Musica est scientia bene modulandi. -- Augustine
Formed in 2010, Horse Lords is a Baltimore based experimental rock band that features drummer Sam Haberman, guitarist Owen Gardner, bassist and computer music handler Max Eilbacher, and saxophonist and percussionist Andrew Bernstein. Their newest album The Common Task, released in March, came just as the global pandemic reached the US; creating an economic and social recession that resulted in the cancelation of nearly all of their planned tours in North America, Europe, and Asia overnight. In the face of the upcoming post-pandemic era, we raise up the question: how do American indie bands break away from the old model of promoting their music and what forms will emerge to ensure their survival?
The members of Horse Lords hold that as a result of being independent artists with no substantial support from the industry or government, there is no reason to not simply continue making music. They predict that the outcome may in fact lead to a revival of various D.I.Y. indoor small-scale performances and back to a true focus on music and community. Now may also be a good time for creative research; there is no need to bite the bullet and produce an album with the goal of touring or the hope of squeezing into a music festival. The pandemic has forced the pace of creation to a slow, and that just might be a good thing.
Horse Lords, who have extensive experience touring in Europe and North America, has in recent years been hoping to have the opportunity to tour Asia. Having never been to Taiwan to perform, the four musicians are curious about Taiwanese culture and art, but to them Taiwanese music is a mist within which it is difficult to find a direction to dig deep. Through this interview exchange, Horse Lords was recommended the latest albums by two Taiwanese bands, Pán [盤] by Prairie WWWW and Flow, Gesture, and Spaces by Non-Confined Space. Completely different in style but with the some same creative philosophies involved in the making of their music, all three bands extend through one or two bars of melody or rhythmic ideas to produce an recursive marching form, one that conveys the musical integration and intertextuality that has evolved through the process of co-creation and interaction.
The sounds in their music all exhibit a certain flow of writing; whether it is the impromptu text of the free jazz methods and theories in Non-Confined Space; Prairie WWWW's transfiguration of their own perception of land and society into a symbolic metaphor and musical poetology; or Horse Lords' use of approximate mathematical methods to combine a referenced musical context with seemingly unrelated tune combinations and collages which create powerful and irregular rock music.
Horse Lords, Prairie WWWW, and Non-Confined Space have created distinct but clearly defined symbols in music, those which carry the essence of their work, and present anti-conventional music forms and democracy within their creations. A single genre is insufficient to sum up and express the experimental spirit of intellectual change present in their art. It is definitely worth it to you to listen over and over again and reflect. As Prairie WWWW's Yi-Zhi puts it, "a band style that cannot be labelled by a term or established as a single genre, creates a musical word much like a key that allows listeners entry into new imagination."
Each member of Prairie WWWW has a different idea concerning Horse Lords' music. Drummer White Wu, who first listened to their music from Spotify's random list, described their compositional arrangements, which possess a lot of droll composite beats, as being particularly intriguing; referring to them as deliberate mistakes. Vocalist and percussionist Yi-Zhi says that their music reminds him of groups such as My Disco, Shellac and Dawn of Midi, whose styles are varying and different, but through the intertwining of their own western musical cultural heritage, they are able to create sounds that are recognizable though not composed in accordance with any trend. This kind of creativity can truly lead the direction of future music.
Yi-Zhi points out that although Western musicians have developed many different music genres, whether as individuals or as a band, they often still exhibit distinctive sonic differences within similar music genres. He describes Horse Lords as "creating a sense of world music, with melodies, for example, akin to Middle Eastern folk music. It's full of surprises and makes me realize that perhaps this is a trend of music style unique to Western countries. Alternative rock bands like them are not just creatively more expressive, but they possess a distinct musical essence."
Prairie WWWW's guitarist, Sean, enjoys Horse Lords' music, feeling that their rhythms possess both fervent clarity and precision, like every member, with a sense of closeness, knows each other's next step. "Their drum sound makes me think of some African music, the guitar parts as well, but with a style that is not as 'sunny'. Their music is relatively minimal, containing a very strong repetitive technique, and I feel very uplifted after listening to it. It would be good music for my walking or biking." Taking curiosity as the starting point, these three bands expound upon their creative processes and the integration of profound nonmusical ideas through a simple cultural exchange, converging upon their creative dissensus.
