“The Horrors… The Horrors” was the usual exclamation made around these parts three years ago when Southend-on-Sea’s The Horror’s first burst onto glossy magazines and venues across the globe with their garage-pyschobilly rock and matching cartoon goth image and names. But in a remarkable turnaround their second album released last year, Primary Colours, confounded critics with its musical depth and listenability, referencing genres such as post-punk, shoegaze and krautrock. Webcuts couldn’t help but admire the growth evident on the new album and justly awarded the disc 9.5 out of 10 contending “Primary Colours is an astonishing record” (full review). In Australia for the Big Day Out festival, Chris Berkley coaxed the pale ones, vocalist Faris Badwan and keyboardist Rhys Webb, into the Static cave for a chat.
It is a great pleasure to welcome back to Sydney Rhys and Faris from The Horrors. You’re probably seeing a few more daylight hours this tour?
Rhys: We have been actually; it’s been quite a treat.
Because last time The Horrors were here it was all winter and night times. What kind of state were you guys in after you finished touring the first record, Strange House? I guess you were here towards the end of that tour cycle.
Rhys: We were fine, I think we were just really looking forward to getting back into the studio because we’d really been playing for pretty much over a year; as long as the band had been together we’d been playing and playing those songs and playing that record so I think we were just looking forward to getting back into the studio at that point.
It didn’t take too much out of you guys?
Faris: No, because I mean from the very first gig we’ve played constantly, so it’s the only thing we’ve really known.
Rhys: I think playing shows doesn’t really exhaust you, I mean that’s the one thing that keeps you alive really. I think touring itself and the traveling is the bit that takes it out of you, but as soon as you’re playing a show it’s almost like it completely wakes you up.
That’s the problem: it’s that one-hour of the day and the other 23 hours of waiting.
Rhys: Well then it’s kind of like it almost feels like the day starts after that gig which is the reason you end up staying up all night.
Did you guys sort of take time to take stock after the first album then or was it straight into it?
Rhys: No we literally went straight back into a small kind of rehearsal space a couple of weeks after our last gig. I think the last thing we did was play a strange festival with The Stooges as headline — that was quite cool — and then we went back and got on with working really. We just were writing from then onwards.
Did you also take some time — I mean before the band was even around you were doing things like DJing out at club nights and stuff like that — did you guys re-immerse yourselves in other peoples’ records?
Faris: We didn’t really do anything differently — we met because of a shared love of discovering new music and it’s not really something that we ever stop doing. The first port of call whenever we hit a new town is to find a record shop that we haven’t been to and that’s just the way we live our lives really, rather than something we begin or stop doing.
Do you listen to more records on tour or at home then, Faris?
Faris: Well I mean it’s exactly the same, always after every tour we come back with twice the amount of luggage as we set out with, and that’s entirely down to the amount of records we’ve collected.
So do you have to take more crew on the road to carry your extra bags then?
Faris: No we’re capable of carrying our own bags thankfully.
You guys in The Horrors have never been shy of cover versions and even name-checking a lot of your influences. A prescient cover that might have sort of pointed to where the second Horrors record was going in between the first and the second one was that Suicide track that you did, “Shadazz”.
Faris: It was pointing towards it in a sense that it was between the first record and the second but I mean yeah, there’s a strong tradition of covers in the bands that we like and it’s just another way of interpreting music isn’t it, which is a personal experience. I’ve always been into bands doing covers and taking someone else’s songs somewhere else.
You don’t get intimidated by doing the classics, like Suicide?
Rhys: I think it’s a funny idea that this is a conversation you’re more likely to have now than at any other time in the history of rock ’n’ roll, considering most bands really started playing cover versions, being The Beatles or The Stones or even the Sex Pistols. It was something that was just kind of part and parcel of being in a group and part of a live repertoire. And I think it’s strange now actually that bands are even questioned as to why they might want to play other peoples’ music. So for us it’s just something that’s good fun and something to do and something we’re interested in doing now.
