“Structure has become chaotic,” Hayden Thorpe offers as he evaluates his re-entry to the working musician’s cycle whilst strolling down Hampstead Heath. “I’m not used to having to be anywhere”.
On the surface, it appears that Thorpe didn’t take a moment’s rest on his laurels since the perfectly executed, yet widely considered premature conclusion of his beloved former band Wild Beasts. At the tail-end of 2016, the four members decided to call it quits over an emotional pint. They fulfilled touring commitments for the next year and plotted their farewell shows which played out over a week period in February 2018. A year on from the band’s teary final show at London’s Eventim Apollo, Thorpe released the title track of his forthcoming debut solo album, Diviner, continuing the prolific work ethic which saw his band place five albums on shelves over a 10-year period.
“When you have a good fish and chips, it just fucking slams you,” Thorpe notes as we discuss plans for lunch at the pub we’re heading to and how Cornwall played a role in the album. He didn’t venture to the Southwest coast exclusively for its culinary delights, he travelled there to gain access to a treasure trove of analogue ‘70s synthesisers.
“There’s this guy from an electronic outfit who made a fortune in the ‘90s doing jingles,” he explains. “He started collecting synths at the end of an era when the digital generation of synthesisers were arriving in the ‘80s and people were disregarding them and thought analogue stuff was defunct. He used to find synthesisers in skips and slowly began to inherit them. He now has, what I’ve been told, the best synth collection in the UK other than Aphex Twin. He has this house in Cornwall which is set up as this beautiful mid-century property that was built on the grounds of this very wealthy estate for a mistress. The house is just a love letter really; a really beautiful piece of architecture.”
Throughout his career with Wild Beasts, Thorpe’s lyrics have always glistened with the same sparkling wordplay as the romantic poets; speaking to him suggests he lives and breathes that way as well. He takes lengthy pauses as he forges his words internally before speaking which more often than not arrive perfectly formed. It appears he finds poetry in everything, whether it’s fish and chips, synthesisers or the dog he kneels down to stroke as we walk down Hampstead high street. “Dogs fuck me up, they turn my brain to mush,” he beams. “They just become a sponge for anxiety. I was looking at pictures of a dog I know and he just doesn’t have a bad day, the mood he’s in now is what he’s like all the time. Something about that consistency is just relieving.”
Midway through Diviner, a song entitled “In My Name” explores the ruminations of an individual putting a line under their legacy. “If you must crusade don’t do so in my name / I’ll keep your things safe / don’t come back in my name”, he sings in his trademark falsetto against a mournful piano sequence and swell of strings. It was written in the weeks after the group’s final gigs.
"Time is condensed in a song, a lifetime can happen in a song...we said goodbye on stage, that was the goodbye"
“We said goodbye on stage, that was the goodbye,” he recalls. “There was no behind-the-scenes goodbye - that was the last time we were ever alone, the four of us. In some strange way that was the most alone we had ever been. Time is condensed in a song, a lifetime can happen in a song. The way you quantify time becomes different when you work in songs and it was amazing that the sum total of half my life came into this hour and twenty minutes. Every second, in a way, felt like an hour and it was a really beautiful feeling, a stillness. Really that’s what everything boiled down to.”
Such a monumental untethering delivered Thorpe at a dream-like state. “My sensation was having already done this, having already played those shows, it was a really bizarre notion - in order for that to have been played out, it must have happened in our imaginations, we must have dreamt it to be like that, therefore we reenacted it; fulfilling the action was just a kind of recreation.” He pauses for thought as he seeks a point of reference: “The only comparison I can think of is that beautiful Zidane film (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait documents the player’s final match]. He said when things are right, he knows what will happen before they occur and that was the sensation.
“I think the greatest comparison for these moments is sport, your consciousness is working alongside the laws of the universe. You are trying to manipulate an object to move through time and space according to how you want it to and a song is something similar. The only songs that are available are the frequencies that appear in the natural world. All you do is manipulate what is already there, this is where superstition comes in; all songs already exist.”
