Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts: "The four of us don’t have pretty faces and lipstick to go on the front page of a magazine"

Rob Pollard speaks to the singer, guitarist and songwriter from the acclaimed Kendal four-piece.

During the middle of the last decade, British indie music had become artistically void. It was incredibly popular and sales were high, but bands were bereft of ideas and their output had become depressingly predictable. Thankfully, that nadir sparked a shift, with a new breed of intelligent, articulate British indie bands emerging. Bombay Bicycle Club, Anna Calvi, and, this year’s big breakthrough act, Alt-J are all flying the flag for the improved and more culturally relevant UK alternative music scene. The leading lights of this movement, though, remain Wild Beasts, a brilliant band whose work continues to prove that individuality in music is still highly revered. Here, we speak to Hayden Thorpe, the singer, guitarist and songwriter from the acclaimed Kendal four-piece, about music, politics and the crisis of emotionality in men. 

I hear there are plans for a fourth Wild Beasts album. Where are you up to with that?

Week two of getting together and making it. We’re in that honeymoon period you get to go through every time you start making a new album because that’s, in a sense, the great thing about making music, or any creative work really, is that you always have that absolute right to reinvention. And that ability to reinvent is one of the most important and invigorating things you can do really, to move on and shed that old skin. We’re just at the stage of enjoying that new lease of life and that release from old material because it’s kind of an old world to us. It describes our old selves and it feels very invigorating to refresh the page as it were. It’s much needed I think because the last album was definitely an album that was made, personally, in a transient place, so it felt as if we didn’t have a grounding or a foothold in a still world until this point. 

Your third album seemed softer and more gentle than the second. What can we expect from this one?

We always, as a rule, try and age ourselves in terms of trying to make the last album look old against the newer one. As far as how it sounds, we always try to write in terms of how we feel. It’s always a feel thing and never a conscious thing, and the beauty of not knowing is the main draw. The DNA of what we do will always remain the same, kind of unavoidably. I don’t know what kind of creature it’ll be really. And I don’t want to know to be honest. That’s what the four of us get together for is for that not knowing. I feel quite lucky that I can rely on that and take for granted that when the four of us get together in a room and play it’s going to sound like us and not like anyone else. We’ve always prided ourselves on our difference rather than our compatibility. 

I always get the impression that pop music has a tendency to be dumbed-down somewhat. I remember seeing a young Morrissey berating the fact that the pop genre was subjected to really ignorant media coverage, whilst other forms of music were packaged far more intelligently. I’ve always thought Wild Beasts may agree with that, is that how you see it?

Yeah, it’s a really strange one because I always think that insight into a culture is through its art. The problem I have now is that when I put on the radio in England, I don’t have anything that I recognise reflecting back at me. I don’t hear a culture I feel at all that I exist in. So I feel very alienated really that all this music is supposed to be speaking of our culture. This is our proudest export because, in an ideal sense, any society that has safeguarded the safety and living standards for its people enough that there’s such huge investment and importance placed on superfluous artistic activities, the kind of responsibility that follows that is to do something meaningful and creative but when I put the radio on I don’t often hear that back at myself. I only ever hear the mechanics of the corporate guillotine to be honest. I used to fight and want us to be on Radio 1 but, I have to admit, I feel that world is something I don’t really want to be a part of. 

But we do have BBC 6 Music. Do you listen to that?

Yeah, absolutely. 6 Music is the mainstay isn’t it? And even that was threatened not so long ago and that mustn't be forgotten because it mustn't be threatened again. I found it bizarre that the budget for 6 Music was absolutely minuscule versus Radio 1 and Radio 4 and rather than maybe take a snippet out of their rather luxurious indulgences, it was preferred to cut a whole kind of genre and pretend it didn’t exist. It’s a strange time. People are still very passionate and place a lot of importance on music and somewhere along the line there is a disconnect in terms of how it’s consumed what within it is valued. There’s a disconnect there between the top and the bottom I suppose. The top being, say, Simon Cowell, one of the most powerful people, and the bottom being your everyday person who wants to hear music that says something about their life. 

I often feel that music falls into two categories. It can either serve as a call to arms summoning the listener to action or it can provide escapism, offering an alternative world that one can get lost inside of. Do you agree with that dichotomy and, if so, which do Wild Beasts cater for?

