Grow Deep, Grow Wild: Cameron Neal On Horse Thief, Bella Union, and Rocking

Written By Helen Grant

My first Horse Thief performance had been at Schwarzstock last May. Essentially photographer Doug Schwarz puts on an overnight rock-out-under-the-stars music fest on his family farm out in Yukon. It features Oklahoma-based Indie rock. And quite frankly, it was an amazing show as Horse Thief officially closed out the night. Yes, fireworks ensued.

Photo by Doug Schwarz.

Horse Thief. Photo by Doug Schwarz.

If you’ve never seen them perform they will doing an acoustic set at Guestroom Records’ Bricktown location at 6:00 p.m. this evening. It bears mentioning their limited EP is out on vinyl now too. Afterwards they will head over to a new music venue called Native Sound Stage.  Essentially you’re going to the Urban Art studio collective’s outdoor area, which can host about 400 people. So if you’re familiar with this section of N. Western Ave., think Blue Sage Glass Studios, Mayan Trading Co., Istvan Gallery, etc., then you know right where you need to go.

But if you’re still not sure, look! They made you a video to find Native Sound Stage too. Horse Thief plays with Colourmusic tonight. Doors open at 8:00 p.m., music should start around 9:00 p.m. And this whole thing is slated to rock out until 2:00 a.m. Check the event for more details.

Alright. I sent an e-mail and I met up with Cameron Neal, Horse Thief’s front man, earlier today at Guestroom Records, Western location, to talk about the EP, Bella Union, new changes, and what they’re up to this evening. When I walked into Guestroom, Neal was hanging out back. We talked briefly about the amount of shit that needs to get done in a day and about the benefits attending ACM@UCO as we made our way to the front of the store to do the interview. Were good tunes playing as we talked? Oh, you know it. I read Grace Gordon’s review of “Grow Deep and Grow Wild,” which was written a little over a year and half ago, but I’ve noticed a few changes since that time. For starts, let’s talk about who is in the band now. I read the origin story behind the formation of the band and who had been in it, which was: you, Danny Rose, Preston Greer and Cody Fowler. Although now when I go to your website the line up reads: you, Cody, Alberto Roubert, Zach Zeller, and Alex Coleman. I’ve looked around online, but haven’t seen any mention of the new band members, so how recent of a change is this?

Neal: We actually have 5 piece now. Zack Zeller is on organ, keys, guitar drums. Alberto Roubert is on percussion. And Alex Coleman is on guitar and keys. I kind of met them through Matt Hawkins, drummer for the Non, and Zach Zeller who is his roommate. I moved in with them last May, and through them I met Alberto and Alex. It all happened naturally. I just started writing with Zach, and we ended up writing a lot of material together. It seemed like a natural fit.

As to how recent this change is: they joined the band his past December. We haven’t really talked to anyone about the line-up switch, I mean we did with Oklahoma Rock the other night, but it’s more like we’re trying to focus on making new music. We’ve been really prolific since we all teamed up, we’ve got 14 new songs written over the last four months. We just got a practice space down on Classen and 4th. So we have a place to available to us 24/7, and that’s a huge factor as to why we’ve been moving so quickly. For the first 4 weeks we were working together, we were spending 40-50 hours there. You know, it’s like a full-time job. You don’t realize you’re spending 10 hours in the studio till you look up and realize it’s 4 a.m. In doing more research I also discovered a charming interview with Matt Carney about the 5 top albums you hold dear, and in another interview with Joshua Boydston I read about how you all caught the attention of Bella Union label owner Simon Raymonde when he taught a master’s course at ACM@UCO. That blossoming relationship, which led to that End of the Road festival, seems to be bearing even more fruit. First there’s Horse Thief signing onto Bella Union, but now there’s the wide spread release of the EP. How does it feel to see your music gaining wider exposure and what’s it seeded next in terms of projects or tours?

Neal: Yeah, I met Simon because he was teaching a class about the workings of Bella Union. So I thought I would give him some of our work and see what I thought. I mean, it couldn’t hurt to try. I bet ACM@UCO really encourages being bold like that.

Neal: Yeah, you should. That’s why they’re there. There are all these industry links, and it’s like go talk to them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re doing. Because how else are they going to know, it’s not like they’re going to look at you and say, “Of course, you must be a Rockstar.”

