The Horror, The Horror: Tom Cowan Interviewed
, December 15th, 2009 07:12
Primary Colours was a Quietus favourite this 2009, so Ben Hewitt sat down with Tom Cowan to talk misconceptions, style, future plans, and growing psychedelic drugs at one of England's poshest schools
Who could have predicted that 2009 would have been the year of The Horrors? Dismissed by some as a trendy-but-talentless bunch of cartoon characters after their 2007 debut Strange House, this year saw them evolve into a snarling and swirling rock & roll beast with their fantastic second album Primary Colours. A giddying collision of hypnotic krautrock and gorgeous shoegaze, it rightfully claimed second spot in The Quietus's Album of the Year list.
With The Horrors currently touring the UK supporting Placebo, The Quietus caught up with synthesiser master Tom Cowan to discuss the making of Primary Colours, growing illegal substances at the prestigious Rugby school, and punching Radio One DJs in the face.
How has 2009 been for The Horrors?
Tom Cowan: Pretty fucking good to be honest with you. It's been pretty hectic, we've been all over the world a couple of times. But . . . sorry, I'm in the noisiest possible area I could be. Yeah, it's just been a great year all round really.
What have been the high points?
TC: Sorry, I'm just going to go somewhere a little bit quieter. I'm in a massively echoing empty arena, and every sound is being picked up and amplified.
I guess that's what happens when you support Placebo.
[Laughs]. Anyway, playing Mexico for the first time was really amazing. Going there and playing to three and a half thousand people . . . you don't really consider the fact that your music actually has any effect outside of the places you're aware of. So that was pretty mad. To be honest, there's been a lot of memorable moments this year.
How about low points?
Not really . . . being away from home for a long time, that would be my low point. But you're doing something really amazing, so you can't really complain.
Well, you've been selected as one of The Quietus's artists of the year, and Primary Colours came second in our end of year poll. Maybe this is the new high point?
Really? Oh great, I didn't know. That's brilliant. Thanks very much.
This seems to be a year in which people's conceptions of The Horrors have changed.
I guess you could say that for some people. It's strange. The whole 'We thought they were this, and then they were that' thing . . . it's kind of weird for us. When we did our first record, to be honest, I don't think that was the case. I think that some people maybe didn't like us, but this idea that The Horrors were cartoon laughing stocks, characters who didn't take what they did seriously, that's something that's just appeared in journalistic consciousness since we released the record. I think some people didn't like it, but I don't really think there was this big 'The Horrors are the worst band in Britain' attitude that people seem to bring up all the time.
I guess it's a case of opinions being based upon lazy misconceptions.
But it's funny how these things kind of spread. You know, one person writes something on a blog, and then one person writes something in an article, and then it just gets latched onto.
So you didn't feel like you had something to prove with the record?
No, not at all. We knew we were onto a good thing, but having said that, when we finish this tour we're going to build our own studio and I'm just as excited about that, and feel like that will be just as much of a step forward as last time was - just because we're fast moving people, and we like to learn a lot and like to get better and improve.
Did you find the idea that you were cartoon characters annoying?
Well, it was never something that we felt we put ourselves across as. Maybe looking back at some of the slideshows of us at that time, I can see why people would come to that conclusion. But I also think it had just as much to do with Universal and the way they publicised it. When you're on a massive label like that you have product managers, you know? People whose job it is to package you and sell you as a product. And they obviously didn't understand where we were coming from. I'm not trying to say everyone at Universal is like that, but it all just got a bit lost.
Are you glad to have left that behind?
You still have to take meticulous control. It was like when we started doing the fanzines - we wanted to keep on doing it on our website, but it's not been as easy as we thought - we wanted to put across what were into, so we did mixes and things to get across to people what we're actually like. Otherwise, left to their own devices, people would just think we listen to Joy Division and The Cure. We've had many, many arguments with journalists who insist that we must listen to Joy Division and The Cure.
Do you listen to Joy Division and The Cure?
Not really, no. Obviously they're great bands, they're classic bands, but not really.
I find the whole fear of style and fashion in music odd, though, seeing as how much they're intrinsically linked. It seems that a lot of English bands - especially post-Libertines - are scared of that.
I think it actually goes back further than that, to Nirvana and grunge, and the idea that it's all about the music - and if there's anything else, it can't be about the music. That's something that's really lingered on in people's consciousnesses. And that's just too easy, and too arsey.
