Houndmouth: From the Suburbs to the Spotlight
Say what you will for Newport, Coachella, or Lollapalooza. If there were only one festival to attend in a given year, it would have to be South by Southwest. None other attracts as many fans, offers as many bands, or runs as long as Austin’s own. In fact, if it weren’t for the success of SXSW over its two-plus decades, one wonders if upstarts like Firefly or Pitchfork would even exist. Dollars to doughnuts, bills to bagels, you will not get a better festival experience. Everyone with even a casual interest in music can understand it, and that’s why an estimated two hundred thousand descend upon a Texas town over the course of some few weeks in March.
Bands understand this as well. Time was, SXSW was where you took your group for a shot at national exposure. It was a chance for the nameless to share stages with the well-known, a taste of the national spotlight for locals. From the hinterlands of Obscuria, four- and five-piece tribes as well as solo singer-songwriters packed up the humble instruments of their trade into rented cars and utility vans to drive headlong into the darkened heart of the American interior, dreaming that vainest of vagary dreams: a chance at discovery leading to paying gigs, record deals, and radio play.
Nearly four years ago, Houndmouth was that voice without a soapbox. They lit out from their sleepy suburb like so many others before them with a simple plan. By utilizing 4/4 chord progressions, clever lyrics, and youthful charm, the group was going to conquer the slippery slopes of the music industry. After all, the whole world’s a target when you’re shooting from the hip. But unlike so many before them, Houndmouth actually hit a mark in Geoff Travis, founder of British record label Rough Trade.
One cannot say enough about the significance of this particular Englishman’s company. The closest American equivalent to the influence Rough Trade has established is Durham, NC’s Merge label or Chicago’s Bloodshot. Bereft of management or a PR team, and with a discography that could play for no longer than the average wait time at the DMV, Houndmouth parlayed themselves into a record deal with one of the most exciting labels going. Over the course of a single week at SXSW, Houndmouth went from Indiana to international.
With the big show behind them and a contract to fulfill, it was time for Houndmouth to record an album. “When we decided we were going to record an album, we looked up a guy named Kevin Ratterman [of Twin Limb],” says bassist Zak Appleby. “We thought we set our sights a little too high. But after getting in touch it turned out he was interested. He really crushed the first record and we ended up becoming good friends afterward. He was amazing. He made things sound so full and rich, it was phenomenal.” Phenomenal not least because the record in question, The Hills Below the City, was recorded in just four days.
As much of a rush as the recording may have involved, the carnival would truly begin on the album’s release, early in June 2013. What is a romance without a whirlwind? Enviable festival slots and the night show circuit soon followed. And while the success of The Hills Below the City was somewhat more modest than first record breakouts like Arcade Fire’s Funeral or the self-titled Shovels and Rope, the impact of Houndmouth’s entry into the big leagues sent percussions through the industry.
Why was Houndmouth so exciting? Rhetoric holds no answers and industry hyping is notoriously unreliable. A glimmer of truth might be found in that first release. Instrumentation was kept simple, incorporating the golden rectangle of guitar, bass, keys, and drums. There was little new ground broken with structure either: the verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge ratio has been popular since my grandparents were necking in cars and talking about the glory of their own form of rock and roll.
Listen closely and it becomes clear it was the lyrical subject matter that captured so much attention. Like an early Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy novel, the characters throughout Hills just couldn’t be trusted. Cardsharks rowdies, abusers of both substances and people, gypsies, arsonists, anarchists, the new American bohemians, and all the darker parts of the human psyche populated this dirty, drastic record.
Appleby describes the dirge-rock sound: “I think the first record was relatable because it was from four different perspectives. There’s something there most people can relate to. And we lean towards the darker images. It’s easier to write about.” He laughs. “Maybe ‘dark’ isn’t the right word. It’s not sit-around-by-candlelight-and-slit-your-wrists music.”
More populist than pop, songs like “Penitentiary” and “Casino” detail all the mistakes one makes with youthful exuberance and glorious abandon. Much like with life, grave lows follow in the footsteps of all those fleeting highs. First-person narratives sprawl across Hills, with deliveries culminating in succulent harmonic crescendos in which every member sustains both the note and the emotion. Often, right as the songs are about to break wide open, the music relents for a brief moment of clarity before careening the audience headlong back into the sonic onslaught of the track.
