Wild Beasts guitarist Ben Little on Kanye West and other influences behind their latest LP Boy King
The most unexpected influence on Wild Beasts’s surprising fifth outing? Kanye West. Guitarist Ben Little says incessantly listening to the rapper’s sonically abrasive Yeezus shaped the stripped-back, primal-minded change of direction for his band on Boy King.
“It’s super-aggressive, bare, minimal,” he says, of West’s divisive sixth LP. “That had a big impact on me. That record is so aggressive, it feels pretty vital – and it’s exciting.”
West is not the first artist you would think of as sharing kinship with Wild Beasts, who are known for their fragile, literate, effervescent indie music.
“Put it this way: I think he’d be a nightmare to have a drink with, but I do think he’s a talented musician,” says Little.
Following 2014’s keyboard-heavy, politically perceptive Present Tense, Boy King marks a pronounced change of direction for the feted British indie scenesters. Lyrically preoccupied with matters of the carnal variety, the macho message is matched by a brazenly leaner sound, with sleazy guitar crackles and slippery synths underlaid by an infectiously swaggering sense of groove.
This new egocentrism is a direct response to meeting – and trying to win over – the wider, increasingly far-flung audiences Wild Beasts encountered on their last tour, which included their first gigs in Asia.
“That does seep into the record. There are moments that work live, which you sort of manufacture to put on a record,” says Little. “That sounds a bit [calculated], but it’s true.”
The material for Boy King was conceived after a move to a new studio space in London, during a full year of demoing. However the sweaty sense of testosterone truly took shape after they moved to Dallas, Texas, to record with John Congleton, the Grammy Award-winning producer known for his work with dozens of artists, including St Vincent, Swans, and The War on Drugs.
“In London ... we were micromanaging, over-demoing, and a lot of the songs had different versions, slower versions – we could have essentially made a completely different record,” says Little.
“As soon as we got out to Dallas, the songs really started to become quite muscular ... and John was the catalyst there, he brought it out. It’s a different experience going to America – we’re these awkward British guys, we were worrying and pontificating, and he says ‘just go for it. Say what you mean in a sentence rather than beating around the bush’.”
This newly unambiguous musical and lyrical approach is dividing fans and critics. Wild Beasts have built their reputation on a lofty sense of intelligence – deeply textured art-rock canvases, marked by sensitive, prescient observations delivered in frontman Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto frills. Many fans still hold 2009’s Mercury Prize-nominated Two Dancers as a high-water mark.
Boy King’s embrace of rock’s simpler, reductive heyday – as well as Yeezus, Little rediscovered The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin while the album was being made – is seen by some as a betrayal of the band’s bountiful promise.
“It’s splitting opinion – there are a few reviews out there that are taking a swipe at us, and that’s OK,” says Little.
“They maybe think we’ve dumbed it down, that it’s not our best record – people always hark back to Two Dancers. People get quite romantic about that being our best record – but at the time it didn’t feel like anyone [cared] to be honest.”
With a consistent critical hype that perhaps outweighs their commercial potential, Boy King definitely catches the band at an interesting crossroads – the message appears to be that Wild Beasts had to grow up before they could make a record this playfully juvenile.
Little just turned 30, and is not entirely happy about entering his fourth decade.
“Ah, man, it’s horrible isn’t it?” he says. “Saying goodbye to your twenties is difficult.”
The future of the band – and, indeed, a continuing career in music during these increasingly fragmented times – appears to be at the forefront of the musicians’ minds.
Wild Beasts formed when schoolmates Little and Thorpe met in rural Cumbria. Their self-titled debut EP is now 12 years old – and the guitarist dodges the question of whether the group will be around for another dozen years.
“This is it – it’s scary,” he says. “As a musician, you’re always only as good as your last output.
“We’re in a fantastic position – but I’ve got friends who are in bands who have to hold down jobs, too. If we ever did go back to that, it would be difficult. We’re definitely on the lucky side.”
• Boy King is out now