Ten years after their debut and when their indie contemporaries have all but faded from view, The Horrors are back, and they've returned to the dark, raw sounds that inspired their early work
Rhys Webb, affable bass player of British noiseniks The Horrors, is sat in the beer garden of a Stoke Newington pub discussing his band's upcoming fifth album, V. Describing the thread that stretched from the group's ecstatically received 2010 effort, Primary Colours, to 2011's commercial breakthrough Skying and 2014's top ten charting Luminous, he talks of a "certain kind of experience or sensation or euphoria", a period in which the Southend five-piece transformed from fuzzy basement-rockers into the decade's most unexpected psychedelic experimentalists: "It was kind of like, okay, we've got to that point. Now where do we go from here?"
Sitting opposite is Faris Badwan, the band's neck-achingly tall frontman; long frame folded into the picnic table; pitch, black sunglasses perched on that magnificent, boxer's nose. As Rhys talks, the occasional Cats Eyes singer reaches into the leather doctor's bag beside him, pulls out a silver pen and begins to wordlessly sketch a small stick man, arms pointed skyward, on a piece of paper in front of him.
"I think we were really motivated by the idea of just making something nasty," continues Rhys. "We always felt like that even when we were working in a more euphoric way. There was always this kind of…"
"Weight?" asks Faris, without looking up.
"Weight, yeah," replies Rhys. "We wanted to get nasty and make something that sounded quite horrible and quite unsettling again. I think we perhaps felt like that was a part of our world that we hadn't focused on as much over the last couple of years. It was like, okay, where do we go now? Higher or back into the shadows, back into the darkness a little bit more?"
It was, of course, from the dark, dark basements of Southend-on-Sea that the band -- completed by guitarist Joshua Hayward; keyboardist Tom Furse; and drummer Joe Spurgeon -- first emerged in 2005, a burst of eyeliner-applied energy that reached its wouldbe zenith with debut LP Strange House in 2007. "We didn't have any ambition beyond making a 7'," Faris states, of the early days. "We didn't feel like we fitted into whatever was going on at the time. We felt like we were part of something that wasn't happening anywhere else."
Revolving around the scene at Southend's now defunct Junk -- a club night run by Webb and schoolmate Oliver Abbott at the town's faded Royal Hotel -- The Horror's MK 1 were a riot of influences; girl groups, post-punk, psych and garage rock. They were courted by the likes of L'Uomo Vogue, and made cover stars by The NME after only two singles. Despite the hype, the band were expected to last little more than the 1 minute 40 second of debut single, Sheena Is A Parasite. Then Primary Colours happened.
"That was kind of the beginning of the band really," Rhys says. "Strange House was great. We were playing amazing live shows, making it up and learning as we went along. And we had a really clear idea of what we wanted at that point, which was basically to make as horrible a noise as possible. But towards the end of that record, and definitely by Primary Colours, we started to actually explore what we wanted to do creatively. That's when it started to happen for us I guess."
Produced by Portishead knob twiddler Geoff Barrow, 2010's Primary Colours saw the band jettison the larger than life shock-rock that made their names and emerge with a Krautrock-inspired record that would earn a Mercury Prize nomination and a place in numerous end of year lists. It set the band on a new path altogether, one that saw them take their increasingly euphoric sound to new levels, first with the woozy, cosmosity of 2011's Skying and then with 2014's more dance-edged Luminous. "You're sort of watching the doors open as you're trying stuff," Faris explains. "And sometimes it goes in ways you didn't necessarily expect."
Why then, with such an apparently upwards trajectory, would The Horrors want to retreat back into the noise and darkness? "You're always going to get to a point where you've just got to wipe the slate clean and do something that's going to feel more exciting," Rhys suggests. "I think it probably got to that point. Possibly, with the last album, we felt there were points when it could have been better and maybe we should have challenged ourselves more. So one decision we made as a band was that it was time to work creatively in a different way."
Recruiting Paul Epworth on production duties (both Skying and Luminous were self-recorded), the band decamped to London's Church Studios with the aim of making everything just a little bit rawer than it was before. "Paul was excited about it because he had the opportunity to challenge himself as well," Faris explains. "From the massive records he's had recently [Epworth produced both Adele's 21 and 24 as well as working on records with FKA Twigs, Lorde and Rihanna], maybe people wouldn't expect him to be as into experimentation as he is. He's not really a typical pop producer. He's got other elements to him maybe other people don't know about."
The first taste of those other elements comes in the form of lead single Machine. A clawing, clamouring piece of industrial stomp, it sounds, deep -- heavy even -- and what's more, feels like as important a sonic shift as that between Strange House and Primary Colours. "I think one of the few conscious decisions we made about what to come next was we wanted the first thing people heard to be challenging," Faris agrees. "We thought that was more important than having a song that was accessible. It was important to make people aware of where we were going." Rhys continues: "It's still the same band, it still sounds like us. I think that's unavoidable and I think that's right.
"It just needed to be shaken up and thrown around a little bit," he adds, as Faris places the stickman beneath the coffee cup in front of him, another figure returning to the darkness.
V is released 22 September. While you wait, catch The Horrors live at Latitude on Friday 14 July
Text Matthew Whitehouse