(I want to make a quick aside and say we got off topic for a second to talk about Denton. I asked Cameron what kind of conversation opener you use when talking to an indie label owner, thinking music is surely the key, but it is also about geography. Turns out, Cameron says Raymonde really enjoys the music from that particular Texas city.)

Neal: So we gave him our EP and he really liked it and he said let’s just keep talking. And then he saw us at SXSW and loved the live show. And so he invited us to play his European festival. So did he help pay for you guys to go over there?

Neal: No, he didn’t. We had to raise all the money ourselves. Which Chevy Music actually helped us out a lot with that, they helped sponsor us for the event. So I think that was part of the test. Like “Are they serious this, can they come over and do it?” And we did it, and I think it was after the last show in London, when he saw us, that he later sent us an e-mail asking his if we would be interested in Bella Union. So it sounds like the benefit of working through ACM@UCO is following through with the commitment to actually getting yourself somewhere.

Neal: Yeah, well, I mean as much as it is about making the band happy, there is a business side to it. And it sucks that you have to think about it that way, and when you’re writing music you don’t want to think about it that way, but you know at some point it is going to be handled like a product. Well, there is a happy medium to be had though, right?

Neal: Oh, definitely. We’re finding right now that we’re writing music we like, and that we hope other people will like as well. But you have to understand what the reality of what the music industry is and what is expected from you and what you expect from others. At the end of the day, it is your music. And the others are just helping you get it out there. But it doesn’t seem like it would hamper your creativity too much, sometimes it takes creativity to work around limitations.

Neal: Yes. It can be a help if anything. And Bella Union is such a great label. I never feel like “Awww, if I write this song this way they’re going to hate it.” They’re so open to creativity, and they are all about the bands. That’s what I want to find. People who are really in it for the bands. And finding those people in the industry is hard, but they exist. I like the fact that Bella Union is easily accessible from a listener’s stand point too, I love that they utilize Soundcloud and other social media to put music out there where people like me can find it. And they keep it updated pretty regularly.

Neal: Yeah, and you can listen to a little bit of everything. It’s all great. It’s all different, but I think if you like one of the bands on Bella Union, there’s probably five more on that roster you might like too. Not saying they all sound the same, but they all have this similar feel to them. So the EP, what’s the deal with this release that we should know?

Neal: Well, it’s out on vinyl. It’s a limited thing. There’s only 500 copies. We are out on iTunes and Spotify too. It was more just to get it out there and see how it does. So they’re investing completely in the production part. Is it interesting business, like if they completely sell out of all 500, will you end up with anything?

Neal: It’s a weird a deal. It’s not like here’s your $10,000 check. It’s more that Bella Union is like: “We’ll recoup our expenses, pay you guys off first, and if anything is leftover, that’ll probably go into a fund to support a tour.” So it seems like a lot of people are breaking even in this situation?

Neal: A lot of people are breaking even, if you’re lucky. A lot of people lose money and go into debt forever. It’s kind of the chance you’re taking with it. So what’s it like to have your music out there as it is now in Europe.

Neal: It’s interesting. It’s nice to know there are people who are out there listening to our music who I never thought would be into it. I was never really, like, “Oh, yeah. This is going to be that song that gets played.” I mean the fact our music is getting more play in Europe than America is surreal. To have a label behind our music is astonishing. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it too. I mean, that’s why everyone makes music, it’s to get it out there into the world. And if this is the best way to do it, then I’m totally 100% behind it. I also compared track listings on “Grow Wild, Grow Deep” via bandcamp to that of what is being released on iTunes. Looks like Warrior (née Oklahoma) has switched spots with “The Magician.” I’m curious as to the reason for it, creatively speaking that is. I also seem to remember reading that the band has been shut down by the OKCPD during Warrior (Oklahoma). Which is not without a little fun, as it’s a rebel rousing anthem.

Neal: The way the record works is it opens with kind of a triumphant song, and is high energy, high energy and then “Warrior” is bringing it back down. And “The Magician” is more of a soft ending with a hook for whatever may come next.

Yeah, almost every single time we’ve gotten shut down, it’s been to “Warrior.” Yeah, I had a feeling that might be the case.

