In the beginning, the Horse Thieves tried telling other people’s stories. “We went to some dark places with ideas for the sound,” Adam Miller says, “We started with a Cormac McCarthy concept album, possibly.”
“No Country For Old Men slash The Road,” says Marshall McLean.
It’s hard to imagine how their soaring, four-part harmonies (the whole band sings) would have rendered songs about evading marauding bands of cannibals, or how the plaint of McLean’s lap steel would square with a remorseless, cattle gun-wielding killer. Miller and McLean thought so, too. “It was really bad,” Miller says, laughing.
It taught them a lesson, though, about the kinds of music they wanted to make. “One of our convictions [became],” McLean says, “to keep the story of the music real close to the story that’s going on in our lives.”
The album that resulted, (the as-yet unreleased) Outlaw Ballads, is still about lawlessness, if not the kind that arises after the death of civilization.
McLean and Miller, both 25, have had success with other projects. McLean has toured regionally for years. Miller plays bass in Black Apache, a band that has a following in Portugal.
But both were feeling isolated and burned by that life.
Neither goes into any specific detail — they take pains to avoid it — about the hard year that birthed the band, but they talk with more candor about the songs that resulted. “For me it was really about the outlaws in your life,” Miller says, “the people you meet that affect you because of their lawlessness.”
McLean’s songwriting approach opposed Adam’s, in a strange way. “I wrote it from the space of hiding — like I couldn’t share myself with the people around me,” he says, “I had a lonely year and so a lot of my songs came from that angle.”
That shouldn’t suggest that when you hear Horse Thieves, you’ll think you’re listening to Waylon Jennings or David Allen Coe. Their country is more alt, tinged with folk, carried off on harmonies that soar, sometimes approaching the choral wall of Band of Horses.
“I don’t think we’re bad-ass enough to write full-on outlaw country,” Adam says. “It’s anti-‘live fast’ music,” McLean agrees.
Keyboardist Fawn Dasovich and Adam’s brother Jordan (Black Apache’s frontman) joined the band after much of Outlaw Ballads was recorded. Dasovich didn’t know about the turmoil of the previous year but says she connected with the larger themes in the work.
“Everyone has the feeling of not belonging where you are,” she says. “[The work] really rang true for me and hit me in a way that made me think, ‘Omigosh, this is describing my life.’”
There are people for whom the act of universalizing a story is a blanket against the exposure of outright autobiography. For others, it’s a tent, where listeners are welcomed into a kind of shared experience.
This young band does both of those things. They want to be open while keeping their hearts safe. In doing so, they create myths to reveal themselves while also creating myths to hide within.
Both are forms of controlling the narrative. After what they say they’ve gone through, regaining control was important.
“It feels kind of dorky to do it,” McLean says, “But I think that’s part of it. Myth has power.”
Jordan adds, “Everybody [is mythologizing themselves] at some level.”
And if you’re not the one making the myths, McLean concludes, “Who is?”
Some goddamned outlaw. Or worse, maybe, no one at all.