Listen (ATP Festival Preview): TAS On WNYE With The Horrors
Over the course of their brief career, British rockers The Horrors have restlessly experimented with their sound, precociously shifting from the spiky garage punk of 2007's Strange House, to the shoegaze-meets-goth-grandeur of 2009's Mercury Prize-nominated Primary Colours, produced by Portishead's Geoff Barrow.
Their most recent, self-produced release on XL Recordings, the radiant, New Wave-nudged Skying, is one of the most beautiful albums of 2011, an album which surprisingly reveals the group's fondness for the structure of simpler, melodic pop, interpreted through a lushly-layered, rock and roll prism.
The quintet - singer/lyricist Faris Badwan, guitarist Joshua Hayward, keyboardist Tom Cowan, bassist Rhys Webb and drummer Joe Spurgeon - return to the New York area this weekend to play the Portishead-curated ATP Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey on October 1 and Manhattan's Webster Hall on October 4.
In addition, The Horrors will be curating their own mini-festival, called "Eat Your Own Ears," in Manchester, England on October 15 with a lineup that includes The Kills, Factory Floor and Toy.
Just recently, The Horrors dropped by Studio A for a very special session of four songs - "Endless Blue," "I Can See Through You," "Still Life," and a majestic, 10-minute plus jam of "Moving Further Away" - which you can hear below. Listen to The Horrors chat about everything from Krautrock to their first gig on TAS in Session on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, September 30, at 11 a.m. and streaming on The Alternate Side.
Kara Manning: Do you think that there might be fans who might be surprised be surprised by the sound of Skying? Was there a shift in a particular song or a template that came from Primary Colours?
Rhys Webb: I think it was time more than anything. The band plays and works together regularly and they keep moving [and] keep on wanting to evolve. The more you play, you’re trying out new things and experimenting and moving fowards, I guess. “Still Life” was the first track that we worked on for this record and that was quite exciting.
Kara: Was there an epiphany about the sounds being different for you? I know that for Skying, Joshua, you built something specifically for the album which is why the album sound the way it does.
Joshua: It’s a 40-stage phaser called the Grand Master Skyer Mark 4 or was it 5? Yeah, it’s just so that we can phase things more than normal. I really hate answering technical questions because they’re boring.
Faris: He doesn’t want to give our secrets away.
Kara: Was that a leaping off point?
Faris: No, no, we spent most of the recording sort of lamenting the mess that Josh was making, so it definitely wasn’t the starting point. It sounded like a blocked drain for maybe four-fifths of the recording and then suddenly at the end it started to make things that were useful.
Kara: Geoff Barrow of Portishead, who co-produced your last record, sort of urged you to produce this on your own this time around, yes?
Rhys: Yes, as far away from him as possible.
Faris: I think for a long time we’ve been interested in producing our own record and making the space to record it in and Geoff sort of spotted that straight away. He knew that’s what we should be doing, that’s the kind of band we are. I don’t know if he’s the sole reason that we went and produced the album ourselves, but he definitely shared our view.
Kara: What did you discover about yourselves as a band? Was there a different way you communicated? A shortcut that you took in the language that you used with each other?
Rhys: We used very colorful language (all laughed). We’re best at communicating just by doing things. Trying to explain things to the other one always ends with colorful language. But doing it ourselves and having our own studio just gave us the time to show each other what we wanted to do.
Faris: The process has always kind of been the same, hasn’t it?
Rhys: Yes, from the beginning we’ve always attacked it like that, so Geoff almost gave us the confidence to do it on our own this time around. A lot of Primary Colours, when we actually started working with him, was a complete work almost in demo form and he just wanted to take our ideas further and make the most of what we started to do. Since we started playing together we’ve always bee completely involved in everything, from the peddleboard up or whatever. I think the time was right for us to do it.
Kara: The beginning of "Endless Blue," did that begin [as two songs] you tied it together?
Rhys: Not really! We started it on a Monday morning and that was just the mood of the room. We were just playing around with that, really, and as the morning went on and we began enjoying ourselves more, the speed jumped up and we ended up launching into that. It was very much like the starting point of that track was quite an ambient affair, with the brass and as the day went on, I think Josh launched into that riff and we went from the intro straight into that.
Kara: I’ve read that you’re record collectors. Were you listening to other bands’ production techniques or other kinds of music to inspire you? Or does it happen rather naturally?
Rhys: It’s really our interest in sound that excites us and inspires us, more than other bands. As much as we love great music - that’s the whole reason we’re in a band - it’s the sound itself that inspires us. What you can do with it and how you can communicate very visual ideas. What you can do with a band, the instruments you have and the techniques you use to record them. It’s why the studio is very important to us, as a tool to communicate our ideas. I think visual music is something that excites us.