Prairie WWWW: We all think that the musical structure of Horse Lords is clear and neat, and we also feel an overall great tacit understanding and a refreshing vibe from the live performances. We want to ask about how you approach the musical process? How do you usually construct a concept as the starting point for composing a song?
Owen (HL): It's complicated because it's usually not a single approach, different people are bringing different ideas, and someone will bring me in. I guess we have a common method in that we all have to refine things together, so one person brings something and then somebody else adds to that and then things get mixed around. I think it all ends up sounding the way it does just because it's always getting ground down in the same manner. It's very democratic and everybody can bring their ideas in.
Andrew (HL): Oftentimes we work on a couple of different patterns together, a couple of different sections together, sort of irrespective of each other. We work on maybe five different sections and then we take two of those sections and put them together, and that becomes a piece. We say things like, 'Where does this one go from here? Maybe it could flow into this other one', and then it works. So we sometimes work that way.
Prairie WWWW: Listening to the music reminds us of a few artists we like, such as the early age of Battles, My Disco, Dawn of Midi, Liquid Liquid, King Gizzard and Wizard Lizard, Shellac, etc., but despite making us feel these associations, Horse Lords presents a very clear and different sound that inspires creativity in people! What kind of music influences Horse Lords and inspires you the most creatively?
Max (HL): For me particularly with Horse Lords, it is interesting because I would hear something, say a composer or an electronic composer, and then how I work that influence into this setting of this thing with four friends. So a lot of specific stuff but mainly it's about something more abstract, like how do you take ideas used in an electroacoustic piece, or a conceptual piece, and refine and change it so it can be used when writing with Horse Lords, a band. It's to a point where sometimes I forget that we are a rock band. We have a process and we write, and then we can be totally watching our video and realize ,"oh yeah, it's rock music. I forgot that." Usually that's like the end experiment, it all gets filtered through.
Andrew: Our press release mentions some of these influences, but a lot of them don't sound like Horse Lords necessarily, and I feel a lot of the music that we draw inspiration from don't necessarily sound like the band. But we sort of try to fit some of those ideas into this box that is Horse Lords and sort of seeing what patterns or rhythms we can find or discover, and I guess coming back to sort of experiments and musical exploration, exploring numbers and where we can derive rhythms or pitch material from non-musical things.
Owen: I guess now that we sort of have a way that we sound, we can take for granted that we sound a certain way. For many years we have been exploring more kinds of abstract musical concepts, but don't necessarily have a lot to do musically with the results that we'll come up with, for example, certain processes and minimal music, etc. In the past few years, I've been getting interested in ways of dealing with rhythms that are not really tied to any particular kind of music, but I guess are more of a mathematical way of working, kind of a total abstraction. I do more of the mixing, so I sometimes have to sort of think more about how..., like the only other stuff that sounds like this are rock bands. But the stuff that is actually most influential in a way, is stuff that I don't actually like that much. I find myself listening to a lot of the more classic 70's rock music that I don't enjoy listening to but aim to get those sorts of sounds; I like how they are recorded basically. I continue to listen to a bunch of African music and that's very influential to what I do, and folk music and things like that. But as far as other rock music, aside from the ways that the drums are recorded or something, I don't know if I'm all that interested.
Andrew: I remember Owen telling me about listening to something and trying to get the snare sound, and it was maybe when we were working on "Interventions". I feel like a long time ago we settled on the sonic world of Horse Lords. We could rattle off some composers, like Arnold Dreyblatt, a composer who has also kind of worked at the intersection of minimalism and rock, a similar sound world. I've always been influenced by some records by Laurie Spiegel and also with her approach to rhythm.
