At the beginning of the year the electronic-pop duo Hurts were the surprise inclusion on the BBC's Sound of 2010 list. They hadn't actually released a record. Yet this was the list which in previous years had predicted stardom for Mika, 50 Cent and Little Boots.
Since then things have moved quickly, and the stylish Manchester-based singer Theo Hutchcraft and keyboardist Adam Anderson have headlined an NME tour, and released their first single, a ballad, "Better Than Love". Their second single, "Wonderful Life", yet to be released in Britain, has provoked strong reaction across Europe. Their label was forced to release digital downloads of the song in Denmark, Russia and Greece after the band posted a home-made video of the song on YouTube, before they were signed.
The pair, when I meet them, are wearing vintage tailored suits and braces from charity shops. They have perfectly slicked-back hair, as if from another era. Anderson, 26, who has a particularly deadpan expression and doesn't smile once, leaves most of the talking to Hutchcraft, 23, who as the melodramatic front man, has a tantalising stage presence, even if he doesn't always live up to it in the flesh.
Simplicity and minimalism is everything to Hurts – from their neat and tidy MySpace page to their slick monochrome videos – but this is in stark contrast to the soaring emotions in their melancholic electro pop songs.
Inspired by the 1980s synth pop of Depeche Mode and Ultravox as well as disco lento, a slower version of 1980s Eurodisco, Hurts inhabit the edge of despair and hope, and claim to have found a middle ground emotionally. Hutchcraft tells me: "Hurts is about that fine line between happy and sad. We make emotional music but we are honest about it. We are trying to show that there is an alternative to chasing that unattainable idealistic emotion in so much pop music right now."
Hurts formed in 2009 and were signed to Sony imprint Major Label, in July 2009, after a tug of war with German record companies. Their aim, they say, is to bring honest emotion back to pop music.
Previously they were part of the five-piece hyperactive party band, Daggers, who churned out Eurodisco tracks and once supported Gary Numan. Eventually they burnt out musically, finding it impossible to evolve musically within the framework of the band's euphoric songs. "The music was relentlessly excitable," says Anderson, "but it was a learning curve for us." Daggers was an "apprenticeship", for them, as they explain. "We were intense and colourful for a while, and then we became calm and simple."
The curtain fell on Daggers in 2008 after a disastrous show alongside Beyoncé's sister, Solange Knowles. "The drummer failed to turn up, the sound was bad, amongst other things, but it was a relief it all went wrong," says Anderson. The duo called it a day and went off to Verona – apparently because "Ryanair were doing cheap flights", where they discovered disco lento, "slow disco", which had been influencing them long before they even knew of the genre.
Bonded by a common desire to "get real", the pair found instant relief from writing songs that were "emotional authentic" and "connected to joy" says Hutchcraft. "Songs that capture the middle ground between happy and sad are a lot more powerful for people. Part of the charm of Europe is the atmosphere of openness and honesty in music. In the UK and America people are afraid to let go emotionally, because there is a fear of the word 'cheesy'."
They set about creating sombre but heartfelt songs, including "Blood, Tears, and Gold", which became their second home-made video, also posted on YouTube. Their "Wonderful Life" video, which cost them just £20 to make, shows them performing the song on a sparse stage, with a random woman, dancing awkwardly in the background, wearing a black lace mini-dress and high heels. Hutchcraft explains that he was trying to capture a look reminiscent of the women in Bob Fosse's 1972 film Cabaret.
Manchester-born Anderson and Hutchcraft, from north Yorkshire, met five years ago outside a Manchester nightclub. "We were on the dole, claiming £56.40 a week, on and off for a couple of years, interspersed with odd jobs," reminisces Anderson, who filmed greyhound races at Manchester's Belle Vue dog track, while Hutchcraft worked backstage, building VIP tents, while touring with the British Superbikes racing series.
They had not considered careers as pop stars until they met and started to exchange backing tracks and vocals via email. Hutchcraft had studied acoustic engineering at the University of Salford – which "is the science behind what we do". He was obsessed by what made a pop hit and listened to Prince and Michael Jackson in his pursuit of the answer.
Anderson hadn't even bought a CD until he was 18 years old: "I rented OK Computer by Radiohead from the library and, seven days later, I took it back a changed man." Now they consider most current pop music "patronising" and "emotionally insincere". "People require a celebration of reality. We've had our fair share of fantasy. People are aching to be valued and to feel intelligent."
With a strong work ethic, they didn't leave their dungeon-like studio, in Manchester, for six months as they perfected their sombre but hope-filled songwriting skills.
Their debut album, which is released in August along with the single "Wonderful Life", was recorded in an abandoned radio station in Gothenburg in freezing conditions, as well as in Manchester, in January. "There is always an undercurrent of hope in our songs," says Anderson. "About five or six song titles on the album allude to hope: "Silver Lining", "Happiness", and "Illuminated", which are set to a bleak atmosphere."
Onstage they are always joined by "Richard", an opera singer, as backing singer, which adds a totally original dimension to electro-pop. They will perform at the MAD Video Music Awards, the Greek equivalent of the MTV Awards, in Athens on Tuesday where they will have 50 dancers at their disposal. Then this summer they are set to perform at many of the big festivals – including Lovebox Weekender, Camp Bestival and V Festival.
And they have had "Wonderful Life" remixed by New Order remixer/producer Arthur Baker – it also became a Top 10 iTunes hit in Denmark earlier this year.
But while their emotional music resonates with European audiences, does Britain really crave this brand of emotional electro-pop? "I think the emotional honesty in our music is refreshing," says Hutchcraft.
"A lot of men want to be this open and music helps you to express it because it's not something men do on the surface. At gigs when you see men singing along to our emotional songs, you can see that is their only outlet for that emotion. Regardless of what country you are in, it offers emotional release. It resonates with the female audience too because they are interested to hear men singing about being emotionally honest."
'Better Than Love' is out now