Aug 12, 2011 12:00AM

Interview: The Horrors

Culture is constantly self-cannibalising. It's always eating itself.

When The Horrors emerged in 2004 they were hailed as the saviours of UK garage rock, before being dismissed as yet another case of style over substance. Despite the side-fringes, they proved they didn't take themselves too seriously. They made a cameo on British comedy The Mighty Boosh as a band called The Black Tubes, in an episode that revolved around protagonist Vince Noir trying to squeeze into a pair of impossibly skinny jeans. They also proved that they were willing to evolve. Primary Colours, The Horrors' sophomore offering, saw the band move away from the snarling sounds of their debut and towards a unique brand of synthesized psychedelia. Ahead of the release of Skying, The Horrors' third record, Tom Cowan spoke to Oyster about stealing cutlery, going to a rugby school and the world being a self-cannibalising place.

Joanna Lowry: Hi Tom, how are you going?
Tom Cowan: I'm very well, how are you?

I'm good, thanks! What have you been up to this week?
We've been playing shows as part of our new tour. We've played in Glasgow, Manchester and London. And they were really great, really exciting.

Great. So you've got a new record coming out. What can we expect from Skying?
If you listen to our first couple of records, they're fairly different anyway. One thing that people should expect from The Horrors is that you can't expect anything from The Horrors.

So are we going to be dealing with something entirely different again? How would you describe the new record?
Each record is like a snapshot in time of where we are. It's a combination of experiences we've had our whole life and experiences we've had during the time we've been recording the album. It is different, it does sound different, but it's not something that we purposely sat down and discussed – we never asked, "How can we make this different?" It's just something that happens naturally because a couple of years have passed, you've found new sounds and instruments, and all of that comes into your music.

With your last record Primary Colours you worked alongside Geoff Barrow from Portishead and you were using synths quite a bit. Are you guys continuing that experimentation with electronic sounds on the new record?
There's a lot of experimentation with all kinds of things. We built a homemade modular guitar synthesiser and I got a hold of second hand keyboards and korgs and all sorts of stuff. But, you know, electronica can also extend to what you're doing on a computer, and the sort of sound manipulation you can do in the box, as it were. It's a whole new exploration in sound. There's a bit of found sound on there as well, field recordings and things like that. There's sound all around you that is really exciting. Last time it was more about exploring synthesisers, and this time it was all about sounds that you get from wherever. I stole a knife and fork from a restaurant once because they had a particularly good ring when you hit them together.

Nice! As long as the restaurant owners didn't mind that they were down one set of cutlery?
I was actually very, very sneaky about it. I was, like, slipping them into my sleeves and then into my girlfriend's handbag. I thought it was being very stealthy.

So this exploration of new sounds, both electronic sounds, found sounds – and, in the case of the knife and fork, stolen sounds – was that something that Geoff influenced?
No, I don't think so. We never really used Geoff's equipment or anything like that. I had to use my stuff because I didn't know how to use most of his stuff. The electronic side of it really came from us checking out synthesisers and being fascinated by them. Like, what are these crazy machines that make all these crazy sounds? We all got a little bit obsessed with them. And it just crept in. When we went to Geoff and asked him to produce the record we had already written and demoed all of it. What we ended up with was really just a polished version of what we demoed ourselves. We did kind of think that perhaps Geoff might bring some of his sonic world to what we were doing, but it actually turned out to be Geoff being really set on capturing what he thought was a really great set of songs. He worked with what we already had.

I know Faris has his own side project Cat's Eyes, but Tom, you've got your own project called Spider and the Flies. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Rhys [Webb] and I had a week down time. So we decided to record something. We went into the studio with all our keyboards. It was about making a purely electronic record. So yeah we spent a week writing all the tracks and mixing them all. We wanted to communicate using the machines, we wanted to get the synthesizers to speak for us.