Max: I remember being kind of in a Can mindset, like 'they all studied with Stockhausen and Irmin Schmidt was an actual composer to make money and support the rest of the band.' But they'll meet up and make this funky danceable stuff. They are also into cutting tape and using homemade synthesizers. I always view it through that lens.
Prairie WWWW: What are your thoughts regarding the Asian music scene? How much do you know about Taiwan? What is your impression of Taiwan?
Max: I know very little. I was actually watching the film Taipei Story just a while ago. the past few nights.
Andrew: I think we're all familiar with Japanese music maybe a little bit more, and maybe that's because Japan has had a closer relationship with the United States, historically since WWII.
Owen: Definitely Taiwanese cinema is something I'm very keen on, but I think Prairie WWWW and Non-Confined Space are the first two Taiwanese bands I've ever heard. I've heard some indigenous music but I assume that doesn't have much to do with the larger music scene. There must be a lot more money, and the market is there in Japan, for sure. There's a very robust experimental music scene, I mean it seems there is a robust ALL-music scene there. I guess there is just more exchange between the US and Japan. I'm actually interested to hear from Prairie WWWW's answers about funding, because it's interesting in Japan that there is no cultural funding. It's even worse than the States. I was curious about Taiwanese funding, if there is more promotion of Taiwanese culture and more Taiwanese arts grants.
To understand the creation of the Taiwanese bands by listening to their works, Horse Lords has a special interest in the artists' creating context and the scene outside of the music itself. The members have differing interests in Non-Confined Space and Prairie WWWW. Guitarist Owen describes the music of Prairie WWWW as reminiscent of the art-rock band The Residents. Saxophonist Andrew likes that both bands have their own unique and creative spirits. However, the first question they ask Prairie WWWW is about the interrelationship between bands and the industry. They suggest that in the last decade, the formation of an "American band" has lost the essence of the DIY scene, so it is refreshing to hear music made by multiple members as a "large group".
Horse Lords: The American DIY scene has really moved away from full bands in the past decade. So it is refreshing to hear a "larger group". I feel like the ease and access to computers along with monetary cultural austerity has created more solo acts in the US. It's just more financially feasible to write and perform with a computer than a group of four to five people. Band members are working overtime to pay bills so scheduling and touring is hard. Do you feel this is the case in Taiwan? Are there more solo acts in Taiwan than full bands? How has being a five piece influenced everything from writing, playing, and functioning as a band for over a decade?
Hom Yu (Prairie WWWW): Each of us have jobs outside of this band. It is still very difficult to make a living solely through music. I feel that working other jobs while making music is indeed common in Taiwan. Now as technology becomes more and more advanced, many artists have begun to choose to be DJs or rappers, that is to say, everything has developed into working individually which is also more efficient. If you want to have a band, you have to spend more time and put more effort into it. I think this might be the reason why more and more people are moving towards individual performances.
Yi-Zhi (Prairie WWWW): Music making and performance as individuality has become a global trend, and friends who originally had been in a band have gradually begun to present their own works and shows. Indeed, new bands like ours, with five members, are really rare in Taiwan. But it doesn't mean no one plays music as a band anymore, it's just rare that they can keep the band-form and live a financially stable life while maintaining the energy to be continually creative. Even we struggle to meet such conditions. The bands that are popular in Taiwan, or that are in line with the current music trends, maintain their financial situations relatively easily in the short term, but it is not easy to continue investing personal income into the band. Our biggest problem in cost at the current stage is in terms of equipment, but it is also the part we hope to adjust. We're trying to simplify performance equipment so that our music can be performed in different spaces (bookstores, art galleries, record shops, etc.), compared to the general music venue, while not abating the performances' music arrangement. But it is not just developing the unplugged version, but continuing to adjust the performance content with the advantages of developing more diverse musical expressions, so that we can flexibly respond to different kinds of showcases, and perhaps slowly develop video-based collaborative shows instead of just limiting it to band performances. It's not easy making a living with creativity, or breaking even, especially for bands with niche music styles, but it is always necessary to practice new methods and various contingencies to develop new possibilities.
Horse Lords: What is the writing process for you all? How much of the material is one member's idea expanded upon vs how much is collective writing?
