Obsessed and Mystified: The Red Horses of the Snow Interview
Red Horses of the Snow are Mark Burgess and Chris Hawtin, and the two make a formidable team that produces hazy vocals, dreamy synths, and just the right amount of dissonance. Their sound is full enough that it sounds like it took much more than two men to make their songs. You can hear that on their latest release, and first proper album, Territories, available at http://www.redhorsesofthesnow.com.
ELM: You released your demos in 2008. Have you been working on Territories since then?
MB: We started collaborating in 2008. The demos album was released in 2009. We were really just finding our feet for the demos album. After that release we decided to take the whole thing more seriously, because we weren’t really happy with the sound quality or the development of the songs. We invested in better quality equipment and completely revamped some of the songs on the demos album for Territories. The new versions really show how we’ve developed over the last couple of years. We also had loads of new material, some of which made it onto Territories. We were restricted by how much you could put onto a vinyl album without compromising sound quality. We managed to cram 54 minutes onto the record, and agonisingly left out several tracks which were easily good enough. We hope they will surface eventually on compilations or as B-Sides – some of them may make it onto the second album, which we are busy recording at the moment.
ELM: How have you two and your music changed between making your demos and your full-length?
MB: I think we both understand the dynamic between us a lot better after working together for a couple of years. We were friends for many years before getting together in the studio, and the musical relationship has expanded and deepened that friendship. We’re very lucky in that we both have a great respect for each other’s strengths, and those strengths complement each other, rather than being in competition. The whole joy for us is in the recording process and we are very straight with each other about what works and what doesn’t. I think with Territories, we realised that the music we make is a real collaboration – neither of us on our own could approach the depth, texture and subtlety of Territories.
CH: What really changed was that we have become more adept at both recording and listening to the music – to be able to judge what works and doesn’t and why, and not to be afraid to turn around and do it again. When we first started recording the tracks the temptation was always to add more and more to it, and I think we have learned that it can be a reductive process too.
ELM: What are the international release plans for Territories, if there are any?
MB: Territories is distributed worldwide through CD Baby.
ELM: Tell me a bit about your live shows.
CH: We are currently working on putting a live act together, and I think it’s important to take the time to understand what this aspect of the project would attempt to achieve – do we want to replicate the album sound or put a group together which could be more free-form and improvisational? I have some plans for this but we’ll have to wait and see how this moves forward. Something vital for the Red Horses concept is that we not only enjoy the work we put into it, but also that it has some kind of purpose – that it is saying something. Personally I had no intention of playing live when we recorded the tracks – I’m now exploring the idea, but it must bring something exclusive to the songs. We are not beholden to any external force pressuring us to do things a certain way – no one is chasing us – so we can take time to understand what it is we want from it.
MB: Currently we are just a studio band. I think if we were to do live shows, we’d have to do something a bit different. I don’t see us going out and just doing a tour playing the music, but who knows what the future holds?
ELM: I’ve noticed that different bands have very different collaborative styles. Some just get together and play music, and in some bands different members will come in with nearly-finished songs. How do you two work together best?
MB: Our way of working is fairly straightforward. Chris is the songwriter, although I throw in the odd bit now and then. Basically Chris comes in with a song structure and melody, which we record as a guide. Then we add whatever the songs need, with Chris principally playing Guitar and Bass and myself doing keyboards, drums and engineering/producing. The studio is at my house and after Chris goes home, I mess around with sounds and drum patterns, with mixes going back and forth on email. Eventually, the two perfectionists manage to agree on a final mix, and there it is.
CH: And then I decide it’s not right and we have to re-record the whole thing, and then it gets ditched altogether…and then we do it all again.
MB: Hence two years putting the album together. We hope the second album isn’t going to take that long!
ELM: Was there an album or artist that made each of you want to be a musician?
CH: I didn’t want to be a musician – I am primarily an artist – a painter, but music is such a direct medium that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see what would happen. Music has always been something which has obsessed and mystified me, and there is no better feeling, creatively, than playing music with others, no matter how badly. It’s like a conjuring trick. So strictly speaking I became a musician because I was asked if I would like to. I have played guitar since I was young, and I guess it was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Cardiacs and Levitation, more recently The Black Heart Procession, Bardo Pond, The Notwist and Oceansize.
