Industrial Light and Magic:
The Horrors Turn on the Brights with Luminous
The BBC 6 Music Festival made its debut this year on two separate weekends in Manchester, and with a lineup that featured the likes of Damon Albarn, Franz Ferdinand, the National, Lykke Li and Midlake. When it came time for the Horrors to play, John Cooper Clarke, original gangster of British punk poetry turned radio presenter, introduced them. ”I got a soft spot for these guys on account of they look like I used to look. For that reason alone, I keep them here,” he pronounced, pressing his fist to his chest, “here in my heart of darkness. Ladies and gentlemen, the Horrors. The Horrors!”
The Horrors. There are five of them total, their median age is 28, and they are fast becoming the most important British band of their generation. From the beaches on the north bank of the Thames they come, veterans of the Southend scene, bringing echoes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and the Psychedelic Furs with them. At the center of the action is enigmatic singer Faris Badwan, who cuts the same stark presence as Richard Ashcroft once did (minus the heavy drugs) as he drapes his gaunt 6’6” frame over his mic stand. He is without question a rock star, a mantle he’s earned fairly, but offstage, he’s a man of dry and deadpan wit. And like the other Horrors, Badwan isn’t much for discussing their songs too openly. “You spend the whole process not putting it into words and then, suddenly, five people who aren’t the best conversationalists are asked to be exactly that,” he says, flatly.
The Horrors are the first and only serious band that Badwan, bassist Rhys Webb, guitarist Joshua Hayward, keyboardist Tom Cowan and drummer Joe Spurgeon have ever known, and they’re building a career and a catalog that belies their relative greenness. The jovial glints in their eyes and their furtive laughter when they’re together speak volumes to their love for the music they make as well as for their airtight bonds with each other. As Badwan reveals, “We’ve stumbled upon everything that we’ve ever learned.” Not that you’d ever notice, given the way the Horrors orbit each other with unusual grace onstage and josh each other good-naturedly at photo shoots, awards shows and other public appearances. On a normal basis, Badwan is reluctant to leave his house unless it’s absolutely necessary, but he and his bandmates are still game for a spot of fun now and again. Cowan demonstrated his impressive spliff-rolling technique at the Rock en Seine Festival a few years ago, and he’s not sure when the band will be invited back to South by Southwest, if ever: “It was too messy last time. A lot of shows, a lot of partying, and Josh woke with a gumball machine in his bed once.“
Aside from those expected and amusing hijinks, the Horrors’ ethos is decidedly isolationist, for the most part, and barricaded against outside influence. “When people do those filmed studio sessions where they show someone writing, recording, working on a track – that idea terrifies me!” Cowan exclaims. “That’s where the development comes in, in the time spent alone. We’re trying to excuse it. It’s OK to be a hermit.”
There’s no mistaking the steady streak of lonerism that runs through the Horrors, but it never approaches the kind of self-indulgence that renders an album all but impossible to listen to. “I don’t generally think self-indulgence is that productive or healthy,” Badwan says. “There’s balance and also tension, as well. Those are the things that I love in records, when they’re perfectly treading the edge between complete failure and complete excess.”
In the Goth-punk stage of their early career, the Horrors embodied the very spirit of excess, which director Martin Scott Jarrett captured in the 2008 documentary Counting in Fives. The band most assuredly lived up to its name at the time, sporting heavy eye makeup, Robert Smith hair and an out-of-control live presence. Badwan stage-dived at most every gig and once hurled a garbage can at a fan, shouting, “Get off me, you disgusting, disgusting girl!” But with their 2009 album Primary Colors, the band’s direction took a drastic turn, one that some might argue marked a change for the better.
“When we first started out it was a racket, and without very much pause,” Badwan reflects. “Everything was played 120 miles an hour. You learn, you grow and develop. We’ve learned a lot of things, but we learned to be a band.”