Apple (Prairie WWWW): In addition to the sharing of music with each other and the instrumental work that everyone is responsible for, we also put a great importance on the content of the lyrics. We would read books, articles, or movies together, and come up with all kinds of inspiration from them. Sometimes a lot of music material is tossed around with each other, such as melody or sound, etc., which are not used at the moment, but are used as practice and motivation. Collective creation is done by common consensus. In fact, we would leave a lot of room for experimentation and collage in order to create a consistent feeling that is suitable for all of us. We may also, by luck, make two different songs at the same time because of this method.
Yi-Zhi: Ideally, I hope that all members can develop more proactive attempts in the creative process. Combining and balancing ideas amongst one another can give the works a more detailed view, fuller or even more diverse, as a result of the accumulation of various possibilities.
Horse Lords: How has folk influenced your writing style? What folk music in particular?
Sean (Prairie WWWW): When I started to work on my own music, I focused more on listening to the Taiwanese folk singers close to my life and where I live, such as Lin Sheng Xiang, Panai Kusui, and Chen Ming Chang, etc. Through their singing content, I sensed the life and plight of my communities, and social issues. That kind of music is like a manifestation that grows from the land where you live. I slowly found a kind of connection to the "grassroots" in my mind, and began to think about the creative context as it relates to my own roots, and this influenced us later in our creative direction.
Yi-Zhi: Our listening preferences are actually quite different, but the same roots and direction of continued exploration in musical aesthetics is quite consistent. As Sean said, we are influenced by Taiwanese folk singers. Their creative ideas are accompanied by various social movements and environmental issues. Their music makes us rethink these connections from our lives and land outside of music, constantly reminding us of the trajectory of developments in Taiwan, and the accumulated cultural achievements of past predecessors and how they tried to decolonize Taiwanese culture. These are the common problems for this generation of Taiwanese, so that we don't get lost in the trends of the global music world. I don't have a good or bad conclusion about music genres, but in the past few years, I have realized that we should face our existent position from the perspective of decolonization; it includes everything in our life, and it will lead us to rethink, in our creativity, the styles and themes we are looking for and where they come from? What is the symbolism and the connection to us?
In a contrast with Horse Lords, whose musical thinking is oriented towards modernity and liberation of Western rock and roll, Prairie WWWW's creation is poetic and gentle, bringing up the aboriginal essence, looking for the roots of the past, building up symbolically dark and bright soundscapes, ritual-like music which recapitulates the historical existence and locality in Taiwan that has been broken and fragmented after many periods of colonizations and Western cultural imperialism. Yi-Zhi believes that rethinking these basic values is not about finding a standard answer. In the face of constant change in the world, these thoughts would be present in music and in life all the time. This land, its people and the things that contribute to the music and culture of Taiwan are the inspiration; the textuality for the music they make. "As for the translation and creativity of Taiwanese folk songs, I think Chen Ming Cang is a very solid representative of his generation in music. His musical life has returned from the various Western guitar styles to the various traditional music as our national treasures in Taiwan, such as Chen Da, talking-blues artist Chu Ting-Shun, Nanguan music, Beiguan music, and Taiwanese Opera, etc. He also did exchanges with aboriginal musicians of the same generation, analysis and integration of the tonality of Taiwan's Austronesian music, and developed a new vitality in Taiwanese folk music. He has popular works in the Taiwanese pop-music scene, taking up an important historical position. In the past ten years, he has also actively used the accumulation and the context of Taiwanese music as a method of communication and teaching, so that younger Taiwanese generations can absorb it like the nutrients in the soil and continue to grow."
Horse Lords: The electronic elements of the songs remind me a lot of Kemialliset Ystävät. There are moments of joy and more "darker" uses of synths and electronics. Are electronic elements used as a textural or atmospheric function or do they play a harmonic role within songs?
