Former Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe talks to Getintothis’ Cath Holland about birthing his solo career with the help of his beloved piano.
Around this time two years ago, Wild Beasts seemed to be getting on with being the band they’ve always been, promoting fifth album Boy King, released mere months earlier.
Singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming did press for forthcoming festival dates, yet they seemed less than eager to talk freely in interviews, let alone take part in them. When pressed on future plans, Thorpe claimed to be still ‘metabolizing’ Boy King.
Now, it’s clear why the pair offered such guarded, reluctant responses. Over Christmas, Wild Beasts made the decision to split and had to wait nine months, until the following September, fulfilling commitments, before telling the world the band was coming to an end.
The Thorpe I chat with today seems in a very different mood and place, contrasting with the one I spoke to back in the 2017. He’s good humoured and relaxed, for one. The Kendal-born musician even jokes about the weather up north.
‘It never ceases to amaze me when I come home…I was up last weekend, saw three seasons in a day and none of them were summer!’
His improved temperament is due I suspect in no small part to Diviner, his debut solo album to come out next week. The record is a revelation, and unexpected. Elegant and emotionally very open, with uncluttered arrangements, it’s produced by close friend and long-time collaborator, Leo Abrahams (Jon Hopkins, Brian Eno, David Byrne).
The polar opposite to Wild Beasts’ final album Boy King, concerned with pleasures of the flesh – when we last talked, Hayden detailed meat and the physical body – Diviner is instead very much centred around affairs of the heart. Not ones of romantic love, although they could be construed as such, if the imagination wanders in that direction.
The album is a reaction to this new chapter in Hayden Thorpe‘s life.
When the band decided to part ways, he found himself in a strange position.
‘At the time I was kind of homeless, I’d rented my home out, I thought that’d be a great idea while I was on tour to sublet my place only to find actually-‘ he laughs ‘- in that time the band broke up and I was left without a band, and without a home.’
So he went to Los Angeles to escape the grey British winter. Friends are there and he finds it creatively inspiring. It’s a pretty rock n roll thing to do, fly over to such a glamorous place on a whim, is it not?
‘I guess I needed a rock ‘n’ roll antidote,’ he jokes. ‘But I think the main reasons are…it’s perpetual blue sky. Time doesn’t happen there. It’s static, I needed to spend winter, live in this distended reality for some time just to get my head around my on reality.
But also there’s songs there. Some places just have songs in them… the alignment of it, it’s just a musical place. I wanted to explore that and understand what that meant. It’s one of those places where you are what you say you are that day. It’s a very forgiving place.’
He wrote the title track of Diviner there, before returning to play shows with Wild Beasts, including Liverpool’s FestEvol.
He doesn’t want to talk about the John Cale collaboration re-imagining The Velvet Underground & Nico at Sound City weeks later (‘it was quite an…insightful exercise’ he concedes, with a sigh), seems surprised to hear that the tasteful reworking of I’ll Be Your Mirror was a highlight of the night, but is relieved to not be pushed on the subject.
Playing shows that summer, he reveals, he felt torn, and to an extent dishonest. The person onstage didn’t correlate with how he felt or was inside.
‘I was a method actor of myself,’ he says.
Did he feel like he was wearing a dead man’s shoes, of a kind?
‘Yeah..because I was processing a lot of pent up and long held ways of being… and you kind of – you know the date of your own funeral, as it were. There’s a sensibility that once I stepped out of…once that day came things would never be the same again. The reality of it was a real privilege to be honest….to know something so profound to my life was gonna end and also through choice, decision and that was fortunate too because nothing awful happened, nothing untoward happened, there was no grand falling out, there was no chaos.’
There was no drama when Wild Beasts decided to go their own separate ways. The band had come to satisfying conclusion. He’s made it clear there’ll be no reformation or greatest hits tours in the future, instead he sees the band’s end as part of the natural cycle of life, ‘and that’s ok.’
