The Horrors - How to survive on the outside

Once dismissed as fashion victims, The Horrors have forged a distinct identity with their second album. Nick Hasted meets them as they graduate to the big league

All you can see of the fan are her red-painted nails, slowly clawing their way up Faris Badwan's thigh. When they reach his crotch they settle for a moment, satisfied. Others tug at the singer's stiffened pile of black hair like it's a good-luck charm. The gangling, make-up-smeared Badwan swings from the low, sweat-dripping ceiling of King Tut's, the basement Glasgow club that has somehow packed in an audience of more than 300 tonight. It is when he leaps at the crowd as if about to punch them that the melee truly starts.

This all looked an impossible scene just a few hours earlier, as his band, the Horrors, tumble off their tour van and blink at the Glasgow sun. "I haven't slept in four days," are the bassist, Rhys Webb's first words. "I've never been so tired."

The Horrors are crawling in from a Spanish festival, and five weeks in America before that. I first heard of them when on tour with the Fratellis, who told me with disgusted incomprehension that the singer then styling himself Farris Rotter had smeared them with black paint-dripping hands. The Horrors' gothic style and crow's-nest hair made them seem one more set of fashion victims from their Shoreditch base. Few bothered to disentangle this hyped image from the impressive garage-rock of their debut album, Strange House, in 2007. But its follow-up, Primary Colours, makes them impossible to dismiss. Recorded with Portishead's Geoff Barrow, its vintage synthesisers conjure the epic yet spare grandeur of early 1980s music.

Badwan is far from the fury flinging himself at fans as he sits on the pavement before the show. He is well over six feet tall, and his legs stretch into the street. The "stupid 18-year-old" who smeared black paint on strangers has been replaced by a soft-spoken, self-questioning ex-public school boy (he and the Horrors' keyboardist, Tom Cowan, met at Rugby). His mind is opening by the day.

"The best thing I saw," he says of their US adventures, "was Butte, Montana, a deserted mining town with antique shops that get their stock from ghost towns. Travelling from San Francisco to LA, the desert was like a cartoon backdrop that repeats itself. You learn so much from moving around. I sometimes feel like there just isn't enough time."

Badwan became obsessed with collecting postcards, glimpses of strangers' lives "like Beat poetry", in the junk shops of America. They are tucked into the book of ink sketches and notes he holds as he talks. His band exist in their own world, one resolutely opposed to today's. The oldest Horror is only 21. But they hoard 7-inch vinyl, cassettes and Super 8 film like relics from a better time.

"When you listen to your vinyl," Badwan says, "it's going to sound slightly different every time, with age. Ageing is what makes things interesting. With modern music production, the better technology gets, the worse the end product."

Badwan predictably loathes the uniformity of Britain's chain-store high streets, and has carefully picked the alley where we talk. Twenty-first-century inanities disturb him. "When I'm DJing I can't talk to people," he says. "I haven't ever done karaoke, and I couldn't without taking it seriously. I hate the culture of disposable music from the internet – like it's not there to be cherished, and picked out and put in a box, and categorised – well, I don't know if everyone does that," he laughs. "But maybe a lot of people prioritise the wrong things."

Badwan has industriously pieced together an alternative culture of his own. The turning point in his artistic life was no wave, the abrasive post-punk New York scene that finished before he was born. "I really like reading around that period," he says. "Ginsberg and Jim Carroll, and William Burroughs. It's all very well punk saying, 'Anyone can form a band', with two chords or whatever. It's not a very interesting band. With no wave, you don't need any chords. You can make music with a load of bricks."

This imagined, romantic world is in stark contrast to Badwan's upbringing in Leamington Spa and Rugby. "Rugby's a horrible little town," he says. "It's got the highest rate of stabbings in the Midlands, and you couldn't walk the length of the high street without being shouted at. It's not hard to stand out in that context." Badwan's image began then. "I dressed as I do now because when I was really young, I was obsessed with gangs. The way you dress reflecting the music that you're into really appealed to me. So when I saw bands like [veteran Canadian garage-punk band] the Gruesomes, I thought, I wanna do something like this."

The side-effects, though, freak him out. A whey-faced Glasgow teenager sidles up as we talk. "Are you Faris? I'm pure star-struck man," is all he can say. "Oh. Okay..." Badwan mumbles. He is equally diffident back in a dressing room that Webb accurately claims "smells like feet and animals and dogs." Exhaustion replaces rock'n'roll excess with the sound of Badwan nursing his voice with sipped lemon tea and some kind of inhaler.

Two days later, at Manchester's Ruby Lounge, the Horrors' spirits are notably revived. The female front-row's hands clutch like zombies from Night of the Living Dead, but are far less dramatic than Badwan's hands madly conducting the chaos, and the curtain-haired guitarist Josh Hayward's whipping of his effects pedal. In a far more vibrant dressing room, the other Horrors talk.

Hayward, the drummer "Coffin" Joe Spurgeon and Webb all come from the Southend area. This rough Essex seaside town's rock heritage, typified by the nearby Canvey Island's legendary Seventies R&B band Dr Feelgood, forged them. "My parents were friends with those guys," says Webb. "And when I discovered music for the first time, I was given a pair of [late Feelgood singer] Lee Brilleaux's Chelsea boots. Amazing worlds of music which they are a part of inspired us. Although you'd walk down a grey high street in Southend and there was nothing there that you felt anything in common with, there are still great record shops that have been there since the Eighties. We spent four years of our lives, from 14 to 18, absorbing amazing music that had already happened. So we started our own night, with only new music [Southend's Junk Club]. That's where the Horrors came from."

Hayward's Essex memories are less fond. "Canvey's as low as you can go," he jokes grimly. "When did I leave? The first chance I got. It was unfortunate my local pub was in Southend. I'd just get spat on."

As with Badwan, 2009 doesn't fill these Horrors with joy. "Best plan ever," Hayward gasps. "I'm going to destroy the internet. Every social network site, every blog. No one's happier now because of it. It's really interesting that now we have complete communication, we have less good underground bands. How is that?"

Like bands in the similarly culturally inhospitable 1980s, they have turned their back on this reality, and made music from inside their own. They made Primary Colours in a north-London rehearsal room that became a sort of bunker, which for three months they left only to sleep or to DJ nearby. "There was no question of going home," says Webb. "The whole record existed in this one place, which was just a rehearsal room in Stoke Newington. I remember literally feeling invincible. Like I could take on anyone."

All the Horrors wanted to do in Glasgow was sleep. But, tonight, Hayward heads into Manchester to play pool, the future vibrant and wide. Their private, well-stocked universe protected them from the abuse hurled at them in the streets of Southend and the music press, till Primary Colours won this new acceptance. Webb, though, does not forget.

"What really pisses me off is people questioning the integrity of the group. I'm sick of reading about faux-bands like the Killers. I don't believe in it for a second. We're not playing for now and making the most of the situation. You can come and speak to us in five years, and 10. We'll be doing this forever."

The Horrors play the Electric Ballroom in London tonight, and tour till 17 June. 'Primary Colours' (XL) is out now

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