From their first album, 2010's Limbo, Panto, English band Wild Beasts has explored and poked fun at the concept of what makes a "modern man," from arrogance to sensitivity and practically everything else. Boy King, the band's latest, takes on these topics even more directly than before, with songs like "Alpha Female," "He the Colossus" and "Tough Guy" offering contemplation and sometimes less-than-gentle mockery of gender roles and stereotypes.
For Boy King, the band crossed the Atlantic to work with producer John Congleton (Swans, St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky) at his studio in Dallas, which turned out to be just the right scenario that frontman Hayden Thorpe was looking for. While walking along a canal in East London, Thorpe explained how the band ended up in Texas, why the contemporary constructs of manliness need some tweaking, and how Eddie Van Halen's appearance on "Beat It" became a crucial moment of inspiration.
AllMusic: How was the decision made to work with John Congleton on this record?
Hayden Thorpe: Tom [Fleming, bass] is a big fan of Swans, he mythologizes Swans, and John has been involved with Swans on their last few records. We are all David Byrne fans, so there was that angle, and we have huge love and respect for St. Vincent’s work. All of John's work seems to have a feel of ownership, there's an unabashed, unapologetic nature to all of his records, that this is it, this is the identity of it, and we felt that could be pretty powerful for us.
AllMusic: It sounds like he doesn't have much interest in winking irony.
Thorpe: Irony probably comes from overthink, and John is the murderer of overthink. He makes you work from your gut, there’s no conversation musically about anything over five minutes, because if it can’t be expressed in the live room, then it’s probably not worth expressing. John made us braver, he’s a sonic genius. He’s so unseen, he just sort of happens. It was a psychological effect, he was like councilor and executioner all in one, and when you make a record about the hinge of masculinity and the preposterous, grandiose performance of being a man, tinged with the crisis and collapse of being this kind of being, you need both to work simultaneously, and he can do that.
AllMusic: His studio is in Dallas. Did you have ideas of what Texas would be like?
Thorpe: We’d been to Austin before, so the swashbuckling cowboy aspect of it wasn’t really our assumption, but Dallas was like this shiny financial hub, an unlikely place to make art, it seems like more of America’s 80s projection of the future with silver skyscrapers and men in suits. Strangely, I love those environments to make music in, I love feeling displaced. I fell in love with Dallas, I’ve even been back twice since we made the record, just to hang out, I just took to it. We made the record in Oak Cliff, which is a prominently Mexican-inhabited suburb, notoriously quite run-down and quite sketchy in areas, all the Ubers were kind of saying “uh oh” whenever they picked us up, and they weren’t expecting four English boys to be picked up.
But that sense of displacement and smallness, we felt tiny in Texas, like irrelevant human beings, that’s kind of good for you when you’re making work, I think, to have that perspective on self. We were definitely up for doing the “limey band comes to the US to make a record” thing, it had that nature about it. Americans might be more forthright with their emotions, which engenders more openness in the record. We’re northern Englishmen, and our sense of emotional projection is so coded and broken that it was a relief to go there and splurge.
AllMusic: "He the Colossus" has a lot going on and is one of the standout tracks for me. The lyrics make more sense as you bring up the themes of modern masculinity.
Thorpe: It’s a break-up song, really. The verse of it was written five years ago or longer, maybe in 2010, and it didn’t feel appropriate, that Byronic character, that sort of balls-out type of presentation didn’t feel right for the present tense, but it lingered around. As I remembered it, the chorus kind of came. It was in a period of heavy emotional turmoil, and the song became about the nature of having someone’s heart in your hand and how it’s up to you, the power you wield when someone loves you and you can be a giant for good or a giant for evil, and the possibility of having such an echo and such an impact in someone’s life forever, the reverberations in the universe will be heard onwards. We inflict wounds upon each other that will echo in time, in their lives, and they become part of who you are. So it’s about your own universe and being a giant amongst it and not being sure of what to do with these clumsy limbs.
AllMusic: Was a song like "Alpha Female" more recent?
Thorpe: That was one of the last ones we wrote, if not the last one. It was like an automatic regurgitation of a song, it just came out fully-formed. It felt like we’d always written it – of course there was always a song called “Alpha Female” by Wild Beasts, and of course it sounds like that. We call it feminist cock rock, we took claim of this new genre, it’s about the preposterousness of male shapes, and in celebration of powerful, driven women and their allure, their sexiness. I’m someone who has none of the idea of sexiness in women being about a kind of subservience and domestication, I’m more for being very much humbled and put in my place. There’s a sense of heartbreak in the song, also, this sense of what women have to give to have equal footing. In my own experience, being the loser in that situation and saying, “I know what you have to do here, and I know it’s going to impact me, but please go.”
AllMusic: Has this sort of awareness of moving beyond instilled gender roles been a recent development for you or were you always somewhat cognizant of it?
