Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tin Horn Prayer

Despite its dreary, macabre mood, one can't help but detect a hint of lightheartedness in Get Busy Dying, the first full-length from Tin Horn Prayer.

Take “Crime Scene Cleanup Team”, the record's second song. Ignited and initially driven by the dirty, metallic stutter of Andy Thomas' resonator guitar, the song suddenly inflates halfway through its first chorus with a menagerie of instruments—the stomp of a trap set and squirt of tambourine; the restless beat of a bass guitar, seemingly eager to escape the song's simple structure, and the trebly drone of an electric guitar; a banjo's percussive plunks; an acoustic's confident shuffle and the harsh wheeze of a harmonica—and swaggers along a standard (though somewhat slanted) blues progression. The result is noisy, almost mechanical, but catchy in its own cacophony.

It's levity, though, comes in the form of Thomas' lyrics, which are belted above the stutters and stomps and squirts and drones and plunks and shuffle and wheezes of his bandmates. “Crime scene cleanup team,” he shouts during the chorus, “I'm sorry for the mess I'm gonna make / I know it might seem drastic, but there's only so much shit a man can take.”

Of course, suicide isn't a laughing matter, but the thought of apologizing to the team sent to clean up the aftermath, though dark, is absurd and smirk-worthy. The absurdity is stressed further during the first verse, where Thomas and his bandmates bark, “The first thing that you'll notice as you wander down the hall / is that red Picasso painting that I painted on the wall,” but complicated a little bit by the line that follows: “Tell those bastards at the bank that they one too many goddamn calls.”

In fact, “Crime Scene Cleanup Team” also contains of moments that don't seem funny at all, like when the speaker asks his listeners to, “Tell my mother that I loved her, tell daddy that I tried, / tell my sister that I'm sorry, to be brave, and not to cry.” Though the humor isn't diluted by this sobriety, it makes the song a shade darker by comparison.

When I wrote 'Crime Scene Cleanup Team', which is obviously pretty macabre but set to this pretty upbeat tempo, I remember telling people that it reminded me of old nursery rhymes,” Thomas says. “It's like reading about 'ashes to ashes, they all fall down,' to your kid and they're jumping around like it's funny, but it's really about the plague. That was my intent with that song, to trick people into hearing this lament about me blowing my brains out.

But musically, and we try to prove this when we play live, this is supposed to be fun music,” he continues, “music you can get really drunk and dance around to. Despite it's lyrical content and miserable undertones, it's still fun as shit to play. We see people all the time up front and singing along, and that's really important to us.

What we're trying to get across,” Thomas concludes, “is that, if there's really bad things going on, you can push them aside and still have a good time and party.”

In this way, “Crime Scene Cleanup Team” effectively represents Get Busy Dying, an album that—from side to side, song to song, verse to chorus, line to line, and even verb to verb—treads the thin line between dark humor and true darkness. “The subject matter is from a darker, creepier place,” Thomas explains. “We named the record Get Busy Dying because, after we looked at all the songs that were written, we were like, dude, every song mentions death. Consciously, we weren't thinking about writing songs about shooting oneself or being the devil but, for some reason, that's what we decided to write about when we were in this band.”

Tin Horn Prayer—and, consequentially, this creepiness—started when singer Mike Herrera, who was on tour with the post-hardcore band the Blackout Pact five years ago, met musician Dan Beachy at a party in Florida. “He was a fucking incredible guitar player,” Herrera remembers, “so we started talking about doing a project.” When Herrera was able take a couple of weeks off of touring, he visited Beachy on his West Virginia farm and spent two weeks writing and recording music with him.

When he returned to Denver, the five songs that Herrera wrote went on the back-burner until his friend Eric Epling, formerly of Throwaway Sunshine, was able to help him fine-tune them. Later Thomas, who had just finished his run with Only Thunder, started adding to the songs and contributing his own. “Ironically, he had talked to me at first about playing drums in it,” Thomas says. “I kind of convinced him that he didn't need a drummer at the time and to keep it as stripped down as possible, which is funny now that we have a full band.”

Little by little, Tin Horn Prayer began to bloom as a band. “We ended up getting a bass drum to keep the rhythm,” Thomas explains. “I would stomp on it while we were playing. From there, Mikey started experimenting with a lot of different kinds of instruments. He switched from guitar to banjo and mandolin and, all of a sudden, started playing harmonica. Then, we stumbled upon an old accordion that we thought would be cool to use.” Ethan Steenson was tapped to play bass for the band and a drummer was added to maintain the beat above what was becoming a louder and denser sound. The final addition of Scooter James, formerly of Pinhead Circus, cemented Tin Horn Prayer's six-person lineup. “We all worshipped him for the longest time,” Thomas explains. “Scooter added this whole different element, with his leads and things like that.”

