Rank Your Records: Tom Fleming Judiciously Orders Wild Beasts’ Five LPs
In advance of their final gig, we looked back at the English art rockers' discography with bassist Tom Fleming.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Wild Beasts are on the verge of extinction. Come February 18, 2018, the English art rockers will have played their final gig after 16 years together. It’s no surprise. Last September the band announced the news on Twitter: “The four of us have decided, for our own reasons and in our own ways, that it is now time to leave this orbit.”
Originally from Kendal, the same small, Lake District town as the creator of Postman Pat, Tom Fleming, Ben Little, Chris Talbot, and Hayden Thorpe overcame the odds stacked against their unique, esoteric sound to get signed by Domino Records. Five studio full-lengths, a couple of top ten albums, and a Mercury Prize nomination later, one could argue that Wild Beasts are going out at their peak.
The day before Wild Beasts bid farewell, they will release a thank-you to their fans in the form of Last Night All My Dreams Came True, a live album recorded at the legendary RAK Studios in London.
“We had a couple of people whisper to us that maybe people would want something more from us,” says Fleming. “And we had done something like 700 shows in our lifetime, so we wanted some kind of official record of what we could do live. We wanted to capture the off-the-cuff-ness of the live stuff, because our records are quite slaved over. Part of me wishes we could’ve done it when we were 23. But we were playing the best shows of our career on [Boy King] so we wanted to photograph that. We felt we owed it to ourselves.”
Fleming says that after Wild Beasts, he still has “more to give in terms of music,” but for the most part, all of the band’s dreams came true. “Certainly in terms of anything we could have imagined we’d done as teenagers, we have done tenfold,” he says. “I think we couldn’t have asked for anything more. Obviously I feel like there is more to do in art and in life, but in terms of what we set out to do with the band as kids growing up in a small town in the north of England, we couldn’t have even imagined we would get to this stage. We actually did that. Whatever holes we fall into now, at least we did that.”
Despite reaching the end of Wild Beasts, Noisey was able to get Fleming to rank the band’s catalog as one last hurrah.
5. Present Tense (2014)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Tom Fleming: I’ve got a few permutations here on my desk, but I think I should start with Present Tense, our fourth record. I think that record is an amazing exercise in control and restraint, the perfect of sounds. Sonically, I think it’s fantastic, but it took a hell of a long time to make, and it was painstaking, do you know what I mean? We really fussed over the details. While I loved working with both Lexxx and Leo Abrahams, who I think are both geniuses, it very much felt like making a Def Leppard record. [Laughs] That’s no bad thing, but it was just really, really detailed work. It’s very much a synthesizer and drum machine record, and I think maybe my preferred method is to make a noise and make a mess. This wasn’t like that. It was very controlled and very focused. And it took months and months. We made it in four different studios. It felt like the process would never end.
Why did you work at four different studios?
It’s not really an artistic thing, it’s more of a pragmatic thing. Like, I wanted to use this desk at this particular studio, and of course desks are quite an endangered species now. So they go to a studio and stay there for like four years. And it fell between a lot of other projects with other various people, so something we thought we’d finish at one studio didn’t get finished by the time we came to it. That is why it dragged on and on. I’m a big believer in vibe, and this record was quite painstaking.
You’ve mentioned control a few times. What do you mean by that?
It wasn’t a battle, but there was definitely a drill sergeant element going on. Like, “That won’t do, do it again” or “You’re off there, try it one more time.” And the editing was quite heavy. It was very much a studio project. A lot of the songs were conceived in the studio to be multi-tracked. They were never played as a band.
In an interview with Pitchfork you said, “Everything on this record is as small as it could be—it's supposed to be the smallest expression of what we're all about.” Can you elaborate on that?
This record was about reduction. I remember people heard it and said there were no guitars on it whatsoever, and they are there. It was all about boiling down the music where the ideas are very discreet. There weren’t loads of ideas in each song. It was more like each song had its own singular idea. Obviously its makers will have a different sense than the listeners, but that was the idea behind it, that it was a distillation album.
In some interviews you sounded concerned, like you had ventured too far into pop music with this record.
Potentially, yeah. There were some outright pop songs on there that I think are good, but maybe we gained something but lost something. For all of its studio ambitions, I think it was a synth-pop record, but I think it was quite a weird synth-pop record. I think that’s what we ended up with. It led us down the path of no longer being a live band, first and foremost.
Were you open to becoming a pop group?
