Across two LPs and five years of nonstop touring, Houndmouth made a name for itself as a troupe of sonic time travelers. After performing at SXSW in 2012, the Indiana band signed to Rough Trade Records and dropped its debut album, From the Hills Below the City, the following year. Full of hard-luck protagonists who hop trains, lurk in casinos until the wee hours of the morning, and wind up in the penitentiary bumming a light from Capone, the lively record has an undoubtedly old soul. The group’s sophomore release, Little Neon Limelight, continued this trajectory with tall tales of drifters and soul-searchers, on songs like “Otis” and “Cousin Greg.”
But it was the album’s opening track, “Sedona,” that became Houndmouth’s breakout single, getting national airplay: “We’re going California but we’re all out of work, I guess that’s better than a grave and a hearse, oh, oh / Hey little Hollywood, you’re gone but you’re not forgot / You got the cash but your credit’s no good…” The lyrics were perfect fodder for sing-alongs, the band’s raucous live performances harkened back to the past, and Houndmouth was quickly swept up in the folk-rock revival wave that claimed Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers as pied pipers.
In 2016, co-founding member Katie Toupin (keyboards) left the band to pursue solo work, and Houndmouth’s remaining members, Matt Myers (guitar), Zak Appleby (bass), and Shane Cody (drums), had a decision to make: Where to travel to next?
On its latest release, Golden Age, they ditched the nostalgia and landed somewhere between the present and the future, tapping Jonathan Rado of the band Foxygen and famed producer Shawn Everett (The War on Drugs, Alabama Shakes) to be their auditory gurus.
“We brought them into the studio in Shawn’s place in L.A. and pleasantries were exchanged and we just dove into recording,” says Appleby. “Those two just meshed right away and kind of led us on this wild journey through this record.”
Golden Age presented a whole new frontier for Houndmouth. This time, the band had the backing of a major label, Warner Brothers.
“We had never had the opportunity before to be in these amazing studios with all this gear…when we signed with Warner, they were like, ‘It doesn’t just have to be like, the bass and the amp that you’ve been using the whole time, you can experiment,’” Appleby explains. “And so we like to think we used the studio as an instrument in the record as well…when we look back on it, that really changed things pretty drastically.”
The result is a multi-layered, synth-pop take on the digital age and beyond. “Do you ever feel like a ghost looking at your phone,” Myers asks on the track “Coast to Coast.” Although Golden Age marks a decided shift from the barn-burning Americana of the group’s first two albums, that doesn’t mean every layer is shaped by machines. Sometimes, drawing on the tools available in the trio’s surroundings meant a return to roots, like during recording sessions at Sonic Ranch in Texas.
“[Sonic Ranch] is on this 7,000-acre pecan farm just south of El Paso—a place called Tornillo,” says Appleby. “One night, we decide we’re going to get a different sound for this chorus harmony, so we take a little tape player out into the middle of this huge pecan farm. It’s pitch black outside—it’s dead air it feels like—and we all gather around this little tape player and we start doing these harmony parts surrounded by trees and just pure darkness. It was surreal.”
Whether traversing through the Wild West or the digital landscape, one thing’s for certain: Being on the journey with Houndmouth is never boring.
Houndmouth plays The Jefferson Theater Friday, February 22.