Providence Americana band Horse-Eyed Men hit New London, Westerly on Thursday
Unlike many modern Americana acts, The Horse-Eyed Men, a Providence duo made up of multi-instrumentalist brothers Noah and Dylan Harley, record in Copenhagen, count Flaming Lips as an influence and, in a song with the flows-off-the-tongue title "Dyspepsius Marjoram," ponder the mysteries of goat-gland male-enhancement.
These are but a select few of myriad random facts that can be used to describe The Horse-Eyed Men and their fantastic and creative approach to music. To actually listen to their work — as on the albums "Grave Country" and the in-concert "Fratricide" — is to hear well-crafted observational songs lifted from the stone tablet of archival country and bluegrass and then enhanced in day-glo fashion like muralists brightening a crypt.
Similarly, it's best not to assume, well, anything when The Horse-Eyed Men take the stage. The performances can vary from sparse acoustic confessionals in a duo format to freewheeling medicine show lunacy with multiple guest players — with the caveat that the songs are never taken for granted. These would include the sweet harmonies on the Robert Earl Keeny "Hello Houston"; the Old West cabaret of "Charity's Angel"; the Appalachian blues of "Cold Rain and Snow"; and, yes, "Dyspepsius Marjorum," which is a title they chose to withstand future development of a software program to prohibit song-title replication.
Area citizens can get a double-dose of The Horse-Eyed Men today. The band guests at noon in New London's Telegraph Records Shop as the first presentation in a new season of The Day's "Live Lunch Break" series of music and conversation. Then, Thursday, as part of the Westerly Sound concert series, the brothers play in the Knickerbocker Music Center Tap Room.
"If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't come out like this," says Noah earlier this week. He and Dylan are tag-teaming by phone to help an interviewer stay clear on who's talking at any given point in the conversation. Bassist Ken Woodward will be with the brothers for both shows.
It doesn't take long, speaking with either Harley brother, to realize that they're polite and very funny, possessed of philosophies and worldviews that probably surf outside the mainstream, and that any tangent can veer in cyclonic and amusing fashion.
Below, edited for space, are excerpts from the dialogue with Noah and Dylan Harley.
On how they ended up recording "Grave Country" in Copenhagen:
Dylan: Basically, it was ludicrous. Noah was in Berlin recording with Tick Tock Laboratory and I got a phone call from him saying, "Hey, you wanna make a record in Denmark?" I found that a bewildering but intriguing question. A producer they were working with was from Copenhagen and he applied for a grant in Denmark; the idea was to use international artists recording with local musicians. And he got it, so that was pretty amazing. The bassist was Hugo Rasmussen, who played with (jazzers) Teddy Wilson and Ed Thigpen.
I will say this about Copenhagen: everybody's beautiful and riding bikes over there. That's what they seem to do. It's a happy place but, if you're in their way, the let you know with their bicycle bells and mean scowls.
On growing up in a musical family:
Noah: Our dad's a (two-time Grammy-winning) kids' musician and storyteller. He and my mom started the Stone Soup Coffee House, which is a pretty famous folk music venue. They were really big on Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and I personally got into really raw fiddle music and flatpicking; early country and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Dylan? Not so much
Dylan: Yeah, Noah went that way and I went into pop country. Then in high school I liked psychedelic stuff that gave me a spacey feeling.
Noah: And our grandfather had a sort of magical stereo and listened a lot to classical and jazz. You don't hear it a lot in our music but it's there — the passion and the aura of his record player. And I remember once my dad started playing folk music, my grandfather said, "Oh, god, you're gonna start playing that plink-plank music."
On how their songwriting process works:
Noah: We don't have a process. It can start as simply as with a riff or a very basic song. A lot of the ("Grave Country") songs came together while we were in the studio, and recording is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing. It's deeply collaborative and sometimes we head-butt.
Dylan: We had five musicians over there and we'd play it five different ways. It was like being in a hologram. Also, we were pretty stoned. It took a while but we got there. A lot of it was actually done live, pushing start/stop on a drum machine for rhythm.
On the DIY path undertaken by most acts these days after the disintegration of the major labels template:
Noah: A lot of musicians our age have a sort of insecurity about what they're doing; they don't feel legitimized because they have lack the infrastructure of label support. It sort of feels like we're winging it. On the one hand, we have friends on respected labels, Fat Possum and New West. There's support there. On the other hand, one of the bands turned in an album and the label didn't like it and that situation's turned into a slog. In that context, we're very happy for the freedom and not having to answer to those metrics.
On the occasionally notorious idea that "brother bands" involve a lot of sibling tension:
Dylan: It can definitely be work. It starts out every morning when we judge what kind of mood the other one's in: Does he need a coffee or do I need to go for a swim?
Noah: Put it this way. We have all the brotherly fun without any of the success.
The Horse-Eyed Men, noon Thursday, "Live Lunch Break," The Telegraph, 19 Golden Street, New London; free; theday.com.
8 p.m. Thursday, Knickerbocker Tap Room, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly; free; (401) 315-5070.
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