Yes, I do, and I think we’ve slowly gone into escapism really. We’ve gone into the internal and personal, and maybe spoken about the effects that the outside has on the internal. I think we’ve always tried to reveal inner complexities rather than outer ones. I think the main reason is I find it very difficult to envisage music that is beautiful that speaks about politics. Obviously it carries a kind of weight and meaning in its own sense, but in my head I can’t quite marry those two. The corporate crisis and things like that are absolutely relevant but it’s not, for me, beautiful.

So, has the age of the political song passed or is there still room for that type of track?

I think it exists, definitely. The strange thing is I don’t think bands have to speak politically to be political. That kind of Clash/Manic Street Preachers type approach, for me, has passed. The sheer existence of certain type of music carries great political weight. Dizzee Rascal was a great example of that; just what a creative force he was, and where he came from, and his whole approach when he started out was an incredible example of what is possible. It was inspiring. But I have to say, what he has then gone and done is a great example of middle-groundedness.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

It’s hard to say really, it’s quite a strong term. Yeah, I suppose I do. But I’m also in some ways a masculinist because I sometimes do feel there are discrepancies with male opportunity and male ways of being. Women have come to really dominate certain spheres. I mean, certainly in my game, women have become the powerhouses in terms of the four of us don’t have pretty faces and lipstick to go on the front page of a magazine, and the weight and power that carries is heavy, but then also you could argue that it’s a chauvinist world that places a pretty girl on the front of a magazine. But I think actually that strength has been reclaimed by women now. It must also be noted how lowly women are represented in Westminster.

What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing men in the modern world?

I feel as though there is a crisis of emotionality. There is no kind of agreed way of being. I think there is amongst females; there’s a sense of mutual reasoning on an emotional front. Almost as if women are allowed to be emotional, they allow themselves to be emotional, they allow themselves freedom for, in the most part, truth. Whereas with men, there’s always very, very coded ways of being. I suppose I always think of masculine culture as being this ancient thing that has developed out of years and years of ways of being, whereas women have had a very recent revolution and been able to, in a sense, reinvent their way of being. So I do feel there is a certain crisis in masculinity and we could do with a revolution.

What are your thoughts on the job the coalition has done since coming to power? 

Very worrying. Have we always felt this lack of fairness and this injustice in terms of the wealthy and the rights that having wealth brings you? Or has that always been the way and I’ve just not been kind of conscious enough to take notice? Or has there been a significant shift in that? I’m not sure. I think you definitely feel the hot breath of the right breathing down your neck at the moment, in terms of money seems to be the defining symbol for who you are at the moment in our society and that to me is pretty crushing. The arts have really taken a hit. It’s very hard not to feel very embittered when the rich got their five per cent tax cut and the artistic fraternity lost so much. You then begin to wonder: what’s the state really for? Where is this mutual direction? 

What about the Labour Party. How do you feel they are faring in opposition?

I know a lot of people have said that Ed Miliband kicking up a fuss about coming from a comprehensive school is making a big deal unnecessarily, I have to say that meant a lot to me. That took me in because he’s in the vast minority in Westminster who’s from a comprehensive school. That had a profound effect on me because I do feel that brings with it a representation - an important one. You can’t blame someone for their upbringing, so if someone is born rich with money then that’s their life and they cannot be blamed for that, but what cannot be reasoned with is when someone has no willingness to rectify that difference and try to understand and inhabit someone else’s skin. Especially inhabit the skin of the people you are representing and governing and that’s a major difference because, with Cameron and Osborne, you can see that they have never once taken a moment to think lives that are being lived very differently to theirs. At least Ed Miliband has an idea of that. 

Ed Miliband has had a pretty tough time with media since he was elected leader. He seems to have been unfairly cast as a man incapable of appearing prime ministerial and leading the country but the tide of public opinion appears to be turning. What do you make of him and his prospects?

Yeah, his public persona is slightly clumsy and slightly muddled but at least it’s not been kind of masked over by this pseudo-smoothness and this kind of American-style make over. Amongst that clumsiness you can see an element of the man himself and his character and that speaks volumes. I think that was the great mistake with Gordon Brown and I hope people have learnt their lesson. Do we need a charismatic personality to lead us? Or do we need someone who’s good at their job? I hope we don’t fall into that world where  entertainment and politics scarily starts to merge. 