White Wu (Prairie WWWW): Basically, all of the above can be said. At the beginning of the creation of each song, it seems that I did not deliberately imagine that the song would be an electronic or rock band-like style, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the overall atmosphere of the song and the sound interpretation; which instrument should be used for the sound and the texture of the song, and which are closer to the overall feeling of the songs we make presently.
Yi-Zhi: Electronic music, sound, and synthesizers can allow our creative imaginations a certain extent of realization. This is the reason why we develop manifestation in these works. The combination of changes is free and changeable, just like various food seasonings and earthy materials.
Horse Lords: With two drummers it can be a challenge to avoid creating a cluttered sound. Do you have strategies to leave space for one another?
White Wu: When we compose the rhythm, I am responsible for the main rhythm part, Yi-Zhi's is to extend the tone and frequency of the main rhythm to increase the layering or sound of the phrase, such as "Yóu" and "Wu-Hai". We would leave some space for each other to fill in, so that the veins of the song generated by the intertwined rhythm slowly establish in our current style. Or, for some songs with simpler but heavier rhythms, such as "Dù" and "The Rain Links Heaven and Earth", the visuals and dynamic tension of the performances are presented by the duo drums, and we try to make this the focus.
Yi-Zhi: In terms of editing logic in music, I mostly use software and sampling methods to edit the beats. The changes and possibilities of timbre are also relatively open. White Wu mostly plays and records the drum set to compile rhythms. We use our imagination and intuition to discuss the possibilities, then I use software to edit them, and integrate the final expression with the actual two sets of drum improvisation phrases.
Horse Lords explores the "methods of making music" in a way that is artfully instep with their own thinking and ability to carve out rhythms and tones. They listened to the Flow, Gesture, and Spaces album by Non-Confined Space, a group which is formed by Sonic Deadhorse and Hsieh Minyen, and asked the two Taiwanese experimental musicians about improvisational motivation and sound textures. As for the experimental musicians like Non-Confined Space, on the whole, they are not concerned and limited with prescribing musical forms, structures or interrelationships of musical materials, but are more interested in possible sounds and the process of making sounds at present. Time is a kind of force that accelerates them forward with the sounds.
Horse Lords: We can hear a wide range of electronic sounds in your work, from tonal pads to granular textures. What sort of electronic music are you two influenced by?
Sonic Deadhorse: Venetian Snares, Squarepusher, flashbulb, Ruby My Dear, and Sknail.
Hsieh Minyen: Phillips Grass, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Otomo Yoshihide, Sonic Deadhorse, and YMCK.
Horse Lords: What is the process of sample collecting for live improvised sets like? Any sources in particular?
Sonic Deadhorse: The instrumental sound of Minyen is mainly sampled at first in the live show, and the melody motifs and chorus structures are developed in dots or planes. The main root of our form is that we want to improvise with all on-site objects during improvisation.
Horse Lords: The songs on Flow, Gesture, and Space have a lot of sonic activity. How much of the album or live set is improvised and how much is pre decided upon?
Non-Confined Space: Except for "Into the Flow" and "│Pxz-Pzy│≦１+ Pxy", which are 100% improvisation in the studio, the other tracks are all pre-set musical styles or theme motifs. The live performances are basically more than 95% improvisations, and the remaining 5% are likely to use the musical motifs or synthesizer effects used in the previous performances as a lead-in. It all depends on the feeling of the moment.
Horse Lords: Why improvise? How did you two decide to improvise instead of compose?
Non-Confined Space: Because we both like the free jazz and avant-garde music of the 1960s and 1970s, and hope to continue that adventurous spirit, but the sound texture is a blend of contemporary electronics and original sound. The starting point for composing is improvisation, so many of our composing ideas are drawn from the inspiration of the live performance.
Horse Lords: Non Confined Space has an extremely eclectic sound. How did you two meet and decide or happen upon this instrumentation of sax and electronics?
Non-Confined Space: We met in the music club in college, at that time we played classical jazz music. Later, Minyen went to study in Belgium, and Sonic Deadhorse began to play electronic music. It was not until 2014 that we met again in the avant-garde music scene in Taiwan. After two collaborative improvisation shows together, we decided to continue to develop this project as Non-Confined Space.
