'There you go, it writes itself," says Theo Hutchcraft, vaguely humouring my limp, this-is-why-I'm-not-a-subeditor suggestion that we can headline this piece "Hurts Hurt". Hutchcraft, he of the chiselliest features in pop, is, you see, currently sporting a purple, bloodshot right eye.
A week previously, he had a nasty accident in Spain shooting the video for the band's new single when he fell down some stairs and smashed into an iron gate; the pain of which has been compounded by an album promo schedule just cranking into top gear.
First of all, our photoshoot had to be delayed to allow the billiard-ball swelling to go down. Then he was forced to commit the usually egregious celebrity crime of indoor sunglasses for an appearance on Graham Norton's Comic Relief chat show. "It was that or terrifying millions of children," he notes.
Still, at least, the video turned out all right; after Hutchcraft checked himself out of hospital, the director worked the injury into the theme. As to exactly how, the singer tells me to wait and see – though the fact the song is called "Blind" rather than say, "Eyes Wide Open" suggests it may not have required the utmost imaginative leap.
For today's shoot, too, Hutchcraft is – phew – happy to show off the shiner. And, if it weren't a deeply callous journalistic conceit given the obvious pain involved, you might say the injury was a rather neat symbol for where Hurts are at right now.
When the Manchester duo emerged with debut album Happiness in 2010, theirs was an immaculate conception. Sonorous and smouldering, with black-and-white videos and furrowed brows, frontman/vocalist Hutchcraft and keyboardist/guitarist Adam Anderson were a glorious anomaly in a pop climate obsessed with keeping it real. And deep V-neck T-shirts. And Olly Murs. And key to their impact was that super-sharp tailoring. Indeed, Rolling Stone went so far as to call them "the most stylish band in the world right now".
The music, meanwhile, was similarly resplendent: emotive, cinematic synthpop balladry with socking great choruses that made you (read: me) clutch a hand to your (read: my) chest and imagine tormented romances with random strangers of a morning commute. Some of us – the sensible ones – relished their overblown production and melodramatic affectation.
Others sneered at their overblown production and melodramatic affectation. "All the reviews read almost the same… half the people hate us and half the people [love us], but it's for exactly the same reasons," Hutchcraft confirms. "It's great like that; it just makes us want to commit to our concept of the band more than ever." Ah, there you go: band as "concept". Now that's what we (read: I) like to hear.
Certainly, they've defied naysayers with Exile. Dialling the bombast up to 11, their second album goes for a vibe they've described as "Dirtier. Fuzzier. Wilder". And yes – see where I'm going now? – more bruised. Happiness earnt them comparisons to Take That; now they sound more like Take That channelling Muse and studded with some Nine Inch Nails. Which is to say that things are both more gothic and guitar-heavy this time round.
Among their most striking new tracks is "The Road", inspired by both Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name and JG Ballard's Crash – or the "two bleakest books of all time", as Hutchcraft smiles. So, oblique though the lyrics may be, it's basically a post-apocalyptic ballad about people who are turned on by car crashes? "Yeah – and [the point was] also to make a song that was creepy… to make you go eeurgggh," he says, hunching his shoulders slightly comically, as if we were actually talking about a song inspired by "What's the Time, Mr Wolf?"
Less fictionally, Exile's turbulent sound is rooted in the band's experiences touring the world for their first album. They have said they wanted to harness "that sense of being in a weird place. Freedom, fear, isolation, joy, religion, punishment, the decadence that comes with exile." Or, to put it less abstractly, the highs and lows of their initiation into the pop-star existence.
Said lows included a two-week dark period in late 2011 when Anderson says they were "on the edge". "I threw my piano off the stage at one gig in Innsbruck. It had been a really bad gig. I think we had been waiting for [one] for a long time because everything had been going good, and that night, something was in the air, so we got absolutely shit-faced – Theo blacked out and I had a tantrum. Another time, I fell asleep on stage during a gig in Kiev; I was [gone] for 30 seconds, then Theo smacked his hand on the piano and I woke up."
As for the highs, where to begin? A couple of recent magazine interviews seemed to suggest the duo's life on the road was one part Mötley Crüe to one part Spinal Tap – there were tales of whole Icelandic hotels trashed, encounters with Polish gangsters, and a bald anecdote from Anderson that ran: "I had sex with a hunchback in Estonia… she was smoking-hot, actually."
