Horse Lords: Abstract & Rhythmic Excursions

GOODNESS, five months ago, already, I witnessed Horse Lords opening for LITURGY at the Subterranean in Chicago, in order to check out the highly-regarded experimental act and begin discussing music with the group. The quartet played one of the fiercest opening sets I’ve seen, with the particular quality of winning over an audience throughout the set. I’ve rarely seen anything quite like this — sure, some fans clapped and responded when Horse Lords took the stage, and surely others knew of the group, but as the band progressed with loud, percussive, lockstep updates on krautrock, their energy clearly overtook the audience. The quartet only played a few extended songs, so the easiest way to judge the audience’s feelings was the closing ovation, which found the bulk of the Subterranean now cheering. It was extremely fun to watch this reception from the balcony, and it was deserved, since Horse Lords nailed their set: not only did they deliver a precise performance, but they did so with an energy that glossed over the technicalities of their sound. I think it would be fun just to watch the band match their rhythms and just-intonation instrumentation in any setting, but their energetic performance added even more life to the grooves they played.

HORSE LORDS

Perhaps it’s a mistake to call the group “krautock,” but that’s the clearest tradition I can invoke to describe their repetitive experiments and longform compositions. I don’t mean “repetition” to be a knock here, but more of an explanation about their grooves and their approach to songwriting: one layer of percussion will begin, perhaps with another counter-rhythm or flare on the saxophone, which supplements an organic air to the timbre of the guitar & bass alternate-tunings. There is a universal language in this music, a clear attempt to communicate beyond traditional rhythm & blues or “national” music, which is a spirit that I think follows the goals of krautrock bands (who undoubtedly hated the term, I am certain). But, I think it could be a misleading and mistaken term, since Horse Lords also embrace completely abstract, mechanical, and arhythmic forms of music, too. In this case, their well-received NNA Tapes album, Hidden Cities, can effectively be contrasted by their self-released Mixtape series.

MIXTAPE

I grabbed a copy of Mixtape III at the Subterranean show, and I am consistently blown away by the “structural” sound that the quartet produce here. Members of the group work with different electronic / experimental and compositional traditions, and they use their Mixtape to provide a “collage” of those influences in one imprecise statement. This isn’t a criticism, though: their use of meandering shifts that are sometimes completely alien to any beat or pulse is a useful foundation, or map, to their precise sound on Hidden Cities. In this case, I’d compare the Mixtape / Hidden Cities contrast to the recent series of releases by San Francisco’s Lumerians, who split their albums into decidedly “pop / highly structured” and “meandering / logical” camps. For example, their Sanity Muffin tape The Weaning and The Dreaming is an excursion in tape manipulation that outlines the range of possibilities that are slowly, and steadily filled in by longjams (Transmissions from the Telos series) and pop (The High Frontier, or even Transmalinnia). It is instructive to follow these types of “logical / foundational” releases by bands, because these releases can help listeners to fill-in backstories or understand the narrative that drives more structured or “traditional” releases. For this reason, I don’t think Horse Lords are necessarily or categorically limited by their rhythmic / compositional sound, since they clearly view that sound as one potential outgrowth of their larger universe of abstract, arhythmic sounds.

Speaking with the band at Subterranean, I learned that they would be recording a new album after their tour (which they are currently doing now), and that one should not necessarily expect their next album to follow the same formula of Hidden Cities. To learn more about this, I emailed with Sam Haberman over several weeks, and this exchange will hopefully provide some insight into how the group creates their sound, or, how their vision informs their sound:

Your show in Chicago really won over the audience and created a lot of energy. How did the crowd seem from the stage? Could you feel that you won all of us over?

I think in part people were amped to see Liturgy play that night, and we certainly benefitted from their excitement. Also, Chicago crowds in general seem to be especially psyched on live music. So we definitely had fun, and it seemed like everyone else did too.

You convey a lot of energy as a group onstage. How much of your live show is improvised? Do you change compositions for your live set?

We try to write songs that create their own energy and inertia, so that every time we play them it’s fun and exciting—if only for us. Part of that is the structure of a given song, which we’ve honed through trial and error to unfold in a satisfying and surprising way, and part is the ambiguity in the structure itself, which allows us to play a song slightly differently every time, so it never feels canned or sterile.

How are your new recordings coming along?

Quite well! We’re doing more of the engineering and production ourselves, which I think is part of what’s fun about making music right now; technology allows you to do more things yourself, and to experiment with greater flexibility.

Your Mixtape III was much more abstract than Hidden Cities. Are you working with these recent frameworks in your new writing, or jumping into something new? How are you balancing your most experimental elements with your grooves?

That’s the challenge and the fun of making this record; we want to capture what we do as a live band alongside the more experimental sounds and abstract ideas that interest us, playing those elements off against each other while also integrating them. A lot of that will involve not only pushing our use of the techniques we’ve used in the past—such as collage style editing and signal processing—but also experimenting with the process itself and trying to find new (at least to us) ways of doing things. So hopefully we’ll end up surprising ourselves…

I’d like to follow up on your last answer: Could you say more about collage style editing and signal processing? Are these techniques that you use in a collaborative way, or do you bring different edits or mixes to the group as individuals? Those sound like intriguing techniques.

Collage style editing is cutting together sounds that aren’t directly related, which allows us to play with more abstract and less stand-alone ideas without needing a segue between them. It’s the basis for our mixtape series, but we are increasingly using it on our records as well. And usually just one of us cuts things together; otherwise we might drive each other crazy.

Signal processing is a pretty broad term, but I’m mainly talking about specific techniques we use to find odd new sounds. For example, on a section of our last record we took the auxiliary percussion and processed it through Max’s modular synth rig, creating a sound that’s neither percussion nor synthesizer. Or an even more extreme example is our first record, which our friend Jason Willet mixed, and he literally processed the entire thing through a synth created by Baltimore synth maker Peter Blasser called the Cocoquantus (which you can read about here: http://www.ciat-lonbarde.net/cocoquantus/index.html).

HORSE LORDS studio