It’s early on a Sunday morning when I get the email – would you be willing to interview one of the Horrors by telephone in advance of the Friday gig at the Black Cat? Of course, I already had plans for the morning – a brunch/birthday party at a friend’s place – but that wouldn’t stop me, oh no.
I remember in mid-2009 when my friend told me I should buy the Horrors’ second album, Primary Colours. I thought he’d gone mad. Their 2006 debut album, Strange House, was, well, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Sub-Cramps nonsense, backed – oddly enough – by a typically freakish Chris Cunningham video (not that there’s anything wrong with Chris Cunningham). Still, the Horrors? I was having none of it.
Then, later that year, remembering my friend’s advice, I idly picked up the “Whole New Way” 7” at Substance in Vienna and put it in my listening pile at the store. Minutes later, I had grabbed the 7” for “Who Can Say?” a 10” with their cover of Suicide’s “Shadazz,” and a copy of their second album, Primary Colours. I listened to a few seconds from each and quickly handed a pile of Euros across the counter, leaving the store with my newfound musical paramour.
How did the Horrors utterly transform from the bad Birthday Party of “Sheena Is a Parasite” to the jaw-dropping, utterly perfect shoegaze and electronica of the second album? How did I miss this? Why weren’t they handing out copies of Primary Colours on street corners?
Joshua spoke to me from Chicago, where he was enjoying a fine morning. I was excited to speak with the young Mr. Von Grimm (who apparently, has a bit of an odd following on the net) about the band’s evolution over the past six years.
“I’m very glad you used the word ‘evolution’ because it wasn’t at all a planned-out thing that we would make three records of very different sounds. We just continued to develop our sound as a natural progression. We weren’t interested in making the same records twice, and, frankly, I can’t understand when bands do that – they’re obviously being paid too much money. It would just be boring to us to stay the same.”
Hayward reminds me that it’s been six years since they recorded those early songs, and, of course they’ve all changed.
“It would be more worrying if we hadn’t changed. Some people are happy to live on past glories, but that’s not beneficial for anyone – particularly not themselves.”
The Horrors’ astonishing (r)evolution was evident in May 2011, when they posted “Still Life,” the first new song of the third album, Skying. Instead of delving deeper into the sea-sick shoegaze of “Three Decades,” the NEU! metronomics of “Sea within a Sea,” or the loose joyfulness of “Whole New Way, “Still Life” is a stately, majestic anthem of…fidelity (or extreme creepiness, depending on how you interpret, “when you wake up, you will find me.” I’m going with love and fidelity), reminiscent of Simple Minds at their imperious best – crossing Empires and Dance and New Gold Dream in some fever dream of perfection.
I asked about the production duties – Chris Cunningham produced two of the best tracks on Primary Colours, sharing duties with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow – and why they decided with Skying to go it alone. Hayward was effusive in his praise for Cunningham:
“Faris is very good friends with him. He’s quite a good fellow – and an absolute genius, as well – but a bit scary as well.” I quite agree.
“Geoff agreed with our decision to go it alone this time. We were too scared to produce ourselves, but towards the end of the sessions for Primary Colours, over dinner Geoff suggested that we buy a studio from a lower-echelon band and do it ourselves. He said we knew what we were doing, we knew what we wanted, and we didn’t need extra people around to confuse things – so get on with it and do it yourself! So that’s what we did!” Gutsy.
“Well, we built a studio with our own load-in bay in Dalston and did it ourselves. It was quite scary, and quite a stretch some times, but very fulfilling, and I enjoyed it. I quite like the engineering side of recording, and wouldn’t mind doing a bit more of that.”
Any bands you want to boost with your new-found popularity?
“Yeah, there’s an English band called Toy, who we are touring around with in Europe. There’s Cerebral Ballzy, who will be with later in the year in Europe – we saw them at the Reading Festival, and they are mental. They’re from New York and are hilarious. Their show was just a fantastic hardcore show, and afterwards we met them backstage and asked if they would open for us in November. It was so easy. And I love S.C.U.M., they’re from London, and we will take them on tour with us as well. It’ll be great to be able to watch them and hang out with them – so, fun for us.” S.C.U.M. is a particularly tantalizing proposition – on Mute Records.