Neal: It happens whenever we play it outside, like at Norman Music Festival and two shows down in Bricktown. In that vein of thought: what’s next? I talked to Foxygen about their plans, they’re in the psychedelic vein but more vintage California psych folk rock meets the same kind of quirky genius that brings us an act like Girl Talk, which will mish mash the best of the best to create something new. Which is to say they’re masterful at combining old musical fragments into wonderfully catchy arrangements. They’re like the Lady Gaga of psych rock in the way they toy with warping old hooks, honestly. And they’ve got their stage presence down to an art form. But their goal now is to get a little more spacey and experimental, so who only knows what that will look and sound like. So which direction are you all headed? I’ve noticed some people will bitch no matter what you do next, but I’m just curious if listeners will hear more mountains and plains and wild things, or is your sound going to focus on new experiences, music, or other life touchstones you’ve encountered in the time since you’ve recorded “Grow Wild, Grow Deep?” This isn’t to suggest that you’re going for a complete musical overhaul, but I would wager you’ve got thematic ideas for the next set of songs.

Neal: I think with the new guys and the new thoughts, it’ll be different. A lot of the songs on the EP were written when I was younger. When I was 17. And I’ve always wanted to make music that was “in the moment.” So I think I will always aim for keeping a certain kind of imagery, but I want to capture lightening in a bottle. I want to make something people can connect to.

So there’s a lot of different things going into the new album. A lot of real stuff, about modern people. Instead of going and getting lost in the forest on psychedelics, it’s more like here’s where we are as a society, and here’s what were doing, and here’s how we’re looking at it, if you want to look at it this way. And we’re working on making a bigger fuller sound. There’s five of us now, and so we plan to expand the texture but keep our psychedelic folk rootsy vibe. Like we were talking about putting strings on the new album. I think the EP is a good descriptor of our sound, it’s just going to be larger and more developed. I like the imagery of the mountains. Not to make a pun, but you know mountains can range. I mean, I grew up in Hawaii, so the mountains there don’t look like the ones on the mainland. Which mountains are you honing in on when you’re writing?

Neal: I’m a mountain man. The reason I love the ones in Colorado is because I’ve been going to a small family cabin near a small mining town in Colorado since I was 1-years-old. It’s a place I’m connected to. So there’s some nostalgia.

Neal: Yeah. In my head it’s a free place where I can go to really work on writing, that expands my creative palate. So are the other guys contributing lyrics too?

Neal: No, but they contribute musically. I come in with sketches or full songs and we work on them together. It’s amazing to me how well play together too. And that’s a huge part of making music. We all feel connected on a different kind of level. It’s amazing how you’re not talking to someone while you’re playing music, but you still know where everyone is going to go. That to me has always been bizarre in the fact that like you’re literally talking to each other with your instruments. One guy gets loud and you all get loud, or someone starts getting quite and everyone gets quite. I mean, if anything, if you’re jamming to a song you may never use again, at least it teaches you how to work together. Also, Cody and I have been together for a long time and the other three knew each other, so it was a nice pairing, nobody really felt uncomfortable. So when and where are we going to start hearing these new songs, if people want to get a first taste?

Neal: If people want to hear what the new Horse Thief sounds like, they need to start going to our live shows. We’ll play songs off the EP, but mainly we’ll be playing a lot of the new ones. So, we’ll be playing tonight of course, but also at Norman Music Festival, and then at ACM@UCO in early May before we head out to Los Angeles to work with a producer named Tom Monahan to record for a month from May 24th to June 24th.

Also no one’s played the Native Sound Stage, so it’s something new. And because no one’s ever done it, I think there will be that sense of adventure. And that will feed into the music. It’ll be everyone’s first time. So what are you listening to now? What’s on heavy rotation?

Neal: I’ve been listening to a lot of John Grant. I’ve been listening to DEERPEOPLE‘s new songs for their next album. It is fucking great. Actually, a lot of Foxygen too. A band called AU out of Portland. You’d like it. It’s very tribal and electronic, it’s just a mixture of a lot of things.

I would say Foxygen is the newest band I’ve been listening to. And Lord Huron too.

3 comments to “Grow Deep, Grow Wild: Cameron Neal On Horse Thief, Bella Union, and Rocking”
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