Considering that it's a collection of songs written by three separate songwriters, it's startling how consistent Get Busy Dying is as a record. Whether it's Herrera's anxious and throbbing “Fighting Sleep”, James' deceptively rousing “Crowbait”, or Thomas' “Wretch”, a pleading and desperate song addressed to God, the overarching themes of Get Busy Dying are exhaustion with one's current existence and redemption for despicable deeds done. “We know there's a lot of songs referring to God, or whoever,” Thomas explains, “but it's a lamenting tone where the speaker is kind of admitting his mistakes and hoping someone will help him with that.”

Our buddy Jim runs this cool venue out here called the Three Kings Tavern,” Herrera continues in an attempt to explain the darkness of Tin Horn Prayer's lyrics. “We were having the same sort of conversation, and he said, 'It makes sense. When you're young, you're mad at the world and you make this angry music, but you get older and you realize you're more pissed off at yourself than anything.’”

Which really funny,” James says, “because, if you hang out with us for five minutes, you'll realize we're the goofiest bunch of bastards.”

We're not really miserable,” Thomas explains.

It's more drunk regret than misery,” Herrera adds, and his bandmates giggle in agreement.
They become stone serious, though, when the song “Memory” is mentioned. It's a song is set to a slow, aimless tempo stirred by Dan Gilbert's vast, voluminous drums. Above this beat, an accordion's chords hover alongside a guitar that meanders like a lost, lonely ghost and Herrera's hoarse voice, which sounds weak, like it's wasting away. Even during the song's chorus and conclusion—where it builds, becomes faster and stirring and strong—it still feels exhausted and desperate and defeated.

It's a little personal,” Herrera says about “Memory” as nervous laughter flickers from his friends behind him. “It's just one of those songs. That was one of the original songs that I wrote on the farm in West Virginia, living there for two weeks with no TV, sitting in the woods, getting wasted every night. It was kind of a rough point. Two years previous to that were probably the drunkest years of my life.

Like I said,” he concludes sharply, “a lot of drunk regret—something I needed to get off my chest.” And suddenly, it's questionable whether the “drunk regret” comment before was dark humor or true darkness.

Get Busy Dying is quietly contradictory in this way, and it's as intentional as it is interesting. How a collection of songs can be so thematically dismal (absurdly so in some) and so musically engaging (so danceable, so singable) seems strange and a little suspicious, since many musicians only pen such songs in satire, or ironically, or as parody—or poorly. But, of course, the band's honesty is the very reason why Tin Horn Prayer succeeds. A song like “Crime Scene Cleanup Team” can be absurd and sad because it isn't trying to be either, just as a song like “Memory” can be inspiring or depressing.

It's why six gentlemen brandishing banjos and accordions, acoustic and resonator guitars, mandolins and harmonicas can be considered punk-rock without a second thought; it's also why the same six people can perform rowdy, visceral versions of folk standards—like “Louis Collins”, first recorded by bluesman Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and an eighteenth century English spiritual like “Wayfaring Stranger”—to praise and applause.

We played 'Louis Collins' at a show up in Vail,” Thomas states. “We opened for Trampled by Turtles, who has a more traditional bluegrass following. A lot of the people were stoked that we played that song.”

Yeah, that was actually kind of a big thing for us,” Herrera adds. “We hadn't been playing shows that long when we played that one. And we thought we were bastardizing the genre. There were a few people who came up and said, 'The fact that you guys played that means that you get it. You understand this older music and you can make it your own.’”

It's the difference between novelty and innovation, and the reason why Tin Horn Prayer will never be considered a mere musical knick-knack.

Thomas, James, and Herrera recorded these tracks during a summer evening from the Highlands Dance Studio in Denver, CO. The session was pushed back an hour or so because Thomas' girlfriend, a dancer, was performing at a festival; she allowed the band to use the landline at her studio.

"1939", performed by James and Herrera, appears on Tin Horn Prayer's 2010 record Get Busy Dying. "Dear Friends", performed by Herrera, is a song that, though previously recorded, doesn't appear on a formal Tin Horn Prayer release; the studio recording is available on their Bandcamp page. At the time of its recording for the Switchboard Sessions, "Stumble", performed by Thomas, had not been previously recorded or planned for any formal release, though it was initially intended to appear on Get Busy Dying.

Visit the band's Bandcamp page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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