Eager to prove they’re immune to the sophomore slump, Wild Beasts are currently in the midst of an incredible opening run from a band, with three excellent albums issued one after the other. The most recent, Smother, expands on the evolution that occurred between their debut Limbo, Panto and follow-up Two Dancers.

We caught up with the group’s co-lead vocalist Tom Fleming via e-mail in order to discuss the learning process the band has gone through to get to Smother, which is a lesson in patient arrangements and romantic tension. Tom also took the time to tell us about the band’s passion for beautiful, isolated locales, smack talk Wordsworth and dubstep, and pontificate on the weirdness of the band enjoying some chart success back home. Catch the Wild Beasts on tour now!

In my opinion, Wild Beasts have just put out their best album in Smother, a work that I feel displays how confident your hold on your sound has become. Last time you spoke to us at Spectrum, you even mentioned that between the first and second albums you really discovered “that ideas can do a lot of heavy lifting.” What’s been the big lesson for you from the second album to this new one?

We learned (very much by trial and error) how to use synthesizers and samplers, and how to bend them to our will, make the sounds we had imagined. Further to this though, I think we learned the importance of process, of how it impacts on a record sound, indeed how it IS the sound of a record, recorded music being an interaction with time. The reason Two Dancers sounded the way it did had a lot to do with its circumstances, and this one even more so. I think that on Smother you can hear us getting to (partial) grips with unfamiliar machines, and letting the sounds kind of dictate the feel of the songs.

A big part of the appeal for me about your band is how impeccable your arrangements are. Each album is like a lesson in the proper use of space. But you’ve also said in interviews that you write songs rather quickly. What’s your trick to maintaining that speed while also making the songs sound so lived in?

I think it’s just that our idea of songwriting doesn’t stop until the whole record is “finished” (it’s never FINISHED). I think we have a shared instinct about where stuff needs to go and where it doesn’t, for the most part, and each basic song might have a couple of arrangements before we settle on something. If you have a song that you like, you can almost do anything with it, the trick is to know how important it is to not do everything. I think we work on the maxim that the first instinct is (usually) the right one.

You tend to record your albums in more isolated places, with the first produced in Malmö, Sweden and the most recent in Snowdonia, North Wales. Does leaving the city help you focus your creativity?

I think so, yes. No distractions, nobody leaves until this thing is done. Equally, being all locked away together does seem to create a kind of atmosphere. And it sort of frees us up from having to be pleasant and sociable individuals, which making an album does not help at all.

It’s been said in interviews that part of the intent of Smother was to capture the “soundscape” of England’s Lake District, historically a source of inspiration for the likes of William Wordsworth. What is it that you find so inspiring about the area?

It was never an intention, just that as we moved to London and settled in to our new warehouse/basement rehearsal space, what we were doing seemed to just sound more spacious. I mean, we left for good reasons, but the change of scenery just seemed to drag it out of us. A lot of good British music is about headspace and fantasy, and maybe this is something to do with how pushed together and grey it is (?). For better or for worse, it’s home, and it’s very hard to get rid of. There’s a sort of gothic thing about it, all heavy skies and muscular farmers, and there’s also that idea of the most interesting stuff happening off the map, outside of the cities. Incidentally I really don’t like Wordsworth, and his contemporaries even less.

In terms of history, you also tend to integrate a lot of historical influences and allusions into your music, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and even the name Wild Beast’s connection to Fauvism. Do you feel more tied to the past than the present in some ways? Or is it more that you have an affinity with the romanticism of the past?

I actually don’t know if we really are a Romantic (capital R) band. I don’t think we feel particularly attached to the past, just not particularly attached to the basic, boring tropes of Modernity (i.e. coffee-table dubstep, “observational” lyrics set to bad Clash music etc. etc.). I think it’s important to know about things past, especially if you’re making things, and also to have one ear to what’s happening at the moment. I guess Fauvism was really about an uncomfortable modernity at the time, though it doesn’t look that shocking now. I suppose we look beyond the pavement because we don’t buy the idea that “realism” is at all REAL.

There’s a very unique sensual aspect to Wild Beast’s sound and lyrics; the music is seductive but not in the way listeners are trained to expect. That aspect of the group really seems to have come to the forefront during Two Dancers, which even has a bit of a double entendre going for it with its title. Was there a conscious effort to expand on that aspect of the band’s identity then? Is that sensuality also what appeals to you about the Fauvists?

Thank you, I would hope that sensuality is the correct word. That album was definitely an attempt to express things a little more elegantly, and to pare things down a little, something which we’ve tried to do further on this album. We’re definitely more about how things feel, rather than attempting to be definite about how things are. We’re still interested in rhythm, mainly, and making music that is somehow danceable without resorting to the old, old tricks. We want to include aspects of these things that aren’t done so much.

It’s around that time that you began to sing lead more frequently as well. Do you think having two lead vocalists with very distinct styles allows you more freedom in writing?

I think so, yes. Obviously a line sung by either Hayden or I is going to have a different effect, due to our voices sounding so different. It also means we can sort of interrogate each other, and helps to break up the basic idea of four skinny boys with guitars. We’re lucky in that the way we sound kind of just works, we only really started to use what we had a little later I think.

Some of the most powerful songs the group does feature both of you on lead, like “Lion’s Share” on Smother. Were those songs written specifically for the two of you to sing together or did that develop after playing the songs?

There’s an element of design, certainly. We’re starting to write for each other more and more, though we’re eager to avoid the Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell duet type thing (very good though that is).

As much as critics like to highlight how unusual the group’s sound is, you’re enjoying quite a bit of success now, with a Mercury Prize nomination for Two Dancers and Smother even making an appearance on the charts in the UK. And yet you’ve been completely upfront about your unwillingness to compromise your sound to lure in new listeners. Has there been much pressure for you to court the mainstream more?

Honestly, from above, no. Of course there are people who would prefer us if we were a bit more straightforward and direct, but I think it’s a lot of fun to try and duck expectations, to move in ways that people aren’t waiting for you to. We’ve certainly changed, but I think the main thing that the success we had did, was to gain us an audience who would listen, who were capable of hearing that a song was part of a whole. I think we were as surprised as anyone at the love Two Dancers got, and then by the further love that Smother got. That the album charted is hilarious, when you look at the company that we were in. But you have to show a bit of backbone when making an album, or else you’ll get something that sounds weak and unconvinced, and worse, eager to please.

Are there artists you listen to that you think have managed to effectively balance mainstream success and uncompromising artistry? I know in the past you’ve mentioned you’re big fans of the Smiths, and there are a lot of parallels between your sound and Kate Bush’s, for instance.

Hard to say, my very favourite artists tend to be pretty uncompromising. I think it’s true to say we’re big fans of both Kate Bush and the Smiths, but to see either as a model would be really naive in 2011. There are a lot of artists I like that have sort of come good, who were relatively ignored and were ahead of their time, which I suppose is necessary. We’ve given up trying to be stars I think, but we’re really fortunate that people are coming with us when we decide to do certain things.

You recently added Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin to the group as a touring member. Is there any plan for Katie to make a more permanent contribution to the band? What’s it like working with someone whose style is, on the surface at least, so different from yours?}

I think Katie, as a very talented singer, guitarist and writer, is likely to want to do her own work eventually, but for now she’s helping us put this music on stage beautifully. We went after Katie because we respected her work, and that we knew her input would be very valuable, our bands having come up together in Leeds. What’s it like? A joy.

You’re pretty notable as a band that moves at a pretty brisk pace, releasing an album basically every year. Have you already started work on the next album?

Ha. The ideas never stop, but having made three short, sharp albums in a short space of time, I think we’ve afforded ourselves time to go away and think about what’s next. Never say never, but the next one will, I think, take as long as it takes.

See Also: Wild Beasts- Smother

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