The Horrors take studio experimentation to new extremes, even designing and making a lot of their own equipment.
For many bands, success follows a lot of hard work under the radar, honing their chops and formulating a musical style. Certain groups, however, make an impact almost as soon as they take to the stage, like Southend five-piece the Horrors. Formed in 2005, the band graced the first of many NME covers just a year later. Their first album, 2007's Strange House, helped secure them a long-term deal with XL Recordings, and the increasingly experimental music they released on 2009's Mercury Prize-nominated Primary Colours and 2011's Skying has garnered much praise. This Summer saw the release of their fourth album, Luminous.
Most of Skying and Luminous was recorded in the band's own basement studio space in East London, where keyboard player Tom Furse and guitarist Joshua Third are effectively in-house engineers. One glance is enough to make clear that this is far from your average studio. The main room and "rehearsal room” next door are littered with banks of ageing outboard gear, synthesizers from almost every era and dusty shelves packed to the brim with home-made effects boxes, not to
"We were thinking of having a bit of a tidy up before you guys came,” says Tom Furse, emerging from behind one of his beloved synths, "but we thought you'd want to see it as it really is!”
The Horrors moved into their Dalston recording space five years ago, with the primary aim of recording the tracks for their third album, Skying. The main studio, which was originally a loading bay, had been used for both legal and illegal raves at various times, while the smaller room, where the band rehearse, had previously been a small studio frequented by Jack Peñate. A significant amount of building work had to be carried out to make the main room more suitable, and guitarist Joshua rose to the challenge.
"When we came in, I did things such as build that far wall,” explains Joshua Third. "And Joe [Spurgeon, drummer] requested this massive drum trap thing, so I built that. Everyone else went on holiday and then came back and were very confused as to why there was lots of dust everywhere all of a sudden. I got blamed a lot for that! It was just a loading bay before, and behind the wall are actually shutters, so we had to put some kind of thing up so as not to annoy the pub next door. There is no sound treatment of any sort! It is just a big, echoey concrete space.”
Aside from 'Still Life' from the Skying album, drums have never actually worked out in the room, and so on both Luminous and its predecessor, co-producer Craig Silvey tracked Joe Spurgeon's kit in other London studios. "We've always had to go and record the drums somewhere else, because we just don't have the right room for it,” adds Tom. "I think we could sort of slavishly keep to the 'We must record everything in our studio,' thing, which would be cool, but it would sacrifice the better drum sound so we ended up doing it this way.”
The studio layout, with instruments, keyboards and assorted gear all laid out, ready to be plugged in and tinkered with, was heavily influenced by the Horrors' experiences recording at The Pool in London with producer Ben Hillier back in 2007. "The Pool was kind of what we wanted when we decided to move to our own studio,” explains Tom. "To just have a big room with no control room or anything like that. It had a ton of synths lying around and stuff that I'd never seen before, like ARP 2600s and [EMS] VCS3s. I was quite into the Radiophonic Workshop at the time so to see a VCS3 was like, 'Whoa, what's that?' Getting a chance to mess around on that stuff really kicked off my whole getting into synths and doing what I do now.”
"I think the philosophy of that place was brilliant because it was just one open room,” concurs Joshua. "Unfortunately, I guess that's probably the hardest thing to make work, but it did. There was so much of everything everywhere, just like a big playpen. You'd get in there and go, 'What does this do?', and plug it in. Ben would just say, 'Yeah, do what the fuck you want, just don't blow anything up!' By sitting in a corner on different instruments, you'd come up with all these ideas and, because it's just one big room, ideas were very quickly translated. Communication is so simple working that way and that's why we do it now. It's a very quick way of working — and considering how slow we are at working, anything that speeds us up is a good idea!”
Producer Craig Silvey first wandered onto the Horrors' radar when he undertook production and mixing duties for a number of tracks from the Primary Colours album. Both Skying and Luminous were co-produced and mixed by Silvey. As far as Luminous goes, Craig also recorded Joe Spurgeon's drums and Rhys Webb's bass in the recording space above his own studio, Toast, in Kentish Town, in addition to some of Faris Badwan's vocals, often using his Neumann CMV3 'bottle' mic.
