During the five-year run of Dead Horses, the acoustic quartet’s blend of traditional folk musicianship and airtight multi-part harmonies has found the band rising to hometown prominence—twice, to be exact. Born in Oshkosh in 2010, a combination of musical growth and member relocation has seen Dead Horses gaining attention and acclaim as a Milwaukee band, too, of late. In the wake of last October’s award-winning full-length Space And Time, the band is now faced with an enviable duality of maintaining its position near the top of the music totem pole in the city where they started, and expanding their namesake in a city nearly 100 miles to the south, in a city that 25 percent of the band now calls home.
In late 2013, Dead Horses upright bass player Daniel Wolff uprooted from Oshkosh and moved to Milwaukee with his girlfriend. “I was kind of at a point in my life when I wanted to move,” Wolff says. “It gave me a chance to kind of start something fresh, but still close enough to keep the band a top priority.”
Singer/guitarist Sarah Vos—who also lived in Milwaukee her first four and a half years after high school before returning to Oshkosh, where Dead Horses would begin—admits she had thoughts regarding the only other remaining original member’s relocation at the time. “I’m pretty protective about things for us in general, so I did consider [it], but I didn’t worry. Sure enough, I had no reason to,” Vos says. “Dan has been great and, most of all, willing about making it work.”
Making it work often entails Wolff trekking the familiar 90-minute stretch of US 41 to write, rehearse, and play out in the Fox Cities before returning to Milwaukee. However, the bassist’s relocation has also helped to further open Milwaukee as a Dead Horses show destination, which finds the rest of the band coming to the minority member’s city. Both Wolff and Vos say Dead Horses play shows virtually every weekend, making the distance between members less evident. One difference, though, is the increased ease of the band getting a foothold in Milwaukee.
“Once I did move here and I started meeting other people in the scene, it’s been so much easier,” Wolff says. “Bands here are very accepting. I think there’s a pretty mutual respect among the scene, especially in Riverwest.”
Last December, Dead Horses’ Space And Time garnered recognition from 88Nine as winner of the station’s Radio Milwaukee Music Award in the “Best Disc We Missed” category. It’s possible the band’s predominate ties to another city had something to do with the station admitting they missed the release. Milwaukee Record also didn’t know about Dead Horses’ local affiliation at the time.
“I felt like there could’ve been some thought like, ‘Well, why the hell did they get this award?’ I felt a little bit of that,” Wolff says. “I don’t know if we really felt that it necessarily cemented us as a Milwaukee band, but I think it helped show people that we’re here.”
Ian Olvera says he’s known Dead Horses for most of the band’s existence. In the summer of 2013, Olvera and other members of his band The Sleepwalkers made the Oshkosh to Milwaukee move with his band’s best interests in mind. “[The music scene in] Milwaukee is definitely larger in size: more bands, more venues, more opportunities,” Olvera says. “While the Oshkosh scene is smaller, it makes up for that in quality. The few venues there are very supportive and pretty much everyone is pals with one another.”
Acts like Dead Horses, The Traveling Suitcase, and Haunted Heads routinely playing out of town, along with Oshkosh expats like The Sleepwalkers, The Midwestern Charm (Milwaukee), and Bron Sage (Madison) are now helping to show people in other Wisconsin markets that the city is more than baby jeans and cover bands. Unlike the case of The Sleepwalkers, Olvera doesn’t anticipate the remaining members will join Wolff in his exodus from Oshkosh (the city the band still identifies itself as hailing from in its bio) anytime soon, or maybe ever, saying “I think Dead Horses are a better candidate to handle the distance. They seem to keep a more rigorous schedule.”
Though that manageable-but-taxing distance is something the band is definitely aware of, Wolff says he’s more concerned with writing new material, touring, and getting continuing to get Dead Horses’ music out there at the moment—be it in Oshkosh, Milwaukee, throughout Wisconsin, or (hopefully) beyond.
“Yeah, all the traveling adds up,” Wolff says. “The way I try to justify that is, personally, I do it for the reason that every other musician does. I love playing music. It really comes down to that I’m really addicted to playing with these other musicians.”
With roots in Oshkosh and a swelling presence in Milwaukee, Dead Horses might be a band lacking one true home. Yet with excellent material and an admirable work ethic, it’s a band either city should feel proud to call its own.
Dead Horses will headline Thursday night’s “MKE Unplugged” event at the Irving and Miriam Lowe Patrons Lounge (Room 250) of UW-Milwaukee’s Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. Ugly Brothers open. The show is free, starts at 7:30, and is open to people of all ages. The MKE Unplugged set will also air live on WMSE.