The Horrors Daub Their Name In Brit Pop Tradition With Primary Colours
, May 7th, 2009 07:19
With the excellent Primary Colours now on the shelves, Kev Kharas meets The Horrors and discovers why they're part of the great dandy tradition in British pop
East London needs slashing and burning again. Less wantonly, it's to the region's clubland triangle — rather than, say, Dagenham or South Woodford — that we must take the jerrycan. Old Street-Brick Lane-Columbia Road: trace it with your finger on a map. All that's inside, burn. It's what the area needs — to routinely scorch, shell, mine and explode itself if its voracious young Vorticists are to clear away the past in order to make room for Their Next Movement. But ‘Movements’ don’t move beyond gestures when the insatiable appetite of the hipster set exhausts everything, and with such speed. If you’re doing anything different well in east London, you won’t be for long. There are too many eager to cop on, hawk-brained and heat-seeking, those faceless cartoon eyes glinting in the night whose gaze will turn auteurs into scene-leaders and insight into mould.
Given the constant upheaval and reinvention visited upon the place, The Horrors have relatively deep roots in east London soil. Their first show in the city was at local pit The Spread Eagle back in September 2005, while new album Primary Colours was recorded a bus ride from there in Stoke Newington (the nosy Google Street View lenses obliging with a shot of guitarist Joshua Hayward at a Hackney Road bus stop around the time of those sessions). When the band returned to debut their new set before the public, it was at Bethnal Green’s The Rich Mix — and with exemplary timing, as Primary Colours seeped its way out into the wider world in the haze of a gorgeous and desperately needed spring sun. You wonder what part the weather’s played in the widespread lauding of what Hayward calls “a proper summer record” as a chink of light thickens fag fug in a first floor room above Shoreditch booze-hole The Red Lion.
“I think when we recorded it we were maybe answering to the time of the year. The studio was great; the people working there were really friendly; and there were other young bands coming in and out all the time — people like The Ruling Class and Electricity In Our Homes. We were hanging out and having barbeques . . . it was just a really great way to spend the summer.”
“We wanted to do it in Berlin for a bit but that fell through,” adds Tomethy Furse, who's switched from bass to synth duties since 2007 debut Strange House.
“I think the record would have been completely different if we’d gone to Berlin.”
“We did it in England,” Hayward concludes, “so we kept an Englishness to it.”
Without wanting to fall into ‘the Morrissey trap’, that “Englishness” has been important to the band's return (perhaps more so than the weather). Finding their east London stomping ground haunted by the anonymity of 4-track bedroom-dwellers and uniform grunge flannel, The Horrors’ smart monochrome became even more vivid, setting them apart from the latest trend to dominate here: that which finds ‘rad dudes’ looking to the US and its legion Wipers, Black Flag and K Records-inspired lo-fi acts for sartorial and musical etiquette. The Horrors are part of a trend, doubtless, but it’s one that’s older, and that always had London in its sights: this gaggle of suburban sore thumbs, ideas and identity forged and toughened amid the heckles of small-town boredom, eventually fleeing teenage bedrooms to confront the Bildungsroman waiting at the busier end of the train line. The Cure had Crawley; The Banshees Bromley; The Stones, Who and Bowie, Eel Pie Island. More recently the only English bands that can claim kinship with the tradition are Kendal’s Wild Beasts, who took their oddball theatrics to Leeds, and These New Puritans, whose hometown of Southend — and the now-defunct Junk Club in particular — also fostered a nascent Horrors. If Primary Colours should be seen as anything, it’s as the band’s baptism into that lineage of reversed suburban flight and conspicuous dandyism that’s particular to English rock music’s engagement with pop culture.
“I wanted to move to London from a very early age,” states Hayward, who grew up on “a horrible island in the Thames Estuary called Canvey.”
“Have you ever been to Canvey? It’s a strange place. I always kind of stood out a bit there. They didn’t really like kids that wore make-up. It was a fight just getting out your front door, so I wanted to move somewhere that was a bit more open-minded. Where I was from was pretty close-minded. So I figured out the quickest way of getting here and moved when I was 18.”
“Everything started in London,” Furse asserts. “We got the idea in Southend. And it brought us here.”
