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Spook The Horses

Spook The Horses

Interviewed by
Craig Hayes
Thursday 4th June, 2015 2:15PM

You have to ask yourself, what exactly do you want from the bands you love? Do you want album after album of the same kind of music, repeated ad infinitum, or do you want to hear something else? Something that’s driven by creative exploration and the desire to remain open to inspiration––from whatever quarter.

In the four years between their albums, Wellington band Spook The Horses has channeled that kind of vision. Their first album Brighter, released back in 2011, was an enticing debut; heavy on a combination of undulating and steel-edged guitar, along with post-rock atmospherics. But there are elements to their latest album, Rainmaker, that sound like they were crafted by an entirely different band. The album’s all the better for it, because Rainmaker is a braver album, a riskier creative venture, and it’s a wholly enrapturing one at that. UnderTheRadar caught up with Spook the Horses’ frontman Callum Gay recently to talk about the new album, and the band’s drive to push forward creatively…

UTR: Rainmaker has a very different feel and features a wider palette of sounds than the band’s debut. That raises plenty of questions about why that is, but let’s start right back with Brighter’s release. I know it took a couple of years from start to finish before Brighter came out. So were you happy with the result, as a statement of the band at that point in time on release? Or were you already feeling like you wanted to explore new sonic pathways?

CG: I think that most bands, if they're honest, will have some degree of dissatisfaction with a record by the time they're finished with it. When you're mixing an album and listening to a million different revisions you're picking your songs apart and scrutinising every aspect of them. That gives you a lot of time to reflect on what you'd like to do differently next time.

We've never felt disappointed by anything we've done, but we've learned more about which processes work for us and which ones don't. That's why we tracked and produced Rainmaker so differently to Brighter. Brighter was multi-tracked and layered over months and mixed over even longer. Rainmaker was tracked live in a weekend and mixed in just a few weeks with minimal nitpicking.

Was there a clear catalyst for the change that Rainmaker brings? I guess your personal growth as an artist is always going to be a motivating factor. But was that change in sound driven by improvising and finding a few new veins to follow? Or even born from any frustrations?

The big motivator was to just make a better record. Brighter is very simple and focused in terms of songwriting. We didn't take very many risks when we were writing it because we felt like we needed a sturdy framework for our first album.

Writing Rainmaker was in some ways a lot easier, because we had something to compare to and define against. The first few months of writing were very difficult, we wanted to break our old habits but still sound like ourselves. There was a lot of arguments while we tried to find that balance.

On the debut, the band worked within a visual framework, in a sense, where bluish colours reflected the album’s overall mood. This time, Rainmaker is soaked in darker and redder hues. Does that visual difference represent a thematic change too?

A thematic change for this particular record, definitely. We don't go the extent of having “concept albums” but describing the moods and themes of our music in terms of colours is really helpful to us when we're writing because it keeps the songs cohesive. We didn't know what colour the album would be until some of the really sparse songs like ‘Overburden’ and ‘Drought’ starting taking shape. All of a sudden we all realised the album would be red.

Rainmaker is our first record with Max Telfer who's responsible for all our visual content. Max did the album art for Rainmaker as well as all the prints that came with the limited edition version of the vinyl. He's also designed all the projections we use in our live show. Max is always a huge part of any conversation about how we want the band to be represented visually. None of us are particularly talented in that way so it's fantastic to have him in the band now to help us shape things.

There are songs on Rainmaker that are radically different from anything Spook the Horses has done from before. So was the creative process for the album really free and open to experimenting? Or did you have a clear destination in mind right from at the start?

We knew that we wanted to do things we'd never done before, but didn't necessarily know what those things should be. We were very excited about the idea of expanding the instruments we used and having wider dynamics but in terms of the overall feel and mood of the songs we had no expectations at all. We also had different songwriters in the band for this album, Zach our drummer played on Brighter but had little to do with writing it, and Alex our bass player joined the band just after Brighter was released.

