Nothing Will Be Bigger Than Us: An Interview with HURTS
English synthpop duo HURTS have consistently delivered visuals as striking as their darkly delicious pop songs. With their latest album Surrender, US and worldwide domination just might be theirs for the taking.
From the funereal water ballet and glamorous, Robert Palmer-esque dancers featured in the "Wonderful Life" video, to the David Lynchian video for "Some Kind of Heaven", English synthpop duo HURTS have consistently delivered visuals as striking as their darkly delicious pop songs. Since their formation in 2009, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson have sold over 3 million singles and 1.2 million albums, yet their stateside presence has been diminutive at best. Listening to the 13 tracks on the Deluxe version of their latest album Surrender, US and worldwide domination just might be theirs for the taking.
Well-crafted and undeniably memorable, these new songs are often some of the best tracks in the duo’s entire catalogue, but the rose-tinted outlook will definitely test the loyalty of fans who prefer their HURTS to be painted in dour shades of grey. Surrender is the sound of a band flexing their creative powers, dabbling in warmer hues, and flaunting all the strengths that have garnered them critical and commercial acclaim up until now.
With anticipation for their new album at an all-time high and the premiere of their violently trippy Dawn Shadforth-helmed clip for "Lights" helping galvanize that excitement, Anderson spoke with PopMatters about the new record, the new tour, their cinematic music videos, and the newfound optimism that threads the core of their latest effort.
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The songs of Surrender are decidedly more cheerful than most of your previous offerings. I know that some fans of your first album were taken aback by the darkness of your stadium-sized sophomore set Exile, but the latest record could be described as joyous at times, a phrase not typically associated with HURTS. Tell us a little about what happened between the end of the Exile Tour and the birth of Surrender?
When we made Exile we didn't have any break before it. So we toured for three years and we went straight into making Exile and we were probably going through, I guess, some personal issues at the time. Touring can just become too dark if you do it too long. We definitely did it a little too long, and that's why it sounds like it does, but the Exile Tour was a lot shorter and so we were more clearheaded when we came to the end of it. We knew that we didn't want to make another album that was so dark, because Exile was as black as it gets.
The album cover features the two of you clad in black suits walking through a rose-colored field. What significance does this art design have for the two of you in comparison to the stark portraits of the previous album covers?
Wow, well, this one, we were extremely proud of it. It's an amazing image and there's a great photographer called Richard Mosse who we're really into and he used infrared film. We were inspired by him and I guess we wanted to, in simple terms, sort of show that our music perhaps has colorized slightly over the past couple of years. We always liked juxtaposition and it's a cool offset between the pink fields and Theo and I, two guys from the north of England, wandering through a field in Barcelona. So, it means a lot to us, that image.
The opening title track of the album doesn't feature either of you. Instead we're greeted with this gorgeous wall of sound featuring gospel voices Who are those mystery women and what made you decide to kick off Surrender this way?
Well, we've always used choirs. We used choirs on the first album, but didn't have any money to get actual singers so we used computer choirs. This time, we wanted the music to feel slightly more uplifting and joyous. We found these girls in London and as soon as we got in the room with them we just felt that this little song we'd written on a piano suddenly just came to life. We were like, what better way to start the album than with a bang.
The success of your No. 1 hit collaboration with Calvin Harris and Alesso on "Under Control" seems to have influenced Surrender's "Nothing Will Be Bigger Than Us" and "Why" features these wonderfully Daft Punk-esque processed vocals at the tail end of the track. I keep pushing the repeat button on the track "Lights". It sounds like nothing the two of you have offered up before. You have both cited Prince, Fleetwood Mac, and Motown as inspirations for the mood of this record, but how did working with producers Stuart Price and Ariel Rechtshaid influence the production choices and sound of Surrender?
Stuart's ideology is one of simplicity and he's kind of a clinical pop producer. He reduces and takes away the mess and Exile was an extremely dense album with lots of layers. That's why we love it I guess, but this time we wanted to streamline and make something that was a lot cleaner and crisper. He brings that side, and Ariel Rechtshaid was just like sort of a ball of ideas really. He was just extremely creative to be around and very methodical. He did a great job with the track ("Lights") and that tune's our next single in the UK.
