“It is a risk”, says Faris Badwan, singer with The Horrors, whose fifth album V, released on September 22nd via Paul Epworth's Wolf Tone label, is further proof of his band's bold refusal to stand still. “But life isn't much fun without risk. It's the antithesis of being creative, if you know what you're going to be doing every time.”
Most bands spend their early years desperately fighting to build a following who love them for doing one particular thing. Having finally achieved that, very few bands are willing to risk alienating that following by ditching that thing, and switching to a completely different path. But there are very few bands like The Horrors.
“We've always been conscious of bands who do stay in one place for years and years,” explains keyboardist Tom Furse, “and that's not very interesting. I like to be surprised. And it's also natural, if you do view yourself as an artist, to progress and not play it safe. Bowie pre-empted the modern condition of not being able to stay in one place for very long, and I get frustrated with bands who stay still. Because then it does become a career. And it literally is 'status quo', in both senses.”
Artistically, this policy may make sense. Commercially, it's a daring, even self-sabotaging strategy, as guitarist Joshua Third admits. “I remember James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem saying 'If you want to be big in America, do a thing and just keep doing it.' And the shows will get bigger and you'll be successful, as if by magic. But we've just never been career-minded, which is weird as we've been doing it for so long. It's a cruel joke, maybe...”
The Horrors swaggered into the public consciousness from Southend-on-Sea in early 2006, using the stage names Faris Rotter, Joshua Von Grimm, Tomethy Furse, Spider Webb and Coffin Joe, sporting electrocuted-raven hairstyles, heavy eyeliner, pointy boots and Dickensian dandy threads, looking like the disreputable black sheep which several eminent Victorian families had given up on. Their music, under the banner 'Psychotic Sounds For Freaks And Weirdos', was a chaotic fusion of the Eighties Gothabilly (The Cramps, The Birthday Party) and Sixties Garage rock (The Sonics, Shadows Of Knight) records over which they first bonded. Dismissed by many critics as style-over- substance hype-magnets, the band nevertheless attracted a devotedly rabid following of dressed- up young fans, thrilled by the violent energy of the band's 90-second singles and 15-minute gigs. By the time of their debut album Strange House (2007), The Horrors' strikingly cartoonish image was already so iconic to a certain generation that they could appear as parody of themselves, The Black Tubes, on an episode of The Mighty Boosh, knowing that everyone would get the joke.
What happened next, precisely nobody saw coming. The stage names had gone, the make-up had been scrubbed away, and Faris Badwan, Joshua Third, Tom Furse, Rhys Webb and Joseph Spurgeon made what remains one of the most dramatic changes of direction in rock history. The Horrors' 2009 single “Sea Within A Sea” was an eight-minute Krautrock epic, and earned the best reviews of their career to date from stunned critics. Produced by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and legendary video director Chris Cunningham, second album Primary Colours was a rich kaleidoscope of neo-psychedelic shoegaze and drone-rock, displaying a musical ambition and imagination with which very few observers had hitherto credited the band. “That was the most radical step,” Third believes. “We're never going to best that. Not in terms of never making a better record, but we'll never do something more surprising.”
The move paid off, providing the springboard for everything they've done since. “When we started,” explains Rhys Webb, “we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, which was to make as furious a noise as possible, a fast and violent racket. But even though we started with this punky garage sound, here was always this real spirit of wanting to experiment and explore.”
This spirit of adventure continued. The Horrors' self-produced third album Skying (2011) was an equally bold departure, with its elegant echoes of the 'big music' of Eighties megabands like Simple Minds, and its prominent use of synthesizers. A love of electronica had always been lurking in the background: Webb cites a shared love of Silver Apples and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the fact that even in their garage-punk days, they'd always be playing Frankie Knuckles, Chicago House and Detroit Techno at their afterparty DJ sets. Meanwhile, original keyboardist Webb had switched roles with original bassist Tom Furse, whose own corner of The Horrors' studio contains an impressive collection of analogue synths and classic drum machines, and a bizarre contraption called The Pyramid, dreamed up by artist Pete Fowler and commissioned by XL's Richard Russell.
Luminous (2014), again self-produced in the band's own Dalston studio, was arguably the only time The Horrors have been guilty of anything remotely like repetition, as Webb is the first to admit in retrospect. “We explored euphoric heights with Primary Colours, ascended further with Skying, and continued the theme of upward trajectory with Lumious. It felt like it was time to go somewhere else.”
That something else is V, which has the seemingly contradictory distinction of being both the darkest and most accessible record The Horrors have ever made. The title, by the way, has several interpretations. “It's album five, the five of us, V for victory...” begins Webb. “I thought the V was a fuck-you,' continues Badwan. 'A bit of a 'fuck you, we're back'. However, Third has a more simple theory: “We're due a self-titled album, aren't we?”
The songwriting process for V was intermittent and fragmented. At one point, Badwan and Webb decamped to Iceland, locked themselves away in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a Korg Mini Pops 7 drum machine, and began to write on acoustic guitars, a Horrors first. Spurgeon and Cowan, meanwhile, also worked on songs individually. The project truly came to life, however, when they decided it was time to break out of their comfort zone and, for the first time since Primary Colours, submit to an outside producer. The obvious candidate was Paul Epworth, a friend and fan of the band, who had once spent a whole summer listening to Primary Colours.
