Horse Lords “I don’t know if I care about the idea of rock music ‘progressing.’ If it needs to, it’s not going to come from other rock music.”

Baltimore’s Horse Lords continue to evolve before our eyes. Over the course of three mixtape cassettes and two full-length LPs, the quartet has fleshed out an infinitely combinative approach to rock music, stitching swathes of intricate rhythmic interplay together with bursts of alien electronics into bewildering instrumental sessions focused on developing repetitive figures and intensifying narrative arcs. Far from residing in some sort of rarefied liminal space between the guitar/bass/drums band format and an array of seemingly juxtaposed musical traditions (the avant-garde, minimalism, American folk, African percussion), Horse Lords stand upright with one hoof confidently planted in the thick of each of these camps and insist that they can have it all if they (and we) damn-well please. Their new album Hidden Cities, available now from NNA Tapes, crams enough winding saxophone lines, overlapped percussion patterns, bone-thick bass lines, and cascading guitar phrases into its two 10-minutes-plus compositions to batter a listener’s consciousness into awed submission.

For all of their interdisciplinary expertise and exploration of rock music’s most “intellectual” fringes, the band could not be a more approachable bunch of nice and respectful young men, more likely to smile, plug in, and let their hands explain their ideas at maximum volume than verbally pontificate about the thought processes behind the curtain. TMT talked to Horse Lords guitarist Owen Gardner over the phone about band dynamics, guitar techniques, and the possibility of hypnosis via live performance.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your new LP Hidden Cities came to be?

The album was recorded at our friend Chris Freeland’s place. He has a studio at his parents’ house in Woodstock, MD. He’s a very talented engineer. He has quite a pro setup, despite being in a basement. He really knows what he’s doing, so it was a pleasure working with him. But there’s a mix of stuff on the album — some stuff we recorded on our own, also, that’s less band-oriented.

The interlude tracks — the shorter, more synthesis-based ones?

Yeah, those we did mostly on our own.

How did the longer tracks on the album — “Outer East” and “Macaw” — form as compositions? Is there normally someone in the lead, or do you guys contribute ideas in a more live setting in rehearsals?

It varies. “Outer East” is more of a collage composition in a way. Each part existed separately, and we had to figure out how to jam them together. It took a long time. I wouldn’t say that there was any particular leader on that one. For example, Sam would say, “I have a drumbeat,” and we would start playing it, and then we’d just figure out how to bring the parts together in a way that’s satisfying and organic. “Macaw” started with this sort of general rhythmic idea that we couldn’t quite figure out.

That kind of syncopated pulse, with all the coordinated hits? Kind of like a James Brown vibe?

Yeah, the da da da da bit. Then I came up with the sort of general form. Even if someone else is leading the way, the textures are filled in by every individual member. For myself, it’s helpful… to take a step back. I write a lot of things down, and try to work with the music outside of time, in a way. Not having the pressure to come up with something on the spot. Although we sometimes also do it that way, and it can be great.

Can you tell us about your approach to multi-instrumental composition? I know [bassist, synthesist] Max and [percussionist, saxophonist, synthesist] Andrew make electronic music in addition to playing their “rock” instruments. Do you guys try to keep these elements quarantined from each other?

We have been lately, because it’s not very easy to do it all live. It’s impractical. No one really wants to quarantine it that way, but we have to. On future releases, we’d like the relationship between the synthetic stuff and the live stuff to be more fluid, and have it all mixed together. On the record, there are definitely these more ‘live’ band songs, and then there are studio experiments. It gives it a lot of variety, and a collage effect, which we like.

All of you guys are incredible instrumentalists. I wonder whether different skill levels, backgrounds, and musical approaches exist in the band. How do you guys negotiate this?

I would say sometimes there’s a little trouble. We’re a little mismatched. We have some friends, like Guerrilla Toss, who are all conservatory-trained. They can just talk music in a shared language. For us, none of us went to conservatory, but Andrew and I did study music — although neither of us as performers. It’s often simplest for me to express an idea with written musical notation. [Kit drummer] Sam, and Max, to some extent, can’t really do a lot with that. It’s an interesting challenge, and it’s helpful for everyone to get something by ear rather than by having a shortcut. It can lead to interesting new routes to take. Max, I’m fairly certain, had never played bass in a band before. I can’t even remember why we thought he should play bass. I mean, I’m glad he does. He brings a sort of freshness to it. His background is electronic music, and he has a very sophisticated understanding of that. He and Andrew have that shared vocabulary, while Sam and I don’t really have that. Sam is probably the most competent on his instrument. He’s the least likely to be a wild card at any given time.

