I myself vividly remember, as a teenager, watching the Horrors, at the tail end of 2007, supporting Arctic Monkeys at Manchester’s cavernous G Mex arena. The mood of the (largely male, largely intoxicated) crowd towards them seethed with rancour: DIY missiles and bodily fluids rained onto the stage. “Those gigs were quite a surprise,” Rhys beams.
“I got £30 in change for the taxi home,” laughs Faris. “They threw all sorts of stuff. Rhys had a black eye – there was an aeroplane seat belt thrown at us; specifically an aeroplane one.”
“…mobile phone batteries, coins heated up by lighters,” continues Rhys. “Before walking out to the second gig, I remember literally getting my eyeliner and smearing it like war paint. Whatever they didn’t like, we just ramped it up and shoved it back in their faces.”
Just what gave the Horrors such nerve; such faith? In rehearsals, both the roles within the group and the sounds they were making were in profound flux. A whole album of material was demo’d and then scrapped; all five members knew that this was the necessary but difficult birth of something new coming into being. In the van, at rehearsals, in the early hours of the morning, they were coming into contact for the first time with ’70s German records, Brian Eno and acid house. “I remember hearing records after nights out,” Tom explains. “Hearing PiL and thinking, hmm… there’s a bit more going on here.” Soon, they were feeding all of this into their rehearsal space in Kings Cross and running around the capital picking up vintage synths.
The first breakthrough was the writing of ‘Three Decades’, the earliest track that would make the cut on ‘Primary Colours’. “That song felt like a signifier,” says Tom. Around this point, Tom was absent from rehearsals one day and Rhys – previously the organ player – decided to pick up the bass. It would be this day that the group wrote ‘Mirror Image’ and ‘Do You Remember’ (he remains, wisely, on bass to this day). “When you started playing bass it was more or less starting from scratch,” Faris tells Rhys, “for me that was what was so cool about it. There wasn’t any fear, it was just instinctive; those songs were written so quickly.” The pace upped and the band were writing four/five songs a week.
“I was literally coming home from rehearsals thinking that whatever has just happened was absolutely amazing,” Rhys says, still exuding the rushing spirit of that moment. “We didn’t ever have a conversation about doing something different – it wasn’t even that we needed to stop doing that – there was just this moment of transition where we were progressing.”
And then, at the start of 2008, the Horrors were dropped by Universal. The band had played their label bosses ‘Three Decades’, as well as the track ‘Primary Colours’. “We thought they were going to love it,” Faris grimaces, “and they just said, these will not get on the radio. The end.” A pause. “I’ve no idea what they actually wanted us to sound like.”
Buoyed by blind faith alone, the band knuckled down and continued. Their management held their nerve, and in the end The Horrors would remain unsigned for just fourteen days. They were booked to play London’s Astoria in February 2008, and chose to debut a raft of new tracks. The visionary head of XL Records, Richard Russell (who has released his own music with the likes of Sampha and Damon Albarn), went to the shop knowing that the band were now out of contract.
“He just said he didn’t care what we wanted to do next, didn’t want to hear the demos, he just wanted to sign us,” explains Rhys.
“He came to the rehearsal studio, we turned off all the lights and played him what we had,” Tom remembers. “He said it was one of the most powerful experiences he’d ever had in his entire life.”
Signed to XL, the group made contact with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who had booked the Horrors for his band’s curated ATP festival in 2007. The Horrors had been sharing demos with Barrow, who quickly offered to produce them. Far from being the Svengali-like auteur behind the record that some would paint him as, Barrow’s role was actually one of reigning in the group’s experimentation, and holding a fidelity to their original demos.
“We were all a little disappointed having been excited to get this massive dose of Geoff and all the things he loved,” says Rhys, “when the first thing he said to us was that we should do exactly what we’ve done on the demos.” Rhys concedes now that this was completely correct.
“He said people are going to think that I did this and there’s nothing you can do about that,” recalls Tom, “he anticipated that. But really, his whole thing was saying ‘no’.”
Infatuated with all things electronic and any available studio gimmick, the band remember “driving Geoff insane” during recording. Barrow, meanwhile, spent no small amount of time twiddling knobs to get guitar parts sounding exactly as they did on the demos.
Weekdays were spent recording in Bath, and then, on Fridays, the five Horrors would pile in a car and hurtle up the M4 towards East London for long, thoroughly forgotten weekends of partying. “I can remember us all driving back from London and feeling absolutely terrible, everyone on comedowns,” laughs Rhys, “then getting woken up to go and record a bass part. I think this is important though; we were still really at this point of freedom where everything was happening and songs felt like they were writing themselves, and it’s a magical time that doesn’t last forever. We’d get to a certain point at the end of the day and feel, like, wow what just happened there? What’s going on?”
The high point of recording, the band all agree, was the seven-minute Krautrock-infused opus ‘Sea Within a Sea’. It would be the first track released from the album. Though the band would be painted as connoisseurs pouring over the minutiae of German obscurities, the reality was that their knowledge of bands like CAN, Neu! and Harmonia was actually pretty sketchy. This gives the record much of its character, its spirit; the zeal of the newly converted conveying a first missive. Tom points to the Talking Heads track ‘The Overload’, which conjures an uncanny impression of Joy Division based not on ever having listened to the band, but on what they might sound like having read about them in the music press.
Of course, British bands have been referencing the electronic utopia of Krautrock since the late ’70s, but the internet afforded those records an ease of access which had always been absent – former collectors items are now just a click and an aux cable away. Simon Reynolds’ post-punk study Rip It Up and Start Again was read within the band too. “Just reading that book gives you ideas for ten different bands,” says Faris. “That book was really influential for me.”
They hadn’t heard CAN’s soaring ‘Mother Sky’, nor Neu’s manifesto of minimalism ‘Hallogallo’, but in ‘Sea Within a Sea’ created something that seemed to explicitly reference those records. “That kind of feel,” evokes Rhys, “that kind of rhythm, we hadn’t heard a lot of that music but we just wanted to go for it.” Viewed as a highly considered crystallisation of influences, Primary Colours was anything but. It was a series of first impressions and happy accidents – even the album’s sleeve was a polaroid carelessly taken impromptu at a photo session. As the character Lees puts it in Alan Moore’s From Hell, “I made it up, and it all came true anyway.”