Hidden Cities, the new album from the Baltimore experimental rock band Horse Lords, was only a few weeks old but to Andrew Bernstein, the group’s saxophonist and percussionist, it’s already ancient history. “I am already champing at the bit to start working on the next thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have something else in the pipeline before long.” That same sense of restlessness comes through in the group’s music: West African rhythms and Motorik minimalism propel Cities, circled by guitar and bass figures that never seem to take the same path twice. Though it pays no heed to pop form or function (its songs alternate between 10-plus-minute workouts and tiny, evocative vignettes), Hidden Cities is accessible — immediate even.
When I spoke with Bernstein, drummer Sam Haberman and bassist Max Eilbacher (guitarist Owen Gardner was unable to join) at the end of the long Thanksgiving weekend, they had just returned from a few weeks on the road, going through the Northeast, Montreal, out to Chicago and down to Atlanta. “For this record, we didn’t have time to do a full U.S. tour,” Haberman notes. “So we really just wanted to focus on our strongholds, in the places we can get to do the best possible shows, and focus on that as a sort of little leap forward.”
I wanted to ask about your use of just intonation. Does playing like that require you to modify your instruments? Why you guys play in that mode.
Haberman: Well, Owen re-fretted the guitars and the bass guitar. Really, it comes down to the sound of it. You can get different harmonies that are unavailable on conventionally fretted guitars. We’re all interested in tuning and temperaments. Owen is also a cello player, so I think some of it comes from that. On the cello, you don’t have frets. You can play these pure harmonies, and get effects that are just not available on a regular guitar. You get a subtle combination of different tones. There is not really a whole lot of harmonic movement — that’s another consequence of playing in a just intonation system: it’s pretty difficult to change keys, because our instruments are only in tune in one key. So we can modulate a little bit, but we have to work to get other parts of the music. I think, essentially, we do it is because we like the way it sounds.
Bernstein: Also, in a way, it’s a conduit to connect communally disparate forms of music that we’re interested in. How do you get from American minimalism to Mauritanian guitar music? Just intonation is a way to work that common ground between these very different sounds. And I know that was at least part of Owen’s original motivation to re-fret the guitars that way — it allows you to find these links between the music that you’re interested in.
Thinking of those styles of music that you want to bring together, what is it about them that you want to connect? How do you see them fitting together in your music?
Bernstein: I don’t honestly think about it as trying to bring different styles together. I think we look at it more like [we're] examining different traditional music and finding interesting, exciting rhythms. I’ve studied some African drumming, like conventional sub-Saharan African drumming music, which is really interesting. We take a lot of inspiration from that. And then we’re also interested in modern Western compositional techniques, so we might apply some of those different techniques; not necessarily trying to make us “fusion,” but that’s how we think about rhythm and music.
What’s the character that sets Baltimore apart from scenes in other cities? What makes it distinct?
Bernstein: I think it’s hard to say. It’s a pretty small community. There aren’t a ton of people. It’s very cheap to live here, so people can focus more on their creative endeavors, rather than focus on working at a job. It’s tucked away enough from the world stage. It’s not like a huge media market. It just allows people to mess around and not have to be super-sensitive to what the world at large is going to think about it, until they’re more ready to take it out into the world.
That’s how this band really started. Owen had a show that he had agreed to play, and decided he wanted to put together a goofy rock band. So he called Max, who happened to be jamming with me at the time, and asked him, “Hey, do you want to be in a rock band with me?” “Yeah, sure.” We put together a set, and everything went from there. But it all started with that initial impulse to form a goofy rock band.
Eilbacher: I think one other aspect that we kind of touched on is that there is not a spotlight on everything. People aren’t especially critical of each other’s work — which can be a good thing and a bad thing sometimes. I think it’s a good thing, because people in this place make their work and they perform out. People play out all the time.
Both in Baltimore and beyond, what is your take on the current playing field of experimental rock music? Do you see other bands doing what you do?
Haberman: I think we’re idiosyncratic in our approach. We have our thing, but there are definitely plenty of bands out there that are like-minded. A few that come to mind would be Cloud Becomes Your Hand in New York, or Guerilla Toss in Boston, or our friends Matmos here in Baltimore. These are bands, but do you call them “rock bands”? I think there are a lot of people working with compositional ideas, like us. We’re not a chamber quartet or anything like that. We’re playing in clubs and we’re playing in basements. I think we’re working with some more ideas than if we were a new music ensemble or something, and I think a lot of these groups are, too.
Do you feel that Hidden Cities provides, if not a complete picture of what the band is about, a good snapshot of where you guys are at the moment? Were there elements left on the table?
Haberman: I think “snapshot” is actually a good way to think about it. We’re very much a process that plays out over time. What we did on this record is a point in that overall process, but it’s not in any way meant to be an all-encompassing vision of what we do and what we’re interested in. I feel like if you compare it to the mixtapes we put out, where we explore all of the other compositional sound-making that we’re interested in, there is no one point on that timeline that is meant to be the all-encompassing document.
Bernstein: Also, we recorded the album a year and a half ago at this point. It took us a while to get it out. We’ve been playing those songs close to two years, and we composed the electronic interludes and more studio-oriented pieces on the record more recently — probably a year ago. As far as how the record will depict the current state of the band, I think we’ve moved past it, and we’re continuing on. I think we still have a lot to say, and a lot of different things that we want to say together, after we’re done recording.