I met Faris Badwan in June for AU magazine (www.iheartau.com). Here’s what was said….
How times have changed for The Horrors. From being dismissed as ‘cartoon goths’ when they emerged in 2006, the Southend quintet reset the dial three years later with the magnificent Primary Colours. Back In June, I dodged Mancunian showers with lead singer Faris Badwan to discover why their gigantic new album, Skying, could well see The Horrors reach even greater heights.
I’m sat on a bench under a tree with Faris Badwan. It has been raining and, because pools of water take up half the seat, I’ve invaded his personal space and we are snuggled up – thigh to thigh – lest either of us get our trousers wet.
Faris is extraordinary looking; he is impossibly tall and thin, with huge brown eyes and a heroically long nose. He is not the most forthcoming of interviewees (probably the consequence of a strained relationship with the UK music press) and is quick to correct even the tiniest misinterpretation. He is confident, bordering on the slightly arrogant – when I comment on the night’s sold-out show, he tells us “that’s not much of a challenge” – but has good cause to be that way; Skying is a wonderfully impressive album. “I think this record is our best one,” he says. “I really totally believe in it. It’s the right record for us to have made at this point.”
During the preceding hour, I watch Faris and his bandmates soundcheck ahead of an intimate gig. It is one of three dates as part of a pre-festival season cobweb dust-off. Oddly, during a pause in proceedings, drummer Coffin Joe instructs the lighting guy that the band “don’t want green lights, but red ones are fine.”I never find out why. But, in the empty room new songs such as ‘Dive In’ and ‘I Can See Through You’ sound vast. The Horrors have made an album destined to bounce off the wall of arenas.
After the success of Primary Colours, this is no mean feat. Loved by fans and critics alike, their second album (following the ragged 2007 debut Strange House) could have been a daunting prospect to follow. “I guess it is our own desire to develop as a band which is our motivation,” Faris tells me, idly picking at his bottom lip. “Any sort of recognition for something that you put a lot of yourself into is good. But, really, if Primary Colours had been crushed it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, because I was really happy with it. If you have got any little doubts, then those sorts of things matter, but if you have made a record that you are really proud of, it just sort of washes over you.”
There is a distinct sonic evolution since The Horrors formed in Southend, fuelled by a mutual love of Bauhaus and The Birthday Party. Skying sounds more synth heavy, leading some wags to comment that lead single ‘Still Life’ sounded like 80’s stalwarts Simple Minds. Faris is rightly irked at the insinuation. “I definitely don’t think we’ve made a 80s record, which some people may suggest – the album is more than that,” he states. “I just think there is more everything [on the album] and a lot of the time the guitars sound like synths, which is gonna add confusion.”
This career trajectory could appear pre-planned – a band’s debut album is dismissed, they reinvent themselves with an acclaimed follow-up and then further embellish the winning formula on album number three. I ask whether The Horrors sit down and plan how a new album might sound. “A lot of bands do work like that. We don’t – we have always taken great care to get as much spontaneity and as much natural excitement into our records as possible. A lot of the recordings are the original recordings from rehearsal room demos. So, you still get that feeling of a band that has just stumbled upon an idea. So, we don’t plan it – themes just present themselves. I think for us that is the best way. The best thing about The Horrors is that period between a demo and having a finished song, because you see the song developing in a way that you never expected. It is really affirming to see a demo come to fruition. I just don’t think we can sit down and decide to sound a certain way.”
So, there is a certain element of fate left to define the progression of The Horrors, and Faris appears more than happy at where his band is currently at. “I think with each album we’ve become harder to pin down,” he says when asked about his perception of how the group has evolved. “The only real way to pin us down is to say that we sound like The Horrors, if people want to be accurate.”
Skying was recorded in the band’s own studio, built in London’s East End. Badwan acknowledges that finally having their own recording facilities was the album’s “biggest influence.” The album was self-produced, a significant change from working with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on Primary Colours. “I definitely think there was a point when we worked with Geoff when we would just send him a bit crackers,” Faris admits with a wry smile. “We would be trying a tiny little variation on one note for the twentieth time and he’s not about that. So, for us, this was the right moment for us to record ourselves.”
If Primary Colours established The Horrors as a creative force, Skying should see them entice new listeners and elevate their status. Expectations must be very different now for a band which has an established fan-base. I ask Faris whether he would be disappointed if the new album didn’t do ‘better’ than previous releases. “I dunno – I am quite careerist,” he admits. “I think with each album we have made a really good step up. I’d be disappointed if this album didn’t deliver on that. I think we should be looking to reach a wider audience each time. This record is really melodic and accessible, it’s not three-minute pop songs but there are lots of points-of-entry for people. Melody is the thing that connects with people most and there is room for plenty of people to get into this record. I’m looking forward to seeing how it is received.”
I’m wrestling with Badwan’s assertion that each album is created as an act of spontaneity, against his confession of career aspirations. If he wants to reach a larger audience with each record, wouldn’t that preclude a certain amount of obscure experimentation with The Horrors’ sound? “When I say I’m careerist, I don’t mean I’m willing to compromise,” he states, fixing us with a don’t-try-and-fuck-with-me stare. “I’m determined to succeed and I’m really intent on making The Horrors as big as they can be. I don’t mean by writing rubbish songs, I just mean by working as hard as possible to make the songs that we make do as well as they can.”
Later that evening, The Horrors perform to 300 sardine-packed fans. The atmosphere is slightly muted – the band understandably trying out new tracks which the vast majority of the audience haven’t heard – and Faris seems somewhat grumpy. When a couple of fans dare to crowd-surf towards him, he pushes them away with a little too much force. But, musically, all is good. To my ears, the new songs sound amazing (and far too grandiose for the soulless venue). What is most startling is the development of Badwan’s voice, which is now richer and languorously textured. Faris concurs, “I’m a better singer now. It’s probably more obvious than any other instrument to watch someone’s singing voice develop. I think I sing more naturally now and I find it a lot more straightforward.” When I tell him that parts of Skying remind us of 80’s Mancunian under-achievers, The Chameleons, he asks me “Is that because of my voice? I discovered them by people making that comparison.”
What is also apparent during the gig, is a change in pace of the older songs. Faris laughs at his own theory for the general mellowing of their back catalogue. “When I listen to Primary Colours, which doesn’t happen very often, we play the songs so much slower now than we actually recorded them. It is ridiculous – we recorded them at double speed. They’ve settled into a more natural groove now.”
So, all seems good in Faris Badwan’s world; back in April, his side-project Cat’s Eyes released an excellent debut album. Pitting him alongside soprano and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, Faris admits to finding the collaboration a wonderful liberation. “Again, it is a record I’m really proud of. It is a different way of writing and it gives me the freedom to make a record whenever I want. To be able to do that is a big release for me.” And the duo has legs – “We’ve started writing a second album – it is half written. I think Rachel is going to do a solo one as well, which will be cool.”
And as for the fourth album from The Horrors, I safely assume that there is no sense of how it might sound. “Your guess is as good as mine. I really have no idea. None of us do – that is why it is really exciting.”
As we conclude the interview, we chit-chat about the new Tom Vek album (“It took five years and sounds the same as the last one”) and Ryan Giggs’ social life (“Do you think people came down harder on him because he tried to get them to keep quiet about it?” he asks mischievously). Faris then shakes my hand and quickly makes his way back into the venue. Literally ten seconds later, and with me still fumbling with the tape recorder, the heavens open and an apocalyptic rain shower ensues. It’s as if he knew – a man at one with the sky.
This article was first published in AU magazine: http://iheartau.com/2011/09/the-horrors/