In a way you can get outside of yourself more easily if there’s less of a human feeling to it. I feel like the desire to get outside of yourself is an old, fairly universal urge. And I think it might be harder to find it, in today’s society… Or maybe not.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a comfort zone with one’s own playing, and the idea of writing songs that you might have aim past your own “skill level” to capture. Where do you guys fall on this spectrum?

We generally write right up to the edge of our abilities. And sometimes slightly beyond. We’d had to scrap quite a few songs because they proved to be basically impossible to play. We’re all writing parts that are very difficult for us to play. It keeps it interesting. The songs don’t get as boring as they would if we were just playing something we knew 100 percent.

I would say that lends your music a very overloaded, ecstatic quality, with all of you maxing out at all times.

Part of that idea came from hypnotism, or trance. The goal is that you’re unable to focus on any one thing. There’s too much. So you have to let it wash over you, and it can be kind of a freeing feeling.

I’m wondering about some of the other traditions and vocabularies you guys bring to your music.

Andrew has studied how to play African percussion, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying it, but more from a research or theoretical perspective. That’s been very important to me. That definitely informs a lot of compositional and rhythmic choices. I also grew up listening to a lot of American folk music, and old-time blues. That was very influential for me. And we all have this shared vocabulary of experimental music and 20th and 21st century classical music. I guess the minimalist aspect of our music comes across pretty clearly. In the car, we’re as likely to listen to Xenakis or Stockhausen, or people like that. It maybe doesn’t come across in the sound as much, but their specific compositional ideas have been very important. We try to synthesize all of these things.

And… I guess, rock n’ roll in a way, but in a very abstracted sense. Rock can absorb all these different things in an organic way. None of us really listen to a lot of rock music, honestly, and it’s not something that I feel very invested in. I guess we are a rock band. I don’t know if I care about the idea of rock music “progressing.” If it needs to, it’s not going to come from other rock music. It needs to be corrupted from within, I guess. Hopefully it can mutate into something else. But there are things about rock that are valuable too. You can be… you know, loud. It’s fun. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, man. Playing rock music is definitely fun.

Yeah. And you get to be sloppy, which isn’t really allowed in other sorts of music.

Relatively you guys could be considered sloppy compared to some kind of chamber ensemble, but as far as I can tell, you’re very tight.

We’re working to a pretty robotic standard. Our ideal is sort of inhuman, in terms of precision, which we’ll never get to. Which is fine. And I know that mistakes give it a sort of grit, and humanity, which people like.

Part of that idea came from hypnotism, or trance. The goal is that you’re unable to focus on any one thing. There’s too much. So you have to let it wash over you, and it can be kind of a freeing feeling.

I like the confluence of you guys aiming for what you described as a hypnotic, trance-like effect, and the notion of you guys being inhuman and robotic. In a sense, those two might seem to be opposites, but of course they balance each other nicely.

For sure. If you look at rave music or any electronic dance music, clearly there is some sort of aesthetic potential for this robotic music. In a way you can get outside of yourself more easily if there’s less of a human feeling to it. I feel like the desire to get outside of yourself is an old, fairly universal urge. And I think it might be harder to find it, in today’s society… Or maybe not. My feeling is that people need it, and always have. You see it across different cultures, no matter how you’re living. We work with this idea of losing oneself, but it’s not very well defined in the culture as a shared experience. Most people don’t just go out and “enter the trance” at night. Lacking that, people have had to come up with new ways to do it, because there’s no institutional version.

I’d love to find out more about your approach to playing the guitar. You mentioned American folk and blues as main touchstones. Do those styles inform most of your playing?

