Anyone who’s ever punched a clock has a work buddy. If you’re lucky, they might be a true friend; someone you spend more time talking with than you do with your family, maybe even your partner. Imagine if the two of you had the chance to leave your jobs behind and go on a crazy, incredibly fun, sometimes stressful but ultimately mind-blowing two-and-a-half-year musical adventure across continents and time zones, racking up accolades from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, People and Pitchfork.
To the Australian indie-rock duo of Kate Cooper (singer/guitarist) and Damon Cox (drummer/singer), An Horse — who went from rehearsing after hours in a Brisbane record store to playing “Camp Out,” the single from their 2009 debut, Rearrange Beds, on The Late Show With David Letterman — making their second album, Walls, isn’t just a chance to set the agenda for their next phase. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the fantastical journey that has carried them here, a pipe dream made thrillingly real.
“We’d worked in the record store together for a couple of years and talked every day — even on days off — mostly about music and film, which we continue to do every day now.” says Damon. “After listening to music all day together at work for two years, we had a really clear idea of what we liked and disliked musically.” That bond was the backbone of Rearrange Beds; after two years of relentless touring, though, including stints out on the road with Tegan & Sara, Death Cab for Cutie, Cage the Elephant, Silversun Pickups and The Big Pink, An Horse had become a different animal altogether.
Cooper, like Cox, is frank in her assessment of their earlier album. “With Rearrange Beds, we made a record of two people learning how to play together. I don’t think you can hear that on the album per se, but that’s what it was.” This time, the pair decided to make a record that reflected their bond not just as music aficionados, but as musical collaborators. “Walls was really deliberate,” Kate explains. “We had hundreds of shows under our belt and we had figured out how to play off each other.”
Regrouping in Vancouver after recharging their batteries in their respective homes — Cooper in Montreal, Cox in Melbourne — An Horse brought in Howard Redekopp (who has lent his sonic wizardry to The New Pornographers and Tegan & Sara as well as An Horse — Redekopp mixed Rearrange Beds) to produce the album. Now the duo would figure out how to play off the studio, too.
“We had many lengthy discussions with Howard before we arrived in Vancouver to record,” says Damon, “and did five days of pre-production — pulling the songs apart, putting them back together, throwing some songs away and even creating new ones — which is something we’d never had the luxury of doing.”
The atmosphere was comfortable and creative, which was just what they needed. “During the recording, Howard brought his old dog Fanny into the studio,” Kate explains with a wry chuckle. “One day I was getting up in Fanny’s face while Damon was recording with a video camera. I was talking to her, telling her she was such a lovely dog, but Howard quickly intervened when he found us. He told us that Fanny had personal space issues and, had I gotten any closer, Fanny would have had my nose! A few weeks earlier, Fanny had bitten our assistant engineer Jarett’s face and he had to be rushed to the hospital with Fanny sitting beside him in the car.”
Walls has plenty of the whip-smart, energetic rock that propelled An Horse half-way across the world. The album’s opening track, “Dressed Sharply,” is as fizzy and explosive as a shook-up bottle of champagne, spraying the listener with showers of melody and noise. It’s no surprise that the tune is a fan favorite already, thanks to having been previewed in their recent shows. But on the song that follows it, “Not Mine,” the craft and care that went into Walls’ making becomes even clearer. Kate and Damon’s passionate vocals, weave into a pattern with Kate’s chiming guitar, building the intensity slowly and deliberately as Damon’s drums nudge the momentum along.
It’s a powerful tension, one that marks the separation between Rearrange Beds and Walls, where the duo frequently return to that place where anything can shrink into a whisper or explode into a howl. “They’re my favorite songs on the record; songs like ‘100 Whales,’ where the mood fits in the middle. We wanted to make a record that sounded way bigger and more powerful, but not so big and crazy that it didn’t sound like two people,” Damon says.
The result is a towering sound that doesn’t buckle when it gets quiet, or for that matter, serious. Walls’ songs span a wide spectrum of emotions, which came to the surface after Kate had moved to Montreal. “I was really stoked because I had met a girl and was having a good time, but there were also a lot of really terrible things that had happened.”
More specifically, the lyrics deal with the wrenching angst of being stuck on tour while a family member falls ill. Plenty of songwriters have observed the monotony of endless hours logged on the interstate, but when your mother phones you to tell you that she has to have major surgery and you can’t run to her side all the way in Australia, suddenly you’ve got bigger problems than the lack of roadside scenery between Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
“No one in my family told me about my mum’s condition because they didn’t want me to come home,” Kate explains. “They said, ‘we didn’t want to worry you.’ So eventually I had this conversation with my mum where she said, ‘Alright, well, I’m gonna go in now and get this done,’ and I was, like, ‘Alright, bye…’ it was crazy. I was struck with this sense that I would have to spend as much time with everyone I care about now because they could die, but I’m going to be on tour, so I can’t.”
There’s a disarming intimacy in Kate’s lyrics, whether she’s relating the experience of waiting for her mum’s results in “Brain on a Table,” or the less dramatic but vividly observed “Windows in the City,” where she describes games people make up on the phone when things like geography or work come between them. Both a sense of playfulness and feelings of longing are never far from the surface.
Kate: “I think most of the songs for Walls were written in December 2009 to January 2010, when I was in Montreal. I was discovering a new city but I was missing everyone back home. And I was definitely getting frustrated with feeling lost.
“When it’s minus 30 degrees out and my girlfriend’s working and my friends are away, and it’s like, what do I do in this apartment? I just wrote songs. Which was cool, I was really productive.
”In the apartment, there was a bird that wouldn’t shut up. His name was Uncle Pete and his painful ‘cheep cheep’ is all over the demos. I had to send them to Damon with notes like ‘at 2:23, TURN DOWN’ because Uncle Pete’s chirps were so loud,” Kate recalls.
When all was said and done, the album had become every bit as rich and varied as the time in their lives that it capped the end of.
“It was a really rewarding and emotional process making Walls,” Damon says. “We could kind of reflect on what a crazy two and a half years we’d had. When we finished up I felt like I could breathe again, like a massive weight had been lifted. The warm Vancouver summer felt like an old friend guiding us through it all. It was a really exciting time.”