Interview with Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts

Interview: Elize Strydom

Wild BeastsIt is 9 o’clock in the morning and Tom Fleming has already been down to visit his parents and is now on the train headed for Leeds to meet up with his band, Wild Beasts, for rehearsal.

Bookish and brooding, self important and slick, the Wild Beasts are on the verge, threatening to wow the world with their three part harmonies and suggestive, erotic and at times dark themes. Their second record Two Dancers was unleashed a few months ago and, far from being a difficult and disappointing follow up to last year’s Limbo, Panto, it has pushed them into the spotlight and all the way to Australia for January’s St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival.

Fleming says that was something the band accepted gladly, will smiles on their faces, to boot.

“Oh my God, yes. It’s quite a thrill to be able to go so far with it, such distance. It’s the sort of thing you want to do but are not sure you’ll ever get to. The Laneway people approached us and when we got the offer we jumped at it. We’re really looking forward to it and it’s amazing that our music can travel further than we can physically. I’ve never been, but Hayden (Thorpe – guitarist and owner of one helluva falsetto) has an Australian passport, his mother is Australian so he’s been quite a bit. I’m overjoyed to be coming, to be honest.”

I can tell his excitement is genuine and not the typical sentiment expressed by overseas acts when responding to the standard, “Looking forward to playing in Australia?” question. Fleming doesn’t come across like your average (early) 20-something. He speaks quickly, barely drawing a breath, and with assurance and energy. He’s the kind of boy a life coach would call a ‘go-getter’. Then again, Wild Beasts could hardly make the music they do if they were just your run of the mill lay-abouts. Their latest offering is perfectly produced and quite polished, lyrics brimming with obscure phrases and literary references and vocals that soar and plunge with Thorpe’s falsetto, Fleming’s tenor and Chris ‘Bert’ Talbot’s baritone. So did they have a lot of control over the output?

“Yeah and we’re learning more about it as we go along, we’re learning about production and sound and stuff and arrangements and it’s all a learning curve but we definitely feel like we’re only getting started in that regard. As we learn to do more we sort of exert more control. But when you can exert more control, the more you’re willing to give up, if that makes sense. We co-produced it. We worked with a guy called Richard Formby who did most of our early singles and has done most of our demos and he’s also worked Mogwai and Spaceman 3 so he has a bit of pedigree but we mainly went with him because we trust him. He definitely let us do what we wanted but always had something useful to say about it.”

Fleming begins to tell me about the band’s song writing process and the phone line starts to crackle. I hear something about him and Thorpe sharing duties with lyrics but song writing credits going to all four members when there’s a clunk, a blip and the telltale beeps of a lost connection. Less than a minute later we’re back in business and he’s all effuse apologies, explaining that his train went through a tunnel and he lost phone reception. Such a sweet lad. Such a remarkable voice too, I ask him if the boys knew what they were capable of, vocally, when they first got together.

“No, not really. I was the last one to join the band. So I was kind of aware of what these guys were starting and I think I found my voice through the band. I think they brought it out of me. I think Hayden’s singing style was very much borne of seeing what he can do. Rather than that really sad, male northern English kind of, “Oh I’ll sing but I mightn’t be very good”, you know what I mean? Just seeing what you can do rather than pretending – I hate that kind of wilful amateurism; pretending to be bad as an excuse for weak songs. I’m sorry; I’m going off on a tangent!”

I assure him it’s an interesting tangent and something he’s obviously passionate about. He’s right, too. Sure, the Wild Beasts’ sound isn’t brand new (whose is?) but the vocals are definitely not something that every band in the land is emulating. Aside from French authors like Helene Cixous, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Fleming says American musician, author and artist Michael Gira (from musical groups Swans) is ringing bells for him right now.

“He runs a project called Angels of Light and everything he breathes on is worth listening to. I tend to like songwriters as well, like Joanna Newsom. This record was written on dance music and electronic music, hence ‘Two Dancers’ and that rhythmic pull and the way it’s structured. That’s something we kind of came to later, it’s the sort of thing you reject when you’re younger ’cause you think you’re into serious music. Gira’s been very noisy and aggressive for a long time and I’d say he mellowed, but he’s just quieter, he’s in no way mellow. He’s still got a wonderful underbelly to him.”

He apologises again for blabbering on and changes the subject back to the band’s impending Australian visit.

“Yep, I’m gonna burn like an Englishman, it’s going to be pretty funny starting in Queensland. There’s going to be beach time and I could get a hat with the corks on it. I don’t know a right lot about cricket so I’ll have to read up on it. I know it’s a big deal here but I hear it’s an even bigger deal over there?”

I start to answer but Fleming cuts me off, “Sorry, I’m going to lose you again. I’m going through another tunnel!”

Another crackle, blip and yep, those beeps. Bye Tom!

Tour News: WILD BEASTS headline shows in Sydney and Melbourne – February 2010 (Laneway Sideshow)