I think we tried to be one from the early days and never managed to become one. [Laughs] Whenever we saw a road ahead for us, we veered off towards something else. That’s partly curiosity, and partly staying interested in music, do you know what I mean? It can be quite hard to see somebody doing the pop thing cynically, and doing well with it. Almost in a self-sabotage way we were looking to do that. Even when we wanted to write pop songs with effective hooks and melodies, we just got too interested in other things along the way.
I was always curious about the song “Nature Boy” and how you sought inspiration from Ric Flair and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Because I do not associate Wild Beasts with wrestling whatsoever.
I think at the time I was listening to a lot of hip-hop and enjoying all of the self-presentation. There was always a certain kind of macho presentation to Wild Beasts. Like, another way to approach it. And also, like with anything else, I amused myself by those kinds of figures and that kind of thing. Part of it was nostalgic. I remember watching wrestling when I was nine or ten, but we had always referenced literature and we kind of wanted to reference pulpier shit. Rather than it being such a high art thing, it was like, “What else is around?” I do think wrestling is easily as interesting. Sports entertainment, I love it. [Laughs]
4. Limbo, Panto (2008)
In my abstract list, I have our first record. I am immensely proud of this record but I do accept its limitations. I think we had so many ideas but not quite enough space for them. We were young. I was just 22, slightly older than the other guys in the band. We were in this amazing studio in Sweden, and we just didn’t have a fucking clue. I mean, we were ambitious and we were well drilled, but playing in the studio versus playing live is such a different thing. You have to be so much better to record than you have to play live. And I think it was just a really good schooling for us, but maybe there were a few things where if we had more experience we could’ve nailed down more tightly. Again, it was a long-winded process. We would do 40, 50 takes. It was more of a pop production in that regard.
You’ve said the difference between the first two records was “the result of learning how to make records.”
I think we just didn’t have a concept of what was required of us. This sounds arrogant, but you don’t get record companies interested unless you’re Kings of Leon domain, do you know what I mean? As any band that has got anywhere, we were just better than most bands around us. So you have an inflated sense of your own worth, so when you go into a studio that is like the Premier League, you think, “Oh fuck! Right, okay. This is different.” So we had to deal with the gap between expectation and reality.
You worked with Tore Johansson on this record. I did this with Alex from Franz Ferdinand recently and he described Tore as a “first-prize pain in the fucking arse.” You said he was “at first, fairly brutal.” What’s with this guy?
Well, if he thought something was bad he would tell us it was bad. The guy has made million-sellers, so he’ll tell you what he thinks. Sometimes he would guide us through, and other times he’d let us work out what was wrong with it. Bearing in mind this was all in the studio, so it was sink or swim. A lot of producers do this, and don’t get me wrong—I rate Tore as a hugely great producer—but his methods are more like the efficient Swedish pop thing than the British fey tradition. It’s interesting because we went into it with Tore because Domino had so much success with Franz Ferdinand and that record.
At this point you weren’t singing that much. Why was that?
I was kind of the new boy, so there was so much other stuff I helped out with when I joined. I think it was more that I hadn’t established myself as a vocalist yet. I was more of a band member and collaborator more than I was a focal point. I mean, I hadn’t played bass until I joined this band. I was always a guitar player. But they needed a bass player, and I really loved the stuff they were doing so I did whatever was necessary. That was my role in the band at the time. I was the finisher. The vocals only started creeping in ‘til the end of that record and the start of the next one.
One thing the press always fixated on was how you and Hayden weren’t afraid to sing about sex. Where did that openness come from?
I think it was a result of our influences. We were listening to the Smiths and Kate Bush, where sex was always present, but not always a celebration. There was always some kind of depth and wrangle to it. I think the lyrics undertook a bit of a change after the first record. Limbo, Panto was more tongue-in-cheek and bawdy, whereas, on the next record, it was more emotive and took a darker turn. Limbo, Panto for the most part is more lighthearted and more fun than its children.
3. Smother (2011)
This seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, which makes me pleased. As we’ve gotten older, it seems to be the cult record or the one people seem to have the strongest relationship with. That record was made in no time at all—written and record in three months. After the success of Two Dancers, we toured heavily. Instead of taking a break we just went straight into the studio and made a record. We had moved to London in September and had the record done in January. So it was pretty quick. While I’m really proud of how it turned out, personally I wasn’t going through the best time. I think I phoned in a lot of it. I think Hayden wrote his ass off, and once we got into the studio I was really proud of what we had achieved. Especially as we moved more towards the synth elements of Present Tense and Boy King. But I feel like my songwriting was better on either side of Smother.
How did moving to London change things for the band?