The ten songs on Diviner that Thorpe whittled from these pre-existing forces examine space, time and the complexity of human relationships; all areas the frontman had become well acquainted with whilst taking up residency in his purgatory between Wild Beasts and his solo career. Although Thorpe’s unmistakable DNA runs through the veins of these songs, the tracks themselves are more reserved and meditative; the complete opposite to the balls-out bombast of Wild Beasts’ final recording, Boy King. The writing process began in the final year of Wild Beasts’ touring schedule.
“I was writing as a double agent,” he divulges. “The two oceans didn’t meet much psychologically. Wild Beasts in a way became a day job but that’s the beauty of it in some respects, when something becomes that established you do fulfil the role of what’s required and that was the interesting aspect of it, I was working for both sides.”
“I’m a keeper of secrets / pray do tell,” he sings on the opening lines of the record which feels particularly indicative of a man between two worlds. Were the band aware? “No, out of love and respect. Our lives became very different very quickly. To me it was a really beautiful insight into the fact that in any lifetime you’re only one or two decisions away from a completely different life. You decide one thing, then you make another decision on the basis of that decision and your path is forever different. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s something that’s not recognised by society but I find it a hugely peaceful thought that you can always choose something different.”
"I rebalance my dopamine by singing, if I don’t sing then I start to feel like shit really quickly"
Each member of Wild Beasts arrived at vastly different starting lines. Drummer Chris Talbot and guitarist Ben Little chose a more settled existence back at home in the Lake District with their respective families, at the time guitarist and vocalist Tom Fleming seemed to be the only member who saw his future in music. Thorpe appeared to be the most in the dark about his next steps.
“I did have flirtations with other forms of writing and other forms of expression,” he reveals. “But if you’ve devoted your life to expressing something so acutely and trying to realise it in that kind of way then nothing will suffice, and I mean nothing. That’s the beauty of it, nothing feels as good as nailing a song. I think I’m a daily musician in the way that it balances me out psychologically. I rebalance my dopamine by singing, if I don’t sing then I start to feel like shit really quickly. I can actually level up by basically forcing the body and the neural pathways to smooth out a bit. Music in our society is like this luxury, peripheral thing but music is language, music is in our being. I came to realise that it was actually inescapable for me and I couldn’t deny the person that I was.”
For that reason, the songwriting process never stopped, and by the time Wild Beasts were bowing out, sketches of the songs on Diviner had already started to assemble after a creative stint in Los Angeles back in 2017. “There are songs there that’s for sure,” he says of the City of Angels. “I don’t know what ‘that’ is but the mythology about it is there, you just take your net; I won’t question it. The proximity to the desert has an effect, nothing can hide in the desert. Things surface which have been scurrying into the shadows previously. LA only has today and tomorrow and that’s what I needed. It’s the best place for a sensation of renewal.”
The early incarnations of Diviner forged in the fires of a game Thorpe played with himself at the piano. “I was in LA for the first 100 days of Trump and there was a real sensation in the air of potential apocalypse,” he recalls. “It was when North Korea were making worrying noises. There was a genuine sense of oblivion. I thought, if the bomb dropped and I was just left in this room, what would music sound like? What record would I make from this vantage point? The songs were written in this new civilisation.” He imagined surviving tribes of the oblivion reteaching humanity to itself around a campfire trying to hold onto the fragments of what’s valuable knowledge and what should be forgotten. “It was really fruitful,” he smiles.
The title-track was written in this apocalyptic framing. The lyrics come from the perspective of a searcher who has lost his way and is looking for meaning, a mutual quest for both Thorpe’s imagined tribe and his own progression from band to solo artist. “You be my diviner, show me where to go,” he offers to the song’s subject.
A majority of the album was written from a place of isolation in his flat in London, although surrounded by friends and good people, solitude became the mainstay for a nine-month period. “I find it such a privilege that I get to spend so much time on my own, people are exhausting [laughs]. Human beings are really really tiring.”