“Also, having a studio is good to help other bands. I gave the keys to the studio to Jerome Watson out of the History of Apple Pie, another London band, so they can get in a record. And my flatmate’s band, Novella, they’ll be recording their while we’re away as well. I think that’s the best thing we can do to help other bands – we’ve got a good recording studio, let’s get people using it. When you’re a small band, you have to record each instrument separately, and this lets them get in and record together and experiment.”
Skying does not disappoint – in fact, it verges on perfection, with track after track of gorgeous epiphanies and euphoric dreaminess. Skying yet another step in the Horrors’ extraordinary transformation, and it charted a full 20 places higher than Primary Colours, clocking in at number 5 on the UK album chart.
I ask him how it feels having a record in the top five.
“You mean, just at number five?” he jokes. Yeah, well, it’s still impressive. “I had no idea this would go top five. I found it totally surprising and bet against it with a friend.”
Did you think it wasn’t any good?
“No – no, I don’t mean that at all. Knowing how the record buying public usually operates, you think if it’s really good, then no one will buy it! If I finished the record and thought, right, this is a steaming pile of shit, then I would have known it would go straight in at number one.”
The cover art for the album is stunning.
Hayward says “the album artwork is intended to reflect what the album sounds like inside the 12” by 12” package. As you approach it, you can almost get a feeling of what you’re about to listen to. So naturally, with the new sound, the album art has become more kaleidoscopic.”
I ask about what he’s listening to, and whether that’s changed over time.
“The base of it has stayed the same,” he muses, “lots of Kraut-rock, Kraftwerk obviously, but we’ve all been listening to different things lately. Tom’s [Furse] been listening to a lot of hip-hop, and I’ve been listening to classic 30’s blues like Skip James, Blind Willy McTell, and such things – which I would hope is evident at times on the record, though I fear it ends up just sounding like the Doors. Though we’re all exploring different genres, I don’t think what we listen to has a direct influence on our songs because of how we write.”
“We write our songs altogether at once by getting into a room and jamming around ideas, so no one has the opportunity to dictate the direction of a particular recording. Still, we’re not like a jam band, and we make sure we edit down what we do into actual songs, which is something Craig Silvey, who mixed the record, picked up on very well. We’re also not a democracy where you do something and you need three votes to keep it; instead, we play our parts and if anyone doesn’t like it, we just stop doing it. I feel like we’re the only band that works on a unanimity principle. It can be maddening because of the quite high level of quality control this process, but it’s also quite important because it keeps everyone’s head in the right place.” A bit like New Order and Joy Division, then, in process – but not in content.
I ask if he has any designs on breaking into the U.S. top ten.
“I’m not even sure what that means – I just like playing in America. I wouldn’t have a clue how that operates. I think about the top ten, and think about Beyonce – do you have to have your own perfume? We just want to make music.”
Would you do a song with a top ten artist?
“Well, we wouldn’t have to release it, would we? That’d be hilarious – yeah, thanks Jay-Z, it was fun, but we’re not actually putting it out. Ta.”
Anyone outside the top ten?
“I once auditioned for Glenn Branca’s 13th Symphony for 100 electric guitars. About half the people walked out as soon as he explains how it works, and of those that are left, about half got fired instantly once we started, and then the hollow shells of human beings that were left regretted ever walking in the room. It was like the Marines, only less fun.”
Would you like the Horrors to be produced by Brian Eno?
“Eno? Yeah, if you can get him around Here Come the Warm Jets, that’d be great, but who’s he working with now, Coldplay? That’s a different Eno, isn’t it? Oh, it’d be great – at the same time we put out that steaming turd record that’s going in straight to number one, we’d want to do an experimental album, and so we’d get in Eno to help us produce it, and then we’d have a steaming turd of a record that no one would buy as well. Brilliant.”
Any other producers you’d like to work with?
“I would like to work with Steve Albini, but I’m not sure that would be good for the Horrors because of how we work together.”
How do you mean?
“We quite like to think a lot about what we’re doing, and I think he’d get a bit bored and wonder what was taking us so long.”
Are you still in touch with the Mighty Boosh?
“I’m not actually sure what they’re up to now, but I see Julian every once in a while. He’s mental.”
Any more covers in the future?
“I really want to cover Hawkwind at the moment,” he deadpans. “I think it would be fun to do a gig where we get up and just play an entire Hawkwind album beginning to end. I’m not kidding.”
An excellent fellow, funny and warm, and they’re at the Black Cat on Friday.