We had to change our working methods because space in London is so hard to come by. We worked on a sheep farm—and not a romantic sheep farm but an industrial sheep farm—outside of Leeds beforehand, which is beautiful. In London, people price things based on you having a label behind you rather than you and friends want to go in and record some songs. It’s much more professional and commercial. Maybe that encouraged the quick working method and maybe even the lean towards synthesizers, like, “Oh, we can’t work for ten hours a day banging on the drums and coming with guitar riffs, so we have to be more focused and quieter.” Also, don’t underestimate the psychological effect of having been absolutely nowhere and shit-broke to suddenly being Mercury Prize nominees and basically a boy band. It took even just a bit of success for us to even afford a flat in London, let alone any of the other trappings.
Hayden called this “a very bruised, defeated record in many ways.”
I think it is a very bruised record. When I listen to it now, it is quite soft and damaged. That might be what people take from it, that sense of romantic defeat, I suppose. Do you know what I mean? Like, “We came so far, we did so well, and now we’re trying to pick up the pieces of our lives.” I think that is definitely what we were going through at the time, and why my contributions were lacking compared to the other guys.
At the time you told me, “I think we captured a bit of human frailty, rather than kind of being a bigger rock or dance record, which is the expected industry progression.” Did you feel those the expectations were placed on Wild Beasts?
I think so, yeah. I think, certainly after the success of Two Dancers, which was basically built upon having singles. I think people wanted to hear more radio singles from us. I think that was the expectation. Like, “We had come this far so let’s capitalize on this. Let’s make some money.” And I don’t think we wanted to do that. We didn’t feel that was honest. It was a betrayal of everything we had done to get to that point. Again, I think we followed our noses with it, like, “Let’s pull back from the obvious thing here.”
And so you turned to synthesizers.
Partly, but it was also just something we were getting interested in. Having been very much a live sort of rock band, we had discovered them in the studio and the possibilities that they could lend us. We were still working track-to-tape, so it wasn’t done completely with computer editing. Synthesizers were a big feature, and so was the piano. And so there were a lot more piano torch songs than there were rock songs.
You mentioned to the Guardian that "My mother occasionally says: 'Why can't you write a nice one?'" Did she ever call one of your songs nice?
No, I think she’s still waiting. [Laughs] All of the songs are still prettier, they have an undertow to them. I’m talking about them like they’re full-on ballads. I actually don’t think they are. I do think they still have that sense of discomfort and loss that all of the Wild Beasts stuff does.
2. Boy King (2016)
This might be proximity bias, but I’m very proud of this record. It was the one that we needed to make. We had established this mold of Hayden singing beautifully about his pain and us whipping up a shitstorm behind him. It just felt so right. It felt like such a protest in some ways of what we should have been doing. Every band setup at the time was like someone who looked like a model with hired players in the back wearing black. I think if Limbo, Panto had been a Smiths record, this one was Van Halen. It deliberately thumbed its nose at good taste. It was a bit rude, crude, and abrasive, and deliberately done. Ever since Smother, people had us pegged as a clever art band and I think we got sick of being pigeonholed. So I think that’s why this record sounds the way it does.
Working with John Congleton in Texas was an amazing experience. He just brought something out of us and was great fun to work with. Also, he didn’t let us do exactly what we wanted, he really pushed us, and made us work.
Yeah, you went to Dallas because the record needed some “big balls”?
They were his words, really. “You didn’t just hire a Yankee, you hired a Texan.” I don’t know, the US approach and the lack of sensitivity to our sensitivities, was like, “Well, this is what you’re competing against, so let’s not hide here.” I think that was important for us to hear. It was a realistic assessment of what we were, what he thought we were, and what he thought we could be.
Did you feel like fish-out-of-water in Dallas?
Definitely. Absolutely. Extremely. Don’t get me wrong, because we didn’t feel unwelcome or anything. But there is a temptation to think of the US as a bigger, shinier Europe and it’s just not. [Laughs] It’s so much more different. And the more times I go, the less I understand and appreciate how different a country it is. And Dallas is a perfect representation of that. It was just very interesting for this bunch of English boys. We were just staying in a bungalow in this residential district, driving everywhere and getting Whataburger. It was just very different and very cool. It was an education.
So this is an apocalyptic concept album, correct?
