This is what Dennis Hopper's listening to on his Walkman in Apocalypse Now." – NME
It's understandable to assume that Oakland, California's Drunk Horse falls into the 'vintage-tour shirt-wearing' set that is all over the latest issues of your favorite magazine. After all, singer/guitarist Eli Eckert is quick to list ZZ Top (pre-Eliminator) as a prime "stylistic motivator," but at the same time the group's leader mentions the Melvins, Jesus Lizard, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis in the same breath. Drunk Horse's latest, In Tongues (Tee Pee Records, June 28), shows the band to have their sights firmly pointed towards the future, as well as over their shoulders.
In Tongues follows up the band's well received 2003 release Adult Situations - and features Horse regulars Eckert, bassist Cyrus Comiskey and drummer Cripe Jergensen. With the lead guitar position vacated (John Niles exited the band before recording commenced), Eckert and company called on a pair of friends to lend a hand in the studio, ex-Fucking Champ Josh Smith and multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow. As a result, both played an integral part in the sound of the new album.
"[Smith] plays on two songs," explains Eckert. "He plays slide guitar on the song 'Strange Transgressors.' I've always admired Captain Beefheart's later stuff - the feeling, the intensity, and the rawness of the blues, but without the standard blues chord progression. It's some sort of amalgamation of Howlin' Wolf. Really fiery, intense, primal, gut-wrenching feeling - with a hard rock band behind it."Robinow on the other hand, helped with the album-closing epic,"Skydog." "It has keyboards, piano and synthesizer by [Robinow]who's playing guitar with us now. It's an instrumental, and it showcases more of our interest in progressive rock and more so the harder end of the spectrum of fusion - sort of along the lines of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Magma, stuff like that."
"We recorded In Tongues near Laurel Canyon, in LA, at Seedy Underbelly," explains Eli. "It was the old home studio of Jeff Porcaro, the drummer of Toto and famous session musician [who died in 1992]. There was an overhead light in the control room that would go on and off at totally random times during the sessions. If we were ever trying to make a decision and the light switched, we knew that it was Jeff chiming in with his opinion. And he was always right."
Wanting to break free from the often-restraining confines of the studio environment, the group tried new approaches, one of whichEckert remembers clearly. "One thing that stuck out particularly to me was in recording 'Strange Transgressors,' we recorded the song live in the studio, minus the vocals. So it was rhythm guitar, drums, bass and slide guitar. I mentioned it would sound really great to overdub the slide guitar, so on a whim, we decided to try tracking[Smith's] guitar again over the old one, but without him listening in his headphones. He did one take and it was absolutely perfect, mind-blowing."
Eckert also points out that the songwriting on their latest was more of a team effort than previously. "The songwriting on the new album is a lot more collaborative than it was in the past. People writing parts away from the band and bringing them in." Additionally, Eckert tried a new approach lyrically. "Usually on our previous albums, the lyrics tends to be a narrative, telling a story usually about a character or person - not myself. The new album has a more autobiographical slant to some of the songs. It's a little oblique, but it's a little more personal." Giving specific examples, Eckert points out that "Nice Hooves" is a song that "deals with growing up - becoming an adult," while "Reverse Close Encounter" is "a song about love, which is a first for Drunk Horse."
But not all of the lyrics on In Tongues are easy to decipher. Take the aforementioned "Strange Transgressors," for example. "I've always been a fan of songs that have sort of a vague sense of menace to them. Some of my favorite writers are very good at evoking a sense of fear without actually laying everything in the table. I think H.P. Lovecraft is really good at that - talking about nameless horrors. The idea that you can't even describe it does a better job than actually trying to describe something. So that's what I was trying to go for. A shadowy circle of men that are breaking into peoples' houses at night, and whispering secrets in their ears, and then disappearing before the dawn. I think it kind of goes along with the sense of unease that a lot of people have with what's going on in our country right now."
Having recently wrapped up playing a series of pre-release shows atSXSW and through the West Coast, Eckert admits that the new songs take on a new dimension on stage. "It's a whole different animal live. The songs definitely tend to grow. The songs are almost theoretical until you've actually recorded it, and then there's a document - that's the answer to the equation. Then you have the rest of however long you're going to play it to continue to manipulate it. I enjoy both. I enjoy how a song will evolve over time, without even consciously trying to do anything different." With dates planned throughout the U.S. to support In Tongues, it won't be long until you too are forced to face this shadowy circle of men.