Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Housed deep within a labyrinthine warehouse conversion in Dalston, The Horrors’ studio is a jumble of boxes, wires, and machines. For an outsider, moving around is an obstacle course: you have to avoid knocking over an amp or kicking a mini keyboard to get from one room to another, and there’s a steep drop placed slap-bang in the middle of the room that’d cause a nasty fall if your eyes aren’t peeled. Then again, this doesn’t seem like the sort of place that too many outsiders pass through – it’s a place for the band to experiment with sounds and ideas on their own terms. You get the feeling that they’ve have been holed up in here so long, tinkering away with the assortment of instruments, pedals, synthesizers, and FX boxes, that they understand its layout intuitively.
It’s in this studio that The Horrors recorded their fourth album, ‘Luminous’. ‘Luminous’ sees the band continue to build on the psychedelic sound palette introduced on ‘Primary Colours’ and refined across the pastel hues of ‘Skying’ to create their most sonically expansive record yet. It also sees them embrace the pull of the dancefloor most openly, from the disco congas submerged in the introductory swell of Chasing Shadows to the extended, ecstatic, constantly lifting grooves that close I See You. Big beats and heady arpeggiations colour In And Out Of Sight, while an acid house bassline runs throughout So Now You Know.
Bassist Rhys Webb leads me through the rehearsal room (offering a slight apology for the mess along the way) to grab a mug for a cup of tea before we head up to the studio’s rather lovely roof terrace along with guitarist and resident sonic tinkerer Joshua Hayward to discuss the album.
When you first released So Now You Know, the thing that I immediately noticed was the bassline. I’m not sure if it’s actually a 303 you’re using, but it’s definitely quasi-303…
Rhys Webb: “It is a 303, yeah.”
…yeah. And so you’ve got that quite overt acid house signifier in there, and covering Your Love a couple of days ago seemed like a thematic tie-in as well. Was dance music more of an obvious influence this time around?
Rhys Webb: “Electronic music has always been really important to us, from the very early days. Even when we were recording ‘Strange House’ – that was the first time that we really ran into synthesizers. We were mixing some tracks with Jim Sclavunos in Mute Studios, and as he was doing his thing, there was a Sequential Circuits Pro One, there was a… well, it was Mute Studios – there were loads of bits and pieces! There was a 303, and an 808. There was a Minimoog…”
Joshua Hayward: “I really enjoyed the Minimoog.”
Rhys Webb: “…and we were just playing around. We were already interested in that world and that music, but it was the first time we’d really had a chance to play around with those instruments. By the time we’d started writing ‘Primary Colours’, there was probably already about three synthesizers in the lineup. It’s just a natural thing for us – we’re in this slow ascension into music that elevates, and so for this record, we just wanted to focus on that a little more. And it’s subtle, really.”
"By the time we’d started writing ‘Primary Colours’, there was probably already about three synthesizers in the lineup. It’s just a natural thing for us – we’re in this slow ascension into music that elevates, and so for this record, we just wanted to focus on that a little more." – Rhys Webb, The Horrors
Yeah – if you’re not already familiar with those sounds, you probably wouldn’t pick up on it. You also mention Trax Records and Metroplex in the press release for this album.
Rhys Webb: “Yeah, and I think we referenced those labels because we’re always excited by music at its earliest, most inventive, and most revolutionary. If you think about those labels in particular, you can hear things happening, just between releases. You can hear the introduction of the 303 with Phuture, or Model 500 appearing out of Cybotron. And it’s music like that, from any genre, that excites us.”
How do you reconcile those influences of music at its earliest with what’s happening now, currently, and in the present?
Rhys Webb: “I think it’s not the idea of doing something that’s recreating a particular record or movement, but being inspired by some of the techniques and tools that were being used. What did those songs set out to do, if you put aside when they were created? They were meant to make people dance, and they were meant to explore new sonic territory. Even if you’re using the same instruments, it doesn’t mean you have to do it in the same way. It doesn’t have to be a homage at all – it can be, but for us it’s not. For us, it’s about being inspired by the great things that created those records, and trying to incorporate those things into our songwriting.”
It’s also pretty psychedelic music.
Rhys Webb: “It’s completely psychedelic music. If you think of Infiniti’s Game One, it’s this mad, sequenced, delayed record, and the sounds are completely psychedelic. And it makes perfect sense.”
A lot of those records were obviously made by one person with a few machines, but you guys work together as a unit. How did you approach those inspirations as a live band?
Joshua Hayward: “While we have used sequencers, it’s not as if we put down all of our tools or completely re-attacked how we approach things – it’s just a way of getting in.
“It’s an interesting thing with guitar bands, because often bands who are influenced by dance music do it in a very haphazard way, like trying to incorporate dance elements into a guitar-based song. It always comes across a bit stiff, and it doesn’t really achieve either goal. Whereas we’ve tried to not do that at all, and to keep it as live as possible – otherwise you don’t get the benefits of either of them.”
Otherwise you just have this rock-meets-rave thing. But what I meant is whether that method of working filtered into your creative process at all, or whether you always had an element of live performance in mind?
Rhys Webb: “Different tracks were attacked in different ways. Working with sequencers and full-on electronic sounds can be very organic, and can work in a live environment. Sometimes Joe [Spurgeon, drummer] would play along to a sequence without any kind of click in his ears, and would just explore and work on ideas as we do when we’re writing together.”
