Horse Feathers Get Educated

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Most consumers don't think about it, but those on the inside of the music business know that there is a very delicate balance that gets struck for every band following their decision to make music their occupation and/or career rather than just a hobby. After band or songwriter X gets started, they're forced to concede to the financial logistics of being in a band; they have a finite amount of money and so often record cheaply and/or when time allows. In many ways, the process is both well in and also completely out of their hands; on one side, artists are afforded a lot of time to think and work in that early going (read: before big business enters into the equation) and take all the time they need to make sure everything about the first document of their artistic endeavor is exactly as they want it and, when they're satisfied, THEN they can figure out how to get it out where people can hear it. As soon as a couple of extra sets of proverbial hands get involved though, the game changes as Horse Feathers singer/songwriter Justin Ringle can attest. He and his band learned recently when Killrockstars signed his band and release its sophomore effort, House With No Home, that, like in school, deadlines are important not just to the success of a band on a label, but also to ensure that it remains on said label.

There's certainly no doubting that Ringle and Horse Feathers work well under pressure in listening to House With No Home – their Killrockstars debut – the album is a thoroughly unique songwriting marvel that plays like the image of a first frost at the end of fall looks. There is no rise to an incredible summit as the record's eleven tracks weave around listeners with gentle vocals and romantic strings – there's no such contrivance as that – but rather, House With No Home seeks to tell the story of such a scene and find the beauty in it rather than use it as a backdrop and attempt to tell a story in front of it. Songs including “Curs in the Weeds,” “Heathen's Kiss” and “Different Gray” examine and express to listeners the finest details of the romance that they could take away from a scene not unlike the one found on the album's cover and end up winning converts each step of the way through the album rather than trying to win cheaply with a couple of big singles that will flash in the pan but leave no lasting impression. Instead of trying to warm and make listeners comfortable in such climes, Ringle and chief accompanists Peter and Heather Broderick (who offer backing on cello, saw and violin predominantly) present the music, the image and the singer himself with nothing to hide in a totally unaffected but tastefully adorned way which is, in and of itself, the single most salacious hook about the album. By allowing themselves to be taken as they are rather than taken as they earnestly wish they were, Horse Feathers offer an honest portrait of themselves that's far more enticing than any contrived posturing they could've come up with and so make hearts melt in spite of the chilly visuals. Fresh off a plane and driving to the first date of Horse Feathers' current tour, Ringle took a few minutes to talk about his project's rock rollercoaster ride and what the plan is now that he's made it to where he wants to be.

Bill Adams vs. Justin Ringle, singer of Horse Feathers

JR: Hello?

BA: Hey, may I speak to Justin please?

JR: This is he.

BA: Hey Justin, it's Bill Adams calling. How're you doing?

JR: I'm pretty good, how are you?

BA: Very well thanks. Is now okay for this interview?

JR: Yup, now's perfect.

BA: Okay cool. So where are you right now?

JR: I am driving through upstate New York to Vasser College where we're going to play a show tomorrow.

BA: I gotcha. Where did you fly from.?

JR: We flew from Portland, OR this morning and we landed a few hours ago. We're on our way to Poughkeepsie, NY.

BA: Okay, so is this the beginning of the tour?

JR: Yeah – well, we're playing tomorrow at Vasser and then we're doing another show that's part of the same festival on Saturday, then we fly back to Portland and driving to Minneapolis and starting for about a month.

BA: …And this can't possibly be the first tour for House With No Home….

JR: No, we went to Europe last month and we also went down to SXSW for a week, then last fall we did a full US tour and a European tour as well.

BA: Oh okay, so how has the reception been for the new album?

JR: It's been really healthy actually, I'm pretty flattered at how well the reception has gone and it keeps getting better. I'm hoping this next tour does well – really, you never know how it's going to go – but our last couple of tours have been absolutely great.

BA: Have you noticed that it has been a steady sort of build?

JR: It's definitely seeming so. Prior to this release we only had one album out and it was on a much smaller label so, in a lot of ways, House With No Home is being viewed as our first release by a lot of the world. Because of that, I think a lot of people are finding out about us now and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that things keep going this well; I have no complaints at all.

BA: I can kind of understand that, I wasn't aware that House With No Home wasn't your first release until I started researching for this interview. How did that work out exactly? Were you signed and then recorded the album? Was it the other way around where you had it in hand and then shopped it around?

JR: Well, the way it worked with Killrockstars was that Slim Moon – who used to own the label – sent me an email on myspace just saying that he really liked our first record and eventually they came to see us play in New York. We sent them some demos and they came to see us again in New York where they signed us. I'd recorded about half of House With No Home before we left for the tour where they ultimately ended up signing us, and then recorded the other half when we got back from that tour so, really, it was on both sides of that fence. We had been working on stuff before we knew they were going to put it out, but we didn't shop it to any other labels. I was more than thrilled to just deal with them.

BA: Well sure – I mean KRS had been pretty well-respected for a very long time.

JR: Yeah – for me especially, I grew up in the Northwest and have lived there all my life so just the history of it alone was enough for me to stop looking for any other possible labels. I was just blown away to be able to put out a record with them.

BA: Yeah – realistically, I don't know a lot of bands that wouldn't just at that chance.

JR: [laughing] Yeah, I didn't have to think about it too long.

