by: Thomas D. Mooney
On the front cover of Strangetowne’s full-length debut, Hard Earned Love, the four members are looking off into the distance somewhere in the sprawling canyons of the Palo Duro. The monocrome captures the vast, rugged terrain that sets south of the otherwise flatlands and rolling fields of the Texas Panhandle.
There’s an intensity with Strangetowne. With Hard Earned Love, that fire glows. Like the badlands, the thirteen tracks that make up the album are as boundless as the territory. The attention to detail is unparalleled. Small, eclectic intros build into singalong anthems. They carve out the a giant wall of sound without being overfilled with the unnecessary. There’s space for everything to breathe. It allows you to appreciate just exactly what’s happening on the album when discovering.
With the likes of Western Plaza and Zac Wilkerson & The Wayward Souls, Strangetowne is leading a new era of bands in Amarillo and Canyon unafraid to experiment and dive into those canyon crevices and bring back individual sounds all their own. Where Lubbock has a focus on the individual–the singer-songwriter if you will–the sister city to the north has an ear for full bands.
And while the individual songwriting of Lincoln Youree, Tyler Horning, and Ben Cargo would stand alone well enough, their combination–along with percussionist Jordan McClain–creates a spotlight on the sum rather than the individual parts. It’s not a band of hired guns. It’s here where Strangetowne sets itself apart from the crowd.
We caught up with guitarist-vocalist Tyler Horning earlier this week to talk about the making of Hard Earned Love. Tonight (Thursday, Oct 22), Strangetowne will be playing at The Blue Light.
Listen to “We’ll Get What We Want,” the passionate piano-driven Youree-led closer to Hard Earned Love, below.
New Slang: For this album, you guys narrowed the song selection from thirty-something songs to twelve. What went into that cutting down process? Was there any difficulties during that?
Tyler Horning: It’s kind of funny. We came over to my house and it was a deal where we all wrote down our favorite 15 and went with a tally system. Once we got it narrowed down to around 15, that’s when it became a bit of a struggle. “Well, I want this one.” “Well, I want this one.” It dwindled down through compromise from that point. I think the best ones, we ended up choosing.
NS: You guys have had these songs for a while. I’m assuming that they’ve evolved over the course of shows so you had a pretty solid idea of what you wanted done with them once you entered the studio. But in saying that, was there any of them that you guys discussed recording differently?
TH: “Amarillo Girls” comes to mind. That song, if you listen to the EP version, it’s quite a bit longer. This studio version, it’s a hell of a lot faster. That was kind of a deal where we wanted it to be a little shorter for maybe some radio push. “We’ll Get What We Want,” it didn’t change so much, but bringing in those extra vocals in the end had an effect. Those are some of my favorite moments–those small things–but I don’t think I’d say the songs really changed.
NS: Speaking of the EP, that came out last year. One of the things I said about it, was that it felt like its’ purpose was a stopgap of sorts–that you guys were on the cusp of something great, but you guys needed to get something out there to hold over fans until the release of Hard Earned Love.
TH: Yeah. Matt Lemburg, the guy who produced Hard Earned Love, he also produced that one as well. I think with the EP, we did it all for under two-thousand dollars. It was done fast and fierce. Whatever sonic qualities that it didn’t have [laughs], that was kind of secondary to having us get it out and have something for people to listen to.
NS: Yeah. That’s really the biggest difference between the EP and this album. The sonic quality is superb. It feels like there’s a bunch of layers in these songs. There’s subtle moments. There’s interesting instrumentation that you find on the fifth or sixth time that you didn’t notice the first few plays. How was that part of the making of the album? Was that a frustrating time or was it the most fun aspect of building the album?
TH: I think once we did get all the basis of the songs, that was one of the funnest parts. Lincoln [Youree], is a fantastic piano player. Playing the Hammond organ, the Rhodes, the banjo, and some of the other instruments that we sometimes don’t play live, that was the coolest part. For me, that’s what gave those songs life–like those back-up vocals. That was really the fun part. Experimenting and seeing what we could build.
NS: Those gang vocals. I said it before, they’re some of the best gang vocals I’ve heard on an album in a long, long time. I know it sounds funny and strange saying that, but really, it can be those small things in a song that kicks it up another level–and it does help encourage people to sing along.
TH: Rights. That’s what you want [laughs].
NS: A few of these songs, I think they’re anthemic in nature. “We’ll Get What We Want” just as that presence. There’s these giant, soaring qualities to some of the songs. Do you think the Amarillo and Panhandle landscape has had an influence on that?
TH: I think it does–especially on that one. Lincoln wrote that one. The gang vocals at the end, even though I was a part of that, it’s still kind of chilling to hear those things.
NS: Yeah. The first time I heard it, it was a “whoa” moment. There’s also a few small country-folk tunes on there though. Songs like “Country Song,” “Your Company,” and “Don’t Let Go of Me,” there’s some soft, subtlety to those songs. They create some balance to the album. You wrote “Don’t Let Go of Me,” right?
TH: Yeah, Lincoln and I did. I had the riff down and Lincoln and I sat down one night. I had a little bit of the words and we finished it off pretty quickly. It’s one of my favorites that we play–even though we don’t it as often live as we used to. It does have that slow build to it. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to do that, but it’s there. Ben [Cargo]’s instrumental is also like that. It’s a good balance of what’s come and what’s next on the album.
NS: As a songwriter, how do you typically approach the writing of a song? Are you one who typically starts with music or do you try and build around a phrase or idea first?
TH: I’ve always started with a basic melody. My writing, I’m so off and on about it–unlike Lincoln. For me, it’s building around the melody and playing around with words. I’m typically slow with writing–unfortunately [laughs]–but that’s how I’ve always worked. It may come two or three hours. It may come in two or three months. Building around a melody and creating smart hooks, the harmonies are going to come along with that. That’s such a big part of what we do. I feel like our harmonies are strong. It’s a focus when I’m writing.