Both those interviews, however, were conducted in the decadent climes of Berlin. Today, chomping down on Tesco sandwiches in an east London kitchen, they seem less inclined to play the arch-debauchers. When I ask if Hutchcraft has any rock'n'roll anecdotes left in the bank for The Independent on Sunday – high-brow broadsheet though we may be – he deflects like a pro.
Then, when Hutchcraft goes off to change and Anderson returns from changing, I ask him about the hunchback incident. I mean, was it simply a case of Victor Hugo on the brain? "That's… I was misquoted on that one," he protests. "What was the actual truth…" I begin, wondering momentarily about other possibilities of sexual partner ending in "ack". "I don't even remember saying that, to be honest," he interjects, a chill March afternoon suddenly getting a little chillier. (It's reassuring to note that where the amiable Hutchcraft doesn't quite live up to his band's moody styling, Anderson is the real deal. With a steely, blue-eyed gaze that's totally Rutger Hauer, he's laconic to the point of occasional surliness.)
To be fair, you can understand why the pair might want to double back from any overly hedonistic depiction of themselves. There's a fine line between libertinism and laddishness, and when you've got an image as carefully cultivated as theirs, it pays to be especially careful not to cross it. And, equally understandably, they want to emphasise that they work as hard as they play.
There was, for example, the reclusive year they spent back in Manchester locked in a bedroom writing Exile – "Though nobody ever wants to ask about that," notes Anderson glumly. And then, before that, the numerous years they spent "in absolute misery and constant hardship", when, after meeting outside a Manchester nightclub in 2005 and bonding over a love of Prince, they toiled away in search of a record deal. Two bands came and went before they reconfigured themselves into a winning formula as Hurts.
And so to fashion: for all through the hard times, they drew style from adversity. On the dole for three-and-a-half years, they would go to the Job Centre dressed in k suits bought from charity shops and then tailored to fit. "We basically felt we were doing our 'job' every day writing songs, but the [staff] didn't really respect that, obviously, [so by] dressing smartly, you try to get a relationship going with [them] – if they respected you, they made it a bit easier for you," says Anderson.
More than that, though, it was a matter of self-respect. "You obviously feel worthless a lot of the time [when you're unemployed]. It's difficult, when you're coming to London to do meetings with really important people who you're hoping will change your lives and you're coming from a horrible flat and eating noodles, and you have to tell everyone you think you're great. But you put a suit on and you feel good about yourself," says Hutchcraft.
These days, there's no need for such transformations. They have a strict, self-imposed formal dress code: you will not find them twirling around Costcutter in a onesie of a Sunday morning. "We got rid of all our casual clothes," says Hutchcraft. "It's good because you've got no option. You don't have to think about it." They joke about "blowing open the sportswear" for the third album, though I think there's more chance of them paring down to codpieces.
Equally, colour – by which I mean cheery – is a definite no-no. When I jokingly ask their stylist where the orange and pink changes for the shoot are, he looks like he's seen a Birkenstock. And when I ask the duo how far they will venture away from black and white, they look at each other sheepishly, perhaps wondering whether one of them might break ranks and destroy their aesthetic integrity in one fell swoop.
"Blue," says one. "Grey," says the other. And in summer? Maybe the odd pastel? Pah. They proudly recall a gig in Dubai, where they played in their usual get-up despite the 38 degree heat and their poor backing band's initial protestations. "We almost passed out, sure, but we got to the end and were like, yes, we've done it, nothing will ever [seem] too hot again," beams Hutchcraft.
Anderson suggests that the limited palette is counter-intuitively liberating. "The first thing is getting clothes that fit you; the second is finding the colours that work for you – and that's when you can start exploring things like types of collars. That's when [men's fashion] gets really interesting, when you get down to those finer details." It's an irony to them, though, that their fastidiously monochrome look has led to accusations of "style over substance", since they claim it was meant to suggest exactly the opposite. "The whole purpose of it was that it was so minimal that the music was the colour and the life," says Hutchcraft.
