If there exists a sense of cozy familiarity about Houndmouth‘s stirring new electro-folk album From the Hills Below the City, this feeling of community and of shared purpose, well, there’s a reason for that. The quartet gathered as buddies might, composed as confidants would, dealt with the sessions’ quirky challenges and opportunity like siblings.
The results, due Tuesday, June 4, from Rough Trade, came to encompass a series of very American narratives — beginning with their own: The overnight success story.
In December 2011, guitarist/vocalist Matt Myers began gathering in the mornings to write with Katie Toupin (keyboard, vocals), Zak Appleby (bass, vocals) and Shane Cody (drums, vocals) at this bustling urban locale in downtown New Albany, Indiana — jokingly referred to as the Greenhouse for its brick facade. They weren’t in any particular hurry. “Shane and I were on the same schedule of having lots of free time,” Myers admits. “You know, that nonexistent schedule that consists of living on handouts and being a bum.” They didn’t even have a band name, just a simple bond of friendship. From there grew these intimate, emotionally complex tapestries of song, echoing the tales of every passing motorist, snippets of conversation as people jogged past, the siren’s red wail from a firehouse next door.
When the sun dove below the skyline, those sounds would likewise fade, and Houndmouth would attempt to record, finally. Myers says they loved the early takes, but found some new — and quite unexpected — sounds bleeding in through the wafer-thin windows surrounding them: Gail and Goodrich, the neighbor’s dogs. “Their barks had gotten on almost all of the lead guitar tracks,” Myers says, “and we didn’t want to re-record ’em and lose the takes. I would have if I could have, but they were improvised, and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna re-learn one of my own solos,” he adds, laughing.
Cody, in a moment of down-home eloquence, said: “Screw it, the houndmouth stays.” It became a mantra for the loose-knit recordings, and eventually (with tongue firmly in cheek) the group’s bandname. Within this place of communal warmth, that kind of thing wasn’t unusual — even the recording space, a building owned by Cody’s family, became the launching pad for a series of inside jokes. “We call it the Greenhouse because — well, it’s made of worn faded green bricks,” Myers says, laughing again. “Creative, I know! Most people think that name came from smoking the devil’s lettuce and baking the place out, but weed slows us down too much for the recording process. We prefer a faster pace — a Whitehouse, if you will.”
What happened next, happened in a whir. They’d only first gotten together a month before the Greenhouse sessions, in November 2011. A show in nearby Louisville, Kentucky, followed not long after. “We knew we were clicking and love what we were writing, so to see other people enjoy it too was a happy day,” Myers says. “Since then, we have been getting similar reactions wherever we go, and that’s still surprising to me.” This is how small things started: Appleby would slip into the sessions for From the Hills Below the City after his shift at the local printing press. Within a matter of moments, it seemed, Houndmouth had sling shot themselves onto some of music’s biggest stages. They’ve just completed filming a PBS concert, and are set to play Bonnaroo, Lollapooza and the Newport Folk Festival among others. They’re also opening for the Alabama Shakes on a series of upcoming dates.
In keeping, there has been little time to take it all in, Myers says. “Being in the band, touring, and having a busy schedule day-to-day kind of keeps me disconnected from any sense of wonder that might surround our success,” he admits. “To me, there is still a lot of work to be done, songs to write, musicianship to be honed.”
Along the way, many have sought to link Houndmouth to the rustic Americana, overlapping vocals and rough moral tales once put forward by The Band, and it’s an inspiration Myers readily admits to — though he’s careful to distance Houndmouth from direct comparisons. “It’s nice that a Houndmouth and The Band comparison is a thing, I guess,” he says, “but The Band has a sound that nobody can put their finger on. That is why I love them so much, and to say that we sound like them is an injustice. Maybe, we are creating a sound that people find hard to categorize. I don’t know. I know I have a hard time categorizing the music we are making, and I’m fine with that — fond of it, even. If we have taken anything from The Band, it is to not be afraid to write and tell stories and sing about whatever we want. I have so much admiration or their passion, talent– the overall aura they put off. They were fearless storytellers and musicians that created something bigger than themselves.”
As Houndmouth’s star so quickly rises, one difference — as unavoidable as it is easily noted — has been the progressive lack of intimacy in these ever-growing concert spaces — something that could potentially sap some of the very confidentiality that has made the group such a unusual diversion in a world of over-emoting singing-show egotists.
“I sure as hell ain’t gonna complain about larger, rowdier crowds,” Myers counters. “I love ’em, and I have such a passion for playing the slow quiet songs that someone hollering isn’t gonna bother me too much. Maybe I’ll get more bitter when I get older, but for now I’m getting my kicks just fine.”