Parrish’s contributions to 16 Horsepower’s development extend beyond what’s evident on Low Estate. Says Edwards, “I’ve learned a ton, really; a lot in structure of songs, because I really have no structure when I write a song. It could go on for an hour and a half, the same part, and I’d be totally happy…It’s not a formula or something like that, it’s just a really, really healthy thing for me to be exposed to.”
Tola adds, “Be patient with a song. If it doesn’t happen when you’ve played it twice, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. I’ve seen some of the urgency in it. Some of his songs were composed in half an hour, you know? You go to the studio and you want to record ‘em and it doesn’t work, then it’d be, ‘Forget it, let’s do something else.’ John was good at telling us to keep trying, changing around a little bit.”
“All those little details add up to make a huge difference,” Pascal says. “Personally what I’ve learned from working with John was to rethink and reconsider the placement, the range, the drive, when it needs to be there and when it needs not to be there, which is just as important.”
How has all this translated to live performances? The band has put it to the test on several trips to Europe since early last year. (Though it’s not due out in the U.S. until January 27, Low Estate was released in Europe a few months ago.)
“If we get people’s attention — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a positive way — then I feel that our point is gotten across in one way or another,” Edwards said. “I mean, if people are just talking and disinterested about it, I would be frustrated, maybe, but we’ve been blessed with being able to play a show and everybody pays attention. Whether they understand it, what I’m trying to say — because I don’t even know necessarily what I’m trying to say a lot of times. Maybe they understand it better than I do.”
Tola adds, “When we’re playing places where you know, for a fact, that people don’t understand what you’re saying, in countries where they don’t speak English, we get at least the same kind of response that we get in America…People get a lot through just seeing it and hearing it live.”
“The emotion behind the music and the atmosphere would be difficult to mistake in a live show,” Parrish says, “and I think there’s certain visual things that obviously enhance the atmosphere. There’s a huge amount of energy coming from this fairly static, odd looking bunch of people with a bunch of even odder looking instruments. That’s probably the first thing that strikes you. I think you get a feeling for what the songs are about, even though you probably know you’re just hearing 20 percent of the actual lyrics the first time you see a show.”
“I think the instruments that we use, the reason that we probably use them is because they help get across what we’re trying to say,” Edwards explains. “The actual sound of each instrument coincides with an emotion or something that I feel or want to get across, or I think that has a lot to do with it. When we’re playing in Germany…they get the presence of it, they get the feeling of it just from the sound of the instrument, and the look of it as well.”
The internal struggles Edwards’ songs declaim seem depicted allegorically in the effort demanded by his bandoneon, an antique, wheezing Mexican accordion. Nearly as visually engrossing is his new hurdy gurdy. Where do you get a new hurdy gurdy anyway? Edwards says they’re now made only in France and Hungary. “I was listening to a lot of Hungarian music, which is some of my favorite music, just like traditional Hungarian folk music, and they use that a lot,” he says. “I love anything that drones, pretty much. I love droning; all the tunings that I use are very droning, and the banjo is a very droning instrument.”
So as not to leave interpretation entirely to chance, accompanying Low Estate will be a document somewhat more substantial than the customary liner notes, similar in character to the booklet that came with Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. Edwards contrasts this practice with Bob Dylan’s tendency not to include lyrics, Blood On The Tracks being the lone exception. “To me, his words are what is important about his music, but you can understand what he’s saying, and the way he puts it across is very self-evident,” Edwards says. “I feel my words are harder to decipher, and it’s important to me that people do decipher them, whether they do it the way I would want them to or whatever way they do.
“I think it’s nice for people to have something to read when they’re listening to the record,” he adds. “They put it on and they open it up; it’s like a little booklet…I like to sit and listen to it and read it like you are reading a newspaper.”
Says Jeffrey-Paul, “It’s like a cereal box.”
Parrish quips, “You’re not going to put any little plastic toys in it?”
“Not plastic,” says Edwards. Of course not.
No Depression contributing editor Linda Ray has droned about music in print and html for Option, Guitar World, RockrGrl and the “Earshot” feature of the San Francisco Bay Guardian website.
This article includes excerpts from an in-studio interview with 16 Horsepower conducted by No Depression co-editor Grant Alden.