The Horrors: “This whole thing has been a learning process”

From the rooftop of their London studio, <b>The Horrors</b> explain a strange ascent

Feature by Music Team | 03 Aug 2011

Navigating through the bustling market stalls of Stoke Newington, the bare brick studio we’re bound for – current nesting ground of The Horrors – is both inconspicuous and inaccessible. A bald Egyptian man draws out a crude map that leads through corridors and staircases to a fire escape carrying a notice which reads: ‘This is not the door you’re looking for.’ A clunky padlock averts the insistent. The foreboding dwelling feels appropriate anyhow, yet we’re taken aback as we ascend up to a rooftop adorned with sunflowers, a broken barbeque set and a chaise lounge.

As it turns out, The Horrors have forged a workspace that strikes a balance between shadowy rehearsal den and the great outdoors. “That was really important to us,” offers bassist Rhys Webb, “ever since we started about five or six years ago. Our first recordings were in Edwyn Collins’ personal studio. A musician’s studio will always have their identity stamped on it: they’ve built up this collection of great gear, they’ve got all their old amplifiers and he had this room of guitars that he’d had since the early seventies and all these great synthesizers. To us that was really inspiring and exciting.

“Our first experience in a studio was when we did Sheena Is A Parasite, and ever since we always had this dream of recording independently,” he elaborates on their new base and ongoing modus operandi. “With this third record we felt that we actually had the confidence to do it ourselves and get the place set up accordingly. We’ve always tried to keep things spontaneous to capture the song’s raw essence, and often that’s done using the original recordings from the writing sessions. We record everything whilst we write, the tapes are always running.”

Gazing upon the cityscape, Webb tries to explain how their latest album came to be known as Skying: “It’s one of those questions that has so many different answers. The word was up on the board from really early on; floating about the studio, it just completely summed up everything we felt was being conveyed in the music. Historically, it also refers to a manual recording technique. Before phasing units were used in studios you’d plug two tapes playing the same thing slightly out of phase and it would give you that kind of whooshing effect, like the sound of jet engines. In the sixties it was known as ‘skying’. It was coined in a review of this insane, psychedelic track from about 1968 called Hip Hip Hoorah by a Belgian band called The Snapshots. That record was drenched in this phased effect. But for us it came from a Caleb Quaye record called Baby Your Phrasing Is Bad. The phaser unit in his studio was called the Grand Skyer Mark II. It all goes back to this idea.”

Beyond this diligence for effective production techniques, image has played an equally key part in The Horrors’ identity. I ask whether Webb’s navy-blue mariner suit or the LP’s beautiful pastel-palette artwork aptly reflects the attitude of the band at the moment, as well as the dreamy direction of their new album. “We’ve always just done exactly what we wanted to do,” he insists. “It’s done us good and bad, although when we got together we didn’t actually second guess what anybody was gonna think about our appearance. We were obsessed with The Cramps and The Velvet Underground. We kinda got lost in our own world but as years go by, you grow up and keep on moving.”

This will to “keep on evolving” fast becomes the enduring theme of our conversation. One of the more conspicuous additions on Skying has been the inclusion of brass instrumentation, though Webb doesn’t deem this especially drastic: “Whatever sounds best sticks, so if something suggests itself as being a good idea to pursue, then we’re always willing and wanting to experiment with it. Originally the brass stuff started off just being sampled off an old Mellotron, simple synthesized things, but Tom [Cowen – synths], who wrote and played a lot of those parts, was really adamant that we should try to see what it sounds like. Equally, Josh [Hayward - guitar] will write a part on the guitar but then suggest that maybe it would sound better translated elsewhere.”

“Keyboard has always played an important part for us,” Webb reasons of its escalating prominence over three albums. “We’d thrown ourselves into this straight-up garage organ sort of thing, but with the second record we started experimenting with synthesizers, which was just another way of being able to realise our intentions.”

