The Horrors: All grown up and ready for life to get interesting
On a murky Manchester morning, The Horrors' Faris Badwan slouches in the back of a grey taxi, gazing out at the maudlin post-industrial cityscape. Incongruously, he is discussing a recent visit to the Vatican, where he performed with his dreamy boy/girl side project Cat's Eyes. Some of Rome's most senior cardinals were in attendance, so it goes beyond stating the obvious to describe the occasion, with its papal bling and decadent pomp, as surreal. Looking back, the concert has the quality of a feverish dream.
"That was pretty unique," he says. "I guess it was like a scene out of Star Wars -- they drew a lot of inspiration from organised religion, didn't they? It was a really unfamiliar situation. Did I have stage fright? I don't know about that. What I will say is that it was fairly overwhelming. I didn't see the Pope. His light was on so I guess he was upstairs. And all the cardinals were there. The next pope will be chosen from one of them. It isn't an occasion you forget in a hurry."
We're here to discuss The Horrors' remarkable new record, Skying. Yet it's hard to get past the image of the singer, with his shaggy hair and dolorous singing voice, on stage at St Peter's Basilica, surrounded by Renaissance frescoes, serenading dozens of elderly men in purple vestments. It was, he explains, the idea of his Cat's Eyes song-writing partner, half-Italian soprano Rachel Zeffira.
"I don't really think too much about these things," says Badwan, his slurry monotone conveying just-out-of-bed drowsiness (it's a little after 11). "I go and do them. Then they end up happening. For me, there has never been a plan. Things simply occur. When you stop and think about them, they seem weird. At the time, you're too much in the moment to consider the wider significance."
While Skying is only just out, the media has already all but anointed it the record of the year. Slap the LP on and you will understand why the taste-makers are in a swoon. Once known for gimmicky schlock tactics and juvenile aggression, on Skying The Horrors have evolved into a compelling goth-pop act, with songs that recall such forgotten merchants of despondency as The Chameleons and Modern English (wrinkly listeners may, in addition, catch a whiff of Psychedelic Furs, This Mortal Coil and even Joy Division). So yes, Skying's a shade derivative but, with its swooping synth scapes and epic melodies, nonetheless fantastic. A Mercury nomination would appear assured; you can easily imagine it claiming the album of the year gong outright.
Badwan, in Manchester for the start of the group's UK tour, isn't surprised by the positive press. During the recording of the album, he had a sense The Horrors were coming of age. That's not to say he is in any way blasé about the buzz. "We're finally getting some radio play, which is brilliant," he says. "When you put a lot of work into something and it's recognised, that's so encouraging. As a musician, the desire to improve has to originate from inside you. We've always wanted to keep getting better. That's what this album is about."
If you've heard of Badwan -- he previously went by the clunky stage name Faris Rotter -- it is probably in the context of his relationship with train-wreck teen diva Peaches Geldof. The couple were briefly together three years ago, long enough for Badwan to be sucked into the realm of the Z-list celebrity.
While he in no way courted fame, it came kicking his door down nonetheless. He was all over The Sun, Heat magazine and the gossip blogs. Whenever he stepped out with Peaches, paparazzi would hover like flies over a carcass. Even with so much time passed, the memory obviously jars.
"It was an insight into a world I didn't want to be part of," he says. "It's the opposite of everything I believe in, which made everything weirder. I don't want to complain... at the end of the day it was fine. I don't read any of those magazines anyway. I do have to say, I had some pretty disgusting encounters with journalists."
The Horrors formed in 2005 when Badwan, an obsessive collector of 60s psychedelia, struck up a friendship with guitarist Rhys Webb, a fellow garage rock aficionado, at London indie night Junkclub. Initially trading as The Brothers Grimm, they had morphed into The Horrors by the time their debut single, Sheena is a Parasite, arrived a year later.
With a scary, Chris Cunningham-directed video starring actress Samantha Morton (during the chorus she waggles her intestines at the camera) the song attracted instant media buzz, setting The Horrors on the path to infamy. Rumours they had almost come to blows with The Fratellis while co-headlining shortly afterwards further exacerbated their notoriety.
The first Irish audiences saw of The Horrors was when they were still reveling in the cartoon-goth image. Bottom of the bill on the 2007 NME tour in Dublin, Badwan conducted himself like an attention deficit pre-teen on a Ritalin comedown (then again, you'd probably be acting out if you were forced to play third banana to The Automatic and The View). At one point, he stood at the lip of the stage, thwacking an unfortunate photographer with his microphone lead. All of the band were born into middle-class privilege (Faris' father is a doctor), so it isn't as if he was channelling any sort of blue-collar angst. Where was all this rage spewing from?
"There was a lot of aggression," Faris sighs. "Sometimes it went theatrics. It's not what I'd want to be doing now. I don't know -- I genuinely like some of the songs on the first record. What I don't like is how they were produced. We're a better band today. We can express ourselves more clearly, with greater subtlety."
What happened? As Badwan has already intimated, The Horrors grew up. Part of the maturing process was a split from the monolithic Universal Records, who they felt were incapable of seeing them as anything other than a joke act with anger-management issues.
For their second record, 2006's Primary Colours, they hooked up with XL, a London label that, by dint of its discovery of Adele and The xx, has earned a reputation as one of the last miracle workers in the music business.
"Richard Russell [XL's founder] is a really good businessman," says Badwan. "He signed Adele for the music-industry equivalent of peanuts. He's done it time and time again. He knows what is going to succeed. The fact he thinks that about us is an enormous vote of confidence. Funnily, he always told us our third record would be the one that broke through. He is definitely good at what he does. At the same time, they are a very hands-off label. So you are always assured of your artistic freedom."
Though they played up to the caricature, Badwan became uncomfortable with The Horrors' over-the-top image almost as soon as it was set in the public's imagination. It was for that reason he dropped 'Faris Rotter' and reverted to Badwan, reckoning it was exotic enough to begin with.
"It's a Palestinian name, "he says. "My family is from the West Bank. The whole lot of them got kicked out of the house by soldiers. It was pretty crazy. I have uncles in Germany, America, Australia, all over. I've been to Palestine loads of times. Eventually, my grandad moved with the family to a house in Jordan. When he died, they scattered to the four winds. We ended up in England."
He stops short, as if, merely by reciting his family history out loud, it has somehow acquired greater resonance. "You know, when I think about it I've had a pretty weird life," he says. "I've never actually paused long enough to really reflect on it. I just get on with it. I've been through a lot and yet I see myself as only at the beginning. Before I'm done, I intend for many more interesting things to have happened."
Skying is released today
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