With so few posts over the course of this year, there have been far too many acts I've liked that have received far too little attention. The band Pale Horse most definitely falls into that category. For those who attended my GOBL showcase this past May at The Cavern, you should understand why I'm a fan of the band. This is a band that tackles subjects that most acts would dare not address. This is thanks largely to lead singer J.R. Denson, who vocally delivers every line with sincerity and passion.
The band is celebrating the release of its debut EP, Future Dimensions, this Friday at Double-Wide. I was fortunate enough to talk with the band's founding members, J.R. Denson and Aaron Carder, last week. J.R.'s wife, Sarah, videotaped the interview. She also wound up being a part of the interview.
I remember you guys from Greater Good, a band that was doing well for itself. You even got the opportunity to open for Blind Melon, and then... nothing. What happened?
J.R.: Basically, you had six guys who were all wanting to constantly be writing and doing all kinds of different music. Toby Pipes and Nolan Thies started Little Black Dress and had been working on that record when they got a deal to put that record out. When Aaron and I went out, the plan for Greater Good was to go out to this house in Celina and just be in the middle of nowhere to write a new record. Aaron and I were the only ones who showed up [laughs]. We started writing and we kind of figured out that what we were writing weren’t Greater Good tunes. It was really something new and different and very personal. With me and Aaron, every song was a story that had to do with one of us, and so we decided it was time to start something new and fresh.
Living in Celina, with the Dallas music scene being so tight knit and mostly centered around Deep Ellum/Lower Greenville areas, how do you think being up in Celina is affecting you as a band? Do you feel it’s helping you or hurting you, or possibly both?
Aaron: I think it’s really good. We’ve lived out there about a year together, I moved in with them. It was good to be out and away from the city and in the country. It was really peaceful. As far as writing songs, it was probably the best thing for us to be up there. On the other hand, the commute and the long drive, that’s probably the only downside.
J.R.: And you know, we were downtowners for five years too so we were in the middle of it. One of the benefits of being down there is that you’re hanging out at bars, you’re talking to people that live in the city. You’re making the fans that way and being a part of the local music scene. So I know, being out in Celina, it’s a little bit harder to be a part of that and support as many shows. Still, that’s something that we’ve taken upon ourselves to really try and support shows even though we’re up there. It’s kind of like a give and take, because being up there and away from everything, we get a fresh perspective on things. We get to do what we want. As long as we maintain our ties to the scene downtown and keep our old friends, I think we can balance it out.
Well you certainly have some good connections through your former bandmate Toby, and his band Little Black Dress that will be playing at your upcoming CD release show. I’m just curious; do you have any other favorite acts from the scene that the two of you are getting into right now?
Aaron: I like what Burning Hotels did with their last record. Air Review is really great. I really like Sarah Jaffe. Her record has really blown me away. And there’s Ishi, but you know, I mean, you pick a band and they’re our friends and we like them.
J.R.: The Roomsounds are coming into their own. I just realized, we played with them for your showcase. We’re playing another show with them and like what they’re doing. (Editor’s note: I didn’t prompt them to say this. Really, I didn’t)
Instead of discussing other people’s music, let’s talk about yours now. Certainly the track of yours that’s gotten the most exposure would have to be “Will You Be There?” Why don’t you share what the story behind the song is?
J.R.: Well basically my wife Sarah is my partner in crime and Aaron, you know, we’re almost like a tripod here. We’ve lived together and done and experienced so much together. Sarah’s been a huge part of Pale Horse, and in 2007 her brother, 2nd Lt. Peter Burks, was killed in Iraq. It brought home to me a personal connection to the war and to what the troops and their families go through all the time. The song came from the idea that all these guys are coming home and they’re wondering, “Do we back here really understand the sacrifices that they’re making and understand what’s going on over there. Are we going to be able to accept them coming back maybe not the same people?” I mean, going through war is like being involved in some traumatic event. It’s going to change you. I think “Will You Be There?” is a song that asks that question. Are you thinking about this? Are you thinking about this disconnect that is about to be here with about 1.7 million troops that have gone over there and they’re going to be coming back.
I know you’ve also used the song to help promote an organization to help the troops.
J.R.: Yeah, Aaron and I got the opportunity to go down to the Democratic National Convention when it was in Denver a few years ago. We met Paul Reikhoff there, founder of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America). They’re the largest supporter of troops and they do so much to get legislation passed and get medical benefits for the troops. We wanted to help to point people to IAVA and Unsung Hero Fund, my brother in law Peter’s foundation. Organizations like that are working on a daily basis to make life better for soldiers and their families.
Aaron: Also, the suicide rate is the highest among returning vets that it’s ever been. A lot of them are dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
J.R.: The benefits really aren’t really there to treat the PTSD. It’s the same thing as Vietnam. When the guys came back, they didn’t have the therapy or medical help to really help them transition back into civilian life. That’s one of the big things that we and IAVA are fighting for is to make sure that every single of these guys is taken care of when they come back. No matter what the troops or their families need, they have that, and it’s provided because they provided and served for us.