Your visuals have always been as striking as your sound. There's this chiaroscuro element about both of them. The early music videos were seemingly connected together with a theme or a look, but will the video singles on this album be thematically or visually linked too?
I don't know yet. We're wrestling with ideas for the music videos at the moment, because we have such vivid and bold ideas, but the actual concept of the music video, what's capable, is different these days. There isn't the budget there, so we have these huge ideas, but the industry for example, unless you're Rhianna, it's a lot more difficult to make videos. So we always look to filmmakers like David Lynch to try and create some sort of world that we exist within. I don't know, it's the early days of this album, so we can't really tell theme-wise what's going to happen, but the next video is super exciting.
Yeah, it's the best one we've ever done.
I know that when you spend months and years crafting something really personal there's always a mixed feeling of excitement and dread when you eventually share it with others. What is the songwriting process between you and Theo and how have all the new songs been received so far by live audiences?
When we played these songs live, it was the best reaction we've had playing new songs for sure. I mean the last album, when we went out and played new songs they were kind of terrified of the tunes [laughs], but this time we only played four songs like "Rolling Stone", "Weight of the World", and the reception was amazing. It made us sort of super excited about the record coming out, because we've been sitting on these songs for six months and we're ready to get on with it, ready to get cracking. We can't wait for people to hear it. The bonus tracks on the album are some of our favorites.
There's an immediacy to everything, even though it's still dense and well crafted, but when I first listened to the album my initial impression was that it draws you in. It seemed like a greatest hits collection.
Oh great! I appreciate that.
So, what is this process that you and Theo have as you're writing? Is it just really organic, you ping-ponging ideas back and forth between the two of you?
Yeah, well the thing about us to is that when we're together that's when the magic happens. When we are alone, we have two different types of skills, so we kind of need each other. So, our relationship is sort of built on that foundation really. We kind of just build songs slowly and that's the only way we kind of know how, which I guess is like weird.
We usually just sit there and at the end of the day we decide if we've got something good or we've not, and if we've not, then we just throw it away and start with the new. On this album we wrote a lot of songs and we weren't pressured. But if we didn't like something we just started again. I think that sort of process is quite liberating, because we used to hang on to every little idea that we did. So, this time there's a lot more piano and vocal, more guitar and vocal.
The acoustic guitar on "Why" really brings an organic feel to the track.
"Why" is probably the most direct tune that we've ever done. It's right there. You don't have to search for the song.
No, no, it's very immediate. You have a huge European following, but haven't really cracked the US markets yet entirely. I think this album might be the one to do that. There's the optimism of the album blended with that distinct HURTS melancholy of it all and it works really well. You and Theo have previously discussed why European audiences have connected with your sound in the past in comparison to UK listeners, but what about American audiences?
Well the thing about America is that we've never actually had the time to really do it. It sounds crazy, but Europe went so well for us with the first two albums that there was never a moment to commit to the time needed, you know? But it's always been something that Theo and I have been super keen to do. We made most of the album in L.A.. Oh, and New York, we did some of it there as well. It's a massive ambition to come and try to crack it, but this album, like you say, this is the one to come over and try to make progress, make a dent.
Your early live shows featured the operatic talents of a man named "Richard". I guess since that is no longer an aesthetic you're mining, what can audiences now expect from your live sets in comparison to what you presented on your previous tours?
Well, we got some gospel singers which is such a big help, because a band like us, we have lots of sad songs. Lots of songs with that sense of melancholy, but when we play live it's never really felt like that. It's always been quite joyous. Even the saddest songs will have a joyous quality. So, this time we're going to take gospel singers with us and I think the shows we've done so far just elevates everything. You're in the front row and you just get, you know, taken away by it. It's an amazing sound that really compliments what Theo does, so this will be a big, joyous show with a shitload of lights.
Will you all be hopping over the pond and doing a US/Canadian tour or a few shows in NY and LA to support Surrender?
I think they're organizing it now. I think it's on the menu for sure. In the next six months, we'll definitely be able to play some shows there. 100%.
What's next for you and Theo in 2015 after the album drops? Any big public appearances you can share with us?
We going to be taking over TV stations across Europe. We're doing a lot of TV stuff. Yeah, a lot of promo singles coming out, making videos, the usual thing -- having a great time traveling the world. We can't wait to go to new places, America and Australia. South America, we want to go there as well. So, yeah, it's really exciting.