Artist Interview: An Horse
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After a six year hiatus, An Horse, are breaking back into the scene with the release of their highly anticipated, third studio album, Modern Air. Modern Air is an ode to overcoming the difficult obstacle course we call life. It’s about facing your problems head on, and taking the pain from those experiences to gain a fiery new sense of power and strength.
Much of the duo’s career, before the hiatus, was spent on the road, playing alongside major indie acts (such as Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan and Sara, Cage the Elephant, and more). However, after tragedy struck, vocalist and guitarist, Kate Cooper’s homelife, she felt it was only necessary to take time away from making music. “I love playing music, it’s my life, and I can’t not do it, but it is a hard thing to do”, Cooper shared. As Cooper grappled with her father’s sudden illness and finding home within a discombobulating new city, music soon took a backseat to prioritizing mental health, something not a lot of musicians are willing to do.
Stream Modern Air below while you read our chat to learn more about what led up to the group’s hiatus, how to maintain autonomy over your work, why Violent Soho is to blame if you hate the album, and much more.
The Alternative: You found success pretty early in the band’s career. What was that process like? Were you prepared to be thrown feet first into the industry so quickly?
Kate Cooper: Damon [Cox] and I had been playing in bands for years before An Horse so we knew how it all worked. We were so hungry to play more and just so happy finally people were listening to us. It’s all a little blurry now but it felt really natural. From the first time we played live together in front of people, the songs really resonated with people, more so than any other project either of us had worked on. It felt special and different. It still does.
Can you tell me a little more about the hiatus? Was it a conscious decision or did it just happen naturally?
It was fairly conscious on my part but it wasn’t a decision that was obvious like, “I don’t want to play music”. It was way more brutal and tortured than that. I love playing music, it’s my life, and I can’t not do it, but it is a hard thing to do. I was so tired from constant touring. I was bereft of any kind of joy. I was numb, and I knew I needed to change some stuff in my life to get back to a happy, healthy place.
We finished our last tour (before our break) in Vancouver. While I was on tour my partner had to move for work to Vancouver. So before tour, I knew I was ending a tour in a new city which is wildly discombobulating. Soon after that, my dad called me to tell me he wasn’t well. Soon after that, we found out he had a massive brain tumour. I kept working and writing but when it came time to planning out how that work was going to be released, touring, and basically planning my life for the next 24 months, I just knew I couldn’t do it. It was a really hard decision but I just needed to stop and catch my breath and kind of disappear from the world. Which I did and it was great! But ya know, I also understand it was disappointing for people and that is heavy thing to consider. But at the same time, everything happens for a reason and I am glad I did what I did.
My dad was very ill for a long time and I had no interest in writing music while that was happening. I couldn’t really think of anything positive to write about and I refused to write songs about what was going on in my life at the time because it was so bleak.
How do you draw the line between showing vulnerability as a musician but keeping some parts of your life private?
I am a private person which sounds insane because I get up on stage and sing about my life. But ya know, I have my private life and it’s private. It’s pretty easy really. I think being vulnerable as an artist and being private are two very different things. I think most good artists have a vulnerability to them. They need to be vulnerable to connect with an audience. I don’t think privacy necessarily comes into it. Also avoiding instagram helps *laughs*.
Part of being a musician is being forced to relive certain experiences over and over on-stage, especially ones that may represent a particularly dark time in your life. What is that like? How do you find comfort in it instead of slipping back into memories of being in that place?
On this album I was very conscious of not singing about the darkness that was surrounding me. But I mean, heavy life shit still seeps into songs because it’s life. I can only speak for myself and I just have to make sure my head is in the right place, and that can be hard especially on tour. I find touring very difficult. So I really have to focus on using the heavier stuff in songs as a way to feel stronger about what has transpired in my life. It’s powerful to get to feel that every night. I just have to remind myself to get to that headspace. Working at being happy is harder than feeling sorry for myself, but ultimately it feels a fuck load better.
What advice would you give to bands who feel like they are being swallowed up in the music industry?
You have to figure out why you want to make music. The industry will swallow you up but that’s exactly why you should ignore it. Focus on writing better songs. If you think your songs are awesome, you are likely wrong. They can ALWAYS be better. You have to listen objectively and keep going back and starting again. If you make music because you love it, you are going to have the most success. If you do it because you want to be famous, go create an instagram account and pay for followers and go down that dark hole. Also there are way easier ways to be famous. If you write music and perform music because you love it, you will find the success you are looking for. It might not come the way you thought it would, but it’ll come.
