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August 16 2011

When Cat's Eyes met Ron Arad

Horrors frontman Faris Badwan tells Dorian Lynskey about his new work: an opera-pop crossover featuring a light-emitting curtain by Ron Arad. Will it be better than the day he fooled the Pope?

In the basement of Ron Arad's studio in Camden, London, a promising artistic collaboration is coming under a little strain – and table tennis is to blame. Arad, the Israeli-born artist, designer and architect, and Faris Badwan, singer with the Horrors, are both fiercely competitive players. Arad has the advantage of having designed the table, a curious, broken-backed affair that sinks in the middle as if it's been quake-damaged, and sends the ball spinning in unpredictable directions. But Badwan, who has height and long arms in his favour, is winning. "No more Mr Nice Guy," growls Arad as he claws back points. But, just before he can draw level, the pair are summoned upstairs. A rematch is promised.

The two men have other, less fractious interests to bond over. Both are restlessly prolific. In the past year, Badwan has completed the third Horrors record, Skying, and launched Cat's Eyes, a project with Canadian opera soprano Rachel Zeffira, both to wide acclaim. Sixty-year-old Arad has been designing furniture, buildings and art installations since the 1970s. Deyan Sudjic's 1989 book about him was called Restless Furniture. Arad's 2009 MoMa retrospective was called No Discipline, and included everything from carbon-fibre armchairs to polyurethane bottle racks. Both titles are useful indicators of Arad's aesthetic.

His studio, which he has owned since the mid-1980s, is stuffed with his playful creations, most of which are curved: tables, chairs, window frames, even parts of the floor and ceiling. At one end is a fibre-optic curtain, a prototype for the huge circular version – eight metres by 18 and made of 5,600 silicon rods – currently installed at the Roundhouse across the road for three weeks. Arad has called his installation Curtain Call, and has invited musicians, designers, visual artists and performers to use the 360 degree curtain however they wish. "There was going to be a chef," he says, "but he dropped out."

Cat's Eyes are at Arad's studio on a rainy summer evening to shoot a video for their new single, The Best Person I Know, using the prototype curtain.

"What are you going to do here?" asks Arad, a cheerful, Chaplinesque figure.

"We're going to use a lot of your furniture if that's all right," Badwan says politely.

"Everything's all right!" says Arad. "This is a progressive kindergarten here."

The two men were introduced by Zeffira, who has known Arad since she sang with his daughter Dara in a choir in Hampstead several years ago (his other daughter Lail is also a singer). Zeffira grew up in "a little hick town" in Canada, notable only for having the world's largest lead and zinc smelter. Aptly, the dominant teen soundtrack was heavy metal. "I had to hide the fact that I liked classical music to hang out with the cool kids," she says. "My parents wanted me to have some culture so they force-fed me it. Before I met Faris, I had a huge hole in my playlist."

Badwan introduced her to obscure girl group records; she played him Bach and Ligeti. Zeffira had once sung for Pope John Paul II and used her Vatican contacts to secure the duo's debut show at St Peter's Basilica. "I didn't bring it up with Faris for ages because he hates gimmicky things," she says.

"It seemed ridiculous in the beginning," he confirms, "but then we thought it would be inimitable."

"It was all lies after that," she continues with a touch of guilt. She told the Vatican they were a choir called St Jude's and added to the end of the mass a song called Psalm 23, in reality an arrangement of their album-closing number I Knew It Was Over; the live Vatican performance can be seen on YouTube. "I think they thought Faris was a page-turner," she says. "If I'd have said we're a pop band, they'd have said no because it was a serious mass. It would have been totally disrespectful. I did confession afterwards. In my mind."

"The challenge wasn't to shock," says Badwan. "It was to fit in."

For someone who used to call himself Faris Rotter in the early days of the Horrors, Badwan is a quiet, thoughtful character with a wry sense of humour. The son of a Palestinian neurosurgeon, he attended Rugby school and went on to study at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design in London. He didn't think much of it. "I was quite competitive, and there weren't many people up for doing anything – like turning up. It wasn't like I felt I was the best person around. I just didn't feel that people were really engaged. I found that when I was left to my own devices, I got a lot more done."

He still draws every day. "He can't stop," says Arad. "This is the first time I've seen him without his sketchpad." Deprived of his pen, Badwan spends the whole interview fiddling with a spoon. Asked why he launched the collaboration with Zeffira just a few months before the Horrors' return, he shrugs. "I guess I'm quite impulsive, and Rachel wants to do things so she's pushing me along. Honestly, when I get bored I just do stupid things."

"Like the wax mountain," says Zeffira, smiling. "Oh God, listen to this. For months and months, he was melting drips of wax and built an actual mountain out of candles. It was huge. It took hours and hours of dripping wax."

Badwan mutters with unease. He seems constantly in the process of wriggling out of things that bore or confine him. A mention of David Lynch as an influence on Cat's Eyes draws a heavy sigh. "David Lynch is great, but it's just the repetitious nature of [the comparison]. It's like the goth thing. Now Rachel's the goth queen by association. We're 'the dark duo'."

Suing Michael Jackson

Even being in the Horrors, which he loves, has its bothersome deadlines and expectations. "Before you make anything to be presented to an audience, it feels like a thing out of reach; and then, when you've been doing it for a while, you start to see the pattern. Once the pattern is obvious, it loses a lot of the magic."

Arad nods sympathetically. "When you do a building, it can take five years and it's full of obstacles and difficulties that have nothing to do with your creativity. But some things have no negotiation at all. You just do what you want to do when you want to do it, and you're not answerable to anyone. So you do the whole spectrum from irresponsible to super-responsible – sickly responsible."

Has he worked with a musician before? "Yes, I sued Michael Jackson once. If you go to a video called Scream, they used my pieces as props without asking me." He smiles. "This is my first non-litigious collaboration."

Cat's Eyes are sketchy on the details of what exactly they will do with the curtain. Badwan doesn't like to over-explain anything. A suggestion that the duo's album might have been a deliberate attempt to make a narrative song cycle (it certainly makes sense as one) is met with uncomfortable denials. "The best things appear by accident," he says. "When it's too self-conscious, you don't get any real emotion. We just became really excited about the whole thing. When you find someone you enjoy working with, it sends you into overdrive. I guess Ron's the same with his output."

"There's a need to play and to fight boredom and to keep yourself entertained," says Arad, adding that it's a bonus if you can earn a living from it. "I think we're all lucky in that way. We get away with it."

• Ron Arad's Curtain Call is at the Roundhouse, London NW1 (0844 482 8008) until 29 August. Cat's Eyes perform there on 22 August. Cat's Eyes by Cat's Eyes is out now on Polydor. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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