"You can't expect to be overwhelmed by the response straight away when your record is implicating everyone."
Tom Fleming is ambivalent, to say the least, about what fans will make of his new, surprisingly confrontational record. It's less than two years since the split of Wild Beasts, which he co-fronted alongside Hayden Thorpe, so Fleming is justifiably keen to set this new solo project apart from the band – one of the most flamboyant and yet sincere acts in memory.
It's tempting to see Fleming as the sincere element. "I've just been doing a bunch of in-stores, driving myself around in a Fiesta", he reels off with a gruff candour that's maintained throughout our conversation.
So it's a scaled-down affair? “Definitely, although it’s also quite a while since Wild Beasts’ hot period."
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For Fleming, although the band "always kept up with the critics", they never became the "indie Gods" they might've been, and so financial necessity seems to drive this fast turnaround: "I just had to get this thing off the ground, basically!”
These unprompted admissions are the first things out of Fleming's mouth – that this release is both 'implicating' and pragmatic. It's comical – I think for both of us – that this new musical mission statement courts a new audience by giving them what Fleming calls an "angry record".
You'd be forgiven for not expecting this move from someone so affable. Over the webcam he volunteered to turn on – a rare concession for artist interviews – Fleming is warm and forthcoming, although his eyes rarely land on camera. He's so thoughtful in his reflections that his gaze bounces around the room as he muses through his own free-associating monologues, erudite but straightforward: “I’m just gonna say stuff that comes to me, if that’s okay”.
The pace is also familiar from how the new record flits rapidly between romantic themes, gritty vignettes of violent masculinity, and abstracter laments for dark times returned. And that twist on expectations mirrors Fleming's new solo moniker and album title. 'One True Pairing' is a term from internet fanfic describing ideal romantic partnerships in fandoms – think Holmes and Watson, Harry and Hermione.
"That's partly as a reference to the romance of the record", Fleming admits – although even the album's most explicit love song (its title track) isn't straightforwardly so, imploring his lover that he's "not some kind of white knight".
"But I also thought it'd be funny to have that kind of internet- / electronic-based name, so you'd be expecting it to sound like K-pop or something, and then [first track] 'Zero Summer' comes in and it's just, like, ROCK!"
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As a bait-and-switch, it definitely surprises – particularly by the time second track 'I'm Not Afraid' kicks in. Its chugging momentum, crunchy guitars and anthemic chorus are defiantly non-millennial, and also a far cry from Wild Beasts. The project title sets Fleming apart – "I didn't want it to be just my name, you know. I mean, I wasn't even the frontman of Wild Beasts!" – and the track sets this in stone, particularly in its video.
There, gone is the effete peacocking of Beasts; instead Fleming bops away rowdily, eyes-to-camera, all-black in beanie and bomber jacket. Meanwhile, images flash across his body from classical sculpture, anatomical drawings and mushroom clouds.
I test some lofty theory about how it paints the small-town Northern lad tangled up in big history. "Nah, nothing as conceptual as that", Fleming insists. "I just wanted it to be really direct. I thought, well, I can dance, so I'll do a dancing video."
That directness is maybe the defining feature of One True Pairing's detour from the abstraction and literary pomp of Wild Beasts. “There’s definitely not much metaphor in the album", Fleming agrees. Plus, like 'I'm Not Afraid', much of the record recalls Springsteen and heartland rock, ejecting the sleek and slenderness of Beasts, and 'good taste' more generally. "I didn't want to make any of that coffee table, night bus shit," he adds.
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Instead, One True Pairing is straight-talking, point blank. "That’s the point of rock, it gets you going." To underline this departure, I flash him a copy of Loops, a 2009 collaboration between their label Domino and Faber & Faber, which includes a piece under his and Hayden Thorpe's names.
A reinterpretation of the 1914 Vorticist Manifesto, it's opaque and verbose – the reverse of new album track 'Elite Companion', which bemoans the ivory tower of the arts world. The article also inverts One True Pairing's '80s rock revival, describing Wild Beasts as "English avant-garde cubist futurists who are not, and will never be, victims of traditionalism”.
Fleming's reaction is instantaneous: "That's not me! They actually cut my part out! That was one of the things I've been most disappointed about in my career – I was telling my friends I was gonna be published in a Faber journal and then they only printed Hayden's part."
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It's a contrast that seems symbolic of a wider difference in approach between the two singers. "Yeah, that's always how Wild Beasts worked; we'd come at it from different directions". This being the only "creative tension" Fleming admits to (the band's breakup was amicable), he fondly describes their working relationship as "a kind of boxing match" – a true pairing, where Fleming's grizzly baritone always provided a neat counterpoint to Thorpe's grandiloquent falsetto.
In that way, One True Pairing's path isn't entirely new, but starts where Beasts left off. For Fleming, the lads' rock element existed before: “There was always that melodic aspect to Wild Beasts, that three-chordness”.
Besides, this is hardly meat and potatoes rock, something Fleming is glad to hear – “I did worry that maybe some of what I was doing was if anything a little too straightforward. That’s why the album gets all the rock songs out of the way at the beginning, then things get a little stranger”.
But even the effete posturing best embodied by Thorpe was always a reaction to a certain kind of rough, rural Northern machismo, which One True Pairing now addresses head-on. Tracks like 'Dawn At The Factory' and 'Weapons' zone in on this, the latter "probably the most straightforwardly told story on the album".
"It's a track about how marinated you get [in bad influences], about how you're expected to behave as a young man", citing porn and older brothers packing knives, its starkness suggesting true origins: "I'd be lying if I said a lot of it wasn't autobiographical".
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But, as with Beasts' more highbrow allusions to modernism and classicism, these are memories pointed sharply at contemporary issues. “I wanted to draw this line back to how things were, seeing stuff that’s still going on now.
Today the buzzword is 'toxic masculinity'", Fleming clarifies. Even the rock retrospection faces forward, utterly non-nostalgic: "Part of the reason I wanted to draw from that period is about neoliberalism. You know, to show the parallels between what was happening in the ‘80s and now. We're seeing the same stories all over again”.
Does that make this record fatalistic? On this, Fleming is nuanced: “It's not all gloom, although songs like 'Elite Companion' are quite angry. There are also moments of hope – there's the romance in the title, and there are love songs. But there’s no space for fantasy on this record. That sort of sweetness couldn’t come out of the time it was made.”
Which comes back to Fleming's initial admission about 'implicating' audiences with an 'angry record'. Is he at least optimistic about the project going forward? “Well, without sounding too negative, you do have to see how a record lands. I had it in mind as very direct, but I’m getting some responses from people like ‘What the fuck is that about?'”.
He highlights new track ‘King of the Rats’ as something that particularly bewildered on first listen (lyrics range from "I'm on a beach with all my friends" to "I'm a dog you just can't kick enough") – “I wanted to weird people out a bit”, he confesses, though he didn’t want to be “dour”.
"There’s a kind of positive outlook to even those darker parts. It’s allowed me to learn from that stuff. It’s not music as therapy – I wanted this record to communicate, you know. But starting from that difficult stuff, it’s a kind of ballast.”
To move on from?
"Yeah exactly, I don’t want to depress people. I might try something lighter on the next record."
That remains to be seen. But with the best foot forward, and one still rooted in the past, this beast seems anything but lost in the wilderness.
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'One True Pairing' is out now.
Words: Callum McLean
Photography: Jenna Hoxton
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