The Horrors have a very distinct way of dressing. I don't know if you're aware of this but you have your own thread on The Fashion Spot, which is an online fashion forum, and there's even a Facebook group called 'The Horrors are my fashion icons'. How do you feel about being labelled a 'fashion icon'?
You know what, I think it's something that pops up so little, it's almost insignificant. Fashion to me seems to be something that is fairly fleeting. It's hard to talk about fashion and the way you dress when actually the most exciting thing that's going on in your life is music. The way you dress tends to be an extension of the music itself. It's almost an unconscious expression of all these things that you're into. If someone out there really likes the way we dress, that's cool, but I really hope they like our music too.

What would you say to a detractor who thinks your image eclipses your music?
We have a particular look. So did Elvis, so did The Beatles, so did The Velvet Underground, so did everybody else who took to the bloody stage and made a name for themselves. At the end of the day not liking or liking someone based on the clothes they wear seems a little bit ridiculous. Because for all you know they could be the nicest, sweetest, most vulnerable person in the world.

The worlds of fashion and art and music tend to cross-pollinate.
Exactly. Everything's overlapping, the whole of culture is overlapping. The worlds of architecture and design cross over. And, you know, some scientist will make an amazing instrument, which will be used by someone else to make amazing music. Culture is constantly self-cannibalising. It's always eating itself. It's like the whole world is one big feedback loop.

Right, everything's bubbling away in a big melting pot. Including sport. Tom, I heard that you went to a high school that specialised in rugby?
I actually went to a school literally called 'The Rugby School'. The school is in a town called Rugby, which is where the sport rugby started. Rugby wasn't compulsory, I never got into it myself, but we were definitely encouraged to play it.

Growing up, did you have the same sort of look going on that you've got now?
I've dressed the same way since I was 16, yeah.

I have this amazing image of you sticking out like a sore thumb surrounded by all these jocks in sports gear.
Well, I did, a little bit. Actually, on second thoughts, I did wear some pretty outrageous things.

Did you find it isolating going to a school like that?
Not at all. I had some really amazing friends who were all as passionate about music as I was. I got really messed up a lot of the time, and not in a bad way, in a really fun way. I definitely wasn't one of the really cool kids or anything like that, but it was school, and it was really fun for me. I had an amazing time. It probably wasn't the most exciting period of my life, but it was great, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world.

Tell me about the early days of The Horrors. What sort of antics went down at The Junk Club?
Oh, all kinds. We met at various places, at clubs and out and about, pretty much because we were listening to the same sort of music. Those kind of scenes, going to a sixties psychedelic club in London, it's quite underground, so you'll see the same people around all the time. I started going out when I was maybe 17 and started meeting people who were in to the same kind of things that I was, and that was really great. The Junk Club was where the idea for The Horrors was cemented. It was a really good club; it was a really unique environment; it played great music. It would play stuff like Public Image Ltd next to T-Rex next to some really great electro thing. It was the first time I ever danced in public. And that was a very big deal for me at the time.

So when The Horrors first came together it had a lot to do with a shared interest in music, particularly old music. I know that your first EP included covers of two Joe Meek songs and for the subsequent tour the pre-show mix included tracks by The Seeds, The Cramps and The Gun Club. Are you trying to emulate those bands? 
We're certainly not trying to emulate them, especially not now. Now is much more about a really organic and honest expression of us. It would be so tired to try and emulate those guys. You know, The Gun Club were a great band and The Cramps were a great band. But really, The Cramps entire back catalogue is just them trying to emulate The Gun Club. So if we were to emulate The Cramps it would be like trying to emulate someone who was trying to emulate someone else.

What's the scariest or most horrific thing you've ever seen?
I'm not sure about the most horrific, but I can tell you about the weirdest thing I've ever seen. I was on a train. There was this guy sitting next to me on the phone speaking in this really thick cockney accent, it was so strong it was bordering on ridiculous. He was really going off at the phone, ramifying everything. Then he was like [in a cockney accent], "Alright mate, I'll seeya later mate". Then he hung up the phone and he leaned over to me and asked, in this aristocratic British accent, "Excuse me sir, have you got the time?" His actual speaking voice was really posh. It was bizarre. It was like he had a split personality.

Joanna Lowry