What a difference two years can make. Since putting out Space And Time in October 2014, Dead Horses have experienced a world of changes. Within those two years, the Oshkosh-born project saw two members move to Milwaukee and the band’s fiddle player depart.
“Repetition is the death of every art. I think that’s why I wanted to move here. I didn’t have to, but I really wanted a change,” singer-guitarist Sarah Vos says. “That’s pretty normal for bands to some degree. People move on and lives change, but it’s almost like getting a divorce, even if it is on good terms.”
Somehow, while condensing down to a trio and settling into a new and unfamiliar location, Dead Horses found time to tour relentlessly. More impressive yet, they also wrote and recorded a new album. Last Friday, a new era of Dead Horses was ushered in with the release of Cartoon Moon, a 10-song effort that brought the six-year-old band back to basics, while also realigning its focus.
“I think it’s benefited us both creatively and in how we function,” upright bass player Daniel Wolff says. “Even creatively, it was a little more freeing because there was space there that any one of us could either take over or just leave open.”
Last November, Dead Horses went to Cartoon Moon studios in Nashville to record with former Wilco and Uncle Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer. Spending a total of two weeks in the studio in November and December, Coomer stressed simplicity above all else.
“He was able to step in and steer it,” Wolff says. “He let us do our thing, but he has notes and ideas for each song. He demanded the space be there.”
Stripped down as songs are, the band would still spend about 12 hours in the studio each day, aiming to perfect and conquer one song every session. After the band completed their parts, Coomer contributed drums to the final mix. His percussion parts and the band’s slight stylistic sidestep helped shed its twangy, hasted brand of bluegrass and help forge a sound that landed closer to folk or bluegrass territory.
“I think this record is much more patient. I think there’s no sense of us trying to prove anything,” Vos says. “I think it’s about the songs more than anything else. I think it’s a mature step forward, and I see that concept prevalent everywhere. Less is more. For it to be better doesn’t mean you have to be playing harder or faster. Just keep it simple, genuine, and honest.”
Cartoon Moon is just that: a relaxed, deconstructed effort that shows a new side of a seasoned band that’s still progressing and poised for bigger things. Aside from continuing to make musical strides, Dead Horses intend to tour relentlessly and take a serious stab at making a living solely as musicians.
“We’re really proud of the songs and we’re happy with what we got out of the opportunity to record with Ken, but we’re really excited for the next record,” Wolff says. “Hopefully this will be something that will push us and allow us to keep touring because that’s ultimately what we’ve signed up for.”
The band will play a pair of shows this weekend before heading out on a 10-state, 14-show tour that will span much of October and include a run of shows in support of Mandolin Orange. Though Cartoon Moon is out now, Dead Horses will wait to celebrate the release of the new record locally during a two-night residency at Colectivo’s Back Room performance space on December 9 and December 10.
Only time will tell what awaits Dead Horses after that, but for a band that’s navigated through time, space, lineup changes, and member relocation, Cartoon Moon is as much a culmination of longevity and hardwork as it is a hint of brighter days ahead.
“I think we’re blessed to have gotten this far,” Vos says. “Are we ready? I think this album is the right one to take this step. It’s the one I really want people to hear.”