An Interview with Horse Feathers’ Justin Ringle: Part 1
Folk music, particularly of the rootsy, fiddle ’n’ banjo variety, tends to bring to mind the kind of tradition-obsessed, preservationist finger-picking that you find at your local folk festival. Perfectly fine stuff to be sure, particularly when there’s BBQ and funnel cake involved. But it’s nice to find a band like Horse Feathers—a Portland quartet heavily indebted to the whimsy and sorrow of Appalachia, yet unafraid to whittle an established genre down to something uniquely their own.
Last week, I caught up with Justin Ringle—the band’s singer, guitarist and principle songwriter—in the middle of the quartet’s latest cross-country tour. It also happened to be the same day that Horse Feathers’ third LP, the sun-drenched “Thistled Spring” (Kill Rock Stars), hit stores. Speaking by phone before the band’s show at Minneapolis’ Cedar Cultural Center, Justin spoke about the writing process for the new record, how he got into folk music and how he got out of northern Idaho.
This is the first of a two-part interview.
So how has the tour been going so far? I know you guys have been out in California and in Canada …
It’s been great. The last couple days have been trying—we’ve had to drive from the West out to the Midwest. It takes about two and half days. So it’s good to get here and actually play a show again.
How are you guys traveling, with a big van or something?
We have a new van, actually. We had toured in a minivan but now we have a full-size van, which is a good thing for our sanity.
Yeah, I know how that goes. … So let’s talk about the new record. It seems quite a bit sunnier than the last one [2008’s “House with No Home”]. There’s the obvious juxtaposition between the spring themes of the new record and the wintry themes of the last. Did you approach these new songs with a conscious idea that you would write lighter material, or did that just happen naturally?
You know, it kinda happened naturally. What had occurred was that I had moved out of my place in Portland to go on tour when “House with No Home” came out. I was out on tour for a couple months and I came back to Portland, found a new place and a new neighborhood. And I started to write in this new house. I wasn’t planning on being influenced by the seasons or anything, but it was something I found later in the tone of the music, not so much in the themes. And it started to occur to me that that was happening, and when I was writing a lot of new tunes last spring, it just dawned on me that the sentiment of the music was definitely moving away from where I was on the last record.
Did you also write the songs for the last record in an environment that fit the music—in a sort of hibernation?
I think that my surroundings and where I was living and being in Portland at the time and all this stuff going on in my life was lending itself to that mood. I didn’t initially think that “House with No Home” was a wintry record. It’s only when I look back on it, when I was starting to contemplate that record in terms of the new material, that it dawned on me.
On the last record there was a significant use of fictional characters. Did you rely again on fictional characters for this new record or are there more personal aspects this time around?
There’s always personal aspects, even unintentionally. I tried to get away a little in my songwriting from being too literal about myself. On my very first record, [2006’s] “Words Are Dead,” I felt like it was very much that way—and sometimes that made me feel claustrophobic. On “House with No Home” I started to try to take a little seed of a personal experience and expand that into a song that wasn’t necessarily about me. And I think I tried to continue with that on this next one. It’s not all about me literally. These are situations and things that I’ve experienced, but I’m trying to repackage it in a way that’s interesting to me.
So the writing process is basically that you write the skeleton of the song on guitar or banjo and then [multi-instrumentalist] Sam Cooper, [cellist] Katherine Odell and [violinist] Nathan Crocket build on top of that?
Yeah, every song’s a little different, but the typical method is I’ll write a tune—or sometimes it’s even just a melody. And as soon as I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on I’ll start sharing it with everybody. Sometimes it’s the violin first. I’ll have [Nathan] come over and see how he responds to it and then build upon that. Sometimes I’ll have a specific melody that I’ll sing to them just as a basis or just to harmonize with the vocals. And then we further harmonize things with cello. Usually that’s the step after the violin part. The banjo, I often try to arrange that rhythmically with the guitar figures, so sometimes I work with the banjo-player [Sam] separately as well. … That’s the basic formula, and then every time it’s a little different in some way.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you first got into acoustic-based music. I know that originally you were in more straight-up indie rock bands, and then at some point you got into folk music. When did that happen? And what attracted you to that music in the first place?
There was kind of a sea change for me personally with that stuff. Part of it was I discovered playing in rock bands that I was interested in writing songs, not necessarily playing in rock bands. I just grew out of it. And also my tastes started to change—not that I was getting older—but I kinda relinquished rock music to being a teenager in some weird facet of my mind. I started to just listen to more roots-based stuff and get interested in that. Then simultaneously I moved to Portland and frankly, I just couldn’t get a job—I just didn’t have the resources to play in a band or do anything. I was alone in my room in an apartment, but I did have an acoustic guitar. That’s how I wrote that first record and that’s how I got into acoustic music.
Later I met Peter Broderick, who was the first violin player. We actually moved into a house together and I started playing with him. I had written about 90 percent of the first record and then he came in and we worked together and he was arranging some of that stuff. We did the first record. So that’s kind of the genesis of it all.
What did some of those bands sound like that you played with back in college?
Oh my god …
I mean, only if you want to tell me …
[laughs] Well, I was really influenced by Northwest music at the time—really everything that was on K Records, Sub Pop, Kill Rock Stars. I was into all kinds of stuff like that—Up Records. That was just the stuff that was most readily available to see. And then once I was into college radio, I started to get into everything that was happening in Chicago, all the post-rock stuff from the late ‘90s, like Tortoise, Sea and Cake, and experimental stuff too. And then my last band was more pop rock, but it wasn’t really anything like what I’m doing now.
It’s funny because we have a cassette player in our van and I rounded up a bunch of tapes that I haven’t looked at for eight or nine years. One of them was the live recording of my band in college and I played it for my band now and it was pretty funny. [laughs]
What were you guys called back then?
I’m not gonna bring that one up. [laughs]
(Photos by Tarina Westlund)
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook