Rhys Webb is on a bus between his home and central London; beneath his gentle, composed voice at the other end of the phone line come creaks and bleeps, coughs and splutters. If it’s rock and roll to ride a limo for the smallest of journeys, to mingle with your public only when a photo opportunity presents itself, then Webb is resolutely not rock and roll.
Known to fans of his band, The Horrors, as Spider Webb – the five-piece is completed by Faris Badwan (vocals), Joshua Third (guitar), Tomethy Furse (bass, synth) and Coffin Joe (drums); birth certificate names quite possibly different– the organ-and-bass player and group co-founder is on a high after both finishing second album ‘Primary Colours’, and seeing it received so amazingly by the press.
“I think for us it’s such a personal record, as we had such an amazing time working on it, writing it and getting lost in it,” says Webb. “We… well, we thought it was great, and it was sounding special to us while we were recording, so we’re pleased people have taken to it, and seem to be enjoying it.”
‘Primary Colours’ charted at 25 after its first week of sales – its predecessor, ‘Strange House’, reached 37 and was, arguably, released around a period of greater hype for the outfit following an early-doors NME cover and coverage in a wealth of publications covering the spectrum of music and fashion. Dismissed by some purely because of their strong image, The Horrors’ debut nevertheless made its impact, every snarling second of it proof positive of a deep-rooted desire to be heard, to be seen, to be felt.
“I don’t for a second doubt that album,” stresses Webb – whenever aspersions, however slight, are cast, he bats them back. “I think it stands alone for not only introducing new sounds to new ears, but also it was exactly what we wanted to do at the time. I think it speaks for itself. In the UK people were saying it was a good time for music, but bands that sounded like The Libertines weren’t really that interesting to us.”
The musical landscape that welcomed ‘Strange House’, even though we’re only talking two years ago here, was mightily different to the one ‘Primary Colours’ has settled into – for the first album the band had to overcome accusations of being style over substance, of prioritising a look, an image, over worthwhile musical output. (“Before we knew it, we were in a situation we never expected, and it was a very intense time,” says Webb. “But at the same time it really brought the band together.”) Of course, such a perspective was promptly dashed by the reality of the album – but that was only if you took the time to listen to it. Its garage-rock tones were shaped by a love of bands like The Sonics and This Heat, but tastes within the band are far broader than even a studied analysis of their debut might reveal.
“We’ve some pretty diverse tastes in the band,” explains Webb. “We’ll have nights where we just go through all these old garage records, having a drink; but on other nights we’ll listen to acid house and Frankie Knuckles until eight in the morning. We never ever listen to only one thing.”
It’s this embracing of a variety of musical structures that has given ‘Primary Colours’ such a wonderful richness of texture and a wide palette of sonic shades – it’s an album that presents its touchstones to the forefront, never shying away from exploring the past to construct a present ironically at odds with the conventional indie and/or rock of the moment, yet it’s never an echo of achievements past. Rather, it’s a new dawn for its makers, a development that has confounded critics in the best possible way. And it could not have turned out any other way.
“It was a really organic process,” recalls Webb, still on the bus. “We didn’t have the chance to work that way the first time, as everything moved so quickly. This time, after taking eighteen months on the road, we were itching to get back into the studio – we’re not the sort of band that can sit around with acoustic guitars on the tour bus, playing new songs to each other. We much prefer to go into a studio, with everything set up. This new album all came together through being in the studio, through being in our own world.
“We had a bunch of ideas, but we didn’t really know how they were going to come together. What we did know was that it had to be a progression, and we had to move forward. When we got together, it was an amazing release – we closed the doors and got on with it, with no pressure from the label and no pressure on ourselves. Our main prerogative was to work as a band, to try out ideas and just see what happened, as we had 24-hour access to the studio, and it was quite close to where we all lived. It was a good way to work – we’d wander into the studio, and then never want to leave. The record, for me, starts and finishes like a complete work – that’s how it was with the writing, as it moved along, but always in its own direction.”
