if not the one per cent, then the two per cent of bands who make a living from this,” says Fleming. But he admits to feeling undervalued in other ways. “We released our first record at the height of the financial crash. We’ve been riding that economic downturn since day one. Everyone’s after the same bit of the cake, and the cake is getting smaller and the fences around it are getting higher. Certainly the only people who buy records now are collectors, and I don’t think they’re the best audience. Spotify really benefits the big labels. There is no trickle-down.”
He likens being a musician to being an animal in a safari park. “People never get out of the Land Rover. That’s how it feels across the music industry. You’re the entertainment, the help, so you’re invited into these glamorous spaces, and then you meet the gatekeepers and you’re told to go home again.”
They’re all emphatic that this split isn’t feathering the nest for a surprise reunion. Ending the band has left each member grappling with a kind of identity crisis. “Benny left college at 17 to do the band, so from the age of 17, my own writing was taken seriously,” says Thorpe, who has spent the year travelling. “Like, there’s other people’s lives depending on this work. And it’s important for me to be in the wilderness now. Distraction can keep you from looking at the thing that you don’t wanna look at, and I’m looking squarely in the fucking face of my own humanity.” A solo career is rumoured, though he doesn’t see it as an inevitability. “I have to be a bit reckless for a while. I thought about blowing more up than this – I really wanted a forest fire. But you realise that people are important.”
Fleming is the only member that sees his future in music, but admits that it’s hard to start with a blank slate. It’s easy for his days to slip into the nothingness of coffee, PlayStation, cooking, drinking. Talbot knew he needed structure and financial stability, so enrolled on an intense accountancy degree three weeks after the decision to split. “Even now, sat at a laptop looking at probability equations, I’m like, what the fuck am I doing?!” he says, shaking his head. Little has gone into construction with his dad. “Me and Hayden watched this thing years ago, East 17 talking about what jobs people do. And one of them said, ‘oh yeah, he’s doing alright, he’s a roofer!’ And it’s always sort of haunted me, that. It’s pretty different, I’ll be honest!”
They’re all ill at ease with their newfound freedoms, but knew this was better than slogging away at a sixth album. It takes some poking to get them to admit to their pride, but they know they created something great. For Talbot, it’s a pristine catalogue with an unprecedented level “of sincerity and openness”. Fleming recalls, and quitting a job at the Job Centre for their first trip to New York, in the Two Dancers era, and then appearing on page one of the New York Times. Thorpe muses on their influential “combination of cocksureness and complete vulnerability.” Little recently listened to their entire catalogue on a train. “I just could not believe how good it was, how audacious. I was really proud and impressed that we could come up with that sort of stuff.”
There are many reasons to be glad that indie bands no longer hold the cultural centre as more diverse and experimental voices occupy that space. But despite those waning fashions, there’s no denying Wild Beasts’ importance. They made moving, riotous music. They pushed vulnerable, complex portrayals of masculinity before anyone was really discussing the toxic expectations facing modern British men. They saved the guitar band from a truly lumpen era, and challenged bigoted perceptions of what a northern group could be, pulling away from the flogged Oasis archetype to remind people, as Pulp had, that being working class and intellectual were not mutually incompatible. Maybe their work was done. But, God, weren’t they miraculous?