How Houndmouth Escaped Nowhere, Indiana

Houndmouth
Houndmouth
Jim Herrington

A sense of time and place inhabits Houndmouth. Rippled with various shades of Americana, as much is evident in the song titles--"Houston Train," "Come On, Illinois," "On The Road," "Halfway to Hardinsburg"--along with the telling locales--jail, lonesome highways, dark hovels, trains and buses--frequented by song characters. Given that Houndmouth hails from "somewhere the rest of the world assumes is nowhere," as the band's press release claims, it makes sense. Finding an identity -- and sense of belonging -- is a key function of Houndmouth.

"Nowhere" is New Albany, Indiana, which, in all respects, is (at least musically) nowhere. Geographically situated across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, home to My Morning Jacket, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham) and a progressive scene, New Albany may as well be in Siberia.

"Indiana doesn't have a lot," songwriter and guitarist Matt Myers says with some remorse. "There's not even a group of musicians to hang out with -- they're all in Louisville."

On the plus side, this lack of musical brotherhood has allowed Myers to delve deeper into his surroundings in search of inspiration. He's found it in the most unusual of circumstances.

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"The best thing about Southern Indiana was that it had this huge crime circuit in the 1920s," he says. "There was a casino down the road and people committed the most brutal crimes, and nobody even knows about it. People passing through won't even get it. We just want a good setting to write a song about."

Southern Indiana's seedy past along with modern economic desperation -- plus the writings of Charles Bukowski and Myers' own journeys around the United States -- fuel the visual realism in Myers' songwriting.

"We've experienced some stuff," he says cautiously. "It's not necessarily that we had tough lives growing up, but we've seen a lot around Southern Indiana. There are a lot of meth towns in Indiana, pretty small towns numbed down. We see it ... but I don't think you can write something and not put yourself into it a little bit. My writing has been getting kind of dark, but not everything is necessarily true, we haven't lived all of that. I hope we haven't lived all that. ... You have to romanticize a little bit."

Homespun tales of drugs, incarceration, desperation, hardship and remorse fill Houndmouth's debut, From the Hills Below the City (Beggars Banquet). Dark content, perhaps, but rippled with various shades of Americana--roots, country and bluegrass--and punctuated by R&B, classic and southern rock, the album is decidedly rollicking, punchy, buoyant, and masterfully gritty. Everyone contributes vocals--bassist Zak Appleby, drummer Shane Cody and keyboardist Katie Toupin--creating lush harmonies, rich atmospheres and a welcoming glow that feels as familiar as it does distinctly unique. The seamlessness of musical styles, vocal accentuations and lyrical intrigue draws reflections of The Band, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Jolie Holland and Neil Young. Yet as is typical, comparisons rarely hold up.

"There's a whole folk revival thing going on that we've been lumped into, which is an odd thing, but a positive thing because people are on that bandwagon right now. But one guy [in London] introduced us as the American Mumford and Sons," Myers laughs. "We didn't have one fucking acoustic instrument in our band!"  

Myers does admit, however, The Band's rollicking style filled with character- and place-driven songs were particularly influential in Houndmouth's development and direction.

"This was the epitome of the sound I grew up with and really loved," he says, noting that country artist Jimmie Rodgers was equally as important, "but I don't think we intentionally went in to replicate that sound. It's what we grew up on and it's what we pushed out.

"We went into it just wanting to write good songs," he adds. "We'd take however much time it took to get the song right. It was not decided when we started the band, but that's how it developed."

Houndmouth formed by Myers' sheer determination not to continue down the same musical path he'd been on for sometime. Ready to form "another acoustic duo" -- all to commonplace when trying to survive as a musician in "Nowhere," Indiana -- Myers instead plugged in with an old electric guitar gathering dust in Cody's house.

"Shane was in New York going to school. We had been playing four-hour acoustic sets at wineries and it was the worst job. When Shane moved back I called him up and I decided we'd do another acoustic duo," he says, exasperation still in his voice. "But Shane had a drum set and amp and electric [guitar]. So I got on the guitar, and he got on the drums."

Appleby was lured into the fold with a $100 Peavy bass. Toupin, who was brought in to "add some balance to the band," was handed a cheap keyboard.

"It was almost worse than the Peavy bass," Myers says, laughing. "It was like a buzzing sound--just wretched. But we did a few shows like that, and everybody took on a different role. Katie hadn't played keys before. Zak hadn't played bass. I think being restricted like that meant we had to write simple songs, just keep everything simple. I think that helped out a lot."

Yet, he adds modestly, "We're all still learning how to play our instruments and play together."

Listening to From the Hills Below the City, one would be hard-pressed to think as much. Recorded over five summer days in a sweltering third-floor one-room Louisville apartment, a sense of urgency inhabits the music, but the live setting also brought out the best in the band.

"I never had to play guitar with my fingers dripping wet like that before," Myers recalls. "It was like, 90 degrees, and we were huddled in one room. We didn't expect to be in the room for a very long time. We expected to go in and record them in one, two, three takes."

For Houndmouth, it doesn't get any simpler -- or better -- than that.

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