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Demon Sounds: A Conversation with The Horrors

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Interview by Samuel Duke

Photography by John Francis Peters

On a rooftop high up above Hell’s Kitchen at dusk, the Horrors are sprawled across rotten deck furniture, a lonesome scene for what some presume to be The World’s Bleakest Band. And though they look the part— dressed in mostly black apart from the rare sliver of white oxford shirt here or there—they are hardly morose. When they talk at length about records and sound and people they’ve been blessed to work with, they do so with the earnestness of kids who spent a lot time alone in their rooms, reading thick books and listening to music no one else seemed to understand. Maybe the Horrors are instead one of the world’s most misunderstood bands, a bunch of former outcasts who’ve finally punked their former tormentors and, in turn, the music industry itself.

Because who doesn’t love a band that looks cool and who doesn’t love to simultaneously tear a band like that apart? Bestowed an NME cover before they’d even released an album, the Horrors were basically ready-made martyrs (or targets) for Britain’s most fleetingly obsessive/premature ejaculatory music journos. After a few insanely promising debut singles and a splotchy first album, they decamped to their London rehearsal space and wrote Primary Colours in three months. It's an album best described as the sound of demons making love: guitars like huge, red curtains being torn in half; organ flourishes that float supernaturally; unending oceans of delicately controlled reverb. In a live setting, it sounds just as overwhelmingly massive, the foursome rarely even looking at one another other. But back to the roof, where we caught up with singer Faris Badwan and guitarist Josh Hayward before they were set to play their last show as hand-picked openers for Nine Inch Nails. We talked about making Primary Colours, sound, and the intersection of music and fashion. It went deep, but it was never scary.

So, how did you get on these shows? Did the Nine Inch Nails people reach out to you?

Faris Badwan: I think the first we heard of it was when something had been posted on [Trent Reznor's] social networking thing. And then sort of weeks later we got asked to do these dates.

Were you familiar with their stuff?

FB: We've worked with a lot of people–Alan Moulder, for example, or when we played with The [Jesus &] Mary Chain–and both of them, actually, have big Nine Inch Nails connections. We've met a lot of people who are really into them, people whose opinions we really respect.

Josh Hayward: And we were probably a bit too young when they came around the first time to experience it first hand.

How old are you guys?

FB: We're all around 20. I'm 22 and Josh is 19.

JH: I remember, when I was working with Moulder, I went in to do some sound effects or something, and he was like, "That's what I always used to do with Trent." Like, "We'd do that every week." That album that took like two years [The Fragile]. If you work with somebody for two years, and really enjoy it at the end, there must be something pretty cool.

FB: And Alan is like one of the coolest guys we've ever met. Just like fucking great. Just in terms of how straight he is and how great of a guy he is, besides being one of the best mixers in the world. But, I did take the time to listen to a bit of Nine Inch Nails just before–it was actually after I heard they were into us. And it’s definitely the instrumental stuff that I really love, the atmosphere or whatever. That sonic exploration element is really great. It's something we really focus on as well.

How did you guys originally meet?

FB: Me and Josh met in this club called White Heat in London. We really spent the majority of our time getting to know each other in the South End, around a club that Rhys ran called The Junk Club. And that was sort of new wave and garage and all sorts. We'd go to the garage clubs in London, where there pretty much weren't any young people there. So we just got to know each other through that.

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And are you guys all originally from London?

JH: I'm from just outside London, and got out there as quick as I could. Just didn't like the South End.

How did the band form from that? Was it as simple as, "Let's start a band."

FB: Yeah, basically. When you really like listening to music, eventually...it's quite common that you want to start making your own. And we started by playing garage covers and there was certainly a kind of un-schooled, noisy element to them. And that developed into a no wave influence, and [things] just gradually developed from there.

This is your second record, on a different label...Does it feel at all like a rebirth of sorts?

FB: Well, we haven't really noticed a great bit of different from having to switch labels, apart from...

JH: They've both treated us exactly the same. On the first label, the person that we had, our A&R guy, he really liked us, and was just like, "Go off and make a record." And then we went to this label, and the bloke went, "Go off and make a record." We’ve always just been left to our own devices, [which is] probably why it's always developed, 'cause we haven't had anyone else telling us what to do. We're just doing it ourselves. You should develop. If you're not, you're in the wrong game, really.

FB: It's kind of why so many bands really don't change from record to record, 'cause they have people suggesting they shouldn’t. I don't know, it just seems totally stifling to me, the idea of that. We’ve been really lucky.

And you worked with Geoff Barrow from Portishead and Chris Cunningham...

JH: And a bloke called Craig Silvey, who never gets mentioned at all but has an incredible approach to sound.

Is he Geoff's engineer?

