In the Studio: Wild Beasts with John Congleton

The making of Wild Beasts' album Boy King
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“I would say that Hayden [Thorpe, guitar/vocals] has a brilliant pop sensibility. He knows when things are likable, and he’s not shy about admitting that. I really like that he wants to make something that appeals to people,” says producer/engineer John Congleton, a Grammy winner for his work on St. Vincent’s eponymous 2014 album.

Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe “On the other end of the spectrum, you have Tom [Fleming, bass/vocals], who is just as talented and brilliant, but doesn’t want things to be immediately satisfying. He wants the listener to work for it, and to make a commitment to the music in order to get more out of it. It’s a great dynamic.”

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Congleton’s observations encapsulate the sound of Wild Beasts’ latest release, Boy King, which the band wrote and demo’d in their Logic-equipped London rehearsal/recording space, and then recorded and mixed in Pro Tools X with Congleton in his studio, Elmwood Recording (Dallas). With its aggressive guitar and synth sounds, tight drums, and sweet vocals, Boy King is infectious and challenging in equal measure.

Wild Beasts write all of their songs as a group, beginning with an idea that Thorpe or Fleming has saved to a laptop, but those nuggets don’t become songs until the singers get into the studio with guitarist Ben Little and drummer Chris Talbot.

Ben Little “We have Logic and our [Allen & Heath] live mixing desk in the studio. We have some mics and our full-band instrument setup,” says Little. “But as is always the case when you have a lot of nice equipment, all the best parts get recorded on your phone!”

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Wild Beasts shared increasingly elaborate, well-formed demos with Congleton, before traveling to Texas to record in Elmwood, which centers around a one-of-a-kind Neve 53 console—yes, the band flew from London to Dallas to record via a former BBC desk.

Congleton had the band set up for live recordings in his main tracking room. “We were working the songs out in the studio together, and by virtue of that, everybody has to be recording at once,” he says. “We’re trying out changes to the songs, and it would be really hard to do that if we were just recording drum tracks. A kind of mantra I have with bands is, ‘Everybody goes to work day one.’”

During tracking, Thorpe would sing/speak a guide vocal to an Electro-Voice RE20 mic. “After we decided we had a take or a composite take that everyone felt good about, Hayden would sing a workable scratch—something more inspiring to listen to while we worked on the song,” Congleton explains. “On a couple of occasions, that vocal ended up on the record, but for the most part vocals were overdubbed later with a Neumann U48.

Tom Fleming “We’d just keep working out the kinks of each song. Ben or Tom or Hayden might grab some pedals they’d never used before, or I would suggest something—a pedal or amp or a different guitar—and we would start experimenting. “We also got sounds from a Roland Juno-6 and from [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere, and from something called the Dewanatron Swarmatron. It’s a boutique thing that was popularized in Trent Reznor’s Social Network soundtrack. Also, Hayden had a program on his laptop with some cheap softsynth sounds that we manipulated heavily. That’s what you hear in the first song, “Big Cat”—that bizarre, out-of-tune choir sound. At first, he had reverb and all kinds of effects on it, but I said, ‘Take it all off.’ We left that weird, dry sound that was actually quite unpleasant.

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“I think a lot of things happened that were a surprise to them but were revealed because they experimented with those sounds or with some of my gear that’s of the gnarly guitar variety. That, to me, is one of the best things about making records: when the record reveals itself to you that way.”