The five of us had never written music together before, and every one of us is pretty opinionated and expect a lot of ourselves. We wanted to make sure the entire band was integrated into the writing process which in some cases meant pursuing song ideas that some members hated so we could force ourselves into accepting each other's influence. For a while we spent time making sure to address every contribution so that we could understand each other's strengths and weaknesses. Once we learned to trust each other's intuitions a little more the songs began to settle into their own identities and we knew we'd started achieving what we wanted.

How did you go about writing the songs? I know, in the past, it’s been a very collaborative approach with everyone in the band contributing. Was it the same process for Rainmaker?

I think we refined our process a lot more. Our attitude to collaborating on Brighter was very piecemeal. We'd have three people at a time writing riffs for the same song and then we'd work out how we could stitch them together in a way that sounded natural which is incredibly time-consuming. This time we tried to have people write most of a song on their own before it was brought to the band.

Most of the songs have one or two main writers for basic structures. That process really helped us understand one another as writers as well - it's easier to learn to trust someone if you're working with them one on one than over the din of a full band rehearsal. We had skeletons of most of the songs for months before they felt like Spook the Horses songs, but the whole process was much more satisfying than sitting around with a few other guitarists and saying "Anyone got any riffs?" every few minutes.

One of things that’s notable about Rainmaker is that the band has shortened the running times for songs. There’s still plenty of the band’s heaving textures to be found, but were those shorter songs a deliberate move to curtail, perhaps even refine, the band’s epic-length tendencies?

It was one of the things we talked about doing. We definitely still have a tendency to write longer songs, but we're wary of the fact that in this kind of music it's easy to make a song longer than it needs to be without really realising you're doing it. If a song can be shorter or a riff can repeat a few times less without it taking away from the song, we'll shorten it. I doubt we'll ever get it as bullshit-free as a pop form, but it's always on our mind.

The band’s trimmed down those three guitars up front of the stage. So, Callum, for you, that means you’re the out and out frontman now. How’s that feel? Is that a challenge?

For the songs on Rainmaker at least! I've never liked the hyped frontman role, so you'll never hear me asking if people are ready to rock and then telling them I can't hear them. I'm more comfortable with performing without the guitar now, but I have percussion and synth to keep me occupied too. My role in our live show is deliberately dynamic because it's useful to have a spare pair of hands, so things will likely change in the future.

What was your perception of Rainmaker while you were making it? Were you nervous about the changes to the band’s sound? Or completely open to seeing what resulted?

We tried to realise that whatever identity the band has will always be there. Creative change is a mission statement for us, but of course you can sometimes worry about losing what makes the band what it is. Writing heavy songs in a different way was closer to our comfort zone, so we were more excited than nervous about those. When it came to the more varied tracks like ‘Overburden’, ‘The Saint’ and ‘Below Our Time’ we were more worried about whether we'd be able to pull them off than how they would be received.

Spook the Horses has always been a band that’s hard to pin an easy genre on. But I’ve seen some pretty wild descriptors following Rainmaker’s release. How do you feel about the reaction to the album?

I've actually been very excited to see a few reviews of people saying they don't get it, or that we missed the mark. Brighter only got good reviews which I think is a bad thing. If you're ceaselessly praised it means you're not taking enough risks with your art. It's harder to criticise something that's uninteresting. If some people don't like what you do, it means you're doing something interesting enough to be polarising.

You’ve toured throughout the country in support of Rainmaker. But what can you tell me about these rumours I hear about an upcoming video too?

That's in the works and being handled by Max, who's a very talented digital artist. It'll be based on the images that accompany the limited edition vinyl of the album. We've shot all the video for it and now just have to complete the post-production. It's going to be very surreal and unnerving, I can't wait to release it.

What’s in store for Spook the Horses? Do you have an upper limit in mind when it comes to the next creative step with the band?

We have a few different plans in mind that we're working on right now. The most important thing to us creatively is to keep challenging ourselves. Whatever we do next will still be very Spook the Horses, but will be very different to Rainmaker. Uncertainty in music is exciting, and having the blank canvas ahead of you with every record is both reassuring and scary but to us, is the most interesting way to operate.


Spook The Horses are supporting This Will Destroy You and sleepmakeswaves at their show this Sunday 7th June at San Fran in Wellington. Head over here for more information and to buy tickets.


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