FB: He works a lot with Geoff. Craig's sort of been written out of history a little bit, but he actually worked on it a lot more than Geoff did. And Geoff would be the first to admit it. 'Cause really, when Geoff heard our demos, he sort of said, "We don't really need to change these. We just want to capture what you recorded, just record it better.”

And you guys were working mostly with Geoff and Craig.

FB: We did two songs with Chris. He would've done more on the album, but he was working on two feature films, writing them.

Had he recorded music before?

JH: He hadn't worked with a band before

FB: Yeah, but I think at the moment he's doing something with Grace Jones. It sounds amazing. He's got really brilliant, cinematic ideas, which makes sense, since he's mainly known for his film stuff. His approach to sound and exploring sound is definitely something we wanted to take on board. But he couldn't do it, so the only other person who we really thought around that has that as well was Geoff. I mean, Portishead just have a sound that is so timeless and unique, and we felt like that could be something great to incorporate. Turned out he just wanted us to be as we were, which was quite fun.

JH: He's a bit like the hip-hop Steve Albini, Geoff Barrow.

FB: He just wanted to capture the sound of the band rather than mold them, which is what we want. We don't really want a label molding us, we don't want a producer molding us.

So, all the songs were written and arranged before you went into the studio?

JH: Yeah, like around that time we bought a desk and learned to record. And he liked how we produced it as well. He was saying, "That's what we should do."

Interesting. Are you guys gearheads? Did you know what you were doing?

JH: Yeah. We each got better at it over time. We each got our heads around it a lot more.

FB: That was the most important thing about making this album, we re-learned that we don't actually need–and it goes back to what Geoff was saying to us as well–we don't need any one else at all to make our records. We can just record them in our rehearsal room if we want and mix them elsewhere. And I think it's going to make for a very cheap third record.

JH: The really long track on that album, "I Only Think Of You” —that's our recording we did in the rehearsal room. It had the best feel. And that was done with like a shit mix, not set up properly.

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All you guys playing together at the same time?

JH: Yeah.

That's impressive. So, how did you guys meet Chris Cunningham originally? I know he directed the “Sheena Is A Parasite” video.

FB: He came to see us at White Heat, actually, which is where Josh and I met. We were playing and I don't know how he got in touch with our label or went through one of our friends, but he just turned up at the show. The single was out and had already been released, but he was really desperate to make the video for that song. He’s been doing these "live sets" recently at festivals, so he's done this eleven-minute remix of that from the original parts and bits that didn't make the video. It's fucking weird.

I think the first time I heard about you guys was before the first record, and it was actually just a photo. Do you guys feel like the visual side of what you do is important?

FB: It's not as important as sound, obviously, but…

JH: It's a result of the process. When you think of any band that had a specific sound, they looked a bit like that. It's cause that's what they were doing. It's like, if you play golf, you'll look like a golfer. It appears at the moment, you have to wear jeans and t-shirts nowadays to be taken seriously...it's a bit weird, isn’t it?

FB: I have to say, it's almost like the first decade that that's been the case. I mean, you look back to Nirvana, to the garage bands, to Robert Johnson–they looked the way they sound. At least, a lot of bands do, and it's important, because your identity just reflects the things that you are interested in, and it's not like we've just decided this is what the band should look like, this is just really elements of our favorite bands, taken into whatever, like, when you're a kid you dress up like a cowboy or whatever. Like John Wayne.

But was it something you guys talked about and thought about?

JH: No, no, no, it was simply a result of it.

FB: There's loads of kids at Junk who look like we do. That was it, really.

Do you guys like playing in the States?

FB: It's my favorite country to tour in. 'Cause it's just really rewarding to drive around. I don't know, it's funny 'cause the States is one of those countries where I just really enjoy seeing the diners and the highways and stuff like that. I find that really interesting for whatever reason.

Is that iconography stuff you were into growing up?

FB: I guess so, yeah. A lot of the songs I like, like "California Dreaming," by the Mamas And The Papas, that imagery is so evocative and I don't know, I've always had a connection with it.

Did you grow up around music?

JH: No, not really, I didn't. My parents were never really into it.

FB: The only thing I can think of that my parents used to play that I like now, is that Fleetwood Mac album Rumours. They used to just play it to death in the car, and that album–I haven't really listened to the other stuff–but that album I think is totally amazing. My parents were into the Bay City Rollers and Bread and stuff I don't like at all.

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So when did you start developing your own tastes?

FB: I remember at the end of term, when I was eleven or twelve, we each had to bring in a CD or cassette to play at the end of term party. And everyone was bringing in like Now 28 or whatever and I brought in Sounds Of The Seventies and it has this fucking amazing song called, "Can You Feel The Force.” It's like an early disco song, I can't remember who it's by [The Real Thing], I should really look it up and remember it , 'cause it's really weird now when you listen it, it's really scary, really ahead of it's time. But, it's just a pop song. But I tried to play that and everyone fucking hated it.