Wild Beasts was started by a group of boys in their mid-teens; albums matured as they did themselves, but Diviner is a very grown up record of a different nature made by the now 33 year old. And created out of a sense of grief.
‘It’s a break up album,’ he says simply. ‘But not a break up from a person. It’s a break up from yourself.
Usually in our society we call it a breakdown which is actually a demeaning term, it suggests something is wrong and isn’t a positive event in your life. But what about if you have a break up, in terms of it being an upward motion or breakthrough, you know? That was how I felt about it, this was necessary interrogation here was me with opportunity at this time in my life to take a stock check of what was important and what valued.
The thing I realized was life is always changing and we often get confused about that fact and think we can somehow protect ourselves against eventuality of loss and change. We confuse possessions with stability to have possessions, to have a home, the things that we own is to have protection against things. And within reasons that’s true, but I came to realize if this album was about grief and movement away from something then we’re always moving away from something, we’re always moving from one way of living to another.’
Although it made him feel ‘uncomfortable’ in some respects, Diviner was written and made in secret. Why dd he keep it private?
‘Whatever the contorted shape I was in, it was working. And when songs are coming, you don’t question it (and) I didn’t know if it was real or not. Is a song real if you’re the only person who hears it? When does a song become a song, is it when someone else recognises it as a song, you know? So that was the deal I had.’
The album written on piano, it’s pivotal on the recordings themselves. There’s an emotional bond to the instrument which goes back to those early days of music making.
‘A piano for me is the emotional kidney. It really cleanses the house, the home. God knows that was what I needed.
A piano is a very collaborative instrument it gives back what you give it. It’s responsive, it’s a being it has a soul, it’s more than the sum of its parts. You play if softly, it plays softly back to you, you bang in it it’ll make a bang. Crucially it’s not amped up, it’s not electric so it’s very human. All those things I found very soothing at the time. I needed a kind of an anchor I guess and that was as heavy a thing to anchor myself to. It literally has quite a gravity to it.
Some instruments have songs in ‘em. People who write songs always say that. Certain objects and things they hold in their hand delivers a song and when I first played that piano – I still have a recording of it – I sat down and music came out that felt good and I bought it on the spot. I knew there was songs in there.’
The music he was listening to when he wrote the record, modern classical composers and soundtracks and songwriters with an avant garde bent like David Thomas Broughton and Dean Blunt, and songs with sparse arrangements – Angel Olson‘s Windows is another – are honest and emotive.
There’s a real sense of vulnerability throughout Diviner. The ghost of Billy MacKenzie, inadvertently present in Wild Beasts‘ early days, returns – Thorpe‘s falsetto leads us like a guide over piano, and fluttering guitar, minimal arrangements. With no distractions or frills, it’s a very emotional album.
The cool stillness of the penultimate track, the instrumental ambient Spherical Time, only serves to emphasise how bloody beautiful and honest the entire record is.
It was a brave move, I suggest, to go with instinct at a time when his emotions were so raw.
‘I guess I was very self conscious about how exposed I was but…I knew that if I began to double think or second guess I’d be in big trouble… swamp of worry about is this too Wild Beasts, is this too like I was, or like I want to be?’
Unexpectedly, after the record was finished he had what he calls ‘an ego collapse’
‘A fog of insecurity swept in,’ he confesses. ‘I guess that told me I’d done the right thing. I felt exposed in the right ways. You know when you say something as a gut response and then you say, oh I didn’t mean to say that, I didn’t mean it when we all know you did mean it? It feels like that. It’s a sorry-not-sorry album.’
There’s lots of interesting religious imagery on the record, in the videos and record cover because, he says, ‘at times of upheaval and change is normally when the church or religion gets new subscribers. It’s a useful place to be for people at those times.’
His own personal church, he’s found, has a cherry picking approach.
‘Different ways of looking at things that soothed me and reassured me and I’ve come to think that’s how we all live now, many of us, with these bespoke belief systems. Take what we want where we need it. It’s a kind of like a Lego set of religion.’
I get the sense that making the album was a comfort to you.
