Strange Fascination: Inside The Cult of The Horrors

As they unveil fourth album Luminous, we confront the UK’s biggest cult band to mine the paradoxes at the heart of their success

Feature by Jazz Monroe | 02 May 2014

Faris Badwan tracks an imaginary fly around his dilapidated nest of hair. At once bored, absorbed, teasing and tortured, he's a man who mumbles constantly, blinks manically and scrutinises questions like a landlord inspects carpets.

Throughout the day, Faris proves incapable of genuine laughter; instead, he wheezes. People might tell you The Horrors’ singer is a contrary interviewee, but this isn’t strictly true. Faris isn’t shy, bullish or even evasive; he’s just completely fucking insane. Terribly postured with wide, pinballing eyes, he seems to have invented a private game that nobody else can play. And in a way, he’s already won.

He’s already won because this is exactly the introduction he craves. In the eyes of magazine readers, megafans and interviewers countrywide, this is Faris Badwan. And it sort of is, and it sort of isn’t, and it’s that desire to mess with us – rather than the act itself – that makes him interesting. Who’s the man who high-fives crew members in the dressing room, creasing up with delight as somebody coins the nickname “F-Dogg”? Who’s the gangling giant hunched in a lift, offering M&S Percy Pigs to bandmates? These exchanges remain hidden, because Faris, above all, is a man who covets ambiguity.

“Things that aren’t pinned down in reality are cool,” he states, sequestered with The Skinny in a spartan dressing room of London's Hospital Club. “I like it when a guitar sounds like something else – I like anything you can’t pin down. And maybe the way I act is an extension of that.” His gaze skips across the ceiling, and he chuckles. “Or maybe I just spend a lot of time alone.”

Of course, there’s nothing gravely wrong with this sort of deception. It’s an artistic tightrope walked by everyone from Thom Yorke to Britney Spears, and this is their logic: so long as you aren’t one thing to everyone, you can be anything to anyone. That ambiguity is The Horrors all over, and fourth LP Luminous is as alluring and nebulous as ever, like an impressionist depiction of supernovas tearing through cushy summer skies.

It's fair to say that the album, recorded in an old Hackney loading bay that’s become the band studio, will intrigue and delight fans of the resplendent Skying. Its trick is to marry sonic and lyrical obscurity while courting big pop on the side. This slight paradox has come to define the Southend five-piece, whose personalities are so distinctively eccentric they’re almost fictional. Most overt is pleasant bassist Rhyss Webb, whose jerky physical manner suggests he once attempted to live in reverse and is presently being rewound in real time. Chirpier still is physics grad Josh Hayworth, who might be endearing if his face weren’t cocooned in shaggy black hair. Tom Cowan, resident sonic scientist, is perhaps the least self-aware Horror (save for cackling drummer Joe Spurgeon, who avoids interviews) and his onstage befuddlement when synths go haywire is hilarious and human.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a band of such grand affect can lack a certain grounding. In austere times, The Horrors remain unwavering advocates of escapism. But as with Faris’s wilful ambiguity – which allows us to subconsciously construct his personality – there’s a pertinent counterargument, that what people want to believe is rarely what they should, and even less often what’s true. Isn’t now the time for engagement?

“I like it when a guitar sounds like something else – I like anything you can’t pin down. And maybe the way I act is an extension of that” – Faris Badwan

“Yeah, but everyone shirks their responsibilities, don’t they?” responds Faris. “I think humans need escapism to survive. Some like it more than others, but there’s not a single person I’ve ever met who doesn’t have some form of it. It’s difficult, because if you start thinking about the stuff you could try to change, you feel kind of impotent.” He uncrosses his legs. “We are a band of escapists, but escapism is also discovery, you know? That’s what making a record is. It’s unbelievable how many bands make the same record again and again. That’s like purgatory for me, the idea of that.” 

It’s no secret that, album to album, The Horrors have made cosmic leaps. Luminous is no exception. If the sumptuous stylings usher out Primary Colours’ fresh, ragged experimentation, there’s a raw emotion to songs like knock-kneed waltz Change Your Mind that pierces the sparkly production. They demonstrate wrenching songwriting talents that, like the band themselves, insist maturity is an open door to new possibilities. Listening to Luminous, it’s pretty hard to dispute.

One peculiar feat of The Horrors’ trajectory is that, despite sounding increasingly marketable since shriek-de-soleil debut Strange House, they still seem, at gut level, like a band of outsiders. Indeed, that an exquisitely produced indie band can retain cult status while routinely scoring multi-million YouTube plays is either a shining testament to their subversive spirit or, to the cynic, a sign that some of us register hype, marketing and physical appearance more viscerally than musical subtleties.

