Horse-Eyed Men’s Grave Country Reimagines the Cowboy

horseIf you’ve never heard of the Horse-Eyed Men, it’s time to take notice. The two-man band made up of brothers Noah and Dylan Harley has been impressing audiences at local spots like The Parlor and Nick-a-Nees with nothing more than a few guitars, a bass drum and snare pedal contraption, and some hilarious and bizarre banter. With the help of a cash infusion from the Danish Government, The Horse-Eyed Men have created a true masterpiece in their album Grave Country.

It’s hard to deny that we’re experiencing a traditional American music revival, but no one expands the parameters like the Horse-Eyed Men. Though Noah, the band’s primary songwriter, described Grave Country as his attempt to write a country album, the subject matter is hardly the typical “drown my sorrows with a bottle” country tropes. The Horse-Eyed Men give you tales about the inexorable plight of the American businessman (life, stress, death, rebirth) and old ladies’ heads falling off. The subjects range from the whimsical to the weighty, but the lyrics always hit you like a sock in the gut.

The pedal steel guitar and laid-back tempos conjure images of the archetypal cowboy, walking alone through the windswept prairie. The Harley brothers also take it a step further and ask: What if that lone soldier swallowed a few stiff cocktails and headed to a 1920s jazz club? The swingin’ ragtime numbers add vivid flashes of color to the album. “Dyspepsius Majorum” eerily compares being in love to having a tapeworm (“we share the same food and the air that we breathe”) and “Drunkard’s Ball” could be this generation’s drinking anthem (“You can’t regret what you don’t recall!”).

The band has a sizable amount of material aside from the album that focuses on such piercing issues as the Earth’s primordial soup and dietary restrictions, and they’re gearing up for a run of shows with Spirit Family Reunion starting this week. I recently spoke to Noah and Dylan about Grave Country’s unlikely origins and a few other subjects.

Jake Bissaro: You received financial backing from the Danish Government to record Grave Country. How did that happen?

Noah Harley: Europe is basically the tits! I was living in Berlin at the time (summer 2013) playing with some other projects. We got the opportunity through The Danish Arts Council, an arm of the government designed to fund artistic projects. They actually have a special grant to foster musical cooperation between Danish and American musicians, and we applied to be the Americans with the help of our friend Anders Christoperson (who ended up producing the album).

Dylan Harley: The grant also included enough to fly me out there. I just got a call from my brother out of the blue like, “Hey, do you want to come out to Copenhagen?”

JB: What was the recording process like?

NH: We got really lucky because the grant didn’t just cover the recording; it paid for us to rent an apartment for two and a half weeks, and living expenses, food, and everything like that. And I even got to fly back later on to record a few more songs!

DH: It also covered production, mastering and vinyl pressing. We spent two and a half weeks in a small studio and we were able to get great musicians like our former bandmate Carlos Santana (not that one) on piano and Hugo Rasmussen (legendary Danish studio bassist). Spending weeks with these guys allowed us to really develop a rapport and a feel for each other’s playing. Having these professionals around also gave the album a multi-generational feel, and made it more than just a few young guys screwing around in the studio.

NH: It was a totally surreal experience, especially playing with Rasmussen. Like, this guy has been doing it for like 50 years, played on hundreds of albums, and he’s in here jamming with us! He was essential to the feel of the album.

JB: You’re located in different cities. Do you consider yourself a part of the Providence music scene?

NH: Yes, Providence has been really great to us. We’re located in different cities, which is a blessing and a curse. I have contacts in New York and Dylan has contacts here, but it’s sometimes hard to organize things. We play in different bands, but this project is always great to come back to for both of us.

DH: Here in Providence there’s much more camaraderie than in other scenes; you start out as fans, then you become friends and everybody helps each other out. There are enough small stages that getting started is not super intimidating.

JB: I could be wrong, but your hometown of Seekonk, Mass, doesn’t seem like a place known as a traditional American music hotbed. How did you get into this type of stuff?

NH: Our dad [Grammy award-winning children’s songwriter and storyteller Bill Harley] always had folk music playing around the house, and from there I got really into traditional American music. I never really lived in the Carolinas and Virginia, but I don’t think you necessarily need that to get the essence of the music.

DH: I got more into the alt-country scene, stuff like Lucinda Williams and Whiskeytown. Townes Van Zandt was also a big one for both of us.

JB: What are your plans for the future?

NH: We hope to go back overseas to Europe this coming fall and do some more recording.

The Horse-Eyed Men will open for Spirit Family Reunion at The Columbus Theater on April 9 and at The Sinclair in Cambridge on the 10th. Grave Country can be purchased here.

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