Steady Dark Grooves: An Interview with the Horrors
Rhys Webb of the Horrors opens up about the process and direction behind their latest album, V, and how they've managed to thrive and stay together through their first decade.
Change is a constant, unrelenting force that fuels the Horrors. The Southend-on-Sea art rock band have not only outlived their much-hyped début -- 2007's Strange House -- but also overtaken much of their early competition in the late aughts. Five records over the course of a decade, the elegantly clad five-piece have evolved from punk rabble-rousers into eclectic gearheads.
The Horrors may be credited for expanding psychedelic music into adventurous new territory, but instead of gloating, they consider it with matter-of-fact sophistication. "It's about evolving the sounds that we use by creating a mood and an atmosphere that we enjoy," says bassist Rhys Webb over a telephone conversation the morning after playing their first U.S. show at Rough Trade Records in New York City promoting their fifth studio record, V. "I think a passion for music comes from it, but it also comes from an unspoken kind of joy."
Webb is the Horrors' most reliable spokesperson, the chatty and articulate counterpoint to lead singer Faris Badwan's laconic responses. Even if Webb is polite and open in speech, he does warn me that the band had "quite of a late night". He calmly explains with a somewhat weary tone how they've been adapting to these songs in a live setting: "We just played our first show in about three years. It was quite an intimate show, but it was also a really hot and kind of intense gig. Sometimes it just takes a while to work new songs into a set, but as soon as we played 'Weighed Down' and 'Something to Remember Me By' they sounded great immediately, which is not something that always happens."
V sounds immaculate, a vast sonic expanse where every detail is carefully thought out. So it surprises me to hear from Webb that the band were intent on creating songs that favor a live setting: "We felt that with the last one [Luminous], we were pursuing more of an electronic sound and we wanted more of a live sound for this record. Paul [Epworth] encouraged us to be spontaneous, and kept everything moving really quickly."
The Paul that Webb refers to is Paul Epworth, an English producer who was crucial in giving a voice to the early 2000's post-punk revival and has since moved on to produce albums for imperial pop stars like Adele, Rihanna, and Florence and the Machine. Having worked with the Horrors on 2014's Luminous, Epworth has since been a major contributor to the Horrors' grand, lush soundscapes.
"Our introduction to Paul was also during that time," Webb explains. "Definitely, the work he's done with the Rapture and Death from Above 1979. And he did all the Bloc Party stuff, like that great single of theirs 'Banquet'; that album was really great. He brought a great energy to the room, and he did take us slightly out of our comfort zone. Lots of exciting things were happening, and it was all without really thinking about it. When you detect that kind of energy, it sustains into the recording as well. He's a really ambitious guy."
One thing the Horrors have in common with Epworth is how they both share a preference in arranging and perfecting every element in the studio. Webb was even in awe of Epworth's Church Studios, a place where he felt he had everything they needed within their grasp. "We'd been working together to get to a point where ten years is quite a long time, and we just wanted to work in a different way," says Webb. "He has his studio set up almost a little bit like Can's studio, especially in how he has all these amazing synthesizers and how everything, from the decking and the lighting of the room, is set up. There's a lot of communication, and he was interested in exploring all these wonderful ideas that we were also into. We got to really focus on some of the finer details of the songs and the songwriting itself, and just try to make a collection of our strongest songs possible."
Epworth's studio proficiency, coupled with Horrors guitarist Joshua Hayward's impressive knowledge of guitar pedals, largely contributed to V's airy, yet abrasive compositions. They like their songs to take flight and never rush them until they feel they've made their point regardless of their length, which as Webb describes, accentuates their psychedelic and progressive tendencies: "We enjoy the atmosphere that sound can create. We enjoy German electronic music, as well as stuff like Harmonia and Cluster and Brian Eno. In general, instrumental music paints a picture, like opening a scene with sound. And for us it's always been about these two elements: to hopefully create a really strong song, and also be able to really take a journey with that song. Every song is its own trip."
An integral part of the Horrors' rhythm section, Webb does hold a high regard for the pulsating grooves of seventies krautrock. It wasn't until Primary Colours' driving "Sea Within a Sea" where we first caught a first glimpse of their motorik-informed rhythms. They've applied that technique to V in songs like "Weighed Down" and the title track, too. "I think we've always been interested in a good groove, and that's been evolving over the years. I've always been interested in minimal but hopefully melodic bass lines. For us, it's about stripping things away and trying to keep it simple and apply a very direct approach. We just wanted to keep it focused and very minimal, and always keep it groovy. Over the years, I think our relationship is a pretty close one, which benefits our rhythm section. I think we just wanted to be direct, really."
A major complaint that usually surrounds the Horrors with every new album cycle is their strong adherence to influence and imitation. The band has been criticized for leaning too heavily on their influences, an observation that Webb disagrees with. "We're often told that we have this encyclopedic knowledge of music, but the reality is that we're just fans of music (and fans of rhythmic music). It's not really a specific ..." -- he stops, trying not to resort to any inevitable name dropping to state his case. He continues: "Weirdly, as much as people talk about our influences, I do hear a lot of bands that sound like us. For us, it is about exploring new ideas and just trying to focus on the things we really enjoy. Things we do well. So it has to be a constant evolution."
That also adds into this misconception that the Horrors are simply complacent with their work, which Webb believes is due to how they've changed their approach with each passing year. "Our best songs have been written in a very free and organic kind of manner," Webb says. "I think we felt that as a band we were sometimes perhaps starting to labor a little bit more, and this time we wanted to roll with it with more spontaneous ideas and let it happen. Keep that raw power and raw energy in there. And although each of the albums does have a departure in sound, they're always the driving force in the way the band has grown to enjoy playing and communicating."
Webb believes that the Horrors is a joint effort. He's quick to acknowledge each of the band members' contributions, which he hopes they do cohere into a unified and essential piece. "It is very much a five-way thing. Without one member it doesn't really sound like the Horrors. Each individual role is necessary to achieve all of the elements, the electronics, the atmosphere, the soundscapes. I think Josh has a very individual style of guitar playing, and from his sound designs, it then comes to Joe [Joe Spurgeon, percussionist] and I to hold it together. And that's one of the reasons we try to keep things on the minimal side. Give space for the sounds to wash over on top of it."
Longevity and stability are qualities that are sometimes taken over for granted. The Horrors haven't suffered any dramatic breakups or lineup changes, and that solidity as a band has allowed them to grow together as musicians. "Yeah, I don't know," Webb laughs when asked how they've gotten along for all these years. "Luckily we do get on very well, but it hasn't been all smiles. Members have lingered in and out, but there's no falling out. It sounds like a cliché, but it's a bit like having a family member."
Webb does seem confident in how the Horrors have managed to keep things civil and under control. He values his bandmates tremendously. "For us, it's just as much the idea of wanting to be moving with the band creatively as well," he clarifies. "That keeps everyone engaged. I think as long as we're all making music that we enjoy playing, and we're happy to do it, then it builds a pretty strong relationship."