‘Oh absolutely, the album’s main purpose was comfort. The definition of diviner, another way of saying it is soothsayer, and the songs were a process of soothing. A way of re-balancing my neural chaos, the songs re-balanced me and the religious iconography stems from the fact that… with phones, we look to these devices to divine where we are in the world, who we’re reaching out to, our whole emotional and conscious soul function through this device and it’s where the hands came in.
The hand on the sleeve is a typical religious iconography but the hands are important form in playing the piano they were my tool for divination too.’
Watching the video for single Love Crimes, is a montage of religious imagery, crosses, the lone figure on a reflective journey across land and sea, and the aforementioned hands resembling those reaching out in Leonardo da Vinci‘s The Last Supper.
In the video Hayden walks on beaches, rocks, through a forest, navigating barefoot. One can’t help but feel his emotional pain – ‘I’m not giving up on fear, I’m just giving up on us’ he sings – but physical too.
Did he not hurt his feet? Those sharp rocks…
‘Yeah, I did, they were bloody and bleeding. Doing a video in Northern New South Wales in Australia on a beach, I think bloodied feet were …part of the deal.’
A price worth paying?
‘I pay in blood, regularly!’
When we talk, he’s still preparing to play a handful of special shows. The Piano Sessions shows in France, London, Berlln, Los Angeles and New York are intimate performances to winners of a ballot. It’s him and piano onstage, no one else. It’s that vulnerability showing itself again. Hayden‘s collaborated previously with the likes of Hannah Peel and Anna Calvi, and sang solo with an orchestra, but this is a step into the unknown.
‘I feel anxiously relaxed. I feel like I’ve been here before and I’ve never been here before,’ he states initially, before admitting ‘I’m absolutely shitting myself. And that feels crucial in the right ways. It’s a small thing and a big thing.’
There’s no concrete plans for a full tour as yet, but it will happen. There’s a definite sense he doesn’t miss the conveyor belt routine of album – tour – album – tour, rinse and repeat. It’s time for an alternate approach, one where he’s in control.
‘I’m enjoying saying I’ll do shows when it’s right to do shows. When I can be available for them in the right way. I’ve become a little bit…I’ve been touring for 12 years, I’d like to do it a bit differently. I’d like to explore the idea of what it is to have a show, so I’m going to pull off something different. It’s in the workings at the moment.’
He concedes he’s been in a privileged position throughout his career, ‘I got worry about songs, every day of my life since I was 21’.
For him, the logical response to the end of such a vital part of his life and starting a new chapter, was making music.
‘The only way of doing justice to those feelings.’
The first Piano Sessions show takes place days after our conversation. It’s in Silencio, the private club in Paris dedicated to creative communities and conceived by David Lynch.
Those present love it.
‘A great debut show. You’re in for a treat!’ enthused one attendee, who travelled from the UK.
Quote of the day :
"I wrote all these songs sat down in my pants. I was gonna do a full reenactment of it, but I thought 'no, not today'. Maybe someday though." pic.twitter.com/NEtBqFd8oT
— Wild Beasts Fans (@WildBeastsFans) May 14, 2019
Post show glow. Thanks ever so much to those who came to my first ever solo gig. It was intense and beautiful to share the songs with you. pic.twitter.com/u6DxHZ71wJ
— Hayden Thorpe (@Hayden_Thorpe) May 15, 2019
That’s the the first hurdle well and truly cleared, then.
Hayden Thorpe has survived the painful transition from being in a band with childhood friends, a comfort zone of sorts, emerging as a solo artist to be reckoned with. And his journey of taking stock, chronicling it the only way he knows how, has produced one heck of a gorgeous record.
The secrecy is now over.
Diviner is released on 24 May. Hayden Thorpe performs at a series of instores in independent record shops across the UK:
- May 25 Rough Trade East, London
- May 27 Resident, Brighton
- May 28 Banquet Records, Kingston
- May 29 Spillers, Cardiff
- May 30 Bear Tree Records, Sheffield
- May 31 Jumbo Records, Leeds