Horse Lords: In Horse Lords we have done pieces where the Sax is processed by electronic elements. I can hear some of that in these tracks. Is that a constant element in sets? Is the sampled sax a fundamental to your sound?
Non-Confined Space: Yes, we would do a lot of live looping and real-time resampling when we perform, and then base the development of the songs on these.
Sonic Deadhorse of Non-Confined Space said that after listening to Interventions and the latest album The Common Task by Horse Lords, some parts reminded him of Battles and Deerhoof, and the impromptu jazz musician Thelonious Monk. He describes their works as having a sense of ritual music, and notes the presence of micro tonalities in the songs. Mingyen Hsieh said that their music made him feel that nothing was advancing forward, but he could imagine their state of making music and improvisation. He goes on to explain "my meaning of advancing is, after having an element or material, it begins to extend. The song development will eventually move forward to reach a certain space, unlike their way of repeating over and over again. Sometimes, if the beat and rhythm are not so natural and regular, this process of reiteration can also be a very interesting challenge. Both rock and jazz music have this kind of concept."
Minyen also thinks of Ornette Coleman's music from a period in the past, perhaps a phrase or a rhythmic repetition, such as the Dancing in Your Head album; It seems to be stuck in one place, but it will pop out again. There is tension and release. He said: "Horse Lords also has this kind of release, but they deliberately place the release point further along, popping out at the end. Although this approach is not my favorite, I can totally feel their creative intentions."
Non-Confined Space: The first song of the new album sounds very interesting. The drumming sounds like a deliberate mistake. Is the entire song recorded live in one take? Can the live performances be presented exactly the same as on the record?
Owen: If it wasn't one take, it was two takes put together. Generally, I think for everything we kind of just play through the complete song a few times and sort of take the best parts, but generally in terms of energy, a single take will mostly work. As far as the deliberate mistake, I guess it is like a weird, jerky and unnatural rhythm. It's supposed to be a little disorienting, and that at the end it's supposed to feel like something you can almost understand, but not quite.
Andrew: That jerky, deliberate mistake part, when we were talking about how sometimes we practice certain parts for years before we can really get them right, that's really what we're talking about. It took us a very, very long time to be able to play it consistently right and confidently. I think a lot of our music, in different ways, kind of comes from that angle, wanting things to be familiar enough to make people comfortable and then sort of disorienting enough that they are forced to think in a new way, feel the rhythm in a new way.
Owen: I think making it a little bit accessible would make it easier to sneak in more challenging ideas , and in some cases I think people don't know that they are hearing something, that on paper would look very complicated. I think if you saw a score of a lot of these things they would look a lot harder, you would kind of assume that that would be hard to listen to.
Max: It's tricking people into being radicalized. Like the more danceable ones, if you put it on, let alone [see]a score it never looks like that fun, but people are like 'I didn't know this could be actually fun' and ‘I'd want to go to a club, drink beer, and listen to this.'
Non-Confined Space: On past mixtape albums released by Horse Lords, it sounds like there are a lot of effects and collaging of sounds on post production. Do you use the same methods on the new album to compose the songs, or do you develop new techniques?
Owen: I think "People's Park" and "Integral Accident" are simultaneous collage of a bunch of different elements that don't have much to do with each other, interacting over time.
Andrew: And the kind of Shepard tone motif comes back. I think yes and no, we come back to some of these same techniques over and over again, but I think that we've refined them over the years, and are also kind of tweaking and discovering new techniques, but a lot of the ideas that we are working with, we've been working with for a long time.
Max: I think this album is the best example of how our mixtapes happen to form an album. Because before, the mixtapes were sort of, 'we can make fun collages, and do experiments more.' Whereas the albums were more of these serious, more of these concise pieces. And this album, even the way we collage, or at least the way I contributed collages was a little more conceptually sound through and through , and I just feel like the techniques of the mixtapes have really honed in for a full-length [album].
Owen: Yeah, I think it's really the best integration of these techniques so far.