It's a really reductive idea, because aesthetic and image are always important in attracting you to a band, especially when you're young. You can see that in the way a lot of people dress who go to your shows.
I think it's something that initially brings people in. Having said that, it's not something that's forced or should be over thought, or even talked about that much. It should be an unspoken thing. One of the reasons we became friends in the first place is because when we saw each other across the room in a club we kind of looked similar.
You went to Rugby school. Did you find you were in the minority when you dressed like that?
Yeah. Absolutely. Although interestingly we played ATP the other day and Spectrum were playing, and Pete Kember is also an ex-Rugby boy. I like to see that.
Did you find it isolating back then, though?
No, I had an amazing time. I grew mushrooms under my bed. Like most people at school, I had the most fun you could have had. You just found a way around the rules.
Did you ever get caught?
[Laughs]. No, absolutely not. Never got caught. I pride myself on that.
We spoke earlier about Primary Colours being a huge success. Did that surprise you, or did you feel in the studio you were onto something special?
Yeah, that's exactly what it was. When we were writing it, it was just great. It was so much fun, and every time we wrote a new song, and every time we got a new chorus done, the energy in the room would be so high because we knew were onto something really cool. We were all talking about it saying, you know, 'This is going to be one of the albums of the last five years, or the decade'. Maybe you need to think like that. We were definitely very excited about it. We knew it was going to be a good one.
I've seen a couple of quotes attributed to the band saying that you feel what you're doing is different to anyone else right now.
Er . . . yeah, in the way that what everyone's doing is different from everyone else. I still think that as far as a five-piece band goes, especially as us only being together for a few years, we're one of the most exciting bands around. And the bands who I actually do feel a bit more camaraderie with are bands who have been around a bit longer and are more sonically interesting. I think people are a little bit freaked out, and the fact that the record industry is in such a state means that interesting music is hard to develop and people who want to keep doing music have to play the game a little bit more.
Going back to Primary Colours, a lot has been made of how different it is to Strange House, but I think you can still trace similarities between the two records.
Yeah, I think that it's still us. It was a very natural evolution, it was a thing that happened gradually over time. We didn't have a meeting and say 'We're going to sound like this now'. 'Three Decades' was the first song we wrote where we really felt like 'This is really cool, this is really exciting'.
So that song set the tone for the rest of the record?
Absolutely. I think once we got that one together, all the elements were there. That tugging feeling under your chest and that rushing excitement, that was what we were after. That was the emotion we wanted. I think that's one of the things that will carry on with all our music.
One of the differences between the two albums seems to be the attention to detail on Primary Colours. It seems like a lot of labour and love went into it.
[Laughs]. Yeah. The initial process of getting everything written and recorded didn't actually take too long, but there was a lot of stretching it out and for the last month or so, it was really hard and nitpicky. Everyone had their tiny little things that you'd never be able to hear but were really bugging us. And we spent ages finishing it, it was really stressful and a huge burden . . . like 'Is this going to be good? Is everyone else going to feel what we feel about it?'. When it was finally done and everything was off the checklist, it was great and a massive relief, and we could enjoy it again, but there was enormous attention to detail.
If you're going to release an album, I guess you have to make sure it's perfect. It's part of your legacy.
Absolutely. Rhys' attitude is that once it's out, it's there forever in time, and someone's always going to have it. It's never going to be able to change, so you might as well make sure it's right.
You were nominated for The Mercury Music Prize this year, and during the ceremony, a DJ from Radio One called Nihal said. . .
I think I know who you're talking about. . .
You do? He said that Primary Colours was depressing, and I found that really strange. It's quite dark and brooding, but songs like 'Who Can Say' are pure pop.
Was he the same person who said it sounded like the Manson family with guitars and it wasn't real music? I wanted to punch that guy in the face. He's a complete joke. I mean, I kind of understand. When we went to America and started doing press for the record, people were talking about it being really dark and melancholic, and we were like 'No it's not. It's uplifting and euphoric'. I'm not a dark person. I'm generally happy. More of an ecstasy person than a smack person I guess. I think if you're making something that's a bit more challenging or not happy-happy and soft and wimpy, people instantly categorise it as being dark. It's a weird mindset that people won't be able to get out of. Maybe their emotions are just different, and the things that touch their souls are different to mine.