[Laughs] I think, in terms of the apocalypse, while we were out there we were watching Donald Trump become the Republican nomination. That’s too close to the record to actually be about that, but there is a sense of the whole toxic masculinity we’re talking about on the record, which we’d done since day one, has become the dominant mode in world culture. I don’t mean in terms of what people say on the internet, I mean in terms of who runs the world. We were back to medieval cock-measuring. That’s what Boy King was about. And I think a lot of the negative reactions to it maybe took it at face value that we were actually saying this now instead of actually satirizing it and reflecting the world back as we saw it rather than how we wanted it to be. [Laughs] I think there was an element of “fuck it” in making the record and certainly in terms of having us characterized as a clever band with a moral center. We got tired of doing that. Sometimes you have to reflect it back in all of its ugliness. So maybe it is an apocalyptic record reflecting all of the nastiness around us.
Did you have any sense Boy King would be your last album while you were making it? When was the decision made?
I don’t know. Boy King exhausted us, and hollowed us out a bit. For me, I thought we would crack something open that we could then pursue. In terms of sound and attitude, but I guess it didn’t work out that way. Certainly I never got that sense while we were making it.
1. Two Dancers (2009)
Why is this your favorite?
More than any of our records, it changed things for us, in terms of going from being this weirdo art band from the North to being a serious proposition, being invited into the glamorous spaces and people suddenly knowing the lyrics to our songs. We were broken when we made this record. We were so fucked. We had a sense that this might be our last record, so we had to make it a good one. We put everything we had into it and it turned out well when it very easily might not have done. We had all kinds of hardships and we really pulled it together. I’m really proud of that.
This album came out only 14 months after Limbo, Panto. For a record that was so tough to make, that is a remarkable turnaround.
Yeah, well, it was hard because we were in there every day. We didn’t take any time off. Between gigs we were writing and rehearsing all day and all night, just because we wanted to. We still felt we had unfinished business. We learned so much making Limbo, Panto that by the time we finished we were ready to make another one. That’s all it was, a sense of youthful arrogance or just impending, “Shit, this might be our last.” Don’t get me wrong. I by no means think it’s a perfect record. It just has some kind of energy to it that was maybe more than the sum of its parts. When I think of ourselves at this age, 23 or 24, and then I hear the record, I think, “Jesus Christ! Okay.” My general attitude to the world versus what we actually made is pretty remarkable.
Two Dancers is where you became more involved as a vocalist.
I think Hayden and I realized that we played different characters. Our voices are very different, so what you’re hearing on the record is a push-pull. Hayden’s songs are bit more hedonistic, while mine are more ruminating on this record. I think that may be just the way we were. Sonically, to have that kind of one-two punch, we realized that it was quite powerful. That was a point of difference. [Co-producer] Richard [Formby] really encouraged us to pursue that day and night.
Were you surprised by how "All The King's Men" was interpreted by some as being misogynistic?
I actually wasn’t aware of that. I think those people are world-class stupid. But listen, I also understand how our British “nudge and wink” becomes lost. I’m just baffled by that suggestion. We often use misogynistic language to prove a point. That’s not the take home.
How surprising was the Mercury Prize nomination?
We were definitely surprised, especially that the album had so much legs. We toured the States in the winter, and then came home to London and played our biggest show at that point, and everyone just knew all of the lyrics. And we just thought, “Fuck, when did this happen?” It really did take us back. Things really travel so much faster than you do. Do you know what I mean? One day you have 100 people at a show and then your song gains some traction while you’re away and things happen at an amazing pace. It was only huge in a limited sense, but to us it was massive.
Earlier you mentioned something about feeling like a boy band because of the Mercury.
We thought we looked a certain way, we were photographed a certain way. I think because of our sexual lyrics, people started to talk about us as a sexy band, which was funny to us because we’d always been such an awkward, nerdy band. Suddenly we had these silver tongues. Do you know what I mean? Things change. You lose control of how people see you. Thing is, at the time, the idea of skinny white dudes being in a band was just starting to change. I’d like to think we helped take it into another direction and steer it towards other things. Maybe we were held up for that as well. But I don’t know. It was very different. All of a sudden, we were flavor-of-the-month. We were this hot new band, despite not being that new. It was very, very strange being the hot new thing. Quite cool, but certainly educational learning what being a hot new thing means. I should be careful with what I say, but it was meaningless. You can’t get wrapped up in that.
Did you ever feel like Wild Beasts fit in with any scene?
Absolutely never, not once. I think we’ve always had a healthy disdain for any scenes that slap each other on the back. Even at the Mercury Prize ceremony we felt like the awkward cousins. We were a very, flamboyant art band from a very dour, macho background. Being around the London hype, that always alienated us as well. But no, I don’t think we ever felt like we belonged anywhere, and I feel like that was fine. I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.