Still, it’s true that every band has its cultural shadow, and the best – Bikini Kill, the Smiths, Nirvana, the Velvet Underground – covet concept and content equally. What’s interesting about The Horrors, though, is that moreso than even R.E.M.’s or Radiohead’s, their brand of ‘outsider’ music explicitly targets a universal audience. This means that while they reach from the outside in, their audience are, perversely, enjoying an enhanced sense of outsi-

“Did you have dark circles around your eyes in kindergarten?” interjects Faris. He does this twice during our interview, and both times I’m momentarily stunned. N- potentially? Do I now? “Yeah, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But when I was a kid, the photo of me on the very first day at school, I had big black rings, almost like a panda. And I wondered if you might have had the same problem.”

Oh. Not really, no. The thing with my eyes growing up was that everyone sort of assumed I was stoned. “Oh, I had that too. But I was never really that bothered. It didn’t, er. I didn’t... I mean, I also had grey hair on the first day of school. But what were you saying?” Well, I was trying to describe a sort of paradox, that you seem like a band of outsiders reaching for something universal, but part of your fanbase are the direct inverse: by investing in what The Horrors represent, they remain ‘inside’ the mainstream while manufacturing a feeling of outsiderdom.

He nods, vaguely interested. “I think if you’re a music fan, that’s kind of what you are doing. You’re taking pieces of the things you like. I suppose we noticed that when we first started, because we were perceived quite differently to what we were thinking about. To a lot of kids who came to the shows, it was about backcombing your hair. Looking on those parts of the crowd is a bit weird, like looking out at tourists.”

Does it bother you? “Well, not really. If I was performing to a roomful of me, it’d probably be the most boring crowd in the world, you know? It’d be people standing with their arms folded, trying to work out what the singer was doing.” He starts to laugh but stops suddenly, and wheezes. “You can’t make music for people exactly like yourself. It’s absorbed in lots of different ways by different people, and that’s what the music is: people piecing together the person they want to be.”

At first this seems vague and simplistic; everybody knows popular bands excite people in myriad ways. But the more you think about it, the more astute it sounds. For a band sometimes criticised as shameless cratediggers, The Horrors elude pastiche because the final packaged result (which itself influences bands like Toy, Temples and Protomartyr) is unmistakably theirs. What Faris suggests is that music fans are kind of the same: they too seek certain music for creative reasons, but it’s less to form a band than a new personality. Still, if that’s the case, isn’t it interesting that so many UK and US residents feel, however comfortably they occupy the collective Western lifestyle, that who they truly are is something fundamentally ‘outside’ or apart?

There’s a long pause. “Yeah,” Faris says. “And in some ways that’s a cool thing, because bands that enable that separation are the ones that changed the course of my life. It’s funny, because when you look at bands with a gang mentality, it makes you want that feeling of togetherness but also separation. You wanna be in with these people, yet at the same time to shove the rest aside. Those bands are important because they change people’s lives.”

True, and that shows how far The Horrors have come. When the gothed-up rabble-rousers greeted the 2006 indie scene with a tsunami of hype, eyeliner and burst thigh capillaries, few would have pegged them as life-changers – least of all The Horrors themselves, who in Faris’s words “just wanted to make a record because we were collecting records.”

Nonetheless, it’s with this attitude that they’ve built a musical future from the past. “There’s always a lot of great music,” Faris says, “but I suppose in the context of contemporary music, we are outsiders. The present is the least exciting period. The past, there’s loads of great stuff; thinking about the future is always exciting. But thinking about the present seems like the most boring thing in the world.” 

Faris traces his cratedigging impulse back to an early dissatisfaction with readily available sounds. After a peripatetic childhood in a household awash with ’70s pop, the burgeoning illustrator made his stage debut at 16, playing a sort of quasi-punk school concert. “I performed with some other guys that’d been kicked out of their bands for not being good enough,” he recalls. “We did some ’60s R’n’B covers. I found the recording the other day actually, it’s pretty funny. I was singing double-speed over everything else, just because I was so into it.” 

What were their musical fantasies? “My rock star idols were always more likely to wear lab coats and glasses than leather jackets,” offers Tom, perched forward on the sofa. “People like Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop were way more of an inspiration than any kind of rock band.”

“When I was younger, I thought to be in a band you had to have years of musical training,” continues Faris, “but when I got into music that involved hammering away at a guitar, I realised that spirit, energy and intensity are what matters. That’s when I lost interest in [fame]. All the other stuff can follow. When you discover that kind of thing, you get so excited that everything else turns kind of grey.” 

Luminous, then, feels aptly titled: that ambiguous glow representing one passion replacing another. But for now, as The Horrors congregate in the Hospital Club corridor, the record’s as far out of mind as garage-rock, eyeliner and the adolescent vagaries of fashion. Well, sort of. “Is that a new leather jacket?” asks Rhyss, flicking Faris’s shoulder. “How many have you got now?” “Oh, about 15”, Faris grins, pulling out his Percy Pigs. There’s a hush as The Horrors stand awkwardly, trapped between the future and past. “Doors opening,” declares a computerised female voice. It’s pretty hard to dispute.

Luminous is released via XL Recordings on 5 May. Playing Field Day Festival on 8 Jun