Listen to Primary Colours closely and you’ll hear how important Southend and the aforementioned Junk Club have been in its makers’ development. When I boarded the train out of Fenchurch Street bound for the Junk Weekender in May 2006, the communal walk from nearby Westcliffe station to the pier-side Royal Hotel was peppered with goggle-eyed locals and cat calls, but upon arrival the thing felt tight — there was a dress code, to a certain extent, but there’s a surprising amount you can do with grey, white and black. Sharp-featured, kohl-eyed girls in mini-dresses and pencil skirts rushed sharp-featured, kohl-eyed boys in Crombies and silk ties off to the toilets, lacquered mock-Tudor beams and matey barmen were bemused by celebrity transvestite Mika Doll and the sounds of the Paradise Garage throbbing up from the basement, when all they had on the jukebox was Oasis and Wings. If dress was stratified, music was less so — if the mixture of 50s rockabilly and 60s psych was what informed The Horrors first album, then the Kraut, disco, noise, no-wave, post-punk, goth and acid house Junk’s resident DJs were also spinning at the time have bled together to provide the sonic palette for Primary Colours.
“When I first went to Junk it was kind of an eye-opener,” enthuses Furse, whose bandmate Rhys Webb founded the club with local pair Oliver Abbott and Ciaran O’Shea.
“I hated popular clubs so I’d only go out to underground psychedelic nights and those are really pigeon-holed. Everyone dresses in a certain way and listens to the same few bands. You felt like you wanted a bit more. When you went to Junk it was all those records played next to everything else good in music. That’s inspiring because you see that you can put all these things together and that there are people in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.”
“Yeah, I was always hugely impressed [by Junk]. I used to DJ in London at the time and everyone would want to hear indie disco, request tracks by Blondie and the Ramones or whatever. But you’d go to Junk and play James Chance and everyone would dance because it’s great dance music and they didn’t care that it was a bit difficult, everyone just really threw themselves into things. They were music lovers — if it had a good beat they’d dance to it.”
The Horrors played that weekend and put in a typically raucous shift. The quintet were always worth watching live, even if their records seemed caricatured when you removed the threat and sweaty air from the equation. Now, the staccato goth shocks of Strange House have been largely ironed out in favour of a more horizontal, Kraut-ish drive, and the youth-pun monikers - Spider Webb, Coffin Joe, et cetera — have been shed like puppy fat.
But their trademark threat remains — the last band to extend that aforementioned English pop tradition (and that was owed to Michael Bracewell’s fantastic England Is Mine) were The Libertines, who were always more Oliver Twist than Dick Turpin or Mick Travis (even if Doherty did morph into Fagin with alarming haste).
Primary Colours’ best moments come when that sense of threat is combined with a new lust for pop. Despite being dropped by Universal in the end, the band continued to heed the label’s instructions to “write songs that’ll get on the radio” — only with their own, inevitably darker, motives. Hayward grins like a fiend as he talks about wanting to make something to “draw people in a little bit to really mess with them”.
The title track is the cut most unfettered by the sullen gloom of old; ‘Do You Remember’ is dark-eyed baggy; and the the eight-minute-long ‘Sea Within A Sea’ was not chosen as lead single for nothing, however alien its crystalline, Clockwork Orange-synths and motorik beat may seem next to Lady GaGa and Calvin Harris in the charts. Perhaps the most joyous moment on the album, though, comes with ‘Three Decades’, the first “of about 40” songs written for potential inclusion and a joyous, filmic tussle between noise and pop that looms and booms like an ailing Waltzer hurled deliriously from its axles.
“When we wrote that we hit upon something that still had very much of what we used to do, but had taken it a step further,” explains Hayward.
“The music at that point became a lot more cinematic. More evocative of certain things. That was kind of like the starting point, the signpost as to where the rest of it was going. It sounded amazing and it felt good and like something really special. It set some kind of benchmark for the rest of the songs. The whole thing happened in the space of about half an hour. And that was the excitement of it.”
It’s that sense of excitement — in place of the blind panic that descended upon Strange House — that most inspires, and defines the mood of Primary Colours.
“You know when you get that feeling sometimes, when you’ll be listening to music or just hugely excited about something,” asks Hayward, “and it feels like someone has got their finger under your ribs and it draws you [moves hand away from chest] . . . I just wanted to capture that. The big thing for me was to get that on record. Making people, if they weren’t feeling it before they listened to it, get it and get drawn. What is that?”
They both crack up.
“But no, you get it in certain situations don’t you? It always feels like it’s there and you’re like ‘Ooh this is amazing’ . . . and you don’t ever stop moving, do you? It’s that constant feeling of movement and how you don’t stop.”
“Maybe you’ve got loads of serotonin receptors just there” ventures Furse, gesturing towards his diaphragm.
“Yeah, but it’s like your diaphragm’s gone mental . . . I just wanted to get that feeling across.”
For the most part they seem to have succeeded. Primary Colours has so far mentalised the diaphragms of a large proportion of my friends. And that thrill's been augmented by the surprise you only get with albums that show true growth.
Are The Horrors surprised at the reaction it’s already had?
