Gazing disdainfully from the cover of their album Strange House (Loog), the Horrors greet listeners with the air of Edward Gorey characters on a smoke break. Together, they are a scarily beautiful organism: a slick plastic spider with 10 spindly legs and a penchant for manic, blood-soaked coffin rock. Their shows, in contrast, are short, riotous affairs that revolve around a schizoid brand of gothabilly and the shrieks and antics of lead vocalist Faris Badwan. The Horrors have graced the cover of NME, dumped garbage on industry bigwigs at South by Southwest, and amassed a throng of fans worldwide. They’ve also, of course, sent the pointy-shoe market skyrocketing.
The Horrors were born, appropriately enough, in the bowels of a rotting Victorian hotel, the home of the fashionable Junk Club in Southend-on-Sea in London’s neighboring Essex County, in the summer of 2005. Rhys "Spider" Webb, keyboardist for the Horrors, recalls that the transition from clubgoers to band was not a prolonged one. "We were actually sitting around a table, and it was, like, ‘Let’s go into the studio for rehearsal next week.’ Faris had a couple of cover versions he wanted to work on. We’ve been playing ever since, to be honest."
One of the covers that Badwan had chosen, Screaming Lord Sutch’s "Jack the Ripper," eventually became the Horrors’ debut single. It was paired with an original composition, "Sheena Is a Parasite," a bombastic microtune of a minute and 42 seconds, the tale of an enigmatically vile heroine set to a pulsating bass and a skittering, looped backbeat. The song attracted the attention of one Chris Cunningham, the creative force behind Aphex Twin’s infamous "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker" videos, who allegedly found it on MySpace. Cunningham had soured on videos and hadn’t made one in seven years when the Horrors caught his ear and sent him into a storyboarding frenzy. Webb remembers, "He contacted Polydor and said, ‘Who’s doing the video? I’d love to do it.’" The finished product shows Samantha Morton falling victim to her own exploding viscera amid a frenetic doomscape. Apparently not bothered by disemboweled women, MTV banned the video for its use of strobe lights, promptly creating more publicity for the piece and the Horrors than it would have otherwise garnered.
As heirs of death rock, the Horrors come across like the naughty grandchildren of the Birthday Party, with Badwan channeling bits of Nick Cave as he screams his ghoulish repertoire, his large frame weaving across the stage. (In fact, Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos appears in the credits for Strange House, having produced their single "Count in Fives.") But while blood pours out of their lyrics and violence peppers their shows, it is the Horrors’ love of music all music that grants them a sense of humor and keeps them from buying into their gloomy hype. A club DJ for many years, Webb explains that playfulness further, saying, "The music I like to buy could be Robert Johnson or the Sonics, the Contortions, or DNA." He recalls a group walking into the Horrors’ dressing room and getting a surprise: "I think they expected us to be listening to ’60s garage and punk and rhythm and blues, and they caught us all dancing to drum ‘n’ bass records."
In the song "Draw Japan," Badwan tackles manifest destiny as Bauhaus beats rush past and Webb’s organ hiccups away in counterpoint. "I will draw Japan with a ravenous pen / Hungry for oil and iron and tin," he barks. It’s almost more Christian death than the Cramps, a perfect example of the Horrors’ genre blend ‘n’ bend. The key to that meld is guitarist Joshua Third, a.k.a. Joshua Hayward, possessor of the Horrors’ hugest mane of hair and, coincidentally, a physics degree. Webb describes Third as "a bit of a mad scientist" who spends his free time "locked in his cupboard, building strange components." For a recent issue of the band’s fanzine, Horror Asparagus Stories, Third taught readers how to build their own effects pedal. Webb is already gearing up for the next edition, having created a compilation called "Top Tracks about the Unstable State of Human Minds."
For all their conceptual flourishes, the Horrors have encountered a backlash from people who take exception to their meticulously crafted aesthetic. Webb concedes, "If you see a band like us, it looks like this kind of package," but notes that their look is inspired by friends such as album artist Ciaran O’Shea, who worked with Webb before the Horrors existed. Detractors aside, the tacit test for the Horrors will be their upcoming US tour. Webb recounts being warned before their first transatlantic jaunt that crowds in the States would be anything but enthusiastic. Instead, he was happy that "we’ve never found that anywhere in the world. The music provokes the same kind of reaction wherever we are." *
Tues/19, 9 p.m., $13
330 Ritch, SF