Silvey's varied contributions are now an essential part of the Horrors' painstaking production process. "What happened on this record is we wrote and worked in here for a fairly long time,” says Tom. "I think the whole record took 15 months, so a lot happened in that time, but once we'd basically got everything down, we then took the songs to Craig to record the drums and the bass, and then they came back to Josh and I again as rhythm tracks, and we continued work on them here. But Craig ends up being kind of like the sixth member, because he's the only other person that has any kind of decision-making power. If he's really adamant about something, then we'll go with him.”
"There could be an argument between [the band members] about whether we should be having this or that on a track,” adds Joshua. "But Craig's a very good mediator and can give you a very good argument as to why you could have this, but why you really need that.”
"Craig produces it with us up to a point, in that pretty much everything is already there, but he helps us make decisions towards the end,” continues Tom. "I think that's very necessary, because we're so democratic as a band. None of us values our opinion as being higher than anyone else's, and it's hard for us to really argue that our own individual point is correct, but Craig then comes in and plays the role of a neutral outside force, which can really help.”
Silvey has also advised Tom and Joshua about how to best employ the various technologies at their disposal, although his recommendations are not always taken on board! "I've stuck to using Pro Tools and Craig is very demanding,” laughs Joshua. "He demands we run at 24-bit/96kHz but, because we're poor, we run an HD1 rig, which — as you can imagine — involves having to do a lot of bouncing to even record a single mono track on our songs by the end! But Tom has been clever enough to say 'This is stupid!' and just doesn't use it when he's recording his synths.”
"Yeah, I use Ableton [Live] where there is no limit to track count,” adds Tom. "But there were some really embarrassing moments when Craig came here to listen to stuff and I had 100-plus tracks running, but it just couldn't handle it. Ableton's practically an instrument in itself, though. That's a big part of everything I do.”
The majority of songs on Luminous are based around textures created by layering Joshua's experimental guitar tones with Tom's synths and sequenced parts. Sometimes Joshua and Tom operate in tandem but, more often than not, they opt to work in isolation. "I tend to come in around eight or nine and leave around two or three, and Tom kind of takes the afternoon shift,” explains Joshua. "We do cross over at times, which is good actually. It's good to see what each other's done. We'll say 'I hadn't thought about doing that,' or 'I've already done that, you don't need to do it as well!' I like listening to what Tom's got, because I can then go around his parts or whatever.”
"The others do get involved as well when they're here, but for a good chunk of it, it's just Josh and I slaving away at it,” adds Tom. "We'll both do rhythm parts as well and put different rhythms on things, but then just choose the better one between us.”
"I guess we're quite wasteful in that way,” continues Joshua. "Because we'll put lots of stuff down and then take things away, as opposed to being really efficient and saying, 'It needs this and that's all we're going to do.' Actually, you get more accidents the way we do it, which is more fun and you learn more things. I think the funniest one was on 'Mine And Yours', where we couldn't agree on what was going to be the verse and what was going to be the chorus. We each thought it was the opposite and we just could not agree on it so were like, 'Fuck it,' and worked on the track individually, each of us putting more effort into certain sections. Then, when it came together, it actually all worked!”
"Once the stuff's gone down, there's usually a fair amount of discussion with the others about whether they like it or not, and who likes what about it,” says Tom. "We get pushed quite a lot by the other guys actually. I guess if you've been working on something for a day or two you're probably going to like it a little bit more because it's you that's been working on it. It's called the Ikea effect. But sometimes their first thoughts and opinions can be quite cutting, and it can piss you off, but it can help. It pushes you on a bit, because it makes you rethink things.”
