Keep on Moving: A Conversation with the Horrors

Speaking just before the release of their new album Luminous, PopMatters talks to the British alt-pop heavyweights the Horrors about artistic progression, the need to escape your influences, and the terrifying tedium of East London.
The Horrors
XL Recordings

“What keeps us together is the same thing that brought us together, which is sharing records, wanting to find out about how they’re made, and then making our own. Saying that, when we start recording, we stop listening to other people’s music altogether because there’s kind of no need to. The world is so immersive and all-encompassing, you don’t need outside influences.” –Faris Badwan

Given their comparative youth — four studio albums; a mean age of around 28 — a huge amount of (often erroneous) discourse has sprung up already around British dark pop darlings The Horrors.

Anyone with only a passing interest for instance might imagine — given Southend-on-Sea group’s previous predilection for eyeliner and ongoing penchant for all-black — that they are, and there’s no gentle way to say this, goths. If your attention wandered early in their career meanwhile, you might think them, even now, to be little more than an indie rabble with an uncommon obsession with The Cramps.

Of all the off-the-mark perceptions about the band however, the most potentially damaging is that they continue to add up to little more than the sum of their (hugely eclectic) influences. That the hype machine that insists on following them around (how many NME covers is it now?) obscures the fact that, artistically-speaking, they don’t actually mean much more than a kind of gloomy alt-pop version of Oasis.

This view, at least in part, is kind of understandable in light of how happy they’ve always been to wear those influences on their collective sleeve — in fact at the beginning of their career it was one of the things that helped define them as a band. At the same time however — alongside the goth thing — it also does them a disservice, in that it fails to acknowledge the mile-wide streak of experimentation running through the best of their work.

The Horrors’ new album Luminous continues the conscious musical evolution that’s taken them from skronky Sonics/Birthday Party sound-alikes to — on previous effort Skying — expansive dreampop explorers. By the band’s own admission, it introduces dance tropes into the mix as well as continuing their obsession with finding new sounds. The end product — at least to these ears — is something not unlike how New Order might have sounded if they’d had the chance to take Ian Curtis to Ibiza with them.

I caught up with vocalist Faris Badwan and guitarist Joshua Hayward during a recent flurry of promotional activity in London, and both are clearly inordinately proud of what they’ve made. They are also far more forthcoming as interviewees than their reputation might lead you to believe (particularly Josh, who once you get him going, is exactly as enthusiastic about everything as you hoped he might be).

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A lot’s been written about how this record’s a progression after Skying. Do you think that’s fair enough?  

Hayward: I think so, of course. If there wasn’t a progression, I don’t think we’d have put a record out. That’s not really what we’re about — there’s always been a progression between all of them. I would solidly agree with that statement. 

A lot of bands are happy to churn the same records out over and over again…

Hayward: I guess that’s to do with money, or something? I don’t see how that’s appealing to people, because you could see it becoming like a job really quickly. It certainly wouldn’t be appealing to us.

What’s the progression been, musically-speaking? 

Hayward: I’m not sure I could actually tell you what it is in terms of the music on the record, to be honest. We never sat down and said “With this one, we should do this and that’ll be different.” It’s more explorative — like a snapshot of a whole year which sort of guided itself. Because we all write together, it becomes this weird hive-mind thing directing the songs. “I See You” was the first track that really inspired us.

So the progression is really more to do with how you are as people?

Hayward: A lot of it depended on the mood we were all in, certainly, which obviously could be influenced by a lot of things. If it was a Thursday or Friday and we were really excited for the weekend, then we’d make something upbeat. “First Day of Spring” was made at that time of year, which is why it’s this joyous thing.

Some of the lyrics are actually rather incongruous, given how “up” the music sounds.

Badwan: Yeah, I suppose they are. You’re actually the only person that’s spotted that — everyone else is telling me how positive I sound these days. Incongruous is a good word to use. I like it when things are unexpected like that. The lyrics start as a reaction to the music and then it evolves organically.

Do you mind talking about your lyrics, Faris?

Badwan: I don’t mind being evasive about them, certainly. 

OK, that’s better than nothing. There seem to be themes going through the record — light without heat would appear to be a big one. [Light emanating without heat being generated is the definition of luminescence]. 

That’s pretty accurate. I wanted the lyrics to be direct; to convey ideas in their simplest form.

It’s an interesting image to use, particularly regarding relationships … 

Badwan: Yeah. I found it interesting certainly. There are a lot of family stories on the album — “First Day of Spring” is an example. We were discussing songs that have the word luminous in yesterday, actually. Our favorite I think is probably Syd Barrett’s “Maisie”, if you know it. In the middle he says “His illuminous grin, put her in a spin.” I like that. 