Faris: I think all these things are a product of time passing rather than anything else. The ideas that you have two years after a record are going to be totally different. You want to try other things, you’ve been listening to other things and it’s never really conscious. You spend the whole process doing the exact opposite of putting things into words. It’s hard to answer. I’m a better singer than I was two years ago and two years ago, I was a better singer than I was two years before that. I just think that if you improve, you do different things.
Kara: Many bands are very comfortable not changing their sound and not taking those risks that you take.
Josh: Boring people. Who wants to eat at the same bloody restaurant every day?
Faris: I pretty much had the same thing for dinner for two years.
Rhys: Most bands that we like have always challenged themselves musically. Most of them, I’m sure. It just comes down to the individuals, doesn’t it? As far as we’re concerned, when we were speaking to people five years ago and they would say, what do you think you’ll be doing this time next year, do you think you’ll be back in America or have that haircut, it was such a load of rubbish. As far as we’re concerned, we’re a band who want to keep on working and making music. We’re already pretty sure that in five years time we’ll be continuing to make records, but we can’t say what they’re going to sound like because to get to that point you’ve got to do the work, play, work and write together.
Kara: Are there bands that you look at and say, yes, that’s how we’d like to be.
Rhys: Even in their earliest forms, bands like The Beatles, not really The Rolling Stones, but definitely The Beatles who were constantly changing, exploring, working in new production techniques, new instruments, new sounds and messing around with tape loops and Eastern instruments and all sorts of things. That’s something we’re into, even if it’s nothing to do with The Beatles; it’s just the idea of being hungry for the new.
Faris: Just like fans are excited about discovering new music, you know? Excited about learning about it as well.
Rhys: And changing things. Some of the bands that you mention who are stuck in a rut, doing the same thing; it’s because they know that they can release an album every year or two years and do the same shows or play the same arenas or whatever it might be. Just do that formulaic rock and roll, whatever it might be. Which is probably what you hear on the radio most of the time. They’ll do it forever because it will pay their bills.
Faris: I don’t think it’s deliberate. I just don’t think it occurs to a lot of people to do something else.
Rhys: Really? I’m a bit more skeptical.
Kara: While you’re touring Skying, do you even think about what that fourth album is going to be yet?
Rhys: I think it’s nice to have a little bit of space when you’ve been working on a record for a long time, to play it live and take it outside of a studio, out of the box, out of our heads, and play it for other people. Let it live and breathe. That’s really important. It’s good to have that space between
Kara: Faris, are you a bit of a perfectionist while recording vocals?
Faris: I think it varies from song to song. There’s a couple of things on the record that were taken from the original demo vocals from home recordings. “Wild Eyed” is the most notable one. I only ever did two takes of that. The second take was the initial recording from when I came up with the idea. It seemed to have the best feeling.
Kara: You all met - and some of you grew up - in Southend-on-Sea in Essex. Rhys and I were talking earlier about it and my desire to visit Southend and go to Rossi's Ice Cream.
Rhys: Yes! Rossi’s Ice Cream, an amazing 50s ice cream parlour on the seafront.
Kara: There’s also a pretty vibrant music scene there.
Rhys: It’s one of those places where you grow up and have to find your own things to do. It’s not that far away from London, it’s always had a great heritage for music that goes back to the 50s or 60s. A lot of people like to go out, dance and enjoy live music. Throughout the 60s there was a big Mod scene and over the last fifty years, it’s been a big youth culture place from punks to skinheads and all the rest of it. I grew up there and had a lot of friends there who were interested in listening to great records so we used to through our own club night down there. Faris came down and played with his band The Rotters. God knows how long ago - maybe six years. Tom came down to play some records. Josh was a local lad who I’d known for years and Joe had surfaced from Colchester which is also in Essex. We used to hang out and have a good time and that’s when we spoke about getting the band together. About two weeks later we did our first rehearsal.
Kara: Six years ago, when you played your first gig, did you ever imagine that you’d be where you are now? Was it almost a one-off?
Faris: We wanted to release our own 7-inch, didn’t we?
Rhys: The first gig was two weeks after our first rehearsal and then we got booked to play that following Saturday, the night we did that gig. We sometimes have this conversation, but it feels like we haven’t actually stopped since then. Everything started moving. What we really wanted to do was just get a band together so we could play the music that we wanted to hear and play some gigs, which is why we only did two rehearsals before we did the first one because we just wanted to get out and do it really. But even from our first rehearsal, we left thinking it was just fantastic. From the first time we actually played together, something cool was happening.
Kara: Do you remember the first song you actually played together?
