When the Horrors unleashed their debut album, Strange House, in 2007, it may have seemed hard to look past the big hair, grease paint and the band’s ghoulish facade. But then you wouldn’t have been really listening. The British band (not to be confused with an American act of the same name) had created a near perfect record by resurrecting the past (the Birthday Party, in particular) and fusing it with their own brash version of future sounds. It was a harrowing display of embalmed post-punk and frazzled garage rock as filtered through a particularly darkened collective lens.
Now that the buzz has settled, perhaps it will be easier for jaded minds to judge the band’s recently released Primary Colours on its own merits, of which there are plenty. Abandoning some of the frayed ends for more clearly cut icy tones, the record, belying its name, shows the band renovating its palette. Here the Horrors incorporate neu-waved sounds along with tempered moods. It’s like the morning after to Strange House’s wild night, and hints that there’s probably much more to this band to be unearthed in the years to come.
The Horrors have been spending most of the month of May on the road in the U.S. with the Kills, and I caught up with guitarist Joshua Third while in transit.
Where are you guys?
Joshua Third: We’re on our way to Seattle, but we’re going to stop off at North Bend, which I’m really excited about because I love Twin Peaks. So we’re going to sit in the diner and have some pie and a cup of joe. But at the minute, all I can see is fields, quite flat fields of green crap. It’s really weird.
I’ve read your biography, but I wanted to get some clarification on how you got together. Sounds like you started by playing records and deejaying.
JT: Yeah, before the band we were all deejays. We had always been interested in music and a good way of expressing that was deejaying. If you’re interested in buying records, it’s only fair that you should play for them everyone else. I think sharing is really important. Talking about how we met is a long, complicated story, but it’s just based on people seeking out people who liked the same music as them. We sought each other out quite naturally. When we all met, we decided that surely the next step was to play our own music, so we all chose instruments and started playing.
Did things come together as quickly as perceived?
JT: Yeah, we had two rehearsals and from that we decided we might as well play a gig for fun. And from that gig, we got booked for four gigs, and from those, we got another four gigs. We quickly were playing nearly every single night of the week for about a year.
Had anyone played instruments before?
JT: Rhys (Spider Webb) hadn’t played organ, but he played bass before so organ was easy for him to pick up. Yeah, everyone had played their instruments a lot before that. Tom (Furse) had learned bass playing to garage records. I had played guitar before, but given up, and Joe had done a similar thing. Playing is really great, but really boring if you got no one to do it with.
The band seemed like an anomaly when you started, definitely in England, if not in America as well. Would you agree with that or do you think there were other bands similar to you?
JT: No, I totally agree. It’s a shame that is the case—I think we’re an anomaly now. I wish there were more bands that we had things in common with and that there was a scene. It would be great if we had friends in different bands that were a bit similar. But we all have short attention spans, and we want to do something we find exciting. Usually what we find exciting isn’t going to be going on everywhere. That explains why the first record was so different to everyone else, and the second one is so different to the first one, and the third will probably be different again. We’re trying to excite ourselves and do something we find exciting.
Given that, were you surprised by how people took to the band?
JT: Well, I never really thought about it because we were just playing for ourselves thinking it would be fun. I never really expected any kind of reaction or thought about what kind of reaction we would get. So when we got it, I just thought that was the kind of reaction you get.
The first record went to number 37 in the charts in England, so that’s a pretty strong reaction.
JT: Yeah, since we’re not a band getting any radio or TV. We’re just a band that is marketable in a normal way.
It seemed like a lot of people focused on this glum aspect of the band...
JT: Yeah, everyone painted us as a goth band because we all wore black and they didn’t really realize that Velvet Underground looked a bit similar maybe, but they’re not a goth band at all. But they couldn’t process it because everything has to go in a fucking box instantly!
I think they’re missing the humor.
JT: There has always been quite a bit of humor in the band. I think there’s humor prevalent in all British music, to be honest. It’s kind of our way of dealing with life. And of course that will come through with an English band. We wrote both records there, and it comes through in the music. The music before is quite a short shock attack of the senses. It’s about the live show, about wrapping you around the throat quickly and shaking you about and throwing you back. I think the new record is a lot more widely developed—the arrangements—and more personal. We’ve grown as people, and we’ve grown as songwriters, able to convey how we feel. I think it’s a good thing. It shows—I don’t know—something that’s human, and that’s what you want from music.
Calling the record “Primary Colours,” was that a way of saying that the band is more than just “black?”
JT: No, it wasn’t trying to get out of that whole black thing. It’s the idea that it’s a very different experience for everyone who listens to it. Different people are drawing different things from it, and so Primary Colours starts something for you to paint your own picture, and it applies differently for every person.
You classified Strange House as “music for freaks and weirdos.” Would you classify this one the same way?
JT: No, this one is more “fucked-up children,” to nick a Spiritualized line. It’s definitely for people who’ve experienced ups and lows.
I don’t think it was you specifically, but someone in the band told NME that making this album made you question your sanity and what you were doing. What was it that made you lose perspective?
