Houndmouth returned to the fold last week with its third studio album, The Golden Age, the band’s first on a major label. The record finds the New Albany, Indiana threesome eschewing their usual country-tinged garage rock for a more Devo-ish sonic palette. We caught up with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Matt Myers to discuss the making of the new record.
This record is being billed as something of a departure for the band. Was the new sound a natural progression, or more a case of a lightbulb going off that prompted you to go in a new direction?
Sonically, it was just a product of meeting Jonathan Rado [of the band Foxygen] and Shaun Everett and figuring out how to create something, and not doing the same stuff that we were comfortable with doing, and everybody just experimenting, I guess. That’s kind of what happened, the sonic departure.
How did you all settle on Rado and Everett?
I wanted Rado to produce the record and the label was like, “No.” Because he’s been just doing weird stuff, or more indie stuff than what they’re used to. So then I was like, ‘What if Shawn Everett got on, too?” and they were like, ‘Okay, yeah, we could do a co-production.’ So they met … nobody had ever met prior to the project.
You mentioned in the promo video that Daft Punk was a touchstone for The Golden Age, or at least was brought up in conversation with Jonathan and Shaun. Are there any other bands you had in mind as blueprints?
Early on I had envisioned a Daft Punk [meets] Springsteen sort of vibe. As far as song structure, I was listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. That was so new to me, that you didn’t have to have set hooks. Or that you could just have random parts come in, as long as they were contextual to the song and did something. There’s no rules [with Ocean] and that was kind of exciting.
Certain themes recur throughout the album, the tyrannical nature of technology, social isolation, etc. Would you call this a concept album?
There was never a time when we were like, “We’re making a concept record.” After it was done, we realized we were touching on things and it kind of became a concept record about the internet. I hope it doesn’t come across as [technology being] tyrannical because I don’t think that the internet is necessarily a bad thing. I think that with having it, just like anything else, it can lead to negative things. That’s what’s been on my mind.
It was weird coming from a folk background. I’ve been thinking, you know how everybody in folk music wears suspenders and they’re singing about trains and stuff? Before, when folk music was prevalent, in the early 1900s, everybody was singing about trains because trains were super-new, and that was the thing. And now, folk music people are still singing about trains, and something doesn’t add up to me. We still have to be able to talk about the things that are happening, and things that are relevant, like your life experience with technology.
Do you write the lyrics and music solo, and then bring it to the band? How does that work?
Yeah, that’s always how it’s worked for us, for me. I always like to write by myself.
Are you a notebook type of writer, where you just write down random lines and piece them together, or do songs come as a whole?
Very rarely do songs come as a whole. It’s just so funny, the process. It’s crazy how different it is for everybody, and how different it is every single time. I’m a notebook writer and, you know, something you wrote down four months ago might sync up with something you wrote down four years ago. It’s really like, it’s just all open … I don’t know … I haven’t thought about the creative process that much, actually.
So you’re not someone who goes out actively seeking inspiration? I remember Bob Dylan saying something like, “You gotta use the right bait to catch the right fish.”
Yeah, no … Father John Misty said he used to go out and just go on benders and go to places that would make him uncomfortable or something and get inspiration, but I’ve never been the one to go out and seek inspiration. I just like taking things as they come.
Even on your last album, Little Neon Limelight, it seems you guys were consciously trying to separate yourself from the Americana tag. Was that sort of a refusal to get boxed in creatively?
Yeah, it just became tired in all aspects, the subject matter, the sonics — organ, guitar, drums, bass. After playing it for so long, it just gets very tiresome. So as far as that, from that we would venture out. I mean the new album is mostly things that aren’t technically instruments, I guess. It was funny hearing a lot of backlash when we released the single “This Party.” Everybody was like, ‘Oh man, it’s super over-produced.’ But on the contrary, we were playing rubber bands on buckets and then loading that into the PC so that we could play that on a drum pad … It was all just fun and experimentation. It was funny listening to people talk about how it sounded over-produced.
Do you ever consider what the “old fans” are going to think? And do you feel like the band has any sort of responsibility to what the fanbase wants?
I think that it’s always on everybody’s mind. Anybody who makes art is always like, “What are people going to think?’ But I don’t think that artists should have any responsibility whatsoever to fans or people, and that may sound bad, but as long as people are making things and putting them out in the world, that’s the responsibility. To be concerned with what people think, I think that’s pretty dangerous.
Do you think that it’s more difficult now, given the economics of the music business, for bands to experiment and take creative chances? I sometimes feel like, in the days of yore, artists had a little more confidence in experimenting.
I think it’s how the system and the structure is set up. That it inherently makes people want to conform. I think musicians especially have to be hyper-aware that there is always room for experimentation, and I think they’d be surprised that the people who control the industry and have the power are also open to experimentation.
How do you see the new songs translating live and fitting in with the old stuff?
It’s been kind of funny, because we have these two guys that play sax from Louisville, and when we came back with the record, there was no saxophone on it. They were like, “Okay.” Well, they started playing synths, and drum machines and drum pads, xylophones, whatever they could get their hands on. We kind of broke down the record like, “What can we replicate, what can we sample?”, divided up all the parts, and then just started kind of experimenting. So basically, everybody got out of their comfort zone in every aspect.
I see these new songs as being a big hit for the live show, just the fact that the music is so danceable. One of my favorite shows the past year was LCD Soundsystem, and part of that was just the danceability of the music.
Yeah, I’m right there with you. “Oh Baby,” [from American Dream], I think that’s probably my most played song of the year.
But it struck me too, seeing that show, how desperately people want to rejoice a bit, given the state of the world. We need to be lifted up sometime.
Right. People want to hear calculated bass lines over beats … and nobody wants to overthink the lyrics and stuff, you know? Not that there’s anything wrong with, you know, putting some thought into the lyrics, like I totally get it. But you just gotta have some fun for a sec.
Are there any other bands you’re really into right now?
It’s weird because I have a huge list and now I can’t think of anything. In every aspect of The Band, always, there has been an influence.
Where do you stand on the Levon versus Robbie songwriting argument?
I think about it. I think Robbie was kind of not so good, not so nice, you know? Levon was the guy delivering everything. It’s just so crazy to me, like it’s so weird that the dynamic could be between two people. You have Robbie Robertson, who could write the stuff, but needed another guy for the delivery. It’s crazy that they found each other and did that, because nowadays it’s like, the writer usually can deliver, because he knows exactly what the emotion is that he wants to attach to everything.
I think the fight over the publishing credits was the real coup de grâce for their relationship. It brings up an interesting question about copyright. Levon was all about the vibe, the sound, and though Robbie may have written the lyrics and chords on paper, Levon certainly was instrumental in the songs’ creation …
So it’s an interesting thing to ponder.
Right. Because in legal terms it’s chord progression, vocal melodies, and lyrics.
Did you ever make it up to one of Levon’s Rambles?
I never got to, no.
I didn’t either, that’s one of my biggest regrets.
Yeah, no doubt.