The Shock of The Horrors

Like Radiohead and Blur before them, <b>The Horrors</b> have followed a fault-ridden debut with a superb second album that few saw coming. But frontman Faris Badwan tells us that it wasn't the complete shift that some would have you believe

Feature by Nick Mitchell | 06 Jul 2009
  • The Horrors

It’s a comeback that has already provoked a collective volte-face in the British music press, spawning endless reviews and blogs smattered with the words ‘shocking’, ‘surprising’, ‘remarkable’. So here’s the abridged version of how one band went from cartoonish irritants to respected artists.

Back in 2006, The Horrors' emergence seemed like a carefully planned publicity stunt dreamed up in a Starbucks-fuelled strategy meeting by a gaggle of Shoreditch media gurus. There were the haircuts (Edward Scissorhands with fringes), the stage names (Faris Rotter, Spider Webb, Coffin Joe), the NME cover (awarded on image alone, reputedly) and later, the affair with the vacuous socialite (Faris and Peaches Geldof). If you managed to stomach all this and still listen to the music, it could easily become as tiresome as the band who produced it appeared to be.

Debut single Sheena Is a Parasite was a 110-second garage-punk mélange of grating guitars, circus organ and combative yelling that left unsuspecting listeners groping for the stop button.

Skip forward to March this year. Sea Within a Sea, the first glimpse of The Horrors’ new album Primary Colours, begins on a clockwork Motorik beat. After a full minute Faris Badwan (the artist formerly known as Rotter) croons “some say we walk alone, barefoot on wicked stone, no light”, and gone is all the gnarled fuck-you stance of yore; in its place a cool, calm, confident vocal. After four minutes the song takes a new direction, with a bright electronic arpeggio extending over a lengthy outro. You could have listened to Sheena Is a Parasite four times by the fading of the last chord.

Of course, the band themselves deny the ‘reinvention’ analysis outright. Badwan is talking to me from a cab en route to a London airport from where the band jet off to Germany for one of the first festivals of the summer season. “Between the first and the second album people see two points and none of what happens in between, so it can seem like a big jump, but really it’s just a natural progression of time passing,” he says in that deep Estuary accent. “You know, the records are two years apart so it stands to reason that they’d be different. I wouldn’t want to listen to a band if they went away for two years and came back with exactly the same record.”

The story of The Horrors begins in the Essex seaside town of Southend, home to the world’s longest pleasure pier – and, for a time, one of the UK’s most interesting underground music scenes. It was here that keyboardist Rhys Webb co-founded the Junk Club, a Mecca for young misfits and an incubator for bands like The Horrors, These New Puritans, The Violets and XX Teens. But it was also the eclecticism of the club’s playlist, ranging from 60s garage to italo disco, that set it apart. “There were a lot of kids who’d go to that, and what they’d play was quite different to what you’d hear in London, so I guess a lot of bands came out of that,” Badwan recalls matter-of-factly, like a man who has long since moved on.

But Badwan’s own obsession with alternative music dates back further, to his adolescence: “The first conversation Tom [Cowan, bassist] and me ever had was when we were at school and we were probably about 16. He told me about this site called that had a load of MP3s of obscure garage 7 inches. We'd spend the whole afternoon downloading them and then looking for them in record shops. Back then we decided that once we’d left school and moved to London we’d start a band.”

The proximity of the metropolis meant that the members of The Horrors could indulge in either scene when they saw fit, but even when they’d moved to London Badwan would relish the trips back to the seaside. “I’d get the train down and it was only 45 minutes, and you’d end up having a really good night,” he says. “Far better than one you’d actually have in London, and it was always worth the trip. And you could hang out on the pier in the daytime and go back to peoples’ houses after the club and listen to records.”

Primary Colours has outperformed its predecessor Strange House in both the commercial and critical stakes. There have been complaints that it wears its influences rather too brazenly on its sleeve (especially on the Spiritualized sound-a-like I Can’t Control Myself) but aside from this the reviews have been resoundingly positive, extolling the band’s new-found maturity, their easy adoption of the shoegaze aesthetic, and their ability to keep a track going for longer than three minutes without running out of ideas. Badwan is delighted with the reaction, although ‘slightly less morose’ would be a more accurate description of his tone: “We couldn’t have really asked for a better reaction. It’s really cool because we put a lot of time into it and a lot of ourselves into it. We think it has got its own personality and it’s kinda different to other stuff around, so yeah it’s going really well.”