What do you do to maintain your sense of self and control over your music?
Damon and I have always been very on top of being in control of what we do. However, at times this can be difficult because you are working with so many moving pieces and everyone wants a say. Before we had our break we had many people telling us what we could do better or how I (yes just me of course because I am a woman) could dress differently to sell more records. All of that negativity rolled up into me feeling completely overwhelmed with making music at the time. Having that break and stepping away from it made Damon and I realize that when we are in charge, the best decisions are made and perhaps more importantly, the best music is made. To be frank though, we have always done whatever we wanted musically. That part we have never compromised on.
If you could give the band 10 years ago a piece of advice or tell yourself anything what would you say?
Learn to say no more often. And I do know the answer, I just have listen to myself more often.
What experiences in life inspire you to write? Would you say most of your work is autobiographical or more loosely based on reality?
Good art inspires me. Books or films especially. Interactions with people also influence me. My lyrics are mostly autobiographical in a loose sense. I mean, I try to write what I know, then it’s the most real. I know that I connect with artists who are honest and genuine. I can’t get into posturing bullshit music *laughs*.
In the same vein, what were some of your inspirations for the album?
So I made a really conscious decision on this record to write songs that would be fun to play and fun to sing each night. I was listening to a lot of music from home. I remember listening to Violent Soho -who are old mates of ours- and thinking, “DAMN THIS IS FUCKING FUN!” I want to write fun songs. So if you don’t like the new record blame those dudes *laughs*.
What was the production process like?
When we started writing Modern Air, Damon was in NYC and I was in Montreal. I would send Damon super rough demos with just acoustic guitar and vocals. I usually write early in the morning, so he would often wake up to these 6 AM demos. Then, we would go back and forth a bit on a handful of songs. Then, he would come up here to Montreal and hang out and we would go and flesh the songs out and demo them in our space finessing arrangements, adding drums, vocal harmonies and more guitars. We would keep working on the demos when he was back in NYC, adding more instrumentation. We demo’d all over the place. We also did some demos at home in Brisbane over Christmas breaks. I am really proud of the demos we worked on. I think they will see the light of day at some point. I produced and mixed most of them so it was heaps of fun for me. I probably worked on them way too much.
We knew early on that we wanted to work with Mike Sapone to produce the album. We are big fans of his work. We sent him a bunch of the demos and said you choose what you want to do. I think we had narrowed it down to 18 or 19 songs. We couldn’t narrow it down any further. He came back to us with a list of final tracks and I was like, “WHAT NO WAY! You didn’t choose A, B, C etc” *laughs*. So we negotiated some more and came up with the tracks that made the record. We recorded in New Jersey and New York at a couple of great studios. One was on a lake. Mike is a sonic genius and has a great mind. We loved working with him.
What are some of your goals with this album? Is there anything you would like to share or express to fans? What about to new listeners?
I am not sure I had obvious goals beyond continuing to get better at writing songs and also using those songs to connect with more people. I am always interested to hear how people hear our records. I want them to relate in some way. I am happy people wanted a new record. As for new listeners, I hope they like what they hear. We aren’t reinventing the wheel. We are just trying to write cracking songs that connect. I did want to write an album that was completely solid and I think we did that. But then again, I think we have always done that *laughs*.
You’ve toured extensively with major indie groups, what are some of your favorite memories or tour stories?
I mean there are many! I think any time we head out on tour with a band that musically we connect with it’s so incredibly amazing. I love watching bands side stage, seeing how they craft their show, seeing them use their gear. I love seeing the detail. I am trying to think of stories off the top of my head, but there are so many. Walking out on stage for a support band where their crowds don’t know you at all and the audience are talking and thinking, “who is this?”; and then slowly winning them over. That’s the best feeling.
How are you enjoying touring with Camp Cope right now?
We head out in a couple weeks with those ladies. We are doing the second half of the tour. We played shows with them last year and they rule. Damon, Sarah and I all worked together at a record store years ago. Sarah and I grew up in the same weird town. We are all old mates who go way back. It’ll be fun.
Finally, what are some tricks of the trade you’ve learned over the years as a musician that you’re proud of?
I am pretty proud of my guitar tone *laughs*. I have spent a lot of time modifying guitars to get them to sound the way I want them too. I am proud that we have always done things our way. I am not sure what else…..I don’t really think like that too much.
Emily Kitchin | @deathnap4cutie
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