The rethinking process has seen each successive album by the Horrors move further into uncharted waters, and Luminous is no exception, with tracks like 'In And Out Of Sight', 'Chasing Shadows' and 'I See You' adding dance-influenced beats to the band's guitar and synth soundscapes. It was a direction that emerged only after the band had already been locked in the studio writing for several months. The pivotal track that pushed Luminous onto its new musical path was 'I See You'. "The thing that seemed to work the best when writing for this record was we'd get quite small musical ideas and then build them up,” explains Tom. "It would be just like a little riff or a sequence or a chord progression, and that would end up being the seed of a bigger thing. But we wrote a lot of stuff before we actually found a direction, and that was 'I See You'. That felt really good and exciting, which isn't to say that everything before that was awful, but it was just different. We tried out a lot of stuff, and we even went quite jazzy for a little bit and decided that wasn't a good idea. We've always had tracks like 'I See You'. 'Still Life' [from Skying] was one of those tracks and 'Sea Within A Sea' [from Primary Colours] was one of those tracks. They're ones that feel special and feel like you've hit on something really cool. We wouldn't want to be saying, 'OK, that's the direction, we must all stick slavishly to that,' but it does show you the way a bit.”
In addition to being the Horrors' guitarist, co-songwriter and one half of the group's in-house engineering team, Joshua Third also builds his own effects pedals and outboard processing units. For Luminous, Joshua — who has a degree in physics — put together everything from re-amping boxes to high-pass guitar filters. He even spent an inordinate amount of time building a filter bank of parametric EQs, which have an analogue computer incorporated, for the track 'Jealous Sun'.
"We were listening back to 'Jealous Sun', and that was a track where we all played together. Rhys [Webb, bassist] then said, 'It sounds like the guitars and bass are saying something together!' and we argued over whether they were saying 'erotique' or not! Then I was like, 'Fuck it, I'm going to make it try and do that.' I bought an Electro-Harmonix Bassballs pedal, but that just sounded like Daft Punk and not like an army of people shouting, which is what I wanted. Then we tried the vocoder, and that didn't really work so I just went the whole hog and built something very elaborate. It just took so long to set up! It basically has four filter banks, like parametric EQs, and I put Vactrols as the control elements so you can control the frequencies, and then I made a small computer that had a difference network in it so you could control the frequencies and also the space between them. I read loads of stuff on human performance and then programmed it to do what I wanted. It's like a very simple analogue computer with just subtraction and multiplication stuff in it. The parametric EQ design is similar to what Massenburg would use. It's based on his papers. I really like reading US patents — that's one of my strange obsessions! It took me ages to build, though. I think the biggest thing I fell into was I tried to make an acute transistor array but that didn't actually track very well, so I just bought one in the end. The design was quite tricky, because the computer bit was a nightmare to lay out. I'll actually probably never use it again, because it's too big to tour with.”Joshua's gadgets also came in handy when it came to recording his own guitars, many of which were re-amped. "I just got really into the live manipulation of things,” he explains. "I built a re-amp box from a fancy Sowter transformer. I made a re-amp box and I would DI in here and then re-amp it into the [rehearsal room]. I tend to record amps really incredibly loudly, so I can't be in the same room with them. Normally, this entire space [main room] was just covered in boxes and gizmos, and I just ended up preferring that because I could get the performance I wanted and then sit and monkey with things. I can sit and tweak filters and other effects which I couldn't do if I was playing at the same time. Sometimes, not even using the amp is actually one of my favourite sounds. I remember that was something I first found out about at The Pool, with Ferg [Peterkin]. He put my guitar through a [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture into a [Yamaha] REV7 or something and I declared I was never, ever going to use an amp ever again! It was so cool.
"I love Vactrol filters. I think that's my favourite filter for guitar, the Sallen-Key configuration. I tune mine so they resonate more at the bottom, which is similar to the Steiner-Parker filter. My James McAvoy pedal was also incredibly useful for straight-in stuff. It's so named because there is a chemical etching of James McAvoy on it and he has just the right amount of fuzz! That pedal makes the sound in 'So Now You Know'. It's that more Fripp-y guitar style and sound.”
