Horse Feathers. Another folk-tinged indie group solidifies Portland’s music chops. And it does so with the ease of a ballerina. This multi-instrumental band is heavy on strings, pulling off a sound that’s both old timey and hip, gloomy and moving. Wow, I just realized what fiddles have in common with Dennis Rodman: both are good at going from despair to rejoice in a matter of seconds.
I saw Horse Feathers perform at Mercury Lounge last month, and they put on a damn fine show (so go see them if you can). Front man and songwriter Justin Ringle kindly agreed to an interview with Popten. Read on for the story behind his band’s new album Thistled Spring, and why it’s so closely tied to the season in its name. Justin also weighs in on his musical inspirations, band mate Nathan Crockett’s saw-playing abilities, and a repressed childhood memory involving Pink Floyd.
1. If there is one place—real or fantastical—that embodies the Horse Feathers aesthetic, where or what is it?
I always place a lot of the characters in my songs in the surroundings of my hometown. There is a bizarre geographical area in Idaho near where I grew up called the Palouse, with huge amounts of soil that were deposited from a giant prehistoric flood.
It gave the landscape incredibly round rolling hills, which are all cultivated with crops now. And I always picture some of the old farmhouses there situated where these rolling fields meet the pines at their edges. That always surfaces in my head for some reason.
2. What’s the earliest memory you associate with music?
When I was four I went to see my uncle’s dad play an old time fiddle concert at a fair. I allegedly destroyed my Dad’s Dark Side of the Moon record before that. But I have never admitted to remembering it to avoid any ill will from my father who, according to my mom, was very upset about it at the time.
3. If you could go back in time to attend one concert of a musician or group that’s no longer around, which would it be?
Tough one! But wouldn’t everyone like to have seen the Beatles play live? There are quite a few I can think of, but the Beatles had such a short career in terms of live performance that it would have been amazing to witness a concert of theirs as an audience member.
4. What themes drove the creation of Thistled Spring? The album feels both more powerful and lighter in mood than your previous albums.
I think that most of the theme and inspiration came from changes that had occurred in my life. Most notably, I had moved into a new house in a different part of Portland in the beginning of 2009. It was there that I started writing new material with essentially a totally different set of musicians.
By the summertime I was trying to make sense of all of the new music I had been working on. I felt that the album’s mood was inherently indebted to both the season in which I wrote it and the new beginnings of a new life both personally and musically.
5. How do you approach writing song lyrics?
I usually keep notes of observations, words, poems, and descriptions of things that I refer to and piece them together with any immediate ideas I have while writing a song. I typically write the music first and then finish the words.
6. How did your violinist, Nathan Crockett, learn to play the saw?
Nathan and Peter Broderick (formerly of Horse Feathers) grew up together and actually learned how to play saw by researching it on the internet. They started on regular old saws from the hardware store.
7. Given the heavy presence of violin, cello and banjo in your music, what other genres do you listen to or draw influence from? Classical? Country?
I love a lot of roots music, particularly bluegrass and even more particularly the banjo in bluegrass. Both Catherine (the cellist) and Nathan (the violinist) have classical backgrounds, and that finds its way into the music. But pop music and indie rock have always been a common denominator with everyone I have ever played music with as well.
8. Where does your band name come from—and does it have any relation to the Marx Brothers film?
Absolutely zero to do with the Marx Brothers…it was an old saying my grandfather would spout out every once in a while. It means rubbish or nonsense, but I always liked how it sounded old-fashioned.
9. Which bands or musicians inspire you?
Lately Aaron Copland, Son House, Dolly Parton, George Martin, and the Beatles actually.
10. How do you feel about the slide whistle?
I have no opinion about the slide whistle. Except now as I write this, my imagined sound of it seems kind of annoying. So I guess thumbs down.