“Um, not really actually,” counters Hayward. “We worked on it for a very long time, really hard on it. A lot of time and kind of unnecessary . . . well, actually completely necessary, but quite painful, y’know, experiences in order to get this how it is.
“From the start it was apparent we were onto something really good, so it was really exciting right from the beginning. It would have been — what’s the word? Not unjustified . . . not shameful . . . what’s the word? It would’ve been a travesty if it hadn’t gone down well.”
They both crack up again.
Should the album have come as such a shock to so many critics? After the marks for the debut full-length were handed out, the band seemed to slip off the radar somewhat, written-off by many as faddish, throwback cartoons. There was activity all the while though — most obviously in Furse and Webb’s side-project Spider And The Flies, whose Something Clockwork This Way Comes LP paired harsh, industrial kinetics with Delia Derbyshire’s paranoiac, silver-space-suit sound catalogue.
Furse, though, rejects any attempt to assert that record’s influence on Primary Colours.
“I don’t think it’s one thing informing the other. It’s just us. To be honest, if given the chance I think we’d put out a lot more records. Of every different genre. A constant output. Unfortunately that’s quite a hard thing to pull off. But that’s it and I don’t think . . . when we came to write the new record we had more synths.”
“We had synths,” interjects Hayward.
“We had instruments we didn’t have before and that’s as far as one thing influenced the other. To be honest, though, that’s pretty much all I ever spend my time doing. Learning and researching how to use synths that I will never come across, on the off chance I will just so I know how to use it. The engineer at Moles, where we recorded in Bath, he had a VCS3, which is kind of what they used in the Radiophonic Workshop, this little classic thing and he’d had it for 12 years and he was like ‘You know how to use this better than I do’. So that’s where the confidence comes from, really.”
That urge to grow and experiment is what sets them apart from most other English, guitar-toting contemporaries (you suspect it was experimentation, too, that drove Hayward to spend the hour prior to this interview seeking out denatured alcohol from a succession of suspicious chemists).
“Some people don’t really want to stretch themselves, do they? Some people are like ‘Got a guitar, got an amp, got a sound, like that sound’ and they’re happy with that and they never get bored of it and they keep making the same record forever.”
Hayward warms to the theme.
“Let’s take a band like, I dunno… The Kooks for example. Kooks drummer, probably likes playing drums, likes drinking, shags a lot of birds, fucking wicked life — he loves it, he’s really into it. The blokes who write the songs, they’re probably like, ‘We’re writing amazing songs . . . ah, this new one’s brilliant, fucking love this new song, gotta get someone to record this for us, cause this is brilliant!’ and that’s all they care about — they’re just really happy with their brilliant new song they’ve written. And they don’t care about the process and they aren’t really interested in the sound and how, if they learned a bit more, maybe their songs could do a bit more to people. They’re too short-sighted. They don’t really see it.
“Bands these days don’t really listen to music — they’ll look back maybe two, three years? And that’s just what they think ‘it’ is. Their world’s that big. They live in little fucking snow globes. And that’s how far it’s gone, so no wonder they’re just spiralling slowly into what’ll become a black hole.”
The Kooks, then: a toilet slowly flushing.
But if The Kooks and their mawkish ilk, inbred to the point of deformity, are the downside of English guitar music’s affair with pop culture, The Horrors are one of those outfits who can join the dots between disparate decades and movements to see a bigger picture. They've produced something that, while coloured by the past, has followed that strand of history all the way to its root — back through Psychedelic Furs pink, Kinks green and snowy MBV white — to emerge into the air sticky and daubed in it all, with first-hand knowledge of English pop’s primary shades.
“I think you’ve hit upon a really good thing when we were talking about the ‘great’ England,” says Hayward.
“It’s always tended to celebrate individuality and letting people do what they want. That’s kind of what dandies always were — people didn’t grow up and go ‘Oh, I want to be a dandy. I’m going to get one of those frilly hats.’ There were people who just were very kooky and individual, and it hasn’t always been celebrated but it’s accepted here as opposed to other places where they’d be locked up. I guess what we’re talking about — the English thing — it always relates to that idea of an idyllic life where everyone’s allowed to do what they want to do.”
“I don’t think it’s anything real,” concludes Furse. “I don’t think it ever truly existed like that. It’ll only ever exist in your or other people’s imaginations. It’s an idyllic idea.”
“It’s an idea of a paradise so to speak. An image.”
Loose a while now from their provincial straightjackets, The Horrors return to east London with an image of their own: Primary Colours’ title track finding them “riding through town on a chariot high” while all around are flannelled and faceless, rad-bombed black holes.
The Horrors' Primary Colours is out now on XL