The band’s Tom Fleming discusses ‘riding the descent of the music industry’ and the reality of being an indie band in 2017
“That’s like asking what happens in the book after the book finishes, isn’t it?” says Tom Fleming, pausing to consider what might have been if his band, Wild Beasts, hadn’t just announced their decision to call it a day five albums and 15 years into their careers.
Wild Beasts may not have been the most influential band of their era, but they were certainly among its most surprising and original. Their demise comes amid lean times for the indie-band format, with all but a handful of the genre’s 00s practitioners gone and few bands of note springing up in their wake, as a glance at most festival bills in recent years will attest. And yet, the band’s split comes after their first top-ten album in Boy King and a sell-out tour at the back end of 2016. So why’d they do it?
Fleming, still reeling from fans’ responses to last month’s announcement, tells us more about their decision to part company, and why the band couldn’t bring themselves to call it an “indefinite hiatus”.
Hi Tom, how’ve you been holding out this past few days?
Tom Fleming: (laughs) We kind of settled on this course of action a few months ago, so it feels like we’ve taken some heavy weights off now that people know. We’ve been almost baffled by the outpouring; there’s been loads of stuff from people saying what an important band Wild Beasts has been to them. The word that keeps coming up is ‘underrated’, which is obviously pretty fucking bittersweet! But on a personal level people have been super-nice; it’s been completely overwhelming. Of all the industries we get the most feedback – we literally stand in front of people and they shout at us – so you’d think we would know what was up, but you don’t get to see it as other people do.
Who brought up the idea of splitting?
Tom Fleming: It was at the beginning of this year; we’d made this record (Boy King) during quite a turbulent time when we were all going through various things in our personal lives. And we came back from a tour in January – a successful tour but also quite a bruising one – and we were all in conversation and it was like, ‘We just need to get off the treadmill,’ because we’d been on tour for ten years, and everything takes a backseat to that. It has to, if you’re committed. But you can’t do it every day for the rest of your life, you know what I mean?
“We were always from day one riding the descent of the music industry” – Tom Fleming, Wild Beats
So it was exhaustion more than anything?
Tom Fleming: I can’t say it’s any one thing, ’cos things have changed so much, not just for us but in the music industry and the world at large. We were always from day one riding the descent of the music industry. But we’ve been doing pretty well as far as bands go, we just felt like we needed to step back.
Had you discussed writing for a new record before you took the decision?
Tom Fleming: We tend to write in the real before discussing anything, and we did have stuff, but we didn’t really have time (to demo new songs). We’d just got back off tour and we needed breathing space – maybe in the past it would have been like, ‘Let’s get back in there!’ It’s not to do with energy, it’s more about psychological welfare – like, ‘Jesus, can I take this?’ And that was the case for some of us more than others as well; all four of us need to be rowing the boat in this band, there isn’t one force which holds it together, it’s a collective thing.
Could you not just have taken a sabbatical or something?
Tom Fleming: There’s that phrase ‘indefinite hiatus’, which I don’t think we felt comfortable saying. I mean, people do it for different reasons but I do feel like maybe, while I was sad about it, it was the right time. I don’t feel like we’ve shat on our legacy; I’m very proud of what we’ve done. It’s not lost on me quite how fortunate we were, because it’s a very tenuous job and we were doing well out of it in that we had fans and a great label, it was wonderful.
Was there any sense that the new songs you were writing didn’t sound like ‘Wild Beasts songs’?
Tom Fleming: It’s debatable, in some ways that’s like asking what happens in the book after the book finishes, isn’t it? Because those characters aren’t real any more. But certainly if we’d wanted to make another record I think we could have done, there was just a natural sense of moving on.
I guess there’s always potential for friction when there’s more than one songwriter in a band, did you feel like your songwriting was pulling in the same direction as (frontman) Hayden (Thorpe)’s up until the end?
Tom Fleming: I think so, though all four of us are involved (in writing). Obviously there are certain ambitions you can’t realise when the band is one thing, but the collective idea is stronger than that. So I never felt like there wasn’t any creative friction that wasn’t useful.
It feels like a difficult climate for indie bands today in many ways, doesn’t it? Is that something you’ve thought a lot about?
Tom Fleming: I feel like there’s a lot of very young artists who are trying to make it and a lot of old guard who are sat on all the money. Like with festival headliners, it’s always the same old names, so it is a slightly hostile climate. But it can be done, you know, my band is living proof of that. We’ve had supporters but we’ve never been fast-tracked (to fame), there’s always been a kind of dragging-a-cross-up-the-hill thing about it. When I was a kid everyone wanted to be in a band, and now it’s not the maxim any more – though I think maybe there is a backlash forming against that to an extent, with 17, 18-year-olds forming bands again. In some ways music is really healthy now, and in some ways it’s hostile. Creatively it’s quite healthy, but when it comes to getting your stuff off Bandcamp and across to a wider audience it’s very difficult I think.
“When I was a kid everyone wanted to be in a band, and now it’s not the maxim any more – though I think maybe there is a backlash forming against that to an extent, with 17, 18-year-olds forming bands again” – Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts
Do you think there’s still mileage in the format?
Tom Fleming: I think so. Obviously there’s this idea that being four skinny white dudes in a band is a less attractive proposition than it used to be, but if you make good records and you have something to add either musically or experientially, you don’t have to be a model with an Ableton rig. You can still be a scruffy bunch of bastards and have something to say. I think (debates) like that exist more in the public eye than in the rehearsal room; when music is being made there’s a lot more ways to do it than appear in the finished product.
What’s next for you personally? Do you think you’ll continue to make music?
Tom Fleming: We’ll see man, at this point I’m still working out what I’m gonna do next so I don’t wanna speculate on it, but certainly I’m still in love with music and making music. There is an unknown now, it’s just about figuring out what that unknown looks like.