I’m going to switch gears a little from “Will You Be There?” to “You’re No Good”, a song that also has a very interesting story, or so I hear. What exactly was the inspiration for the song?
J.R.: Well [laughs] it’s funny because it’s about my mother-in-law. Everything in the song is true and whole thing is, you know, I came from two parents who were married and pretty much your typical upbringing, and Aaron did too. Being with Sarah and being a part of her family, her parents are divorced. It’s a sad situation. It’s something I’ve seen first hand, where people have taken that whole side of religion or whatever it is and used it to their advantage and maybe turned a dark eye to something that’s supposed to be good. “You’re No Good” was just an angry cry, calling them out.
If I may for a second go behind the camera to ask a question. After all, you did refer to yourselves as a tripod so I think it’s only fair that I ask you, Sarah, especially on this song, how it feels to have a part of your personal life documented on CD?
Sarah: I think it’s awesome. For me, it’s liberating. My mother hasn’t heard that song, but once she does, it’s going be kind of a slap in the face. Like, “Hey, look at all these terrible things you’ve done to us.” But it’s been a really amazing experience to be with these boys for the past two years. We are like a family. I consider Aaron like my brother; I love him so much. Having this record to chronicle the whole shit of a year that we had to go through is something that many people don’t get to have or experience. I’m so excited that in twenty years, we can tell our little boys, “Hey, this is what Mom and Dad and Uncle Aaron did back in 2009-10 and this is what was happening in our lives.”
J.R.: It’s always awkward at shows because I always say, “This is about my mother-in-law,” so just in case she ever shows up, she’ll know.
Sarah: It is awkward at shows though, because on so many songs they are about me and JR. Especially at the beginning of “Kind So Insecure” when he sings “I took your diamond ring into a pawn shop yesterday.” I feel like everyone’s looking at me and I’m like, “it’s all cool man.”
Is this a true story?
J.R.: It is a true story. Now we have tattoos [she and J.R. point to the ring tattoos on their ring fingers]. This is way more of a commitment. I have her middle name on my finger.
Sarah: And now we have more people ask all the time “is that your wedding band?”, whereas no one would have asked before or even cared to; it’s just a stupid diamond and metal.
I’m about to ask what is probably the most clichéd of interview questions: What are the band’s influences?
Aaron: Well there’s so many. I guess if you started from my childhood, listened to a lot of Christian and gospel music growing up. Then in the 80’s and 90’s, I listened to the radio a lot. I couldn’t get a lot of CDs and stuff because all the music I liked had cuss words and my parents were really conservative. I listened to a lot of 90’s rock: Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Radiohead, Rage Against The Machine. I also listened to a lot of classic rock: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles. All that stuff is just one big conglomeration of influences.
J.R.: I think that’s a good representation of the whole old meets new thing. For me, Lennon probably my favorite songwriter all time. And The Band, you know, I loved what they stood for, real honest songs and music and sounds. As far as newer bands, we’ve been getting into My Morning Jacket, MGMT, and Wilco. We’re been taking things from different periods of our lives, and Pale Horse is a way of trying to combine them.
I’ve certainly noticed some very eclectic influences. There’s one particular track, I don’t know its name, but it has a very Sublime feel to it. Do you think there’s a danger in the possibility of alienating listeners by having such eclectic tastes, and if so, what would you say to that?
Aaron: I don’t think so. I think having a more eclectic catalog works better than just sticking to one style. I think the song you’re referring to is “History.” That song is about some crazy things we’ve come to learn about in the past few years, what you’d call alternate or conspiracy theories, which in our point of view, aren’t conspiracy theories but rather things that are happening.
J.R.: On “History”, that song’s really musically three major parts. Using the different styles to break up those parts is something we thought was a new fresh way to do it. There’s this reggae part and then it stops and goes into this thing with a banjo. Somehow it comes together and maybe someone who doesn’t like Sublime can see the merit of that style or influence because of how it’s all put together as a whole. It’s interesting for us to go from one influence one style we like playing to another and it makes the song interesting all the way through. It may not be the best way to carve out an identity very quickly, but I think over time and over a period listening to the songs as a whole, you’ll be able to see the influences and also see the sound that we’re carving out on our own and hopefully it becomes its own thing.
Aaron: A lot of people say we have a southern gospel sound because of the keyboards and organ so I think adding that in gives it a dirty gospel sound.
J.R.: That’s another whole period of our lives because we were in Christian bands. Combined we’ve probably played 3000 churches. I mean, it’s insane how many church gigs we did over probably a five to six year period. Whether we like it or not, that was our start. I think the big thing to know about that and the gospel influence that comes from that is that music started for us by just a pure soul connection. Aaron and I both crave that in anything that we’re doing or any music we’re listening to. We want something to have that almost spiritual connection; it has nothing to do with religion or anything. It’s really that spiritual thing that music gives you. Music is spiritual. I think it’s something that’s not talked about a lot and sometimes people even look at it as a bad thing that this song is so emotional or moving, but to me that’s just what music’s about.