Thinking again of the way the music sounds, the easy angle is that the band is “going towards the light.” Is that fair?

Hayward: I think we probably have, in a way — you get older, don’t you? I’m glad we haven’t gone a different way, which could have been very easy — from angry young garage punk kids to middle-of-the-road, mid-tempo rock rubbish. 

Badwan: That’s probably fair enough, yeah — we’ve kept the same intensity though, I think. It was never really spoken about, but we all agreed on it somehow. We’re traveling upwards, if you know what I mean.

Was it tricky to fit in as a guitarist, given how synth-heavy the record is?

Hayward: Because people have talked about it being more “dancey,” I think the expectation is that it’s going to sound like Calvin Harris or Skrillex, but it’s not like that. From my point of view, the idea was to make it not sound like a guitar. There’s lots of things on the record where you’d think a guitar was a keyboard and vice-versa. You have to pick certain melodies as well — you can’t rely on blues runs.  

There was a danger it could have sounded dated, I would have thought.

Hayward: Yeah. When rock bands try to do anything dancey, there’s always the temptation to just put a kick drum behind a guitar track. That can sound a bit naff.

Without wanting to get too BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it, how did you make the guitar not sound like a guitar? 

Hayward: We did a few things. At the end of “I See You”, we wanted the sound to keep rising — to never stop because that’s kind of the best bit of the song. I investigated something called Shepard tones [an ‘auditory illusion’ (Wikipedia) where pitch seems to continually ascend] and then made a Shepard chord sequence, so it feels it’s constantly going up, even though they’re just going around in fives. I’m quite proud of that bit — it doesn’t really sound like anything. 

With “Jealous Sun”, I looked into vocal formings and why people sound the way they do — why a man sounds like a man and a woman sounds like a woman. We then built a bank of filters that could be controlled so it sounds like an army of robots. 

I really like playing the guitar, I just don’t particularly find useable the sound that usually comes out of it. You have to be careful you don’t go down the rabbit hole, and start just making noise. 

It might be a bit early in your career to release your Metal Machine Music just yet …

Hayward: I love that record. The last tour, we’d play it before we went on and people would come up to the sound man and say “Make it stop!”

One of the discourses floating around the band relates to the sheer amount of music that you’ve consumed over the years. Is it tricky to transcend your influences?

Hayward: Of course it fucking is … [laughs] It’s really hard, and we’ve got no real interest in copying people — that’s pointless. The worst thing is when someone picks up on something in the music, and you’ve not heard it before. You have to scrap it. 

Badwan: It’s difficult to talk about influences, certainly from the point of view of the lyrics — I’ve never thought about it too specifically. There are lots of things I enjoy reading though, certainly.

Like what?

Badwan: I like books that pull you in a different way, or make you think differently about a subject. Something like Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept would be an example — it twists every description of really mundane things. 

The Junk Club [the night run by Josh and bassist Rhys in Southend before the band formed] was a reference to Burroughs wasn’t it?

Yes. He’s always been a great satirist and story teller — we were definitely influenced by him. I’ve just been reading Kentucky Ham and Speed by his son Billy, actually. 

Speaking of influences, what was it like recording with Thurston Moore [on “I See You”]?

Hayward: It was amazing. My first musical love was Sonic Youth, so it was really something else. It was another thing where you just can’t work out how they did it — guitars that sounded one minute like chiming bells and then like the machines in my dad’s sheet metal factory. 

How did he get involved (Thurston Moore that is, not your dad)?

Hayward: We met him at an awards ceremony where he was up for a “godlike genius” type thing. He gave the best acceptance speech I’ve ever heard where he spoke for 40 minutes and pretended to be a pub landlord. The rest of the band went behind my back and asked him. He came to the studio, and he got it straight away. It was great for me — really surreal.

Having read a little about the band, place seems to be very important to your identity. You began in Southend-on-Sea; your studio’s in Dalston [in East London] …

Hayward: Yeah, although it’s kind of a weird one, because Rhys and I are the only ones that are actually from Southend. It was kind of like a pre-band scene. When you went out there, the records people played were always so much more outlandish and left-field for some reason. If you played James Chance and The Contortions in a club in London, everyone would look their feet and say, “What the fuck is this?” In Southend, they’d just get it.

What about Dalston? There seems to a bit of a mystique around it [season two and three of The Mighty Boosh are set there; Will Self imagines it to be the site of the afterlife in How the Dead Live …].

Badwan: Dalston’s fucking boring, to be fair. People always ask ?What’s so great about East London?” Beats me; I have no idea. What’s great about the studio is that there’s no windows, so you can completely forget about where you are. I always like it when bands create their own environment. Can were like that, and Kraftwerk. The world of the band is important. 


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