The flow of ‘Primary Colours’ does indeed promote the listening of the album from A to Z, without track skipping or appreciation of download culture’s tendency to cherry pick their favourite songs, usually the singles. Webb sees it as a continuation of great, inspirational LPs from yesteryear, the records that affected him as a kid: “I think we are part of a heritage, a line or a family tree. There are so many bands that don’t want to be part of that world, and while it’s not something we strive for, we could naturally be one of those groups.” By one of those groups he’s referring to the likes of the aforementioned Sonics and This Heat, and also Can, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine – bona-fide significant acts with touch that stretches far and wide.
A step, or some, too far in terms of self-belief? Perhaps, but Webb’s right to be brimming with confidence, as ‘Primary Colours’ re-introduces The Horrors to a public whose perception of them has changed considerably since day one, debut single ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’. Those proverbial goalposts have shifted, and the five are no longer comfortable to be viewed as revivalists – for all their appreciation of classics from the past, their sights are set fully on the future.
“I don’t think we’d ever be interested in just recreating a sound,” he says. “Bands that do apparently sound just like others, I bet they’re driven to do what they do for the love of music rather than an urge to copy anyone, but we wouldn’t want to recreate one sound, or to sound like one band. Even certain sounds of an instrument, or a recording technique, these can detract from a band’s new album. ‘Primary Colours’ is a Horrors record, and it’s not about anything else, really. If there’s one key influence it’s a psychedelic one, as it’s informed by records from across 40 years of music, rather than one sound or one band. It’s a forward-thinking, future record… But I don’t think it’s a problem to look back, either.”
There can be no doubt that the record’s producer, Geoff Barrow, played a significant part in the final product that is ‘Primary Colours’ – the Portishead man was a fan of the band since their first album, inviting them to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in December 2007, and soon agreed to help them on their second record.
“He knew of our heritage,” says Webb. “The way we were seen by some people, the way we were marketed, we seemed very contrived. But we weren’t like that, not how some people saw us. People are meant to believe in you, but in the early days I’m not sure – outside of people who knew us – that our passion for music was recognised. But Geoff saw it, and asked us to do ATP, and when we heard [Portishead’s third album, released in 2008] ‘Third’ for the first time, it had so many things we loved in it.
“We were interested in working sounds a particular way – we look back to Joe Meek and Phil Spector, who worked in unconventional ways. We were starting to work with more electronic influences, so we spoke to Geoff about some of the keyboards, just to ask about the gear Portishead used; but we were recording ourselves and putting down these demos, and we were experimenting with electronics, and using loops. We were doing this before we gave Geoff a body of work, and he was surprised with what it sounded like. It was certainly different to what he was expecting.
“For us he had a sort of Steve Albini approach, where he was integral but hands-off, too. We had expected him to be more involved, where he’d take some of the songs to these other spaces. But we didn’t want to work with a producer who would be more controlling; Geoff is a musician, and what he wanted to do was capture what we’d been doing, and keep it raw enough so as not to detract from the original idea. He was an inspiration before meeting him, and he understood what we wanted to do and helped us realise it.”
And it’s not such an audacious remark to suggest ‘Primary Colours’ could be an inspiration to many itself – if, for example, its nods to Joy Division, Can, My Bloody Valentine and The Chameleons have newcomers investigating said acts, then The Horrors will have done a great service. And if said kids enjoy it simply for its singular kicks, the band has still succeeded. Honestly, with such a great record in their hands, it’s improbable that they’ll ever be viewed as a product of the hype machine again.
Unless, of course, that’s precisely how you interpret all of the above, in which case: do, please, listen to ‘Primary Colours’ right away to render these words irrelevant.
‘Primary Colours’ and the single ‘Who Can Say’ are out now on XL. Read the ClashMusic.com review of ‘Primary Colours’ HERE. Find The Horrors on MySpace HERE and see them live as follows…
26 Newcastle University
29 Glasgow King Tuts
1 Manchester Ruby Lounge
2 Birmingham Academy II
3 Bristol Thekla
4 Brighton Concorde 2
5 London Electric Ballroom
7 Leeds Cockpit
Check ticket availability HERE.
Photo: Tom Beard