Thorpe: I work in the arts, so I’m used to women having drive and prowess and a “get the fuck out of the way” attitude, and I’ve grown up and been drawn to powerful women in my life, so that’s what I’m used to. It’s more of a personal experience rather than a more outward statement, as it were.
AllMusic: Speaking of powerful women, did John help you cross paths with St. Vincent while you were in Dallas?
Thorpe: We asked John if she was around, but she was somewhere else on the globe. She’s one of these mysterious creatures who now inhabits her own time zone, but we looked into her box of tricks to try to learn more about how she goes about her craft. We use the guitar on the record as kind of a phallic weapon, like a symbol of the absurdity of masculinity, an extension of the groin, and it’s interesting to see how she uses a guitar as a woman, and as a phenomenal player. She weaponizes it in a very robust way, and it’s an interesting sensibility, that kind of relationship. One of our main reference points for absurd rock guitar ended up being a very gifted female player.
AllMusic: "Dreamliner" seems like an obvious choice for the album closer. What's the history of that song?
Thorpe: That was in the middle, it became the spine, in a lot of ways. We had a few versions of it, and with a track like that, you start to use it as a host, other songs become a parasite to it and start to take from it, and then you have this skeletal, emptied-out song, which is what it was. We stripped everything else from it and used it elsewhere, and so sonically, it was just the bare bones, and it was important for the narrative of the record to have this “boy again” song; the record is about bravado and grandiosity, and then you’re just a boy again. It also says that to be this guy, to be the colossus, it means you have to go somewhere alone and isolate yourself to be that guy.
AllMusic: What are some other closing tracks you love?
Thorpe: Kate Bush, “The Morning Fog,” on Hounds of Love, that’s essential. That’s pretty beautiful. This sounds fucking awful, but I like to think of Oasis and “Champagne Supernova,” I don’t know why, I’m a child of Britpop, I’ve gone my life cycle, my gestation has involved growing up with these bands and then realizing the corruption within these bands and forming a band in response to that corruption, but it never left me, that kind of emotional hinge as a closer. I fully accept whatever consequences are for my statement just now.
Another beauty is “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others” off of The Queen is Dead by the Smiths. Just to end with a joke, it’s a brilliant way to sign off.
AllMusic: So you've always known that it's important to have a sense of humor in there.
Thorpe: Boy King is played with a straight face, but we know the joke is on us, we’re the absurd guys in a rock band, it’s just that we have license to angle the trajectory of the joke at ourselves, and that gives us license to make bigger moves. If you have a sense of humor running through it, that self-awareness allows you the space to be preposterous, to go for the fist-crunching moments.
AllMusic: Did the overall theme for the album develop over time or was it in place from the start?
Thorpe: It’s funny, because I just thought of my other favorite closing track, “Inner City Blues,” from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is kind of a concept record, but within broad terms. It’s a similar kind of situation, the songs weren’t written to concept, but they all have a natural DNA and lineage. We’ve always written about masculinity, on “Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy,” the first song on our first album, the chorus says, “Men to be men, must love and pity so deeply and secretly,” and that’s something we wrote as teenagers, but it could be a chorus on Boy King.
In many ways, we’ve become the band that we set out against, with the machismo and rock moves and the Americanism, from this limey band, a lot of the things we set up shop against. It’s kind of galvanizing and liberating to go through that life cycle like that. I think the reason why all of our songs have this resonance about the crisis of masculinity and vulnerability versus male behavior is that we grew up in a very old-fashioned northern English farming town where men were men, if I can say that, they worked on the land with their hands, and we grew up with this stoic sensibility of how men should be, that any expression or sense of vulnerability was a bit too far out there, a bit taboo, and it never quite leaves you. Yet our career depends on our emotional revelation and revealing of these vulnerabilities, and it’s a strange dichotomy.
The chemical makeup of our band is that, in many ways, we’re gentle and effeminate, but we remind ourselves of this very hardy kind of male way of communicating. You make out to transcend yourself, to be more than you are, and we enable each other to transcend while keeping each other firmly amongst the broken, stoic way of being.
AllMusic: When you're on a festival and there's a super-sincere, super-macho band on the bill, how do you handle that?
Thorpe: I tend to not go see a band to laugh at them. If the pomposity and delivery is so outrageous, like Guns N’ Roses-esque, then you can go and have a giggle while secretly lavishing in it. It seems like a dying breed now. For us, there’s one moment in music that we can pinpoint as being our reference point for Boy King, and that’s Van Halen’s entrance on “Beat It.” For us, that was the meeting of the two worlds, this axe with a skyscraper of amps, and this slick, soulful Michael Jackson, these worlds coming together, this is our effort at capturing that.
AllMusic: Are you saying that's a great moment or a silly moment?
Thorpe: It happened, and that’s good enough, I’m just happy it happened.