Music: Vinyl Frontier

After a debut album on vinyl and a lineup reset, The Chocolate Horse heads to SXSW

The Chocolate Horse

When you walk up to Jason Snell's modest two-story home tucked away on a backstreet in Northside, you don't suspect it to be any different from the rows of well-worn houses that surround it. But walk inside and you are in Chocolate Horse World Headquarters, something immediately evident when you go through the French doors to a corner room littered with recording equipment and wires running wildly throughout like snakes in the Amazon.

Snell — lead singer, writer of "one-liners" and guitar strummer — is hanging out with Paul Brumm, the band's stand-up bassist and official Inspector Gadget. He's tinkering with some electronic device, either MacGyvering some makeshift piece of equipment or repairing it.

Brumm, once a member of such local bands as Filament and Keynote Speaker, has long been fiddling with wires in the presence of Snell. The veteran musician recorded Snell's previous band, the artful Indie Rock juggernaut Readymaid, in his Over-the-Rhine apartment. I know because, full disclosure, I used to live upstairs from Brumm.

I must say, I somewhat miss the days of coming home to find someone in the hall recording a French horn solo. Somewhat.

Snell and Brumm (the other core member, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Higley, is in Nashville doing session work with The Raconteurs' Brendan Benson) are gathered to talk about The Chocolate Horse's debut album, Patience Works!, which can legitimately be called an "album," because the band pressed it up as a glorious slab of vinyl with luxurious cover art courtesy of the graphic-designing Snell.

While much of today's new music is compressed to fit the ears of iPod wearers, The Chocolate Horse's warm, soulful, organic sound is perfectly suited for the medium of vinyl.

(Fear not, phonographically-challenged: The packaging also includes a CD version of the record.)

"From the first things I recorded on a 4-track, it was my goal to put an album out on vinyl," Snell says.

The songs and sound were begging for the vinyl treatment, and Snell's visual art background also made him want a bigger canvas for the album art. But there were other factors behind the decision — all the band members are passionate about sound and presentation. They remember the glory days of vinyl and they remain dedicated to the format today, like many other Indie and underground acts. Though they are far from format snobs.

"I don't have a ton of vinyl, but enough that if I go to another city or Shake It I'm definitely going to buy some," Snell says.

"I'm an analog guy," Brumm adds, noting they sent the album to be mastered in Chicago by Shellac's Bob Weston, a mutual analog lover. "We didn't have the facilities to do it all on tape (overdubs and mixing were done on a computer). I love the way it sounds, but once you get into the digital realm at all, I don't know how vastly different it sounds (vs. a CD version)."

Snell first saddled up the Horse as Readymaid was coming to an end. He was looking for something a little more focused and knew he wanted to keep working with Higley. Brumm continued recording with Snell and it soon became evident that he was headed to full-membership status.

The process of writing is as diverse as their sound, but, initially, Snell brought in what he calls "one-liners," little passages and phrases, and the other band members would flesh the ideas out. Brumm calls his role "scoring."

"It's scoring in an orchestral sense," Brumm says. "Our approach, especially with the odd instrumentation, is more geared towards having (parts) come and go. The songs are simple and generally short, so you'd expect it to be presented in the same way, with guitars, drums and bass. And it could go that way. But with Readymaid, Andrew and Jason were coming from a situation where they would have five or more parts going at once, with different instrumentation on (for example) the chorus. So we kind of just built on that."

For songs since Patience, the band records practices and then re-edits the parts together for an almost "cut and paste" type of composing.

"What's cool about that is you end up with those awkward moments, like something's dropped out or maybe Jason put down his guitar and went to the drum kit," Brumm says. "Then you keep that because the guitars dropping out there sounds cool. I like (parts) coming and going. You can really heighten a change in a song just by stopping. As opposed to, 'Oh, what can we add?,' it's more reductionist."

The writing process isn't the only thing that has changed. They are officially a five-piece now, having recently added Johnny Rusza (who adds trickling, sometimes spacey flute) and former Staggering Statistics drummer Joe Klug (previously, the band performed with a drum machine). This new arrangement is the one showcasing this week when the Chocolate Horse debuts at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Tex.

Between recording its first album and its membership growth, the band has written and recorded a wealth of material — and the new lineup will likely lead to even more. So will the sophomore Chocolate Horse album be pressed up on vinyl?

"It'd be nice to," Brumm says. "It's expensive. But, whatever, it's completely worth it."

"Let's find someone to pick that bill up," Snell says softly before unleashing his raspy cackle of a laugh. "Double-live basement album?"

THE CHOCOLATE HORSE ( performs March 21 at the 20th Century Theater as part of the Tapestry of the City 2 event. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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