JT: I think it was just... The first album we recorded in parts, where we were touring in between, and the process was very disjointed, with different producers. With this one, it was the first time we got to lock ourselves away and immerse ourselves in our own little world and the music. When you do that, nothing else really starts to matter. Of course, it does matter eventually, but you don’t think about normal things in the same way and it puts you in a weird way. It was actually a joy to record, but we did get into an unusual mental state.
Did that contribute to it taking awhile to come out?
JT: No, it was just those annoying things that happen that make a record take longer to come out and that are out of your control. No one had a nervous breakdown or anything like that.
People have focused on the album being dramatically different. Do you perceive it that way?
JT: Well, I don’t. It’s been two years, but I know it’s been an organic evolution. For me, it seems like a natural step, but it you haven’t seen what we’ve been doing, then I guess it could be considered a dramatic thing. But that’s how music should go really, isn’t it? I hate the idea of reproducing the same album endlessly. That would drive me crazy. That’s not really music, that’s not really art. I can understand why people see it that way. Some clever kids have picked up on it, but for a lot of people it’s, “Wow, it’s really different! I didn’t expect bands to do this anymore. Why is the band doing this? I must be confused. I complain every day that bands don’t do this anymore and now that it’s happened, I’m really shocked and surprised.”
Do you feel like the band is being taken more seriously with this record?
JT: The main problem when we started was we were on a major label, and they didn’t really know what the fuck to do with us. They just tried to package us a certain way. It was a bit like working at a call center where they were working off a sheet and just following guidelines. That’s how they dealt with us, and our image got distorted and presented in a way that wasn’t us. But we always said that the music is the stuff that lasts forever and that’s the thing that people would eventually understand and take seriously. We made another good record and now we’re on a label where we’re being represented better.
The first time I saw you play was at CMJ a few years ago...
JT: Oh what a terrible festival that is! It’s a complete mess.
Faris (singer Faris Badwan) brushed against me leaving the stage, and I was left with a black smear across my face. You look more natural on stage now. Is that a matter of trying to downplay image and get people to focus on the music?
JT: The live show has always been our reaction to the music and the crowd. Now we’re mainly playing songs off the new record, so the live show is different. It’s not a conscious decision to try to downplay image. Literally, we’re performers reacting to what we hear, and we’re reacting in a different way. It’s pretty much that simple.
The last record had songs like “Jack the Ripper,” which might have contributed to the “goth” tag. Did you purposefully stay away from themes like that? This record seems to have more romantic concerns.
JT: I am a terrible romantic. I’m kind of a sucker for that stuff. But “Jack the Ripper” was just a great song. We love Screaming Lord Sutch, and when we had our first rehearsal, we decided to cover that. It seemed since it was the first song we played together as a band it should be the first song on the record. That’s just why it was on the record. For this one, we had written about 30 songs and we were so confident in the songs we’d written, we didn’t feel the need to do any covers.
“Sea Within a Sea” seems like a benchmark moment on the record. Was that song important in the record’s creation?
JT: It was the last song that we wrote, actually. We felt that it kind of summed up where we had gone with the record and kind of encapsulated it. That’s why we put it out as the first single, because we thought it was the best representation of what we had been doing, what the new record was like, and where the Horrors were at at the moment.
Not to downplay your role, but it seems like keyboards are more prominent on this record. Did that have anything to do with Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) being involved?
JT: Well, I think some of the things you think are keyboards are probably guitars. We’ve always been trying to push things forward and make things sound different. We couldn’t get the organ to sound like anything else; it just sounds like an organ. Well, I found a way to get guitars not to sound like the guitars on the first album. And Tom and Rhys had been doing a side-project called Spider and the Flies, and it’s a pure analog synth project. So they decided to bring in analog synths, and we found those sounds to be much more inspiring sound sources than the organ.
The funny thing about Geoff is that when we asked to work with him, we demoed all the songs, and they sounded pretty similar to what they are on the record. He fell in love with them and told us, “You don’t need me to do anything. You just need for me to go in there and make sure you don’t fucking fuck it up or try to change it.” So he took this Steve Albini approach to recording it and not fuck about with it. If we worked with a different producer, they’d have wanted to put their stamp on it and it wouldn’t have been our record anymore. He was obsessed with it being our record—because we had made such a personal record—and keeping it that way. And he did a great job of it.
So what did you pay him for?
JT: Yeah, that’s where it gets funny, isn’t it? Well, if producers worked based on what you paid them for, imagine how overproduced music would be. Oh wait, that is what happens now, isn’t it? Maybe it’s good to pay people not to do anything.
Are you still doing the fanzines?
JT: The thing is we’re touring with so much now, we’re embracing the internet thing and our website is just going to be a big fanzine—or a blog or whatever—with songs and movies, and bits of writing and drawings. We’d like to print out hard copies eventually, but in the meantime we’re going to have the blog so we can still be sharing stuff. It’s why we started the band: if you’re excited about something, it makes perfect sense to me to want to share it with everybody else.