The Horrors know fame is nothing to be frightened of
With an acclaimed new album and their biggest headlining gig, the inventive five-piece are on a roll, says Elisa Bray
Friday 15 July 2011
At a tiny pub in the heart of east London, a crowd is gathering. Inside, Tim Burgess of The Charlatans and members of Klaxons are among a group of 150 fans watching The Horrors play a secret gig to launch their third album, Skying. Last month, Bobby Gillespie and Damon Albarn went to see them play. It may only be a Monday night, but this is the hottest ticket in the music world this week.
Skying, the follow up to the Mercury Prize-nominated Primary Colours, has been the deserving recipient of rave reviews that claim it to be The Horrors' best album yet. It has also proved to be the band's most commercially successful album, selling more copies in its first day of release than Primary Colours did in a week and taking the band to third place in the midweek chart. In another nod to their burgeoning appeal, their single 'Still Life' has just been A-listed on Radio 1 . It is all quite a leap from the five-piece's emergence from Southend in 2005, as a black-garbed garage-rock band with stage names such as Rhys "Spider" Webb and "Coffin" Joe. The Horrors' mop-haired singer, Faris Badwan, then calling himself Faris Rotter, would douse strangers in black paint – many dismissed them as a cartoon goth band. Now, however, the band, who are in their early to mid-20s, find themselves playing to ever widening crowds, at the Wireless festival in June and at a forthcoming date at the Roundhouse which will be their biggest UK show to date. They are aware of the evolution of their fanbase.
"We get a lot of that, people turning up in polo shirts, and it's great", says the 6ft 5in Badwan, his long wiry legs folded under the table. "In the beginning, with [the band's debut album] Strange House, the crowd was all people dressing like Josh [Hayward, the band's guitarist]. I love watching that change, it's really intense. When we played Wireless, a festival for a wide span of people, it was really good they were actually listening. It was weird because I've been in that situation often where this is a world that they don't want to be part of."
Badwan says the band would be happy if their success led them to headline spots at festivals. "I want to reach as many people as possible and if I can do that without compromising..."
"Compromising" is not a word that you would associate with The Horrors. Primary Colours was produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, but he suggested that they should go it alone for the next one. Having recorded their first song in Edwyn Collins's studio, and having spent time at a facility owned by Damon Albarn, both of which they describe as "just full of everything you'd ever want to see and more", they decided to build their own. A search resulted in the discovery of an ideal space, in the loading bay of an old factory – conveniently, next to the pub in which tonight's gig is held. At the newly acquired space Hayward, the band's resident physicist and "mad scientist", set about building the synthesisers and equipment that would help to create the psychedelia of the new album.
"I think the building of the studio was the biggest factor in the record's evolution," says Badwan. "We built equipment that doesn't exist."
Before they found the studio space, The Horrors made a failed attempt to write the album near Bude, in Devon. "We thought we'd relive dreams of [The Rolling Stones'] Exile on Main Street and have a mad month of playing and parties, but it didn't really end up like that," explains Webb, the bassist. "We were excited about that adventure. It was a great old house, but of course it was just the five of us and I think the whole thing with the Stones was they had loads of other people hanging out. We actually found we really wanted to get back to London and that London was really important to what we're doing."
Devon, however, was where they wrote the eight-minute track "Moving Further Away".
"That came out almost out of the frustration of not having a good time being there," says Webb. "I think it felt like it wasn't that much fun to be working and the only way you can do stuff is when you're actually having a good time and that's how we want our music to feel – we want to enjoy it."
There is a sense of enjoyment on Skying, which builds on the sonics of Primary Colours but leaves behind that album's claustrophobic edge and takes on a lighter feel. Imagery of skies and seas complements the overall sound, which came after Badwan's gorgeous 1960s girl-group inspired project with the soprano Rachel Zeffira, Cat's Eyes.
"We thought our last album was euphoric so I'm probably not the best person to ask," says Badwan, with a smile. "I know everyone succumbs to the odd cliché and everyone writes a rotten lyric, but I never like them to seem too planned out or pretentious. I like it when people make their own insights."
Webb says: "I think you can really paint a picture with music. The early stuff was quite straightforward and monochrome. I think we did want to go technicolour and psychedelic and explore what we could do with what we had to do it with. We're all interested in that feeling of a warped sense of reality, elevation in music and the way music can affect the listener and how you feel when you hear it. It's a really powerful thing. The idea of elevation and euphoria is something that we like."
Webb puts the new, expansive sound down to the band's approach, which sees all five members contributing to the songwriting process. "That's one of the things with us – it's not just one guy writing a song on his guitar, it's on five different levels because everyone tries to inject something into it. The songs end up being fuelled by these magical ideas and sounds.
"We wanted to explore this idea of space. Primary Colours still feels expansive, but was frantic and the rhythms were fast and furious. It just felt like these songs have a massive feeling of landscape and almost nature in a weird way and it could be completely chemical-induced visions of something that doesn't exist – it was just this feeling of space."
Are the songs chemically induced? "We don't take drugs when we're working in the studio," Webb says. "A few times we have experimented with that, but we just end up doing stuff which sounds great at the time but then you listen back. So, no, narcotic consumption is reserved for weekends or the evenings but there is an influence of that. It's ecstasy, really."
Webb, Hayward, and Coffin Joe, the band's drummer, come from Southend, where they discovered garage and psychedelia. Webb met Badwan and the keyboardist Tom Cowan, who were friends at Rugby School, at a nightclub in London, and they bonded over a shared love of psychedelic music. Webb invited Badwan's band, The Rotters, to play at his club night. "We instantly became friends because of our shared love of music," says Webb. "That's why we found the only place in London that was playing that music."
If The Horrors' new album hints at 1960s and 1970s psychedelia and experimental music, while strongly recalling 1980s bands such as The Psychedelic Furs and Echo & The Bunnymen, that is because you won't find them listening to contemporary bands. They are known for their obsessive collecting of old 45s.
"Most music we listen to is old because we want to hear the best stuff," says Webb. "I very rarely find an album that comes out that I will want to listen to in the same way that I will go back into my record collection, but that's just quality, really."
Badwan says: "You never know what's good until the band are over and done with anyway. You need to have had a record 10 or 15 years before you can tell how good it is.I'd say there are about five contemporary records that I feel are classics, brilliant records."
He suggests the new HTRK album. And the other four? He gets stuck. "I'm sorry."
The Horrors' early image, which prompted so many to dismiss them, now feels almost as if it belongs to another band. Webb says: "Funnily enough, that happened when Primary Colours was released and they decided that the press angle would be that the first record [Strange House] was rubbish and the second was good, but actually" – he tells me he has all the cuttings for proof – "we got pretty much across the board positive reviews for that record. It was really exciting and sounded like nothing else that was happening. Strange House was released six months after the band played their first note in the rehearsal room and we did our cover of The Sonics' 'Witch' for the first time. We played a gig two weeks later and we were recording the album a few months later, so it was great."
With their first top-five album looking likely and their largest UK gig to come, and with praise coming faster and thicker than ever, The Horrors' time is now. "It is really exciting – and I don't get excited very often," says Badwan. "Being passionate about things is what ties the group together. I love the way that we've come out with a record that is exactly what I want to be involved in."
'Skying' is out now on XL Recordings. The Horrors play Field Day on 6 August
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