When you were looking to do the second record, was someone like Geoff Barrow a good help? Did that help to steer you in a direction Rhys, or did you already have ideas for the second Horrors album?
Rhys: We met after being asked by Geoff to play All Tomorrow’s Parties, but at that point, we were already writing and recording. But we were really up for it because we really love Portishead. It was their first show in ten years as well. So on that first meeting we spent a lot of the time talking about new instruments we were playing — especially with the electronics — and new directions in sound.
Nerding out, I believe it’s called…
Rhys: A little bit, yeah: just talking about things that you enjoy and you love or whatever and shared passions. Then the next time they played in London, which was about a week or two later — they played Brixton Academy — we just gave them a cassette with all of our songs that we’d been working on. Actually, I say it was a cassette; it wasn’t a cassette it was a CD, but in my head it feels like it was a cassette moment, but it wasn’t, it was actually just a CD.
Well when they make The Horrors film you can make it a cassette.
Rhys: Yeah yeah, it was a four-track cassette. It was essentially the same idea that we’d just been recording all these songs — the same idea as just getting it down on a four-track or whatever — in our rehearsal room, and that was that. Then the following week again we met up with him and said ‘Yeah, let’s go and record the record.’ I think at that point we were really expecting that one of our songs might turn into something like “Cowboys” from one of the early Portishead records or something as bass-heavy or in that direction. We genuinely thought that these songs would be taken somewhere else completely but what we soon found after a couple of days in the studio was that he really wanted to preserve exactly what we’d given him on those initial recordings, which for us was great because it was our first time really getting down and involved in that world of exploring new sounds and new territory, so he really gave us confidence to do our own thing. That’s how it went on from there.
Is that because at the time you guys hadn’t heard the third Portishead record as well and you might have had preconceptions about what the Portishead of old sounded like?
Rhys: We had no idea of what [the new album] was going to sound like because it was kept under wraps and this whole festival was them playing for the first time in a decade. They weren’t afraid to name check people like Silver Apples, Ennio Morricone, and in fact following that conversation there was so much of that in their music that we loved and that reached us directly that we thought ‘Wow, you know we’re actually on the same page.’ People would say ‘Oh yeah, Portishead and The Horrors seems like a strange combination’, but for us and for Geoff it seemed like a very natural one.
Did a lot of people have ideas of what The Horrors were or should have been? I mean it seems that between the first and second albums you seem to have been able to allay a lot of those.
Rhys: Yeah I think so, I think a lot of people who met us or came to our shows listened to the music and were exposed to our thoughts and what we are about as a band. We’ve never questioned for a second what we’re doing but the other side of the coin was that there were people who didn’t necessarily want to listen to loud, fuzzy music that got on their nerves, and we weren’t making it for them anyway so they didn’t really like it, and they’re happier to flip to a different page of the NME and go for one of the less offensive groups.
At the end of the day as well we were a very new young band who were writing for the first time and I think what comes out of that raw power of working and doing what you can with your — perhaps even limitations — can be just as exciting, and have been proved to be just as exciting by many other groups; but if the band’s actually a great band, it’s what they do with those ideas and how they progress and what happens next that’s important, and I think that’s certainly what happened with us. I think Strange House will always stand up as being a very exciting record, especially considering the climate that it was made in. [But] for us it’s always about what happens next.
It seems also that you guys have been good at showing [that] The Horrors have a sense of humour – I mean doing The Mighty Boosh was a great revelation.
Rhys: It’s funny again, it’s almost out of your hands. As soon as there’s a picture of you on the internet or whatever, people make up their own minds. But yeah, you know we’re very amusing chaps, as you can tell.
Faris: No, but I think it’s important. I mean you have to take your music seriously because it’s something you’re really passionate about, and to show any sort of novelty is not something we’d ever be interested in, but you don’t necessarily have to take yourself as seriously as you take your music.
Transcription: Chris Butler
First broadcast on Static on 21/01/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).