Joshua Hayward: “It doesn’t prevent you from doing anything.”
Rhys Webb: “No. But there are a couple of tracks where we have attacked it in the box, and we’ve chosen to do that for different reasons.”
“Often bands who are influenced by dance music do it in a very haphazard way, like trying to incorporate dance elements into a guitar-based song. It always comes across a bit stiff, and it doesn’t really achieve either goal.” – Joshua Hayward, The Horrors
I once read you say that you could work on a record for 10 years, but you’ve done four albums in a relatively short period of time, all things considered. How long did this one take to write?
Rhys Webb: “The point was to keep on going until we were happy with it. I don’t think any of us would want to work on a record for 10 years.”
Joshua Hayward: “I’m not sure how healthy that is.”
Rhys Webb: “This record came together over quite an extended period of time, but there were also quite a few interruptions. Last year, we ended up playing a really busy festival season, starting with Glastonbury in June; it didn’t really stop until mid-September. And that really took us out of our zone, because we work best when we have the space and time to be in the studio, playing together and doing our thing. And you can’t really do that when you’re playing festivals in Europe every weekend, and your gear is constantly on the move.
“But for us, the tracks are in a constant state of evolution or progress in that they’re always open to be revisited. There isn’t really a sole songwriter – like, ‘Here’s a track, everyone work out your bit.’ They kind of grow – or mutate, or blossom, or whatever you wanna say – over quite a long period of time. I think, for us, that is important. The songs get better and better the more time there is to play around with them, really.”
Joshua Hayward: “Yeah, we’re not the sort of band who will sit there and spend a week recording a tambourine.”
Rhys Webb: “It’s difficult to say [how long it took], because we don’t really know ourselves. To be honest, we played for a little while before we were happy with the results. Listening back, they were cool, they were good tunes, but we didn’t feel like we’d hit that point of excitement where we were making the right steps towards the new record. So if we’re thinking about it really, it was early last year that we started writing the tracks that we enjoyed.”
Joshua Hayward: “I lost all sense of time, to be honest.”
I remember that story last year – ‘The Horrors have delayed their album, slightly’ – as if it was a massive thing. But that’s not a story, that’s just a band finishing an album…
Rhys Webb: “I think it’s because we originally intended for the album to be released about half a year earlier than it was.”
Joshua Hayward: “Perhaps slightly overambitious of us.”
Rhys Webb: “Yeah. We had actually recorded 11 tracks and taken them from our studio, and we were even thinking about mixing them with Craig Silvey by June last year. But we didn’t think it was finished. It was Craig Silvey who just said, ‘Look, you guys are off to play festivals for six months – you don’t need to rush this. Why don’t you just do what you want to do and write a few more songs?’ It was the best thing we could’ve done. We wrote a couple of really important tracks on the record, had time to live with the songs – for the first time ever, for us – and open them all up and revisit the ideas we’d got down. It ended up being a really positive thing.”
Joshua Hayward: “It was just as simple as wanting to have more time to try more things out. It wasn’t like we were worried that it was bollocks and we’d be going back to the drawing board.”
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to know how much the pressure of having a few records behind you that were really loved by critics and fans can affect your writing, and how much you think about things before you do them.
Rhys Webb: “We don’t think about those things.”
Joshua Hayward: “We barely ever think about anything.” [laughs]
You never approach writing sessions with a conceptual angle in mind?
Rhys Webb: “Not really. But at the same time, the ongoing output of the band has been us exploring our ideas and taking them further. We’re never going for a massive shift or turn, it’s just about focusing on what we’re doing and making it better.”
The album is called ‘Luminous’, but it’s actually the darkest artwork you’ve had over the last few years.
Rhys Webb: “It depends on how you look at it though.”
Joshua Hayward: “The focus is on the light! You need the darkness to show the light.”
Rhys Webb: “To me, it’s this cosmic energy. The birth of a galaxy, or something. It’s the giver of light, the birth of something new. I see it as a powerful, optimistic sleeve, in a way. The music felt like that to us – brighter, not necessarily just in an emotive way, but there was a strong energy there.”
“To me, [the album sleeve is] this cosmic energy. The birth of a galaxy. It’s the giver of light, the birth of something new. I see it as a powerful, optimistic sleeve. The music felt like that to us – brighter, not necessarily just in an emotive way, but there was a strong energy there.” – Rhys Webb, The Horrors
I like how you said “cosmic” there, with all the stars and suns in the track titles. I never know how much of that is deliberate.
Rhys Webb: “It is deliberate. The album title was the last thing. It felt like it expressed the sounds that… that live within the sleeve.”
Joshua Hayward: [laughs]
Rhys Webb: [turns to Josh] “What?”
Joshua Hayward: “It’s nothing! That’s just a very nice way of putting it.”
How do you decide on album titles?
Rhys Webb: “Usually we have a to-ing and fro-ing as a group, and most of us decide they’re a bit shit, and then eventually we’ll hit on something where everyone says, ‘Actually, yeah, that’s the one.’”
Is this a 10 minute thing, or a two month thing?
Joshua Hayward: “Weeks. It took us weeks to do this one.”
XL Recordings released ‘Luminous’ on May 5th 2014 (buy).