After taking the world by storm with the haunting Sheena Is A Parasite, being hailed as the saviours of UK’s garage rock revival, then dismissed and parodied as yet another case of “style over substance”, The Horrors silenced their detractors and gained unanimous critical praise with 2009’s Primary Colours. Southend-on-Sea’s black-clad quintetare back with Skying, their third album which sees them evolving in an ever maturing and sophisticated synth driven 80s sound, providing the perfect soundtrack to these early summer days and already landing the “album of the month” title in several music outfits. We caught up with the band’s bassist Rhys Webb in a Brussels restaurant to chat about the record, 60s psychedelia, and how all of today’s music seems to boil down to disco.
Can you explain why the album is called ”Skying“?
Well for us the name Skying came about because it was an old tape technique that was used in recording studios in the 60s.
Like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop?
Well I guess they probably did do it. Yeah in fact they definitely would have done it in the Radiophonic Workshop. But what it basically is it’s before the introduction of phasers, which give this – you know – the phase, drums and that whooshing sound. But when they originally did that, it was essentially like having two of the same parts of the tape out of sync and being manipulated so you hear it going out of sync and it’s a natural flanging. Before they had actually the use of phasing and units in studio – in England in the 60s – this technique was known as “skying”. Very much a psychedelic thing, which we’ve always been aware of. There’s also a record by a guy called Caleb called “Baby, your phrasing is bad” which is…
Exactly – but it’s kind of suggesting: “baby, your phasing is bad” because they had their first ever phaser in the studio the day they recorded. And the name of the phaser was the Grand Skyer Mark II so it kind of originally came from there. But for us it very much suited the record because it was kind of astro and elevating.
To be honest I thought that Primary Colours was already pretty soothing. That’s the kind of music that has that effect on me. Sometimes I find that the most intense music is the most relaxing.
Well, it is relaxing, but Primary Colours had a darker, sexier tone to it than this one which has a softer and more unwearable ring to it. Opening up and maturing even?
Yeah I guess, maybe. Again, it’s like a perfect reflection of the music.
The title basically speaks for itself like, when I looked up skying in the dictionary as it isn’t listed in my day-to-day vocabulary…
… I don’t think it is in a dictionary…
… Well, it actually is – but what it refers to there is what happens when you throw something up in the air not knowing where it’s going to land.
So that’s what we’re doing with this record.
You don’t really think there is a difference between the records, more of a continuity?
Yeah for us, definitely!
A list of adjectives to describe Skying is a list of contradictions: it’s penetrating, it’s ironic, it’s intimate, elusive, distant but most of all it’s vulnerable and warm. So the biggest inspiration for this album came from this technique, then?
Well, it wasn’t the biggest inspiration for the record. Basically all the things you’re saying are just as important as the actual place where it came from. In fact it could just be – it was supposed to just be – something that you as a listener take in your own way. And the title just seemed to describe all of that, everything that we’ve been doing.
That of course is the title, but above all you have the music on the record: how it’s grown and the first steps you took after the success of Primary Colours. I wonder how that goes… Suddenly you’re all back together, after touring for a very long time, and you start to discover minor differences in your own way of playing. You feel that you’ve grown in a way. Suddenly you discover that you’ve ended up with these tracks enchanting each other – talking to each other…
Yeah! I think you’d better answer the questions.
Well, that’s because I’m good with words.
I know but usually people get it completely wrong so it’s nice to hear someone who’s coming from the right direction. But you know we learned a lot from working on Primary Colours: how we worked as a band, what our rows where within the band, what are strengths where, how we each individually attacked our instruments or the way we like to play,… I think Skying is definitely us focussing those ideas and our strength and also making them work in a different way. If Primary Colours was more disorientating and almost distracting, then this album is definitely…
More open? Less about those deep (dark) personal feeling inner deep, more of a universal feel?
There’s definitely a lot of freedom in this record and a lot of space. And I think there’s a lot of space in the music but I think space is an inspiration to it as well.
A final frontier.
I don’t know if that’s actually right, it’s too easy!
So aside from the music, I was blown away by the album cover. Who came up with the cover for the album – this amazing picture of a sea with a Solaris-aura?
I don’t know if I know that book. So far in our all of the artwork has sort of presented itself to us. And that’s kind of what happened this time as well. We always have very strong ideas as a band of what we want, but we can we never find it and we have so many discussions of “what should be the right thing”. And every time so far we’ve just been presented with this image and again this time. We worked with an American photographer called Neil Krug for Primary Colours and he came over to make some shots of us for the cover. And we did a whole lot of stuff that was going to be used for the artwork and the press. Like a whole series of portraits we did using double exposures of our faces and mixing it up with flowers, and plants and other natural elements. I’ve got a dandelion somewhere in my face… But we didn’t want to be on the cover, we didn’t feel the need to be on it. We wanted something that was more timeless and represented – again – the record. Again with us everything seems to come together without having to think about it too much. Like the title, theme or the artwork itself. And that was the photo that Neil had taken that just seemed to be the perfect image to go with the record.