MB: I grew up with Progressive Rock, with Punk, New Wave and Grunge influences. I think there were probably two albums which fuelled my desire to actually play music: Radios Appear by Radio Birdman, which seemed to marry a musicality with the raw energy of punk and Inner Marshland by the Bevis Frond, which was an incredible mix of Psych Prog and Garage, all recorded by one guy in his studio. I thought if he can do it, so can I.
ELM: Tell me more about “The Love Song of Howard Hughes.”
MB: I’ll leave the lyrical input to Chris, but sonically I saw it as a portrait in alienation, hence the broken beats and distant echoes in the vocals, sometimes coming together, sometimes fracturing in dissonant keyboards.
CH: Howard Hughes was an avatar for speed, he made films, he built planes – everything new which involved acceleration and movement he was a part of. Yet at the same time, he had a hotel room made up to look the same in each city. Despite travelling great distances at great speeds, in essence he only ever ended up in the same place. It’s what the cultural critic Paul Virilio terms “Polar Inertia” – the faster we go the more sedentary we become, so on a train we can walk around, on a jet there are certain times we are told to be seated, and at a computer we don’t even need to walk to the terminal or the station. Howard Hughes was a living metaphor for this trajectory.The song imagines Hughes promising everything yet whatever he promises it ends in this inertia.
ELM: What’s the strangest place in which you’ve found inspiration?
MB :I’m not sure it counts as a place, but I’m a keen amateur scientist, and I’m currently fascinated by the Higgs Boson. The beauty of it is that it was predicted by symmetry in the mathematics, not by experimental evidence. And i love the fact that truth can emerge from what beauty predicts. Of course it has yet to be proved, but many of our top scientists have spent loads of money, time and energy pursuing something that was predicted by the beauty alone, in pursuit of a goal which is really only a theory and has little immediate practical application except to further our knowledge. Musically, I spend a lot of time playing with random sounds until suddenly something leaps out and that moment of feeling that something is right and just…fits… is incredible.
CH: Airport departure lounges, back when you could smoke in them though.
ELM: What role do lyrics play in your songwriting?
CH: The lyrics always come after the song – I’ll sing it with random words and vocal sounds and then write them properly when it feels like the song is in a workable form. The lyrics will continually develop though so we often have to record the vocals many many times to keep up with them. They are very important for me, and I have a specific way in which I want them to function. I don’t want them to be too easily read that they lose an aesthetic, poetic factor, and yet I want them to be able to be interpreted. They often reference external sources, or personal experiences, there may be some people who get the LM reference in Screens or “world around” in Howard Hughes, but there is, on Territories at least, a general theme of alienation in post-geographic society, which I hope people can understand if not relate to.
MB: The beauty of Chris’ lyrics is that they sound good when sung – this may sound obvious, but I hate that tortuous thing some songwriters do to the grammar just to get a line to scan and rhyme. I think the lyrics invite you to delve deeper in and discover more. They’re not obvious, but nor are they impenetrable, and there are themes connecting and running through them which help unite the songs into a coherent album.
ELM: Are you planning videos for Territories?
MB: We have several videos in the pipeline… again being perfectionists, we don’t want to release something until it’s right – watch out on the Flashback Youtube channel for them…
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
Mark: For me, I read constantly. Iain (M) Banks, Murakami, Jasper Fforde, JG Ballard, Douglas Adams, David Mitchell, HP Lovecraft… to name a few. I find inspiration in the films of Terry Gilliam, Luc Besson, Christopher Nolan etc. I tend to like things that make you think – not assuming you’re an imbecile, like most Hollywood films and American comedy. I like Tim Minchin and Bill Hicks for their irreverent take on life. I don’t take life too seriously and am always the first with a bad joke, much to the dismay of my friends…
CH: The beauty of the Red Horses is the diversity of it’s influences. You see this in the fact that when we talk of bad jokes – Murakami, Besson and Tim Minchin come to mind. I guess my list goes; Paul Virilio, Slavoj Zizek, Paul Auster, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Franz Kafka, James Joyce,Thomas Pynchon, Charles Dickens,Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, Mark Eitzel, Sufjan Stevens, Craig Finn, Gene Clark, Nina Nastasia.
MB: Diversity is the word! But it would be boring if we liked the same bad jokes.