Rhys: Yes! It was “The Witch” by The Sonics. We did a few covers. We did “The Witch,” and Screaming Lord Sutch, “Jack The Ripper.”
Kara: You recorded that too, didn’t you?
Rhys: Yeah, we did a couple of versions of that. (to Faris) Did we do any other covers that day?
Faris: We did a new one which we played live a few times and then we ditched. And then we had another one which was all on one note (laughs).
Rhys: A friend of mine came to that first gig and she caught the first ten minutes or something on her phone. I’ve still got it on my iTunes. For us to be playing for the first time - and really just making a massive racket - it sounds massively exciting and I think that was the thing with us. Something exciting was happening. I think it still is.
Kara: When you guys wrote “Still Life,” did it come about very quickly or was this a very slow burn? How was this song born?
Rhys: This was probably the most relaxed, easy and fastest - is that the right way to explain it?
Faris: Yes, it was done in a day. I was, for some reason, not in most of the day and I came in and everyone had this track pretty much done and I added vocals. It was pretty much in the same state that it is now.
Rhys: I think this song had something special about it.
Kara: Have you been approached at all to score a film?
Rhys: I don’t think people trust us enough yet! It’s something we’d all be really, really interested in doing. We haven’t quite gotten around to doing it yet.
Josh: I imagine we could do it with Shirley Bassey.
Rhys: Josh is in love with Shirley Bassey.
Josh: Because she’s mildly offensive.
Kara: Faris, you did an interview in which you said that performance should be a mystery. There should be a real separation between what is happening onstage and the audience.
Faris: A few years ago there was a trend for destroying that barrier between audience and the stage. I think that that musicians should be up on the wall as opposed to sat with you at the kitchen table. I think it’s a shame when people try to make everything as normal and mundane as possible.
Kara: When you think in terms of your stage performance, do you think about how you present yourself, how you dress ….
Rhys: No. Never have done either.
Faris: I think some people consciously do the opposite. I guess some people want that as well, they want to see people who they can imagine are just like them, up on stage. I don’t really like seeing that. I like there to be mystery when it comes to bands.
Kara: Who are some frontpeople who you admire?
Faris: There are so many. You can have someone like Nick Drake, who is the absolute anti-performer, taking half an hour to tune his guitar and stuff. And then, someone like David Bowie who is as charismatic as can be. It’s just about the personality of the person.
Kara: Was it hard for you to figure out who you were on stage?
Faris: I think, to be honest, in the beginning we had such a primitive and visceral live set, that there wasn’t really any time to think about it (laughs).
Kara: “Moving Further Away” began as two different songs, correct?
Rhys: We started working on that track in Devon. We went down for a writing session in the countryside and had this big house where we thought we’d have an outrageous time and actually we found it quite boring in the end. We got a little bit stuck and we wanted to get back to the city and be inspired by London and our surroundings and get out and do our own thing. But the one great thing that did come out of it was the beginning of “Moving Further Away,” the electronic half we could say. We felt it needed to be explored and pushed it further. I remember one evening when someone called us up to see what we were doing and we said that we were working on some kind of epic synth odyssey (laughs). That turned out to be “Moving Further Away.”
Kara: I was watching Joseph play throughout that and thought of Klaus Dinger of Neu! Krautrock is such an essential element of what you do. It’s not as influential for American bands; why was that movement so important for UK bands?
Rhys: It’s their exploration of rhythm and sound and how you can use it. Again, they didn’t want to play conventional rock and roll or be informed by American, the UK or the 60s boom that had happened before it. They wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again, use new instruments, new technology and new ways of attacking music. I think that’s a really, really exciting thing. Definitely the idea of rhythm in Neu! and Can is very hypnotic as well and very much takes you somewhere else which is something that we’re really interested in. What sound can do to you beyond just playing straightforward chords. Everything has its place, but for us we’re particularly inspired and excited by sonic exploration; it’s a continuing thing in this conversation, but it’s something that those early, experimental German groups really brought to us.
Kara: You’re play the ATP Festival [I’ll Be Your Mirror] which Portishead is curating. I can’t help but wonder, if you could curate your own ATP, who would you choose, past or present?
Tom Cowan: The Beatles headlining. Because you’d be crazy not to if you could choose any band to headline your festival. Dead, broken up or otherwise.
Faris: But if they came back, would they all still be pissed off with each other?
Tom: John Lennon would have to be a zombie.
Rhys: We are actually curating our own mini-event ["Eat Your Own Ears"] in a warehouse in Manchester [on October 15] and so we didn’t have the dead at our disposal, but we did ask our friends Factory Floor who are a really interesting electronic band, a band called Toy from East London, Connan Mockasin from New Zealand and there’s others as well [The Kills, XXXY, Floating Points].