Popular music has long been poised for another British invasion; the last time something that exciting happened, it was in the Scene that Celebrated Itself. With their fourth album, Luminous (XL Recordings), the Horrors have given it every possible reason to celebrate itself once again. It follows 2011’s magnificent Skying, which bypassed PJ Harvey, the Vaccines, the Arctic Monkeys and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds to take Best Album honors at the 2012 NME Awards. “Everything up until that point we’d just done off our own backs,” remembers Cowan. “One album doesn’t signal a massive change. It might develop into a slow, gradual one, if you know what I mean.”
Where Skying reveled in visions of the sea, the Horrors have since traded water for air, matter for energy. It’s not a high-Fahrenheit light that illuminates Luminous, but a rare and freakish phenomenon that scientists call chemiluminescence – light minus heat. “Even when there’s a lot of light,” Badwan confides, “I think it’s not warm.”
“I quite like that idea,” Cowan agrees. “If you go to a show and you stand really close to the lights and you close your eyes, there’s these really beautiful, glowing tones. I think images like that and colors like that do match mental images of what the songs are like. Fast arpeggios are quite like strobe lights and you get these big washes of feedback that are like glowing clouds.”
It’s the time of the season for loving, and there’s no better song for it than “First Day of Spring,” a Technicolor blast of vernal fecundity evocative of time-lapsed footage of buds exploding into bloom. Like the rest of Luminous’ tracklist, it’s polished, modern and ever so effortlessly stylish.
“We record everything from the very beginning,” says Badwan. “The very germ of the song is often on the record. Sometimes the very first time someone comes up with a riff, you have that spark of enthusiasm. That’s on the record.”
When the Horrors deemed Luminous ready to record, they retreated to their new studio, largely constructed by Hayward, and surrounded themselves with their cadre of electric Fenders, a vast collection of vintage keyboards, and a phalanx of effects pedals both store-bought and homemade. Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, even chipped in a lavish pyramid synth, which malfunctioned almost immediately and promptly went to the hospital. At press time, it still remained there.
“I think we’re concerned with trying to find the sounds in our heads, and I suppose that’s why we have all the equipment,” Badwan muses. “It’s all about trying to find that really specific sound, that ambiguous sound in your head that could be made with any instrument. It’s about capturing the atmosphere.”
And what an atmosphere! It’s nothing short of transfixing with its dense layers of dissonance that Kevin Shields would envy. Witness the lurid rush of “In and Out of Sight,” whose dizzying cascades of dissonant guitars and synth loops dissipate like blown glitter. Luminous also makes extensive use of samples as well as a more generous abundance of dance beats. Says Cowan: “There’s unlimited possibilities depending on how many cables you’ve got.”
Hayward’s guitars maintain a subtler presence than they did on Skying, but Cowan insists they’re as important to the band as they’ve ever been. “I always feel like the guitar has played such an enormous part of the sonic balancing act that’s going on,” he says. “I feel like I have to acknowledge what an important part the guitars play.”
And they assert themselves accordingly, most strikingly on “Mine and Yours,” which opens with one of Hayward’s mind-blowing riffs. The trumpets that blared with such harmonic majesty on Skying staples “Endless Blue” and “Wild Eyed” are back for another go. Badwan prefers not to delve into his lyrics too deeply as he considers them rather self-explanatory, and if you think of it, they really are. “I See You”’s “I can see your future in it” verse paints a vivid picture of the Horrors’ forward-thinking perspective, one that forever gazes toward the future.
“I think if you’re anyone who’s spending any time thinking about creative things for a period of two years, there’s going to be some kind of development,” Badwan contemplates. “Otherwise, it’s a little bit worrying. You might have bands that stay on the same thought for two or three years, and that makes me a bit worried about their mental state.”
“It’s nice to have a consistent body of work that’s an album,” says Cowan. “It makes sense as one thing, and it should be a good listen like that as well. It should break the spell. You’ve got to create the world that the album lives in and then try and maintain that.”
Photo by Nic Shonfeld.