Many define themselves by what they’re not. Keyboardist Katie Toupin only began to appreciate this sentiment when lazy music journalists and sycophantic critics compared Houndmouth’s record to Mumford and Sons.
“I think when we came out Mumford and Sons was popular so we kind of got lumped into that category.” Toupin says. “We don’t play a single acoustic instrument, so it was always really strange to hear that. I think it had something to do with the harmonies, or the folky storytelling narratives. People just lumped us into the category, and categories for music are always frustrating.”
In essence, the project bore greater resemblance, despite its tinged-rock decoration, to deeply rooted 1970s stand-out acts like the Grateful Dead or The Band in the way the songs related views from the depths of society as opposed to the idealized, glamorized perspective offered up by the pop market. The interweaving harmonies on tracks like “Come on Illinois” or “Hey Rose” spoke of escape, of hollow and hungry wanting, the frustrated ambitions of one come up from the dirt in a fly-speck town.
Of course, it’s possible that Houndmouth’s fire comes from the its upbringing. Though often labeled a Louisville, Kentucky act, the truth of origin lies in the suburb of New Albany, Indiana. While pursuing their own projects, the four members of the band fell together there. Says Toupin of the early days: “Before the first record, [guitarist] Matt [Myers] and I had been playing together for almost four years. We didn’t necessarily know who we were at the time, but it all changed dramatically when the four of us started playing together and became Houndmouth.
“New Albany used to be one of the wealthiest towns in the state,” she continues. “But after they sold riverboats to the South and lost the Civil War, it became a ghost town. Four or five years ago a renaissance began. That being said, downtown there’s still only one or two blocks with shops. But [Houndmouth is] now curating a festival, and there’s more things going on.”
Along with the decline in riverboat travel, New Albany languished, barely sustaining a population of 40,000 from its peak during the Civil War. Just across the river, Louisville bloomed where New Albany wilted. On a recent visit to New Albany to research this article, I found a dreary hamlet largely devoid of the culture that accompanies a youthful population.
Faded grandeur is sadly the norm for many midsized cities along the Rust Belt and in the greater Midwest. Old folks and school-age children comprise the bulk of such demographics, leaving only service industry jobs and a meager drug trade for the young adults whose educated peers have already left for the bright lights of universities and all the promises implicit with more metropolitan locations. New Albany sits quietly in the shadow of its more prosperous neighbor just across the Ohio River, comforted only by a history longer than its prospects for the future.
Toupin explains: “New Albany is kind of a ghost town, which is why having Louisville across the river was such a big deal for us. That scene was such a big part of us.”
Indeed, the short trip south over the Ohio River showcases everything New Albany might have been had things gone a bit differently. It was in Louisville that Houndmouth cut their teeth properly. Of the scene there, the group has only positive things to say. Appleby sighs, sounding like he’s smiling.
“Louisville is really friendly towards music, and has a really good audience,” he says. “People pack into the clubs, it’s a really exciting scene where fans want to see you do well. There’s a lot of good shows, it’s not like New York or California, where bands play to thousands. The shows are in little 300-people rooms, which makes it so intimate.”
A Lucky Break, Then Lots of Work
Though it reads like an overnight success story, years of touring followed The Hills Below the City. It cannot be overstated how brief Houndmouth’s discography was during that time on the road. Whether playing a festival showcase in front of tens of thousands or a suburban Toledo club to an audience of one dozen, Houndmouth was essentially running on the same 42 minutes of music. Like their Southern counterpart Alabama Shakes, initial success meant frustrating repetition.
“If you’re playing the same songs every night, you have to change it up to have fun,” says Appleby. “We’d play things on the sly, fooling around with the music before sound check and afterward during the show. It’s just amazing to see the crowd reaction. You know, they’ve been listening to the album for years, too, so especially when they get excited [about changes to the music], it makes you excited.” He laughs. “We learned early on to write the music we enjoy making because you just might have to play it forever.”