"Bands are a relationship unlike any other - they’re not romantic but they’re deeply intimate, almost more intimate than any romance ever could be"
Thorpe’s writing has always observed the primal and carnal nature of humanity in the light of the modern day and masculinity has frequently been a huge part of that study. On “We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” he observed lad culture; “Us kids are cold and cagey rattling around the town / scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns, as the dribbling dogs howl.” I ask him what he uncovered about masculinity in isolation and how it compared to the tribal version of masculinity experienced as part of a band.
“Bands are a relationship unlike any other,” he explains. “They’re not romantic but they’re deeply intimate, almost more intimate than any romance ever could be because it’s not cluttered with, at least our band wasn’t cluttered with, the kind of physical politics.” He pauses. “Or, in fact, we couldn’t solve anything by fucking each other [laughs].
“Ultimately I stripped everything away, the ultimate mythology about masculinity is that you can do everything on your own. The ultimate masculine act is to be the protector, defender and conqueror all in one, and it’s not true. Vulnerability is genderless, everybody is so vulnerable, that was kind of the sense - now I’m truly on my own, what am I trying to prove here?”
Back in 2008 when Wild Beasts released their debut album Limbo, Panto, bands were forming around every corner. Now in the age of the solo artist, new artists are writing and recording from a place of isolation in front of a laptop screen rather than in the company of bandmates in rehearsal rooms.
“I do think individualism has become the philosophy of our civilisation,” he says reflecting on the state of music in 2019. “Individualism is the ultimate expression of today. Any success you have is down to your own personality, your own character traits and your own triumphs. Equally failure is squared at the individual because you have failed on your own limitations, your own lacking. In a more tribal, pre-industrial society, suicide is far far less prevalent because the idea about fortune and fate is all taken away from the individual.
"If you’re going to contribute, at least contribute something that might have some kind of peaceful side-effect"
“We’ve become so entangled in the survival of our own ego. God knows with the business I’m in; it wants the blood and guts of you. Self-importance is important to art. Self importance is a necessary aspect of being a creative. You have to have the sheer arrogance to assume that what you’re putting out there is worth somebody’s attention. That’s quite a state to exist in in itself. If you’re going to contribute, at least contribute something that might have some kind of peaceful side-effect.”
One person did keep him company, although not in his physical form; the physicist Brian Cox. “He was my company. I watched Wonders Of The Universe constantly, if you listen closely there’s Brian Cox lines on the album.” Behind the driving beat and pulsating synths of “Straight Lines” Thorpe sings “everything ends sometime / time only moves in a straight line”. “The one binding universal truth is that time only moves in a straight line,” he explains.
Time lurches out across the entire album, less from a place of fear and more in jaw-dropped wonder through the veil of mysticism. In conversation and on record, Thorpe explores the sensation of greeting something that always existed. On “Anywhen” he sings “premonition becomes true life / even the ones we love we once knew nothing of” and later on closer “Impossible Object” he tells its subject “I swear that I knew you before we had met / you had likeness to someone I had dreamt.”
The penultimate track “Spherical Time” sees things come full circle, the piano which thumps away at the heart of the instrumental is a sequence Thorpe wrote when he was sixteen years old at his parent’s house in the Lake District. “It’s the fixed sequence of chords. I always judge an instrument on how that chord sequence sounds, it’s my zero point and way of determining where the gravity is. I had no grand scheme for it, it wasn’t supposed to be half time. When you’re working intuitively, you’re in many ways returning to those bits of knowledge that you forgot and I forgot that it was worthy.
“I always reference my sixteen-year-old self, I run everything past sixteen-year-old me, it’s really important, he has a big say because it’s that beautiful point between childhood and the optimism of adulthood. It’s the right place.”
It’s no coincidence then that the early incarnations of Wild Beasts also started to form around this crucial time too. “Having gone away and worked with musicians, I see those guys as the best musicians and the most creative musicians I’ve ever worked with. That I happened to work with them from the age of sixteen is the universe doing me a good one.”