JH: It was weird for me, 'cause anyone who listened to guitar music was considered a horrible, disgusting person that you should spit at, so I never really did. I listened to jungle or whatever on the radio. Then I found American guitar music, and went to buy a Sonic Youth album and the lady was like, "Don't buy that one, it's too weird.” I took it home and fell in love with it. I had to grow up with it in isolation 'cause none of my friends got it or understood it. They didn't like it. And then it went back to the no wave stuff in the seventies...

Were you playing guitar at that point?

JH: I'd started ages ago in an argument with a friend who played bass, to play a song so that it was better, and then I just didn't pick it up again until I joined the Horrors and started playing a lot. All in good fun.

A lot about your band–the sound, the way you look–seems rooted in a love of older things. Do you guys have a passion for that kind of stuff?

FB: Not at all. It’s just like, contemporary music at the moment is quite boring, and it's the fault of the labels and the industry and in turn the way bands think they should be. I don't know, you just get fed such rubbish that you can't help but sort of regurgitate it. It’s just really frustrating 'cause it's so rare that you come across a band that you actually think, "This is as good as the old records that I love." But there are a few. Maybe it's just 'cause we're in it–maybe you can't really tell how good something is until you have hindsight.

JH: I'm really scared of looking back on this decade. So scared. You know how you look back on decades for music shifts? This one is going to be, like, autotune.

FB: I mean, you forget that it's been ten yeahrs since 2000 and nothing's really happened. There's the odd band. Or even producers. You look back and every decade has had a few really brilliant producers that have really had a sound–Martin Hannnett in the eighties, or Phil Spector, or Joe Meek, and now we've got this decade. Yeah, I don't know, it's just really fucking boring.

Do you guys listen to new music at all?

FB: Yeah! There's a band called Hate Rock I really like. There's a band called Wooden Shjips that we actually asked to support us on our forthcoming tour. They might be on a few West Coast dates. But that's what I mean. They are around, but they're few and far between.

Is The Horrors like a brotherhood for you guys?

FB: Well it's just really...It's hard enough to find people that you want to be friends with on a daily basis, let alone work with. So I think we really don't have a choice anymore.

JH: We're stuck with each other.

So what’s next after the touring.

FB: We're touring till the end of February, and then hopefully, it won't take us long, but we just have to have... we really work best when we've got all our gear and we set up and just have a block of writing time, and then we're really productive. So that's what we're going to do, once we get that time.

And you all live in London.

JH/FB: I live in Camden. Everyone else lives East.

Are there any bands that you like from there?

No, there are not many bands that I want to go and see. There aren't really many people that I feel any affinity to and I don't really feel like there are many bands that I feel an affinity towards either. So, I don't think there's like a scene in London that we're apart of or that we like.

Could you imagine the Horrors anywhere else?

JH: I really like London 'cause I think it's got the best work ethic in the world. In London, everyone's really cynical and everyone hates everything, so no matter what you do, someone's gonna go, "Shit, I just heard that yesterday." It just makes you work harder. Everyone's always trying to outdo each other, which I think is good. No one celebrates anything.

FB: There are a lot of bands, as well. Whether you like them or not, at least you're surrounded by people that are working.

JH: There's a lot of promise, but they never seem to get anywhere.

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Are you guys you pretty diligent in the way you work?

FB: As a band, we work really hard. There’s so many people in bands that give off the impression that they go of and get drunk all the time. We work really hard and we don't have any days off, to be honest.

How do you guys write?

FB: We just all write together. We've never really done it any other way.

JH: We've found coming in with a complete idea is pointless. Just come up with it there.

FB: 'Cause no one gets excited about anything unless they were there for the beginning.

When you guys were jamming during soundcheck, is that how stuff builds?

JH: Yeah maybe. We were just testing the equipment. We might need a stronger idea to start with.

And do you write lyrics on the spot, Faris?

FB: I've got a lot of notebooks. I try to write all the time. But I don't think you can ever actually finish stuff until you're actually singing it. So I just have bits that I draw from.

Do you just carry around a notebook?

FB: Yeah. I like drawing a lot, so that's what I spend a lot of my time doing. So yeah, I always have it.

Do you come from an interest in lyrics or poetry?

FB: I read a lot when I was a kid. But I don't know, It's so annoying how so many musicians or singers or whatever think they're poets. It's like, your work or what you're drawing or your lyrics or whatever are good in context. I mean, obviously there are some, like Leonard Cohen, but I'm not trying to make myself out to be something better than I am. Really, I'm a musician, and even drawing–I love drawing, but I'm not a fucking bleeding artist.

Posted:
Demon Sounds: A Conversation with The Horrors