But a couple years on the road taught them more than just a few entertaining tricks. It largely alleviated the stress of the dreaded sophomore album. Toupin shrugged away the idea that there was anything intimidating about heading into the studio to record the follow-up, Little Neon Limelight. “We were so excited,” she says, “We worked with Dave Cobb [Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell] who is a master … he crushed it. When we originally called and talked to him about it he said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it, I just don’t want to make another fucking Americana record.” She laughs. “We said ‘Great, let’s get weird about it.’ So the whole thing was done on eight-track, straight to tape, and then at the end we overdubbed, added laser sounds and reverse tape to make it a little more psychedelic. All the vocals are done live. It created this really great, weird energy.”
“We didn’t set out to intentionally change anything.” Appleby adds. “But if you don’t adapt to what’s going on around you, you fall through the cracks. When we went into the studio we already had 20-25 songs.”
Released in March, Little Neon Limelight has received generous praise from critics. Dave Simpson of The Guardian gave the album four out of five stars, calling it “raucous, roots-rock euphoria.” Jewly Hight wrote for NPR that the record contains “shaggy, swinging, big-screen storytelling that distinguishes their work from many of their more confessional, serious-minded peers.”
From all those early comparisons to The Band or, God forbid, Mum & Sons, Houndmouth went in a decidedly more rock direction for Little Neon Limelight. Of course, by rock I still mean rock-bottom. Houndmouth hasn’t necessarily lost its penchant for writing “dark” songs. Still channeling underdog angst and bluesy, booze-drenched soul, the new album displays both triumph and despair. Highs and lows alternate like the moods of a bipolar auntie at a family reunion, as every member of the quartet exchanges roles. Bassist Appleby might sing about his asshole cousin on one track, but on the next he’ll be backing up Toupin’s lovesick homily to self-destruction in a sweetly dripping, homespun harmony shared with the rest of the group like a warm tall-boy beer at an anarchist collective.
The disc takes old concepts and creates new sounds. The band urges you to sing it like you mean it while making “it” dirty enough to match every desperate longing in your hardened heart. Combining the C-G-D chord progression of the country songwriter with up-tempo percussion via drummer Shane Cody’s speed metal influences, Little Neon Limelight successfully defies the impulse to call it “another fucking Americana record” while still retaining the heart and mind of the genre.
The record is by turns the travelogue diary of a group that is still paying their dues despite an early, lucky break. From New Albany to Austin, from Louisville to London, Houndmouth proves a group doesn’t need some clever angle to make ends meet in this increasingly competitive music market. They show bands don’t need a high-priced PR firm to connect with an audience, nor a high-profile major record label to be heard. Houndmouth succeeds by looking past all the flash and fizzle, by using every member of the band as the front-person, and by writing songs about our lives and not our lifestyles. In all this talk of money, streaming services, perception by the media, and clamor to jump the next big trend before it’s blown up like the facial hair on a Brooklynite, something’s been lost.
The Road Ahead
SXSW has just passed, and despite their budding momentum, Houndmouth once again played the festival. This isn’t an anomaly. However, the fact they played a whopping 11 shows over the course of that musical week is a bit unusual. Given their history, the duality of their origin, and the endless miles racked up over the course of the last four years, SXSW just might be a homecoming show for these transients.
Thankfully, the Americana genre casts a wide net, and Houndmouth has been able to attract an audience from across a spectrum of tastes. You can find the blues on Hills and Little Neon Limelight, and there’s a good measure of rock and roll to be found there also. Country? Houndmouth plays country music. This young group is in a truly enviable position. By going their own way, they aren’t beholden to the fickle tastes of a single mercurial audience. Success has met success with the most recent addition to Houndmouth’s discography. But one or two great albums, especially for younger, energetic musicians, isn’t a rare feat. The real test for the four members of this band is still ahead of them.
By approaching their music with every tool available, the group has, so far, stood out among the glut of working musicians playing the field. Unfortunately, stars of the minor leagues only ever make for good what-might-have-been stories. The wheat separates from the chaff with consistency, and if Houndmouth can maintain the work ethic, quality, and passion they’ve already delivered, they can at the very least expect a modest career. But with a little bit more of that luck that has graced them so far – and a few more solid releases – we might one day be talking about stars.
Lead photo (c) Tyler Zoller/Rough Trade Records