Long gone are the days when The Horrors’ cartoonish fancy dress aesthetic met head-on with a goth-garage hybrid that evoked The Cramps, Edward Scissorhands, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus and, er, Screaming Lord Sutch, bringing a dose of much needed dark glamour to the world of indie. But, there were many who wanted to write them off, not able to see past the arrogance of youth, or appreciate an obvious ability to write cracking songs, and to take their ‘art’ seriously.
“Oh, yeah,” confirms The Horrors’ Joe Spurgeon. “There was a time when people thought we were fashionista wankers, who didn’t produce any music, just a racket. That’s fine, because there’s half-truths in that. But at the end of the day we were in it for a pure reason, just wanting to put out a record. That was our main game. If anything, the negatives that were coming out of people just spurred us on, to do it even more extreme.”
Their early gigs were raw, aggressive affairs, often fuelled by amphetamines, and sometimes lasting no more than 15 minutes. As bassist Rhys Webb has said, “We were kind of making it up as we went along, but, at every gig we played, someone would book us for a follow-up show so we just went with it. It hasn’t really stopped since. We only had a handful of songs, including two or three covers but that was fine. We thought 15 minutes was the perfect time for a burst of horrible noise. It still is.”
“There’s definitely been some insane gigs,” says Joe. “I remember when we supported Arctic Monkeys, and as you can imagine the crowd between them and us on our first album was quite different, but it made us be a bit more wild and insane. Some people in the crowd would heat up pound coins and thrown them at us, thinking that would hurts us. Anyone who knows anything about physics would know that by the time they did that and threw them at us. We made a thing of it; Faris brought out a plastic cup and egged people on to throw money. We loved and lapped up that kind of stuff.”
As the lead singer Faris Badwan has put it, regarding those early shows, “It was a primal release driven by adrenaline and there’s nothing like letting yourself cross the line like that.”
But The Horrors, from dreaming of releasing just the one record to currently being in the process of writing album number five, have consistently defied expectations, and become a surprisingly enduring outfit. Not only have all their four albums to date made the Top 40 but each album has proved to be a giant evolutionary leap. To the point that they no longer play anything from their first album Strange House live because it simply wouldn’t fit in with what they are now. Having almost entirely dispensed with their earlier garage-punk sound, they have instead harnessed themselves to a more textured, and expansive synth-guitar rock sound that is theirs, and theirs alone. “We don’t play anything off the first album, because that album is dramatically different; in style and speed, and also aggression. We definitely like to keep the speed and aggression but we put it across in a different way. The first album was written when we were very young, and dare I say it, a little naive. A lot of people do want to hear stuff off the first album but when we do live shows it’s a mixture of the last three albums. And, it does work, we’re not forcing it.
“We always like to move on. I think that generally with the four albums we have done there is a sound we have for each one, whether it comes across in personality or in its visceral sounds. The one thing we like to do is keep moving. As a band I can’t think of anything more boring than producing the same album over and over again. Although there is a certain backbone to our band we’re always looking and striving for new sounds, and new ways of producing them, whether it’s by effects or by playing our instruments differently. We always like to push the boundaries as much as we can, and also hope that people understand that. The idea is that the fans from the first album have come along on a journey with us. I’m sure we have lost fans on the way, but hopefully we’ve gained even more fans as we’ve gone along. At the end of the day we’ve got to stay true to ourselves. We obviously want people to like it and enjoy it, but the most important thing is if you’re enjoying it yourselves and having fun I think that translates to other people liking it, and they can see that and see that in the music.”
From producing ‘Psychotic Sounds For Freaks and Weirdos‘ (as they sub-titled their first album) to purveyors of neo-psychedlia, shoegaze and dream pop, the dramatic changes in musical style and form over the years is in no small measure due to their open-minded approach to songwriting, and the fact that it’s the same five guys that formed the band back in 2005, in the great rock’n’roll tradition; that is, by chance and a genuine love of music. “We’ve written songs in probably every way that you can write songs,” says Joe. “There isn’t necessarily a songwriter or a chosen songwriter within the group. The latest stuff that we have done, everyone would come in with ideas – this was a new method – everyone would write ideas, or come up with some starting points, whether it would be a chord progression on their own, or chord progressions with melody lines, vocal or instrumental. And then we would present them to the rest of the band, and the bits that we liked we would take those ideas further in smaller groups.”
That seems to be the new modus operandi of album number five, which according to Spurgeon is about 90% written. “It’s going to plan. The last album came out two years ago and we did, for us, quite a small amount of touring for that album as we felt that we wanted to get straight back into the studio and keep writing. You can easily fall into a trap of touring an album for two years if you want, but the group decision was to get right back in and write another album. We enjoy touring but really our job is to produce music, and that’s what we enjoy a lot more I reckon.
“We went in with Paul Epworth and recorded a bunch of songs in his studio, at The Church Studios in Crouch End. Some of them will be on the album, either in their current state or changed. He has a record label called Wolftones, a subsidiary of Universal, which we will release the new album on. We plan to go back into The Church in September, going over some new ideas and record some more in October.”
It’s been a long journey for the band from Southend-on-Sea, a bunch of people who came together with a shared love of music, particularly obscure vinyl, and epically that of the garage-punk variety, via the infamous Junkclub in Southend. “Tom (Cowan, keyboardist) and Faris came down from London to DJ at it, I believe. Rhys met them at a 60s club in London and had asked them to come down. I remember walking down the street and seeing them both and thinking, ‘I bet I know where they are going.’ We met through music and having similar tastes in music at the time. The main reason for doing The Horrors was we wanted to put out a seven-inch single.”
Just one minute and 40 seconds in length, ‘Sheena Was A Parasite’ was that single. It took The Cramps’ psychobilly ‘Sheena’s In A Goth Gang’ and married that to the punk-rock of The Ramones’ ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’, whilst ironically detailing the demise of punk and its cultural influences. The Horrors, whilst influenced by these kind of records, and indeed in love with them, were not be in hock to them.
“That first single was ‘Sheena Was A Parasite’, and the video for it was directed by Chris Cunningham (famously known for Aphex Twins ‘Windowlicker’ video, as well as work for the likes of Bjork and Madonna). That was quite funny; he approached us. We put the track on MySpace, and it must have been the early days of ‘ripping’, which he did. And I think he listened to it about a hundred times. He hadn’t done a video for about seven years. It also features (actress) Samantha Morton. We didn’t really see the importance of all this; we were young and having fun. But with hindsight I can see it was a big deal for the first single of an unknown band.”
I ask Joe about the recent death of Alan Vega who, along with Martin Rev, made up the hugely influential New York-based new wave band, Suicide. “We used to cover Suicide songs such as ‘Ghostrider’. The reason why we ended up playing that is because Alan Vega was supposed to join us on stage to do that song at a gig in New York a few years ago, but on that very day he was being entered into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. He chose to do that that rather than play with us,” he laughs. “But we decided to play it that evening anyway, and a few other times since. We also covered a Suicide track for an EP of covers, with other bands, a song called ‘Shabazz’. A lot of people comment on that cover; I think we did it justice.”
With an obvious love of music running through their veins (as evidenced by all the musical side projects each band member has, most notably Cat’s Eyes, made up of Badwan and Rachel Zeffira) it is perhaps no surprise The Horrors remain a strong unit, the band having the same five-man line up as when they first appeared on stage in 2005, at The Spread Eagle, in Dalston. “Still the same line up, no major falling out,” says Joe. “We all still like each other,” he laughs. “We’re all quite similar. It sounds lame, but we’re genuinely not horrible people, and we’re not rude to people unless they deserve it.”