Their official bio still says they’re a “band from Baltimore”, but three out of four Horse Lords currently live in Germany. Andrew Bernstein (saxophone), Max Eilbacher (bass/electronics) and Owen Gardner (guitar) all decamped a few years ago, leaving drummer Sam Haberman as the sole Stateside member. “It wasn’t part of some big strategy,” Bernstein insists. “But it started to make sense for the three of us, and it’s worked out well so far.”
Whatever the reasoning, Horse Lords fit into the long and distinguished lineage of avant-garde American artists finding a more welcoming response across the pond. “Moving to Europe has had a big effect on the resources available to us,” says Gardner. “In Berlin, experimental music is all around you – it’s almost unfair to compare it to other places. There’s a real appetite for challenging music and huge levels of support for it here, at least relative to the US.”
Horse Lords’ music can certainly be challenging – the group draw from a deep well of minimalism, serial composition, free jazz and polyrhythmic folk music. But don’t let that scare you away. As shown on their masterful 2022 LP Comradely Objects, the band are as inviting (and often as tuneful) as they are adventurous. Listeners may hear echoes of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Devo or This Heat in the album’s seductive grooves and pleasingly eccentric textures. It begs the question: do Horse Lords consider themselves, when all is said and done, a rock band?
“I’ve begun trying to push ‘progressive rock’ as the genre that we play,” Gardner laughs. “But that might be a little misleading. We certainly use rock instrumentation and there are rock gestures in our music. The DNA of the band is based in rock, but it’s also not where we’re coming from at the same time. For example, everyone in a rock band kind of knows how a song goes once one part is in place. That’s not true in Horse Lords. We have to think about everything in a different way.”
“Extra-musically, we operate as a rock band – or a punk band, more specifically,” offers Bernstein. “We’ve had a pretty DIY ethos, booking our own tours and all of that, just by necessity for most of the band’s history. That’s the world we came up in. If you want to play music with your friends, you form a band and play in basements.”
Horse Lords may be new to Europe, but they’re far from a new band; they formed as a trio in 2010, with Bernstein joining the ranks soon after. “In the Baltimore scene at the time, it wasn’t uncommon for bands to start up, play one show and then the people involved would move on,” Gardner says. “For some reason, with Horse Lords, we started playing shows and writing songs and it just never stopped. There were a lot of commonalities between us and we kind of built this musical language together.”
Part of that shared language is explicitly political – or at least as political as an instrumental band can get. “That might not be the overt aim,” muses Bernstein. “We’re trying to make things that sound interesting to us, first and foremost. But we’re also hoping that the music and the way we operate spurs the listener to think differently. Every act is political, and our decisions might make someone reconsider how they make music or how they go about their lives.”
Horse Lords play Studio 9294, London (Aug 31), End Of The Road festival, Dorset (Sept 1) and Supersonic Festival, Birmingham (Sept 2)