So good it hurts
At first glance, Hurts don't appear to have a lot in common with Oasis. The moody pop duo - singer Theo Hutchcraft and keyboardist-guitarist-producer Adam Anderson - are a well-mannered, fashion-conscious pair not prone to making grandiose statements about their own Christ-like qualities. Oasis, on the other hand, are none of those things (even if Liam Gallagher will try to sell you one of his parkas). But there is the Manchester connection - and that, as it turns out, is rather important.
'The thing is, in Manchester it's a very second-best city,' Anderson says on the phone from that city, where he's spending his first day at home in six months after a world tour that took him and Hutchcraft to about 50 countries (according to Anderson's possibly inflated count).
'Musicians in Manchester are always very ambitious. Even if you look at a band like Oasis - who we on the face of it don't really have much in common with - they made music that was so much bigger than Manchester and it was so far reaching, and that's what we wanted to do ... We just thought, 'Let's try to make this international and make it grand'.'
Hurts, who bring their huge live show to Hong Kong on May 11, for a while didn't look like they'd be anything grand. For years, they laboured as struggling musicians with humble part-time jobs before anyone noticed them. They had previously gone through two other (unsuccessful) configurations, one under the name Daggers, the other as Bureau.
'It's funny we made that decision at a time when our actual lives were very small and the boundaries were very close around us,' Anderson says. 'Maybe it was a reaction to a small comfort zone in our lives and we contrasted that by making these huge songs.'
Anderson, who's now 27, was working as a cameraman at a greyhound racetrack the day he and Hutchcraft, 24, wrote the song that would elevate them to pop stardom. Wonderful Life, an epic 1980s-esque synthpop 'future classic', as a critic at The Guardian described it, got to No 21 on the British charts and made the top 10 in eight European countries. Its striking music video - a po-faced melodramatic affair with underwater dancers and a haunting refrain in which Hutchcraft intones, ambiguously, 'Don't let go/Never give up/It's a wonderful life' - has been on heavy rotation on music TV in Britain and Europe for months.
Anderson confesses to being surprised that their lofty dreams were coming to pass. 'I'll be honest with you. The day we wrote that song I didn't think it was special at all,' he says in a no-frills Mancunian accent.
'I had this s*** job in Manchester and I went to work and I didn't even think about this song we'd written. So you never know, and I certainly didn't at that time. It's not that I didn't believe in it - it's just I never would have thought it'd be where it is now.'
There's more to Hurts than just Wonderful Life, too. Their first single, Better Than Love, got to No 50 in Britain, while follow-up Stay - a huge-chorused emotional tour de force - made the top 10 in five European countries. The duo also collaborated with Kylie Minogue on the single Devotion. The debut album Happiness, released last September, performed well in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland.
Despite some criticism that they are reviving the worst aspects of 1980s pop (some of the hooks push the limit on the cheese-ometer), Hurts are riding high. Today their natty suits and slick hairstyles - strongly reminiscent of the likes of Pet Shop Boys and The Human League - are celebrated as the height of fashion. Anderson claims, however, that he's always dressed that way and they're the only clothes he owns.
'All we ever did was we dressed simple and we dressed to make ourselves feel better when our lives weren't very good, and so when people refer to us as being some kind of fashion pioneers or style icons, it tickles and makes us laugh, because we dressed like this when we had no money.'
The guys got over the hard times by writing better songs. 'We came across a blueprint for a pop group with Hurts and we came across it very early,' Anderson says. 'Once we had that blueprint, we knew that we had something that we felt could be special so we found our confidence quickly.'
The song Unspoken, the 10th track on Happiness, was the song that provided that blueprint. Hutchcraft tried something new with his vocals; Anderson tweaked his production. The song was weighty, emotional, desperately 80s. All of a sudden, everything started to click. 'The whole thing came together in a matter of weeks, really, and it took on a life of its own.'
The success catapulted them into a better place. 'Being able to make music for a living and release an album and play shows every night, it's very therapeutic,' says Anderson. 'When you make emotional music, it cleanses you.'
Possibly the money has something to do with it too?
'It's definitely not money because all money does is you just buy the same things but slightly more expensive versions of them. Money hasn't changed my life. I still live in the same flat and I do the same things,' Anderson says.
'It's more hearing people at gigs sing words back to you. They sing the words you wrote for a song when you were in a terrible flat in Manchester two years ago. Those kind of moments make the whole thing worthwhile and you feel great.
'Our songs wouldn't be the same without those times. Songs like Wonderful Life, Evelyn, Unspoken. There's no way we could write that type of song now. Great things come from sadness sometimes.'
As their star rises, Anderson and Hutchcraft are realising that the trappings of fame bring mixed blessings. As their music spread, they came to realise that their work was not only sound-tracking people's happiness, but also their despair. It's a delicate balance, Anderson says.
'If you soundtrack their lives you almost become responsible for their emotions, and that's a big responsibility. That's one of the areas that we didn't really appreciate that that would happen. That can sometimes be quite frightening and sometimes enriching and amazing,' he says.
Everything else about fame, though, they seem to have sorted. The guy on the phone doesn't sound big-headed or entitled. He sounds like a man enjoying the good times that have happened to befall him. None of this is going to his head.
'We come from such humble beginnings that it kind of just makes us laugh,' says Anderson.
'When these incredible things happen to us every single day, the best thing to do is live for the moment and not think about things too much - because I think in this industry if you think about things too much you'll go insane.'
Hurts Live in Hong Kong, May 11, 8pm, Rotunda 3, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480 (with collectible music download card), HK$450 (ticket only), HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8828