In any case, they're at ease with the whole fashion thing, as evidenced by today's shoot: while Hutchcraft cheekily laments the absence of an Armani jacket he had personally requested from the fashion house specifically so he could take it home with him, Anderson tests out camera angles on his iPhone, prompting the photographer to ask whether he wants to take over. They list Dior Homme, Armani, Lagerfeld and the newly Hedi Slimane-led Yves Saint Laurent among their favourite high-end labels and discuss their preference for proper vintage stores over second-hand stores where Lacoste shirts hold sway.
Their top high-street port-of-call, meanwhile, is Marks & Spencer: Anderson used to wear the retailer's thermal vests with braces on stage, while Hutchcraft gets his trousers there as it's "one of the only places that do [them] double pleated and high-waisted, because that's how old men wear them".
Indeed, their determined dapperness does hark back to another era, even if that era is not, repeat, not the 1980s – this suggestion gets me reprimanded by Anderson, with talk of lazy brushes. Anderson names his late granddad as his chief style inspiration ("He used to wear waistcoats and always had nice polished shoes, even when he went senile") while Hutchcraft plumps for Jeremy Irons, Sean Connery and David Lynch. "I think we want to live in a film, basically," the latter adds later. That film quite possibly being Dr Strangelove, to judge by the sinister black leather gloves that have become his signature handwear and stage comforter. "It's not an S&M thing, regardless of what people might think," he assures me sweetly.
In any case, to get back to those style over substance accusations, they really are pretty redundant. With Hurts, after all, substance and style are wholly of a piece. This is confirmed when the conversation gets on to Helmut Newton – a professed inspiration for both their videos and their music as a whole – who, more than any musician we discuss, sets Hutchcraft off. He stumbles a way towards an explanation of why he loves the photographer's work so. "It's everything to be honest… just the way he sees beauty is very powerful… there's a really striking eroticism, but also a daring and fierceness and decadence which makes me want to live inside every one of his photos."
With swooning talk like that, no wonder Hurts are big in Europe. And no, honestly, that's not some kind of record-label euphemism: their debut single "Wonderful Life" was a hit in Cyprus and Greece before they'd even signed a record deal, they have headlined festivals in Finland, and are mobbed by groupies across Eastern Europe.
Hutchcraft agrees that a lesser degree of cynicism when it comes to nakedly emotional pop like theirs may have something to do with their success on the Continent, but also puts it down the fact that, "We actually go [to these places]." And by that they mean really go: their Russian tour saw them play to two or three thousand people a night in Siberia. In Iceland, meanwhile, a newspaper reported that a "Hurts" was the country's most requested men's haircut. A nationwide attempt to replicate Hutchcraft's pristinely slicked-back coiffure? The working hours lost to combing simply doesn't bear thinking about.
Back in cynical Britain, they remain underdogs, as they see it, despite two top 10 albums, celebrity friends such as Harry Styles, Nick Grimshaw and Hutchcraft's girlfriend Alexa Chung, and collaborators of the renown of Kylie Minogue, who duetted on a track on their first album, and Elton John, who played piano on a track on their second.
Certainly, they deserve to get bigger. You just hope they can hold on to some hauteur, too. At the end of our interview, Hutchcraft mentions he is about to film Celebrity Juice. A week later, I watch a YouTube clip of the Keith Lemon panel show, which sees Hutchcraft spanked by Holly Willoughby as part of a round entitled "Stop me when it Hurts". Which makes me a bit sad. Still, the touring is beginning in earnest again, so they'll be back to immersing themselves in freedom, fear, decadence and all those other highfalutin abstracts once more. And then I really do hope they get to play their ultimate gig one day, even if we won't necessarily get to see it. "In Pompeii, like Pink Floyd, in the middle of the amphitheatre, with no one else around," that is.
Hurts' second album 'Exile' is out now; the single, 'Blind', is out on 12 May. They play Academy 2, Manchester, tomorrow and The Garage, Glasgow, on Tuesday. They will also be embarking on a UK and European tour, beginning on 25 October (informationhurts.com)
Styled by Filippo Giuliani. Stylist's assistant: Ginger Clark. Shot on location at Ed's Shed, designed by David Adjaye. Ed Reeve/AirspaceReuse content