BA: I don't blame you, but because of the timing did it change the work after you got back from that tour?

JR: Having it happen the way it did put a lot of pressure on me because we didn't know the time-frame of when the record was going to be released. As I said, we had the basic tracking done for about half of the record done and then we got back and discovered that there was a hard deadline for when they needed the record. When that word came down, as soon as I got home I immediately started to write the rest of the record. We got signed in October 2007 I think, and I had to have the record to them by February so, while it didn't change my approach at all, I did have to speed up the process a little bit. It was hard and I really learned what so many musicians have said: “Your first record, you work on your whole life, but you have a really finite amount of time for the second one.”  That was new and stressful,  but I'm happy with the way it turned out.

BA: Oh – that reminds me, I did want to say congratulations on the record it's – oh why be polite? – it's pretty fuckin' good.

JR: Thanks man. I appreciate that.

BA: Where did the songs spring from exactly? Is it experience or storytelling?

JR: Well, I felt like Words Are Dead was a really personal record and I think House With No Home is as well, it's just that I started behind this last one with personal experiences as the basis for a lot of it and I fictionalized it a bit by coming at it from different perspectives and trying to separate them so that they weren't purely songs about my own life. They're inspired by personal experience, but it's a weird marriage of being emotionally very personal, but not literally about me in terms of the subject or character in the song. The first album was a little closer to being honestly about my life and experiences.

BA: Okay, so the difference between Words Are Dead and House With No Home is the difference between truth – on Words Are Dead – and embellished truth on House With No Home?

JR: Somewhat. The lyrics and stories in them are done the way they are – the reason they're songs in the first place – is because they get a rise out of me; it emotionally effects me and that's why I get them finished. In a way, it obviously touches me personally and is inspired by personal events or at least I could breathe some life into it emotionally.

BA: Now, as you said, it straddled the signing and a tour, but how long was the album in the making?

JR: Uhm, we spent about a week in August initially, and then I spent a couple of weeks with the accompanists – Peter and Heather Broderick – in the studio, and then I worked with the engineer on it for probably about a month and a half past that so it was probably about two months in total, but it was broken into chunks.

BA: Was there any sort of conscious changes made in the process for House With No Home versus how things got done for Words Are Dead? Or was it only a matter of having the songs and getting them down?

JR: Well, it was sort of a combination of both of those sentiments to an extent. I think there are a lot of similarities between this record and the first one, but I think the songs are a little more built up and aren't quite so spare. I was trying to have it be a little more textured and a little more involved but, at the same time from a songwriting standpoint, I felt like it was definitely indebted to the ideas on the first record, but they'd been expanded upon a little bit. I'd say it was a natural progression – I don't think it was a really big step or anything – but I can say that a little more safely now because I'm working on the next record and I feel like there will be some larger strides made on it simply because there's going to have been more time lapsed between the two and I am comparing and contrasting what we've done before a little more. Even so, I mean, I certainly feel like, while the steps between Words Are Dead  and House With No Home were small, there was a pretty natural evolution.

BA: Now, let's call it straight: House With No Home was released by a record label called KillRockStars and that really is sort of perfect because while there are pop structures in the songs, but Horse Feathers is not a pop or rock band in structure at all; I mean, your accompanists play violins and saws, cellos and banjos; how did it all come together as a project?

JR: Well, I was very interested in having that sort of instrumentation and I just happened to meet Peter Broderick very serendipitously; he became my roommates. I was playing open mikes at that tie and Peter plays a lot of instruments so we just sort of started experimenting with the sounds. I really enjoy the sound of folk music particularly for the instrumentation of it but, in our case, while the instruments are traditional in a sense, the combinations of them and how they work together in this band and in these songs isn't necessarily traditional. Having cello with banjo, for instance, is fairly unusual but the additions of saw and cello really added another sort of dimension to the spectrum.

BA: Yeah, I can see that. Now you said you're working on another album?

JR: I'm working on writing another album, but I think we're going to be recording most of it this summer.

BA: Okay, I see. So how does the writing process break down for you? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but you've got different players on the road than you have for the albums right?

JR: Right. The band that I have on the road with me are probably going to be the main accompanists on the next record because I've been touring with them a lot and playing with them most consistently and I've been working on new tunes with them. The first record was done with just Peter and I and the last one, we added Peter's sister so it's been sort of transitioning over the last couple of years. In terms of the tunes, I pretty much write the songs myself – the melodies and lyrics and all that – and then I'll show them to the accompanists  to bounce them off them and see what they come up with and then often we'll change the structures to accommodate the strings. It's kind of a two-part thing; I spend half my time alone with my guitar, and then the other half with the group.

BA: Is that still happening or is it on hold while you're on tour?

JR: Uhm, well, I'm hoping to keep working on some of the new stuff while we're on the road. We've been playing quite a bit so that cuts the time down in terms of coming up with new stuff, but we're trying to get some of it ready to hopefully play on this tour. We were really working hard right before we left to have a couple done, so I think by the end of the tour we'll be playing a few songs that no one's ever heard before. I've been touring on these songs for the last four months so it'd be exciting for us to have some fresh material.


Horse Feathers official website

Horse Feathers myspace


House With No Home is out now on Killrockstars. Buy it here on Amazon .

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