For the majority of bands signed to major record labels, the idea of messing with anything that could jeopardize their hard-earned careers probably seems absurd. But for Houndmouth, a group that’s had a string of successes with their previous albums From the Hills Below the City and Little Neon Limelight, going completely off-road on their latest album, Golden Age (Warner), seemed a fait accompli.
“It would be an injustice to capitalize on the stuff you’ve already outgrown,” guitarist and lead vocalist Matt Myers says. He believes it’s only natural for the band to switch things up and change its sound. “Playing with guitar, organ, drums and bass, we did that for so long it started to seem like a formula. We wanted to experiment with everything and have experimentation itself be the driving force. We kind of went to the extreme on this album.”
To help steer them away from their Americana sound, represented by previous songs like “Darlin’,” “Penitentiary” and “Sedona,” Houndmouth enlisted Jonathan Rado (of indie band Foxygen) and engineer/producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, the Killers, the War on Drugs, Kesha, Kacey Musgraves and John Legend). On Golden Age, the two men deploy vocoders, Moogs, strings, LinnDrums and a bunch of ad hoc noise-making devices, including rubber bands wrapped around a bucket for the bass sound on the album’s breakout single, “This Party.”
As Myers explains, “On our previous albums we would write songs and hammer them out ourselves, and then somebody would come in and capture the band playing them. But this time we wanted to start at the other end of the spectrum and create as we went along. So instead of capturing the band, it was more like manufacturing a band. I was really excited to do that, and I learned a whole bunch from exploring different avenues of creation. If nothing else, it’s very important to experiment with the way you create.”
When you were writing songs for this record, were you also envisioning a change in the fundamental sound of the group?
Yes, because most of the writing was done on my phone, as opposed to using guitar and piano, as in the past. A lot of times I‘d write the entire song using GarageBand. Then I’d get really invested in it and try to make everything sound really good by tripling the drums and panning them everywhere.
What led you to work up songs that way in the first place?
Well, I got scared, because I would sit down with the guitar or whatever, and I wouldn’t feel anything. After four years on the road, it was like, What the hell is going on? I felt like it was necessary to go to the other extreme just so I could get back to sitting down with a guitar again. This record is kind of a ‘f*ck off’, because I needed to experiment just to get back to being on a human level, I guess. I’m glad I did it, though, because it makes me appreciate just writing a song with an instrument again.
Did you purposely seek out Jonathan Rado and Shawn Everett to steer this record in a completely different direction from Houndmouth’s previous work?
Yes, because Rado is such a creator and Shawn is such a capturer. If we were going to manufacture this band, they were crucial to the project. It’s funny, because Houndmouth had a vibe, and then we just decided to change the vibe completely. It’s like we abandoned everything to explore a different way of creation.
Isn’t there an inherent danger in doing something like this?
In terms of business, I think there might be a danger, but it’s only a permanent danger if nobody learns anything from what they’re doing. I think that constant exploration and creation is crucial, but to learn something from it is even more important.
I’d imagine the recording process was very different from anything you’ve done in the past.
Yes. We had the overall structure of the songs, and John Rado would program a LinnDrum and I would play a scratch-guitar track, and that would be our starting point. In terms of how we built the songs, however, it was different every time. In one instance, instead of playing guitar on a track, we would record just certain notes on the guitar into a sampler and then play it that way. Even down to how the pick hits the string, we’d sample it so that we could hit it on the sampler and make a rhythmic thing that would give the illusion that a guitar was playing.
I understand you went so far as to drag tape around in the desert. True?
Yeah. We had this tape loop that sounded good, and then we wondered what would happen if we just dragged it around in the desert for a while and brought it back. Of course, it sounded completely different. The tape was trashed anyway, so we started slicing it up with a razor blade as it went through the machine, and the tape started mashing on top of itself and creating all this cool stuff. It was all very playful and reckless.
“Never Forget” sounds weirdly orchestral. How did that one take shape?
There’s not much of a song there, so we knew it had to be more of a dynamic vibe than a song. Shawn had us play to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We did the song dynamically, along with that imagery, so that it would take some sort of shape and arc.
[Singer/keyboardist] Katie Toupin left the group in 2016, and horn players Graeme Gardiner and Drew Miller joined. What was the idea of bringing them into the band?
Well, Graeme and Drew played a show with us once, and they wrote some parts for “Sedona” and other stuff on the old records. They were really good parts and they added a lot, and I love having them onstage because it induces a lot of emotion. On the new stuff there wasn’t really a lot of horns, so they have adapted to playing percussion, Moog and other things.
Can you talk about your guitar influences?
Mostly it’s blues. When I was young I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan a lot. He was so powerful, and it seemed like he had the most authentic vibrato. You can always tell how good a guitar player is by how they put vibrato on a string. But spacing out and landing on different notes has always been intriguing to me. I heard an interview with Dave Rawlings [singer/guitarist known for his work with Gillian Welch] where he said he knows the relation of the note he’s hitting over the chord being played, and I always thought that was pretty awesome, because then you have checkpoints of when, say, you want to hit the sixth over an A chord.
You defer to Strats right?
Yeah. I tried to fight it for a long time, but it’s my favorite guitar. I got the black sparkle one first, which is a Custom Shop model, and I played it forever. Then I got the Rootbeer sparkle one, which is spec’d out just like the black one.
What amps are you using?
I used to play a Fender Twin and one of those two-twelve Silvertones, but now I play out of a Kemper Profiler, which goes direct to the front of the house. I think the Kemper is good for shows because there’s a very consistent aspect to it — it sounds the same every time — but I do miss carrying amps. I also put a Fender Princeton onstage, and I have it on an A/B box so I can switch it on just to have that air onstage.
What’s on your pedalboard?
I have a Tube Screamer, which I’ve pretty much used my whole life, and I’ve been messing around with a DigiTech Whammy and a Bit Commander by EarthQuaker Devices. I love the Bit sound. It’s super fun, but I’m pretty minimal on pedals. I’m kind of in-between right now because of the Kemper.
Did you use actual amplifiers much at all for the recordings?
Yes, we used a bunch of amps. We would get an amp and then mic it with another amp, and mic that one with another amp, and do that about five times. The solo on “Strange Love” was done that way and I played it on a baritone guitar. To replicate that live, I use the Bit Commander pedal.
What was the reason for bringing a second guitar player [Aaron Craker] into the band at this point?
There are a lot of guitar parts that I can’t play while singing at the same time. I felt like those guitar parts were important to the songs, so we got another guitar player. But on the record, it was just Rado and me playing guitar.
Were you thinking much about how you’d perform these new songs live?
In the studio we would do whatever it took to provoke a feeling in us, and to enjoy what we were doing in the moment. If we had to replay them how they were on the record, we’d all quit our jobs!