Sixteen Horsepower

Walkin’ Along a Narrow Road

It’s the first day of August, and I’m walking towards the Showbox. Saturday heat and too many tourists, and then I see a flat black van with Colorado license plates, and I grin. 16 Horsepower are in town, and now even the heat can’t get me down. This is thunder and lightning. A summer storm just blown in to town.

So I wander into the venue darkness, and find my way to a table to sit with David Eugene Edwards, singer for this band that’s crept up crowlike in the shadows and myths of North America. From their debut, a self-titled EP on A&M Records, to their latest offering, the wicked and wild Low Estate, Sixteen Horsepower have taken sustenance from sources that reach from slow swamp country songs to hymns of the sacred and profane, to dark, driving, stamp-your-feet rock that makes you feel like either you or the band are possessed.

I sit down, grabbing an ashtray as David lights his cigarette and offers the flame to me. I smile thanks, I’m nervous.

The lineup of Sixteen Horsepower has gone through a couple of changes since their beginning, but Drummer Jean-Yves Tola has supplied his foundation for the band, as Keven Soll came and left, leaving the bass twists and burns to Pascal Humbert, and the addition of Jeffrey Paul, who alternates between guitar and fiddle, and can play that guitar as if it was a fiddle. David tells me he used to play with Jeffrey in his pre-Horsepower days, as members of the Denver Gentlemen. Asking about any other current musical side projects, David answers with a quick grin, “Nothing to speak of.”

When I learned that I was lucky enough to have caught the band on their last stop on this tour, I almost choked on my cigarette, but instead managed to ask about the tour.

“We’ve been on tour for about 4 weeks, and a week of that was spent in Europe, playing in Belgium and around there.”

Raising an eyebrow, I ask, “Do you get good response in Europe?”

“Oh yeah!” David nods, grinning, “They love us there.”

After the show, I look back at this comment, and find it hard to place this enthusiastic response with the singer who had said it. His presence on-stage was that of a man almost in desperation. Passionate, desperate, and running from whatever ghosts chase him. Singing to the captivated audience, throwing glances, wild-eyed and off to the sides, and behind, the stage keeping the spirits at bay.

I asked about the term that so many people seem to use when trying to describe the band’s sound, “gothic western.”

David pauses, thinking about the term, then answers, “I like it. I don’t think it’s completely accurate, and trying to define a band in a couple of words is kind of lame, but as far as gothic western goes, I’m happy with it. I wouldn’t have used it, but it doesn’t bother me.”

Wondering about the imagery of the albums, the visual side of the band, David tells me that it’s pretty much a collaboration between the band members and the label’s art department.

“So you have complete creative control?,” I wonder.

“Hell yeah!” David exclaims, “There’s no other way to do it for us.”

I nod, and ask about the label. How did they manage to debut on A&M Records?

“We thought that was pretty strange. We were sure we were going to get picked up by an independent label, but we sent demo tapes everywhere, and an A&R guy from A&M called us almost immediately. He was playing the tape, and called while he was still listening. Two weeks later, he flew out to Denver to see us play. We were actually playing with the Reverend Horton Heat that night, but anyway, by the end we were signed.”

I tried to slide that comment into some hints on the next album, but David just sidesteps slightly and replies with “I’m not sure what we’re going to do with the next album. We’ve started writing songs, so it’ll happen. I’m not sure if it will be on A&M or not, but we’ll do it, and see what happens.”

So I ask, “Do you feel like your sound has progressed in a direction you’re happy with? I mean, you definitely have your sound, but are you going the way you want to go?”

David replies, “We’re sounding better all the time, yeah, I’m happy with everything. Every time we play, we solidify our connections, we get better.”

Knowing about the connections in the music with old hymns and the pervasive atmosphere of days gone by, I try to see if there are any current inspirations.

“I like Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer, Morphine, there’s definitely Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and actually there’s a band playing here in Seattle tonight that I really like, from Budapest, Muzsikas, they’re great. I got to see them play this festival there.”

“Do you get over to Europe much?” I wonder.

“We try,” David says. “We’re actually going to Paris fairly soon, to play a couple of shows, and Mark Sandman (from Morphine) is going to be opening for us, doing a solo thing.”

I inquire about the opening bands, if they get to choose, or if it’s out of their control, and am informed that they can choose, but usually leave it up to the label or the promoters, trying to get local bands open as they move from town to town.

Riding the trail across the wastelands, following the crows, preachin’ their own blues. ◼

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