Joshua discovered a handy new phasing technique during the re-amping process for Luminous: "One thing that I'd never really tried before is I'd have three [Shure] 57s, with two angled and one straight on, and I'd flip the phase on the straight one and then have it keyed off a vocal or something,” explains Joshua. "So it was like an upward expander, if that's the right word. We'd put the left- and right-hand mics hard left and right, and the middle one straight in the middle, so as something comes in, instead of it just ducking the guitar, it actually fucks the phase and fucks it out the centre field. It pushes it out of the way. Stuff like that I actually find more interesting. I like playing with phase. It's just physics so it's quite fun to do. Actually, one of my favourite things is just simply using the Pro Tools mono-to-stereo delay to flip the phase. It's really dead simple and doesn't make the computer crash.”
For their early singles and debut album, the Horrors worked with numerous producers, including Alan Moulder, Nick Zinner, Ben Hillier and the Bad Seeds' Jim Sclavunos, the last proving to be a particularly significant influence. "Jim really beat us into shape as a band, because he made us play well,” explains Tom Furse. "He was really tough with us in a way that other people hadn't been. He'd say, 'No, this doesn't make any sense,' and he'd try and show us why we were wrong.
"Early on, we got chucked in at the deep end a bit, because we got the opportunity to go to nice studios and work with good people, but we weren't really allowed to do anything. We'd go into places and they'd go, 'No, you're doing this! You guys have been in a band for, what, four months? Yeah, you'll do what I say!' But when we started working with Jim and then everyone after Jim, we started to ask questions: 'Can we reverse this? Can we just take the whole thing and flip that around? Can we put the whole track through this piece of gear?' Jim used to say, 'Yeah, it's your record! Let's try it,' whereas before we'd just been told, 'No, you don't want to do that. That's a bad thing!' So we ended up doing a lot of that 'What happens if we do this?' in a slightly naïve 'don't know the rules' kind of way.”
"I remember this really great thing from Jim when we were recording guitars,” adds Joshua Third. "I was saying, 'It doesn't really sound trebly enough in that room.' The engineer came round and said, 'I have recorded several hit records in that room with guitars. Believe me, they're trebly enough. What you're doing is making my ears bleed! I will not turn the treble control any higher.' But I was still complaining, 'But they don't sound proper though!' And Jim just said, 'Josh, leave now.' I came back 15 minutes later and [the engineer] said, 'So I've moved your amps to a different room and they can be more trebly now.' I don't know what Jim did, but suddenly this guy started accepting me!”
The Horrors' Tom Furse has an extensive synth collection, which includes both old and new gear. For Luminous, he explains, "The modular was really important, because a lot of stuff seemed to come from that. It's a very inspiring machine, because it throws as much back out at you as you throw into it. It's great at providing points of excitement. I've now come to the conclusion that, as much as I do love some of my older machines, there's something kind of paradoxical about trying to make music of tomorrow with machines of 30 or 40 years ago. They don't take into account anything that's happened since then. I find today's modular stuff is built by people who are aware of what is possible with technology and I find that much more interesting. I love the Make Noise René sequencer. I've had a lot of sequencers before and they're cool but that's actually a good, playable instrument. Having a sequencer that you can actually sit there and noodle with is essential. I bought it maybe two years ago and now it's just totally indispensable, especially for messing about with the sounds.
"I also used a bunch of different modules as well as the René. I've got lots of Intellijel modules, and I put a lot of parts through the Korgasmatron for shaping and stereo filtering or phasing effects. I also use both my Prophets, the 5 and the 8, just because they're the best pad machines out there. They're so rich. I use the [Roland] Juno and the [Korg] MS20s a lot, and I used the Siel Orchestra quite a bit and my [Yamaha] CS30s. I use everything. I just kind of sit there and everything's in arm's reach. I have a little bit of a preference towards the more recent stuff, but seeing as everything's there, I will use it.
"I'll get the performance down and then I'll have it MIDI'd up or just go around sending it to stuff and seeing what sounds best and what sounds cool. I've also got all kinds of effects: phasers and delays. [Eventide's] Pitch Factor was really, really useful. Overall, I thought I'd just steal that Pool vibe and play around with everything I've got!”