Manchester’s own synthpop revivalists talk Nine Inch Nails, the Brits and the distinct lack of glamour at Sainbury’s in Fallowfield
“This is the best album you’ll hear all year that was written and recorded on the curry mile.” Theo Hutchcraft is in buoyant mood; Hurts’ second record, Exile, finally saw the light of day this week, and he tells me that it’s already “in the top ten in twenty-three countries.” Not bad for a couple of guys who met outside 42s whilst their friends were engaged in a drunken brawl.
“We were pretty nervous about how it was going to be received, actually. We wanted to do something different on this album, so we felt like we were starting again in a lot of ways.” Hurts’ debut, Happiness, was one of 2010’s biggest crossover successes, landing at number four in the album chart and spawning two singles that seldom seemed to be off the radio, ‘Better Than Love’ and ‘Wonderful Life’. “We kept the same producer, but we definitely wanted to push ourselves in a new direction.”
Whilst a move towards a different sound was key, the actual process of making the record, in keeping with the retention of Jonas Quant behind the production desk, was largely the same as with Happiness. “It seemed logical to write Exile in the same place we had before, which was actually just opposite Hardy’s Well. We knew we’d be comfortable there, and it seemed like it was the only place where we’d be able to get some perspective and focus properly after the whirlwind of promoting the first record.”
It was a decision, Theo claims, which paid clear dividends. “We were much more prolific this time, we got a lot more written,” he says. “That meant we could experiment more; we had the time to try new things. We’re definitely better at what we do now than three years ago.”
It wasn’t until six or seven months into making the album that the idea change of scenery became crucial. “After a while, a bit of a cloud descended. You know, when you’re wandering around Sainsbury’s in Fallowfield, it’s easy to forget anything glamorous ever happened to you,” he laughs. “We were definitely ready to get away from Manchester by the end, things were getting a little bit tough. We met up with Jonas in Gothenburg and finished the record there.”
The band have cited a wide range of influences their entire career, and Exile is no exception, although anyone who heard Happiness will be surprised to hear that Nine Inch Nails weighed particularly heavily on the new record; Hurts are hardly the world’s noisiest band, nor are guitars a major feature in their work thus far. “You know, that wasn’t exactly a direct musical influence; it was more in terms of the tone of the music Nine Inch Nails have made. We wanted to make a darker record, and I think they helped us figure out exactly how to progress in that direction. Some of the songs did come out sounding quite industrial initially, but the more obvious influences are still there too – you can still hear Depeche Mode in there.”
Hurts’ striking visual style – sharp suits and slicked-back hair being de rigueur – makes them one of the more recognisable bands around today, and it’s an aesthetic that seems to permeate every aspect of the band; their music videos and live shows, the latter often complete with dancers, have proven similarly visceral. “It’s just another way of expressing ourselves, but we know full well how important it can be; it was our first video (for ‘Wonderful Life’) that got us signed.”
Given their chart success last time out, and bearing in mind that Hurts are signed to a major label, you have to wonder how much pressure the duo came under to keep things commercial in the hope of guaranteeing a repeat performance. “The only real pressure came from within the band; the label trusted us to just get on with it,” says Theo. “We put so much pressure on each other that there’s not really any room for any more from an external viewpoint; we were so conscious of wanting to move forward and making sure we didn’t stagnate, we were constantly pushing ourselves. That was more than enough.”
The band made one of their first appearances on the promotional circuit for Exile at the Brit Awards, albeit only from the sidelines. With this year’s ceremony coming in for more stick than usual, I was intrigued to hear the opinion of a band who have successfully crossed over to the mainstream in the past. “All the Brit Awards do is reflect what’s popular; if you don’t like what’s in the charts, you probably shouldn’t be watching. You can’t expect to turn it on and have it be like it used to be, with Blur and Oasis winning everything; those days might come back, but for now, why complain about it?”
The success of Happiness in the UK was eclipsed elsewhere in Europe, with Germany and parts of Eastern Europe receiving the record particularly rapturously. Have the band figured out why their music has proved more popular overseas than at home? “We’ve honestly no idea, although by this stage we see the UK as just another country. It’s nice to have different challenges in different places though; in some countries we’re virtually unknown, and in others we’re headlining festivals. We’ve got a good balance there, I think.”
Some of today’s more successful Manchester bands don’t seem quite as characteristically Mancunian as some of their predecessors; whether it was Morrissey’s northern humour in The Smiths or the obvious link between Joy Division’s industrial sound and the city’s history, the traditional ‘Manchester band’ usually had some musical feature that served as a geographic indicator of where they were from, but try finding anything on Everything Everything or Dutch Uncles’ records that plainly marks out that they hail from these parts. The influence of New Order on Hurts is unmistakeable, but do they feel like the tag really applies to them?
“I think it does, less in a musical fashion and more in the approach that we take to our band. We might not sound anything like Oasis, but we definitely admire their ambition, the scale on which they did things. We definitely wouldn’t want to distance ourselves from home,” he says. “Manchester’s one of the greatest places in the world. We spread that word wherever we go.”
Hurts play Academy 2 on April 1. Exile is out now via RCA Records