Dog Day Afternoon: the Houndmouth interview
In the midst of a European tour promoting the release of their debut album From The Hills Below The City, Illinois’ finest new noisemakers Houndmouth have enough downtime for keyboardist, and one quarter of the voices in the band, Katie Toupin, to give us the lowdown on what seems like an overnight success.
When we catch up with Katie, she’s in Berlin having just completed the arduous task of jumping around on a bed, which she assures me is for a photoshoot. “It’s not a hard day's work by any means,” she laughs. It turns out that she and bassist Zak Appleby have been abandoned by bandmates Matt Myers and Shane Cody who’ve gone back to their hotel, and she seems to have plucked the short straw for their last interview of the day - especially as she's under the weather. "I have a cold. I had to go to the doctor today so I probably shouldn't party too hard tonight!" Despite this she talks enthusiastically about the band and their last year or so, and graciously doesn't skimp on interview time.
If you've read anything about Houndmouth before you might think they're like Mumford & Sons - but that's not something that sits well with the band. "Our songs are kind of like folk rocky Americana. We get compared to Mumford & Sons a lot over here but we don't play any acoustic instruments so it's a kinda strange comparison." When I agree (and I really do agree) Katie laughs. "Thank you! I appreciate that! We get it quite a lot. Lazy journalism I guess." But they're happier with other comparisons. "We also get a lot of comparisons to The Band, but we honestly didn't listen to them much when we first started, we just kinda had these songs already written." And now? "Now we listen to The Band like all the time, 'cause they're just fucking great!"
With the release of their debut album, conversation inevitably turns to how the band first came about. "Prior to the band me and Matt had been an acoustic duo for around three years. We all kind of grew up in a small town and so always sort of played music together and known each other throughout high school. But (the band) came together about a year and a half ago. We just started playing songs that we'd all written individually but they were kind of cohesive as a group of songs. Basically whoever wrote the song would sing it and that's how it naturally happened."
And the big break came about in a very modern way. "We recorded 'Penitentiary' and put that online for ourselves, just so that our friends could hear it. And it caught on. We woke up and like three or four blogs had written about it." So a true word of mouth beginning, although it wasn't until they met Rough Trade at South By Southwest in 2012 that they actually signed to a label.
With the songs coming from each of the band individually, I wonder whether they are based on each of band member's real life experiences, or stories? "I think it's a little bit of both. Just creating a story or telling somebody else's story that we know. And a lot of it is romanticising an idea, painting a picture to create a feeling. It's not all direct songwriting. Some of it is though: 'Hey Rose' is obviously about a girl named Rose and 'Palmyra' is clearly a love song. But it's not necessarily wearing your heart on your sleeve all the time and saying exactly how you feel; the meaning is kind of hidden beneath the imagery." And lead vocals, you all sing what you write? "Yeah, up until this point so far. The harmonies just work themselves out; we just jump in and start singing them. If they sound like shit we'll just sit down for half an hour and take them apart and actually find the harmonies that are perfect, but most of the time the harmonies are just natural. I think that's what gives it a more garage-y sound, not like Fleet Foxes harmonies."
With the songs already there was the recording experience pretty smooth? "The album was done in like four days." Wow, very fast then. "Well, we signed with Rough Trade and we had just became a band. We had no following, we had absolutely no base to go from. We kinda had to tour and do some things and we signed with them for the EP, put the EP out and it's kinda got our foot in the door a little bit. So it's taken a while. The album's been written the entire time we've been a band pretty much and it was recorded like eight or nine months ago, so it seems relatively quick, but for us it's been a lot of waiting and being patient and building off of nothing."
That building from nothing has gotten them far in a short period of time, with the band in London on album launch day, playing at The 100 Club. So how do this very American band get on with UK audiences? "We love them! We get a wonderful response, every night is super positive. I mean we don't expect that, so it's kinda amazing to get encores. It's a weird feeling. And you like guitar solos too, probably more than American audiences, which is great!" It sounds like you enjoy playing live? "I feel we have a fun live show, we have fun up on stage and that generally translates to the audience."
She also prefers the gigs to recording. "Personally I think we all love to play live shows; it's just a one time thing you know. Even though the album's done there's just so much more we could have done and could go on forever. I just like the feeling that it's 45 minutes and is what it is. And you get a shot at it every day." It's a good thing they like playing their live shows as they're touring pretty intensively in support of their album, with slots supporting Drive-by Truckers ("We hung out a little bit with Patterson"), Alabama Shakes, and Grace Potter - who left a lasting effect. "Grace Potter was really really sweet when we played with her. Being a girl, kind of observing another girl being on the road for ten years - it was a nice opportunity to see her lifestyle, you know?" And her experiences so far have shown the good side of the music industry. "Everybody we've toured with have been so nice and I think that's the biggest thing that I've picked up: people have just been the nicest, most normal people. It's not like they're egotistical, they're smart and mature, nice people." I say that's not always the case. "Really? Well, that's been my take on it, nobody's been an asshole at all."
And these haven't even been the best moments the band have had over the last twelve months. "There's been plenty of surreal moments. I think the hometown shows in Lowell, Kentucky - that's what's the most amazing. Our last show there we didn't even have an album out then and we sold like 2000 tickets in this huge amphitheatre and it was just unbelievable. Like it didn't feel like that was possible."
It turns out their hometown have really taken to the band. "And the city, Lowell, named it Houndmouth Day on April 26th, that's like an annual thing now! Houndmouth Day! Just crazy shit like that - we have a beer named after us - and we made up this word called Houndmouth. It just feels strange to have your life completely different than it was a year and a half ago."
Ah, so let's clear that up then, Houndmouth doesn't actually mean anything? “Well, it's a drunken term really. Shane and Matt were recording and drinking, and Matt laid down a guitar solo and there were dogs barking across the street, which the mics picked up. So Shane goes ‘there’s too much Houndmouth on that track’ or something like that, and it just kinda stuck.” Unlike some bands we can think of (stand up Money) it's a damn good name for Googling too: "When you Google Houndmouth the only thing that comes up is us. That was kind of a lucky part of it too. We didn't really give that any thought before picking a band name; we had a show and had to decide what our band name was gonna be!"
At TMF Towers always like to get tips on new bands and artists from the people that should know. Katie immediately has an answer. "Oh yeah, do you know the band J Roddy Walston and the Business? We love J Roddy! He's so good - check him out for sure. They should be a whole lot bigger than they are. It's like southern rock n roll, you'll understand when you listen to it why we like it."
You always wonder how well our UK events are known across the Atlantic so I finish off by asking about End Of The Road Festival which the band are playing in August. "There's quite a few things that we end up playing or doing that we don't realise they're awesome or a big deal because we're pretty naïve and we haven't heard of things! Like we did an interview with Dermot... O'Leary... is that his name?" Yep, national treasure Dermot O'Leary. "And everybody's like 'Oh my gosh! You met that dude!' and we're like 'Yeah, who is he?'" She's laughing again. "We had absolutely no idea! The festival falls into that category. We're excited about doing it, but we don't really know what to expect!"
And with that we're done. Katie thanks me for the interview and is off to have dinner and rest her voice. I'm left impressed by her spark and good humour, which I think sums up her attitude to it all. She seems genuinely surprised at their success so far and is really enjoying the whole experience. Long may that continue.
Houndmouth's debut album Hills Beneath The City is out now on Rough Trade Records. They're next in the UK at End Of The Road Festival on August 30-1st September.