A cynic would surmise that in the interim they must have thrown out their Cramps and Birthday Party records and replaced these with a shelf-full of My Bloody Valentine, Neu! and the Psychedelic Furs, but the band’s musical awareness runs much deeper than that, and Badwan is quick to reject any notion that one day they just happened upon a new sound. “It was just a natural thing,” he says. “For us it doesn’t seem that weird because we look back on that first record and we can see a lot of the ideas present there expressed in a different way. The sound of the first one was primal and raw, and this one is maybe more of a controlled attack.”

Keen to extract from him what he actually thinks of Strange House in retrospect, I ask Badwan if he sees it as a stage of development on the way to where they’re at now. “I don’t really see how it could be anything else,” he replies, defensively. “Of course it is, it’s our first record. It’s a step just like Primary Colours is another step. We hope that the third record will be better than the one it follows and so on.”

But when the spotlight fell from The Horrors at the end of their touring in 2007, it looked like they could well fade to black after album one, like countless other flavour-of-the-month acts before them. Badwan is adamant that this was never going to happen, and is scathing about bands who disappear after the first blaze of hype. “They don’t have any ideas,” he says. “Really there are so few bands with ideas of their own that it’s a big ask for them to make two records, and when they go to make the second they just do exactly the same thing. There are loads of examples, I don’t really need to be specific about them. A lot of music is disposable, so where one band disappears another one appears to take its place. I don’t really agree with music being throwaway.”

It sounds like a cliché, but seclusion can do wonders for a band with a point to prove. After the whirlwind of photoshoots and column inches, the only way a serious band can refocus on the music is to detach itself from that world. A determinedly serious band, when The Horrors had written an album’s worth of demos and won the signature of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on production duties, they entered into their own social exile, living upstairs from the studio in Bath and keeping a very low profile. “I think it’s important to immerse yourself totally in something,” Badwan says. “When I’m doing something creative I don’t want to be thinking of anything else. When you get the chance to set up all your gear and just leave it there and go in every day and really just work at something every day you get the best results. And also, it’s good to be out of your comfort zone, to forget about everything, your friends, family, anything, no distractions. So that all you care about is making the record.”

When they moved into a Bristol studio with Geoff Barrow for the final cut, the tension was only amplified by their surroundings. “It was just a really kinda nasty area,” Badwan recalls. “According to Geoff there were a load of CIA cars [he means CID, presumably] outside because it’s got a really weird drug trafficking problem. He said that once he saw about ten unmarked vans roll up outside this house and a load of officers burst out and went in.”

When Barrow wasn’t acting as a source of local knowledge for The Horrors, his job was to rein in their tendency towards the overblown. “It was cool, his real main point of input was stopping us from going too far with the songs,” Badwan says. “We’d written and arranged them and like I said when you’ve immersed yourself in something it’s easy to lose perspective. He made sure we kept the perspective of what we were doing and captured the atmosphere of the demos.”

Enthused, Badwan continues: “If you take a record that you really like that has a certain magic about it, more often than not it’s more than the sum of its parts. What makes it so great are the little eccentricities, individual sounds made by the way you play the instrument and the effects you put on it, and that was a key thing for us. The magic you get from actually playing rather than studio trickery.”

Now that they’re back in the full glare of the media, I ask if image is still important to The Horrors. “I think it’s important for a band to have an identity,” Badwan replies. “The way they look, sound and what they believe, it’s all important. It’s all a reflection of the music you like, the things you’re into, your personality. Your identity should be strong, visual and sonic. Everything should be taken into consideration.”

And while the music may have progressed, The Horrors don’t look markedly different. If you’re at T in the Park this month and spot a gang of pale-faced, black-clad Englishmen with photogenic hair and drainpipe jeans, it’ll probably be them. Or you could just follow the debris: “I remember T in the Park as being a really great one last time,” Badwan laughs. “Yeah actually, that was the one where I smashed a disco ball!” Can he elaborate? “Eh... no. I smashed a disco ball. That’s all you need to know really.”

A few years ago Badwan may have taken that chance to relate a tabloid-ready anecdote of rock’n’roll debauchery. But times have changed. The Horrors let the music do the talking now.

The Horrors play the Radio 1/NME Stage at T in the Park on Saturday 11 July.

Primary Colours is out now on XL.