You’re going to be on the road a lot with this album – festival season is coming and it’s just going to be touring galore! Which number are you looking forward to playing live each and every night? What song on the album, do you reckon, will never bore you?
Well – last time it would come to a point where I really REALLY came to enjoy playing that! But at the moment everything is still very fresh and it all sounds great. We start the set with Changing The Rain and that’s pretty exciting. I don’t even play bass until halfway trough it, I’m just playing tambourine, which is really cool as well as we haven’t had to much percussion in the live sound before. But I guess if I had to pick one Still Life is a very powerful tune to play – pretty exiting to play – so I’m enjoying that very much at the moment.
Do you think that it’s not only the song itself but also the reaction from the audience that contributes to whether or not you enjoy playing it every night?
Yeah it’s weird, isn’t it? Because, Sea Within A Sea is really exciting to play – it’s just fun and it sounds cool! But yeah, you’re right, Still Life is the one that’s most recently been put out there and people have been responding well to that. In short: it’s always amazing to play for a crowd when they are going crazy. That’s always cool… but I can’t really talk about it in terms of this album as we haven’t really played it yet. So I don’t know what song is going to make me feel like that. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
What for you is a perfect concert though?
For me playing? Or for me watching a show?
Both! I can imagine that the answer would be similar?
Mmmh… Yeah, I guess I would probably say the same thing. I don’t really have a favourite venue or anything – for me it’s more about the moment, about being involved in the music, being moved by it or made to feel something – wanting to dance, or to go crazy, being involved in something that’s happening whether its you as a performer or as a listener…
A very unique moment.
I definitely prefer very intimate live shows in a real venue (as opposed to festivals) an being able to present the music and take over a space for the evening. I went to see Roedelius playing recently, do you know him?
I do, yeah!
It was like an afternoon show with him. Playing live piano and just talking to the audience and asking questions, playing old recordings from the seventies and talking… So I was just asking him questions about some of my favourite tracks. And it was so calm and quite. That was a really great live experience for me.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that guitarist Joshua was obsessed with My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Primary Colours was a clear homage to My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze, where do your musical roots take you in this album?
We’re all massively inspired and enthusiastic about music from the birth of rock’n roll, blues, soul, jazz, everything is inspiring to us. And of course as individuals we all listen to different kinds of music. For me, I’m massively into weird psychedelic music in all its forms and from all over the world. I’m literally constantly buying strange recordings by old psychedelic groups. But even electro and Detroit techno – which is inspired by groups like Kraftwerk, etc.
Not to forget by disco…
Yeah, I guess in a certain extend but I’m not really into disco.
No, I know. What I meant was that Detroit techno originally came from old disco records. Same beats, but more brutal…
Absolutely – There’s a track called Sharevari by A Number Of Names, which is actually a good example of that. It’s a basically a disco record.
Do you see yourself as a person that looks at life trough glasses of the past or the present?
No, No the future! The most important thing is to make new music! I think the there is nothing worse then relying on the past, but at the same time it’s a lot of those things that make the difference. For me it’s about important movements in music. But that’s only because I’m not massively inspired about what’s happening in music now. But as far as I’m concerned it’s about making music. Not about yesterday – and this is the most terrible part where I’m gonna say (laughs) – it’s about tomorrow. It’s about new music to listen to… Reaching out to people that have never even heard of the bands that inspire us. It’s about reaching those ears as much as anyone else’s. Not about recreating a sound of the past – that’s something that just isn’t important to us. Taking ideas forward is exiting to us. And I think we often succeed in doing just that.
I think Skying definitely proves that. Your side project Spider And The Flies doesn’t only have a brilliant post sci-fi name…
Congrats for that!
… but it also is influenced by the magnificent BBC Radiophonics Workshop electronica we talked about earlier. A workshop in which a lot of new instruments found there way to the surface. Are you yourself interested in creating instruments, cutting up tapes…?
Well we haven’t gotten into the tape-thing yet, although it has been something we’ve always been quite interested in. But another great thing about looking back is to be able to take the best bits from it and doing it in your own way. A lot of our equipment is in fact vintage but that’s just because for us it makes the best sound! (Pause) We’ve been playing Spider and the flies-hows recently and Joe has been playing drums. We’ve just been playing – quite different tunes from the stuff we’ve been recording – half an hour sets of just one song. We have a loose idea of that which we’ve rehearsing, but then every time we play it it’s improvised and spontaneous.
I would love to come and see a show.
Yeah it’s great. We’ve just recently played a show at a Japanese fund-raiser and one at the Cave Club in London. Funny enough – we played the same song, but each time it sounded so different. We should have recorded it.
Last but not least, something out of the blue: what’s your favourite colour?
The Horrors will play Pukkelpop on 20th August.