Epworth's name, however, carries baggage, and to many he is best-known as the Grammy and Oscar-winning man behind million-sellers by Adele and Coldplay (although his CV also features such forward-looking independent artists as Futureheads, Death From Above 1979, The Long Blondes and The Rapture). “I'm going to be completely honest”, says Cowan. “I was a little bit sceptical. Adele was such a phenomenon that he'd become defined by that. But I was also curious.” When the band joined Epworth in his Crouch End studio The Church, any reservations immediately evaporated. “On the first day, I decided 'This guy is fucking great'. He's so encouraging and enthusiastic.”
Epworth's role, each Horror confirms, was that of a hands-on creative catalyst and motivator, jolting them out of any potential rut like an electric cattle-prod. Webb calls him “an authority figure, a fast worker and hard taskmaster”. Cowan recalls “We'd bring tracks in that we'd already done, and he'd say 'Great! Fucking amazing! But let's do something new. I'm here, you're here, let's just do something.' So we'd start off with some little motif, usually an electronic loop that seemed appealing, and build stuff up. It was like two songs a day. We hadn't worked like that in years. There was no time to question stuff. He was just like, (clicks fingers) 'Do, do, do, do, do. Keep on doing.' Then we'd whittle down and get something that feels more like a song, and not just chaos.” Third’s assessment is similar. “He's very good at creative momentum. If someone's stalling on something, he'll go 'OK, I'll come back to you in a minute', and bosh, he's onto someone else. He'd keep the whole thing rolling. Whereas we'd got to a stage where we'd bunker down and chat about something for ages. He's so obsessed with action: 'Fuck it, just play it.' It's refreshing.”
Epworth's pop chops are an unmistakable aspect of V. The first track made public, the Stooges- heavy “Machine”, is atypical of the overall sound, although so is the radio-friendly electro-pop of the lead single “Something To Remember Me By”. As Badwan explains, it nearly didn't even make the cut. “That was a demo that we'd basically chucked, but Paul heard it and said 'That's a single'.” Webb remembers hearing the finished version for the first time. “It was a Monday morning and I
was with some friends, it had been a long weekend, and I invited them to have a Bloody Mary, which seemed like a good way of starting the week. And that mp3 came through, and I played it, and we were loving it and immediately singing along. It just sounded fantastic straight away.”
If “Something To Remember Me By” sounds like daytime radio and beach music, and “Machine” is a sombre nocturnal beast, then most of V oscillates somewhere between those poles. “Gathering”, with its lyrics about surveillance culture (“There's someone out there, seeing everything, and who knows what you know...”), is another radio-ready highlight. And the album's six-and-a-half minute centrepiece, the magnificently melodic and elegiac “Weighed Down”, is destined to join “Still Life” and “Sea Within A Sea” as one of The Horrors' absolute signature anthems.
The spaciousness and basslines of dub reggae are an influence the band acknowledge. The pace is unhurried, and the extended structures allow The Horrors' ever-improving songwriting the room to breathe. The conventional limits of the three-minute pop song are rarely respected. On a number of occasions, “Two Way Mirror” being a notable example, a song feels as though it's reaching a natural conclusion, only for a grandiose coda to prolong the song by another stretch. “I always find it satisfying,” smiles Badwan, “in a slightly sadistic way, when we're playing live, and a song drops down and the audience claps, and little do they know there's actually still seven minutes left.” Third also takes pleasure in this trademark Horrors trick. “I'd never say we're on the same level, but that's something you notice on great Beach Boys records. The second verse going off on a tangent. Because everyone thinks they know what a song's meant to sound like, so you want to trip them up a little bit.”
Comparisons with epic 80s pop will be inevitable. They have been ever since third album Skying, whose reviews were full of references to Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs. On V, names like Talk Talk (of whom Webb is a particular admirer), Duran Duran, Gary Numan (particularly on opening track “Hologram”, which Webb calls “a nod of the hat”) and Tears For Fears spring to mind. But this, each Horror independently assures, is broadly accidental, rather than conscious imitation.
“Interestingly,” says Cowan, “I don't listen to that stuff at all. It surprised us at first, when Skying came out, and everyone was making these Simple Minds comparisons. I feel like we ended up at the same place by going down that same road. For example, I got into Kraftwerk really heavily: Kraftwerk are my Beatles. Writing pop songs with synthesizers and guitars, and with a singer like Faris, you end up at a similar end-point. So it's definitely not a parody or a pastiche.”
As chance would have it, The Horrors have recently been playing to some of the biggest audiences of their lives as support to the most enduringly successful Eighties synth band of all, Depeche Mode, and found themselves earning an unexpectedly warm response from DM's notoriously unwelcoming following.
“It's weird, isn't it?”, Third muses. “We've just been playing to mega-domes, and a friend said to me 'It's a far cry from having seatbelts thrown at you, supporting the Arctic Monkeys'.” Seatbelts? “Yeah. People used to throw all kinds of shit at us...” Badwan is just as surprised. “I'd never really thought of us as a band who could play in stadiums,” he says. “We definitely never thought that when we formed the band. But it worked in that environment, and it's probably the most I've enjoyed a stretch of live dates.”
With V, The Horrors' music has become expansive enough to fill the wide open spaces in its own right, without riding anyone else's coat-tails. When they think back to that career-altering leap between albums 1 and 2, The Horrors realise that the imminent release of V is giving them the same feeling of excitement again. “It's quite similar to how I feel now,” says Cowan, “which is that we've got something really unusual, new and progressive.”
“You know it's different from your last record,” Third agrees, but you have no fucking clue what everyone's going to say about it. It's just throwing the dice, and you're always a little bit nervous. This one might surprise people. The third and fourth were maybe a bit similar, and people might
have thought we'd slipped into the lane we were going to stay in. And now this one is completely different again.”