So, if there was a General Election tomorrow, who would you vote for?


Do you think there will eventually be a reaction against the concentration of wealth being so heavily skewed towards the rich?

I think we’re seeing a reaction at the moment. It’s a slow one. I don’t see any immediate revolution. I think, again, it’s the honest person paying their tax and working their arse off to pay the required tax and to make a living and those people that are doing that aren’t being treated fairly throughout society and the rich are not really meeting their fair levels. That kind of thing is becoming increasingly intolerable. I don’t know if that will happen but I hope it will. I’m very worried from my point of view because I see the arts as a very puristic way of dealing with that but even within the arts I see so much horrible hierarchy and so much money spinning. The arts are becoming an indulgence for the rich now. I have to admit I’m from a healthy, middle-class family who have given me the cushion to pursue this in the first place. I think that knowledge that when I was 16 or 17 I wouldn’t be out on the streets if I pursued this did give me that bit of leverage. What comes with that leverage is the responsibility to do something meaningful and, at the very least, heartfelt and original. I think, in the arts, heartfeltness and originality is not pre-requisite for success, it’s kind of an uncommon thing really, and you see so many bands who have obviously come from great, lifelong wealth, and instead of using that as an opportunity to do something to explore pastures new, they don’t. It seems the meaning is what other people find meaningful about their work and they’re just caricatures in a way and that’s why I’m always very surprised when I hear American accents and banjos being played because what does that say about our life, and what does that say about the person? 

People feeling disenchanted and disconnected with politics seems to be at its highest level ever. Voter turnout is low and the amount of people engaged with politics on a daily basis also appears to be quite low. Why do you think that is?

It comes from a real sense of powerlessness. There’s almost an expectation to be let down anyway. Just like with the Lib Dems. I think that was one of the nails in the coffin - that kind of mergence of left and right. Yeah, it comes from a powerlessness and a ‘what difference does my voice make’.

It seems clear that there is an anti-welfare state narrative that is very prevalent in certain sections of the media and in certain sections of Westminster. Even traditionally left-wing people now find it perfectly acceptable to bash those on benefits. Why is that do you think?

I think it’s the classic Conservative every-man-for-himself policy really. I just turned on the news today and there’s the whole law shifting in the direction of people being able to harm people who enter your home and that in itself embodies clearly that conservative policy of ‘this is my castle’. And it doesn’t make for a more functional, happier society and you can see that elsewhere in the world where a far more liberal approach leads to a far better quality of life for everyone. The wealthy don’t live in fear of the poor, and the poor don’t live in fear of being poorer. There’s more of an even playing field and there’s that cross-pollination of values that just feels better. And you can see it evidenced everywhere. Airports, for instance, I think are a beautiful example of right-wing dominance, where people with money have their own passport queue at Heathrow. So, it’s raising the standard of a citizen purely because of their financial status. Not through any good-doing, not through any deed, not through any meaningful thing other than they have the money and can afford to go into a country under different circumstances than everyone else. 

It seems that bands are making the majority of their income now through live performance. Do you feel a pressure to tour and play live?

I definitely feel a pressure. For me, I’m happy to say it isn’t my favourite part. My favourite part is the creative part, the making of the music, purely because that’s the part that gives me the most meaning. That’s not to say playing live isn’t an amazing thing, but I don’t feel creativity and playing the same songs live go hand-in-hand. They’re two different worlds. So, I do feel a pressure but so be it. I’ve learnt things I never would have learnt because of the pressure to play gigs and do as many shows as we do. 

Literature appears to really inspire you in your writing process. What other art forms do you take inspiration from?

Any creative work that can move you. Not every piece does but sometimes you’ll stumble across something that will greatly move you. Even if it’s just a piece of design, say a book design, that functions and flows and works how it should. That, in itself can be really moving. Or a building even, just something that has a spirit and a depth beyond its actual possibilities. Anything that carries a spirit of its own is always greatly moving. I think that’s really what I’m always personally striving for - that invisible element, and spirit, and feeling that can’t really be generated through anything other than a human connection.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

Hayden Thorpe plays at Coachella this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide