We talked to Mail the Horse about their Big Pink-inspired songwriting and pickle-back shots.
We stumbled upon Mail the Horse at our favorite honky tonk bar in Charlotte, NC, The Thirsty Beaver and were blown away by your tunes. First, how did you guys form and how long have you been playing together? Any off-shoot projects you're members of?
Donny and Brendan and I were friends in New Hampshire during our college years and played together in a couple groups. We moved down to Brooklyn in 2010 and re-organized ourselves as Mail the Horse. Chris kind of cosmically gravitated to our scene, learned pedal steel and joined the band. Then we went through a handful of rough patches/growing pains, had 4 different drummers over the course of 3 years, kind of stopping and starting for awhile, working our jobs in the city, doing a lot of home recording and DIY touring in the Northeast, South, and Midwest. When the drummer position opened up again a year and a half ago, Andy joined the band. He's a rad dude and natural fit, comes from deep punk roots and has played in tons of weirdo bands in NY and the West Coast over the years. We have basically been either touring or recording ever since. 2016 was our busiest year we ever had!
You are based in New York and live in upstate, outside of the city. How does that setting influence your songwriting and creative processes? Is there a Big Pink-esque ambiance that exists?
Brendan and I live in the city, everyone else is spread throughout the Hudson Valley. We have a studio in Bushwick where we write and play, and Donny has a a nice studio setup at his house upstate. I think that those two settings influence our music and processes in that we are constantly active. Even when we are at home it's like we are on tour because some of us have to travel two hours just to rehearse, no matter what. It makes every time we play feel more real and carry more weight. For us, that dynamic is in stark contrast from how we used to operate. In the old days we all lived together in a duplex apartment in Bushwick and played in the basement, which for us had a Big Pink comfort-zone, all-hours vibe, but way shittier. If one of us had a new song or a riff idea we would pick up some six packs and smoke spliffs all night in the backyard and beat the material for awhile, then walk upstairs to bed. So we have that fund of knowledge to draw from when we get together to write and play today. How that informs our music over time remains to be seen, we are curious to find out. The Big Pink ambience is a state of mind for us now. Our work lives in music are heavily steeped in those vibes, those traditions, those sounds, that approach to arranging material.
Your set blended classic country (with a killer Dwight Yoakam cover) with folk-leaning rock and roll. Where is the inspiration drawn from for your songwriting and sound?
Ha! You must be talking about "Little Sister." Yeah, Dwight covered that tune. It's originally an Elvis song that first came out in the early 60s and was a top 10 hit for him. In the early 70s he started performing it as part of a medley with "Get Back," (by the Beatles, obviously.) We thought that was rad and we knew about the Dwight version too so we combined the Elvis medley version and Dwight version and made our own. We started throwing it into our sets once in awhile, especially when we do our 4 hour "bar band" sets like you saw at the Thirsty Beaver. The song is a blast for sure.
Inspiration for our songs and their subject matter is ever changing, but we can definitely say that our sound itself is rooted in that "bar band" mold. We are a glorified bar band. Even as our sounds grow and change and we write new stuff, exploring new ideas and functions, at the end of the day everything about our live set is firmly rooted in our experiences playing 4 hour sets at a local bar somewhere, where after we run out of prepared originals we crack open our vault and rip through 2 hours of covers and we try to turn on as many people as possible. We have been doing that since before we were even old enough to drink at the bars we were playing. We don't get to fully expose our abilities as a band when we play live because more often than not we are limited to a 45 minute set or something and we have to do our business and get outta there; it's how it is and the result of where we are at as a band and the way touring as a indie rock band works today. But the foundational spirit of what we do live has always been the "bar band." I feel like so many of our fans don't even know we CAN do a 4 hour set because they only get to see us at clubs doing 45 minute sets. So I guess the task that's always at hand for us is to squeeze the 4 hour MTH experience into a 45 minute set somehow. It's a work in progress!
Mail the Horse is playing SXSW this year. Being a returning visitor, what advice would you give a newcomer?
Don't try to see too many other shows in your down time - you'll wear yourself out. Drink plenty of water at the day parties. If you're gonna drink and do drugs, make sure you have a safe place to head to. Watch your drink at shows, don't get roofied. It happens and it's dangerous and terrible.
What shows or parties are you playing this year at the festival?
So many. We'll have them all on our site soon. We have around 10 shows this year.
Are you guys recording currently or writing new material?
We are. We just recorded a couple singles in Atlanta, so we'll drop some fresh stuff in the summer. We're setting up plans for our next full length. This past fall and winter were an extremely prolific songwriting period for Hess and we have a lot of work to do getting the songs arranged and rehearsed! It's exciting.
How will it be different than your last full length record or your Magnolia EP?
It will build on many of the ideas we teased on the Magnolia EP. Don't wanna let too many cats out of the bag on that yet and also to be honest we haven't played that many of these new songs yet so how they truly sound is not fully understood to us yet. Our last full length was kind of the end of an era. That's why we called it Planet Gates. It was the culmination of songs and ideas and lives we shared together at the apartment where we all lived in Bushwick. When we moved out, things changed. Plus, now we've got Andy in the band, so whatever comes next will undoubtedly reflect multiple changes. We've all experienced a lot of personal and artistic growth since Planet Gates. So our next record isn't as much going to be a continuation of the last full length, but rather a step into a new era of our group.
Lastly, can you confirm that The Thirsty Beaver has the best pickle-back shot?
The Thirsty Beaver has the best of a lot of things, including pickle-back shots. That bar is a nice thick slice of Americana. One time we backed our bus into the front gate and they still welcome us back. When I hear like Jimmy Rodgers or Johnny Cash tell a "one-time-on-the-road" story, that bar is what I picture. We could do a whole separate interview just about the Beaver. Let us know if you wanna tackle that because we are down.