by Adam McGovern
A literally ungodly hour on some post-midnight New York summer Sunday: So few people in the audience, they have to take turns being the band, or so it seems, as Horsebox ascends the stage, and my inner Top Ten, after the redeye set of someone I'd actually come to see. Their bizarre charm distracts my eyes from scene to stage; Crosby & Nash by way of Messrs. Mole and Toad – a tweedy roots-punk whose winking weirdness is perfect for the did-I-dream-it? midnight hour. I've come face to face with the fringe-buff's rare prize: something he wasn't looking for.
"These songs are all on our CD – if we ever have one," the band announces to whoever's left, before accepting my address for their mailing list, and running off to find the napkin that will become it. This, whatever it may be, is Rock 'n' Roll.
Three guys walk into a bar, into the William Gibson future of after-after-hours encounters between floating citizens of a shrunken world. Horsebox, two label-less North Londoners who've drifted across the ocean for a waters-testing mini-tour, and I, insomniac scribe from what they think is the mythic land of Springsteen and Soprano – rootless fan and wandering minstrels – bump shoulders on a restless late-night walk around the globe.
Horsebox are an urban band, bent on evoking a rural front porch. "Take a left at the sunset lights," they sing, in a relaxed rallying cry to abandon the frazzling city for the forest primeval. But the state of nature is becoming largely a state of mind in both Britons' and Americans' built-up backyards, so regardless of the ocean between us, we bond in our knowing defiance of reality.
The band members have had some stranger-than-fiction training as well: Will Vaughan, who "tends to write the tunes" and sing them, is an ex-hardcore drummer and self-described Icelandic/English mongrel with two opera singers for parents and a "non-identical twin" (he couldn't even go with the crowd in the womb). Guitarist (and Will's near-lifetime boozing buddy) Tom Jarratt is a geologist by day, while recently added bassist Andrew Nelson's "great granddad invented the neon tube." They're currently interviewing new drummers, and hopefully not letting on too much.
Meanwhile, I sit by the modem, recording the evolutions of this strange aural fauna. There may as yet be a failure to communicate with the music-industry powers that be, but not with a quirk-rock niche no one else is filling. Horsebox meets the major labels' something-for-everyone imperative with an instinctively perverse egalitarianism; "Stolen Whiskey," a croony, doodling young-romance song which is one of many tunes to drift on and off of the group's website like an amiable mirage, sounding like Morrissey and Marvin Gaye in muskrat love; a pleasantly baffling "I Would Die 4 U" gets an ambling, hillbilly makeover.
These rural digressions only add bite to the band's straight-on scrutiny of modern malaise; the merry catalogue of American ills, "Out of Tune," is surely the only song that manages to rhyme – much less equate – "Streisand" and "Manson." Horsebox keeps a keen ear to the airwaves for buzzwords that wash up unfiltered on Britain's electronic shore (this is, after all, a band that once called itself Lesbian Monster Trucks).
The boys do their best to even the intellectual trade balance by floating a steady stream of home-burned CDs my way, each of which I promptly play, and so incessantly as to wear them a second hole. The rotating cast musicians I mentioned from my concert experience are starting to sit in, as Will's emails proudly preview the addition of xylophones and theremins to their basic acoustic-duo ensemble.
Some of these supplements spin the band off into new musical territory; some cause them to second-guess what's come so far. Horsebox's tunes morph like musicologists say every song did before someone ruined it all by thinking up recording and setting versions in stone. Unique takes of the band's tracks pick up arrangements here and drop verses there, as the situation changes, as the mood strikes. It's a budding collector's bonanza, as favorites undergo more-than-minor metamorphoses, and for the most part only get better.
But life as an unsigned band has its discontents, chief among them the endless showcase gigging, and an ongoing series of cold-calls to unsuspecting major-label saviors. "So, does any exec over there feel like blindly throwing money and guitars across the ocean yet?" I'm asked, and I wish I could help. Whenever the band throw discs in my direction, I ask for five so I can deflect them toward whatever professional crony will listen. Neutrality be damned; "music critic" is just a nice name for paid obsessive, and I'm up for some pro-bono compulsion too.
Label-less-ness has its frustrations, but for those seeking the unrestricted creative impulse of music that nature (if not Thomas Edison) intended, it can be a boon on both sides of the stage. On my end, the perks include long-distance but close-focus contact with the band, the sharing of new cuts in a teenage bedroom listening party spread across two continents, the lyrics emailed on request to complete the simulated 70s gatefold-sleeve communion. Fellow addicts in the band's underground stateside support network, like my Jersey cohort Maryann Ciba of leading alt. station WFMU, report a similar barrage of personal attention and unflagging wit from the band. At a higher echelon we'd call it "access," but for now friendship will do. "You know it'll backfire when you see me on Cribs," Will jokes of my and Ciba's quiet campaign, "head to toe in Sean John, living off dance mixes of ‘Girl Song'" (a grand Horsebox weeper that's seen its fair share of incarnations so far). I assure Will I'll be standing in line for the premature reunion tour.
The hits just keep on coming, with more CD-R care packages and wired MP3s. The band's homemade production matures by leaps and bounds (or trots and gallops), sonically lush with no loss of intimacy, matching sharp musicianship with daringly unvarnished vocals. "Hosa Potters Bar" (an ode to the less-than-intoxicating neighborhood where Will and Tom grew) skips along on a woozy piano-plink and cyber-kazoo like the futuristic mash-up of a much funkier Rick Wakeman and Randy Newman. "1 3 4" (aka "Myles Awayze") "even has a rock guitar solo in it," Will sheepishly offers, but this feedback-and-synth love ballad's cozy crunch and wistful unease are nothing to be shy about.
Luckily, he's losing his inhibitions, such as they were. "Playing more shows as a full band now and loving every minute," Will reports, explaining that "I get to be a little more Prince when I stand up." Not that he makes a habit of it: "I think I may actually have ended up on my knees at the last gig." And anyway, "we seem to get faster and louder all the time, I guess the Hoagy Carmichael in me will always book us for breaking any speed limits."
The invoking of Prince and Hoagy in one breath is a brisk primer on the Horsebox aesthetic, but are any label reps falling to their knees in return? The self-described "poorest band outside the tube stations" hasn't had Big Four money thrown in its guitar-cases yet, though Will economically sweeps it all back into the band's humor bank: "I think I mailed out about 25 CDs last week – 23 of which probably now act as coasters for Messrs. A and R."
For the time being, we must content ourselves with festive laments like "Cherry," a grinding doo-wop dirge with deadpan monotone harmonies, and "Lemonade," a glam high-speed car-chase with urbanely self-loathing lyrics. That's the state of Horsebox's equine art as of this writing. "Not sure where this foodstuffs angle has come from," reflects Will; "seems all our new offerings are perishable!" With such rich musical soil, and so secure a supply of fertilizer, I'm putting my money on the extra mile.
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