They're probably the people who find Jamie Cullum uplifting.
Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. Maybe for them the quite quirky rubbish stuff is the happy stuff.
The lyrics to Primary Colours do seem quite bleak, though.
It is quite lovelorn. But I never like to speak about Faris' lyrics away from what he says about them, because I never know for sure.
You swapped the bass for synthesisers on the record. How did that happen?
Well, when we were recording the first album someone put a synthesiser next to me when I was doing bass takes, and in between I'd play around with it. And I thought 'This is great, I've never heard these sounds before'. I instantly wanted to try and get them on the record, but I didn't have a fucking clue what I was doing, just turning knobs and pushing buttons. Some of it sounded good and some didn't sound so great, so we ended up leaving it off. But slowly the synthesiser that was next to me when I was playing bass became the synthesiser I was playing while my bass was left idly on the floor.
And Rhys ended up picking up the bass because he enjoyed writing songs with it, and found it easier to write melodies with it. So we had this very strange unspoken change that worked quite well. But a lot of the lines and hooks I play live were written by Rhys on synthesiser. I think we just approach things differently, like if you tell two people to draw a picture of a glass or a dog they'll do it completely differently.
Will you stick with the trade for the next record?
There's no set thing. We can all do whatever we want in the band considering how it sounds. I do think that my . . . calling, or passion, definitely lies with electronics. That's what I mean when I say we like to learn and develop as a band. We spend hours reading about how to make things work and get the sounds we want.
Considering the lukewarm reaction from some of the music press after Strange House was released, were you slightly sceptical and resentful when they seemed to change tack after the release of Primary Colours?
I could completely understand it, just because for everyone else it was two years between their release and it looks like a sudden change. I do find it strange that people have a hard time grasping the concept of a creative band not wanting to do the same thing for their whole careers. A guy from Uncut - I was really disappointed about this because I thought Uncut was a half-decent publication - he was saying 'I don't get it. Bands these days come out and say they want to be a garage rock band, and then they want to be a Krautrock band'. And I was listening thinking 'I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. That's what you guys said we wanted to be. And now you're telling us we want to be a Krautrock band, and we don't'.
So you weren't resentful that people suddenly seemed to latch onto you?
I think that's inevitable. If they like it now, then great. If they didn't like it then, that's fine. I don't really give a fuck.
Do you have any plans to record new material next year?
We've been talking about it. We've only just started using computers to compose on the road, so we've been kind of writing little bits together and talking about them. I don't want to say anything about how it sounds, because as soon as you say 'It's going to be like this' it turns up in a thousand places. But it's definitely going to be onwards and upwards, and I don't think we'll be staying in one place.
When do you think we might hear it?
Well, we finish touring in February, or the beginning of March, so as soon as we get the opportunity we're going to find a place and turn it into a studio, and that will be HQ. Ideally it will be within walking distance of home, so somewhere in east London.
Will you work with Geoff Barrow again?
Geoff's big thing when he worked with us was that we don't need anybody else - that we're good enough as it was, and didn't need somebody else getting in the way of our ideas. So no, we'll just be doing it by ourselves. We'll probably use Craig Silvey to mix it because he's got one of the most amazing pairs of ears in the world, but we'll be recording it and producing it. That's what Geoff meant, he was saying 'You have enough ideas, there's no point communicating them to someone else in the chain - you might as well just do them'. And we're capable enough in the studio to achieve what we want to achieve.
I know you said you didn't want to talk about the sound of the new album, but the single you recently released, 'Whole New Way', had a synthpop feel to it. And I've heard you've been listening to a lot of doom metal as well.
It's funny man, if you spend an evening with us, you'll listen to synthpop, doom metal, hip-hop, funk, soul. We're just fans of good music. That bleeds in there one way or another. That's why I find it annoying when people say 'They've just been listening to this or that', because at the end of the day what we've been listening to and the end result are quite different things.
So what are your hopes for 2010
We've kind of already spoken about it, but it's been a dream for years to have our own studio. To have everything in there and have our own space . . . that has to happen.
Are you going to secretly grow mushrooms in there?
[Laughs]. I don't know. I haven't taken anything like that for a while.
And what are your plans for Christmas? Are you going to be home?
Yeah, I think we're pretty much all going to be together for Christmas. A little Horrors family Christmas. I'll be eating as much food as I can possibly take.