For whatever reason, the reincarnate Primary Colours lured critics like mosquitoes to a UV light. With Geoff Barrow helming production, it stands to reason that the key was a Portishead prescription. Yet Webb suggests Barrow was opposed to letting the record imbue too much of himself: “That surprised us as well! By the time Third came out most of Primary Colours was down and demoed, when Geoff heard those first recordings he was really into the work we’d been doing. They were only ever thought of as demos, but had more of an overall sound than just the writing and playing of a song. We’ve always been interested in communicating with sound, even in these early demos we started to explore how we could treat the drums or even experimenting with loops, and obviously with Primary Colours the electronic thing was much more pivotal, so that stuff was already down with quite a clear framework.”

Despite the apparent expert execution of electronics on Primary Colours, Webb confesses that they’d had little prior experience of such equipment: “We’re teaching ourselves as we go along really. Our first run in with synthesizers was recording a few tracks from Strange House with [Bad Seed and one-time Sonic Youth drummer] Jim Sclavunos. While he was mixing away in the Mute Records’ studios, at the back of the studio we found some synths, so we all just plugged ourselves in and started playing around, that really sparked our interest as a band, but we’ve always been into electronic music.”

Strange House caught the attention of media and public alike, but perhaps more for The Horrors’ audacious stylisation than for listenable substance. “[Polydor] dropped us on the Monday,” Webb recalls. “Then we played Brixton academy literally on the Friday; we tried some new material in that set, Three Decades and a couple of others that didn’t make the first album. After that show [XL Recordings founder] Richard Russell texted our manager and said that, even without meeting us, he wanted to sign us.”

With favourable hindsight, Webb dismisses the whole affair: “We didn’t really feel like Polydor was the right home for us anyway. Half the time we felt like the marketing and promotion of us as a band was off the mark. In those early days we’d play tiny club shows, sweat dripping from the ceiling and everybody having had the time of their lives – that was what was actually happening. Then two weeks later you saw some press shot that was taken in a white studio with too much wardrobe, too nice looking – that wasn’t really a representation of the band at all, it wasn’t really the right atmosphere for us. I also think some people just couldn’t see beyond the press shot that’d been taken in the first place.”

As a pair of tiny terriers from the adjacent studio scramble onto the rooftop, Faris Badwan joins the conversation belatedly; the abundance of tequila necked during the previous night’s show at the illustrious 100 Club has clearly taken its grim toll. The Horrors’ frontman sets aside the book he’s reading, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. “It went very well, thank you,” he offers. “I recently saw Rhys’ other band, The Diddlers, also playing the 100 Club.”

Since a cameo on The Mighty Boosh under the pseudonym The Black Tubes, the band's members have not been short on real-life side-projects to explore. “I can’t speak for the others, but with Cat’s Eyes it’s more of a parallel thing,” says Badwan of the classically influenced project he launched with soprano Rachel Zeffira earlier this year. “I really want to beat the notion that you can’t be in two bands at once: the only obstacle is time and whether you’re willing to put it in, but I invest a lot into Cat’s Eyes and I want it to be regarded in its own right.”

With Primary Colours shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2009 and Skying rocketing to #5 at the end of the week we meet, it seems the key to their success so far has been to discard the zeitgeist. “These are records we worked really hard on and believed in,” states Badwan. “I don’t ever want to speculate as to why people like things.” Nor does he seem at all resentful towards those who overlooked the debut only to perform a u-turn on the critically acclaimed follow up. “Everyone needs a point of entry,” he reasons. “I mean, you can’t begrudge someone for enjoying a record. Take Radiohead, there are records of theirs that I like and records of theirs that I bloody hate, but it doesn’t make me think any less of the band.”

With The Horrors heavily hitting the summer festival circuit before embarking upon their own extensive tour, Badwan leaves us with an explanation of their fluent transition from studio to stage: The whole thing has been a learning process. We’ve always written things as a band, tailored to be performed live, so all the stuff you’re hearing can be made by five of us without requiring any extra personnel. At Glastonbury we had a really brilliant crowd. It felt like we’d made a step forward, and it’s always exciting to feel like you’ve made a step forward. It’s not too difficult if you’re receptive to the changes.”

Skying is out now on XL Recordings

Playing The Liquid Room, Edinburgh on 19 Oct