That’s a big part of it. Also, I play banjo, so a certain kind of banjo technique is there. There are a lot of clichés that one plays on the banjo that I’ve moved over to guitar. And fingerpicking, blues finger-style guitar. I’ve been digesting a lot of different African finger-style techniques lately, too, a lot of which I’m not ready to play — specifically guitar music from Mauritania, which is important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time with a technique that can be pretty forbidding, but the logic of it is interesting to me. That’s what ultimately inspired me to re-fret my guitar. That came from a lot of directions, but that was the first time I saw an identifiable tradition of people doing that for a specific reason. And a lot of that can plug into banjo music or blues that I was more familiar with. I’m always working on it, and learning new stuff all the time. I’m a little surprised most people don’t pick up on the banjo techniques [in my playing]. Maybe it’s more sublimated than I realize.

Your playing has always reminded me of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band’s guitarists, who use that very dry, brittle tone, but at such a kinetic pace and through the filter of such weird tonalities.

Sure. I think Beefheart was doing a very similar thing, in many ways. Using the materials of blues and American folk music, corrupting those traditions, and making them into something new. That’s a way that reading music and having a music theory background has been helpful. You can look at something like that more abstractly, and observe what’s happening, and why it’s happening. You can generalize it a little, and then you can repurpose it. I can take a banjo pattern that would sound like banjo music on a banjo, and mutate it, and it can become something else. You play it on guitar and everyone… thinks it’s post-rock or something. [Laughs]

Can you explain your guys’ approach to your previous mixtape cassette releases? Are these in a different league, so to speak, than what ends up constituting your full-length albums?

It used to be a little more casual than it is now. At first, we didn’t have any releases, so we needed something to sell. We had a lot of ideas, and we were trying to get them all out there. A lot of it was specifically meant not for albums. But lately, the material has been getting better. The latest one, we took some time to record it properly. Some of that has made it into our live set, too. Hmm… Now that I think about it, the track “Outer East” appears on our first mixtape. It’s a continuum. For me, the material on the mixtapes is about as interesting as the material on the records. It is little more casual, but I think that’s an asset in some cases.

We generally write right up to the edge of our abilities. And sometimes slightly beyond. We’d had to scrap quite a few songs because they proved to be basically impossible to play.

You guys are heading out on tour soon, right?

Yeah, in a couple of days. We play Baltimore tomorrow, and then we cruise up the East Coast to Canada, and then down to the Midwest. Chicago is as far west as we’re getting. We don’t have a lot of time. We’ll eventually head back east. Andrew just got a minivan, which is a nice way to travel. It’ll be fun. We’re pretty scrappy with touring. We have a miniature kitchen setup, with a hot-plate and rice-cooker. We don’t make any money, so that’s the only way you can possibly come out with anything. You save a pretty incredible amount of money if you cook for yourself on tour. We rarely have any serious drama. When we do have disagreements, it’s easy to talk about it and work it out. I’ve been in bands before with toxic personal dynamics, which made touring a nightmare, but we [Horse Lords] always have a good time. Even if it’s going badly, we can keep each other’s spirits up. We’re all friends.

Do you guys see Baltimore as a fertile home base for your music?

Absolutely. No question. Music is everywhere. It’s really cheap to live there, so you can devote more time to working on music than you could in other cities. There’s a vital underground scene, and not to mention the hardcore, experimental music, and free improvisation scenes. It’s not very competitive, and it’s pretty nurturing. When we were starting out, it wasn’t intimidating. There was a lot of encouragement to start new projects. It was a weird and funny idea at first when we started this rock band. But Baltimore is a good place to try that sort of thing out. There’s not a lot of pressure. Maybe too little pressure. Maybe people aren’t as critical as they could be. That’s not a bad problem to have. People are very unlikely to say something is bad, even if they should. It could be worse. A lot of stuff, unfortunately, never makes it out of Baltimore. It’s the same everywhere, of course.

Can you give me some examples?

There’s this new band called Strange Times People Band, who are maybe the best band in town. They’re like a dance band that has a early-80s New York kind of feeling. It’s pretty funky, and straight-forward, but weird. Leprechaun Catering are really great — they don’t play as much as they used to. Sejaynodoesn’t live in town anymore, but they’re worth checking out. People move, and things change. Actually, Ehse Records, the label that released our last record, is a good place to start for unknown local weird stuff.

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