There’s the break-up, then the commitment. So goes many long-term relationships that seemingly must enter a period of questioning before finally deciding on the ultimate step. The same goes for Justin Ringle and his art.
Horse Feathers was a given for years, as Ringle continued to make music because that’s simply what he loved to do. But a recent period of disillusionment led him to the point of potentially abandoning the music that he once loved so much. After a bit of wrestling, confusion, and questioning, Ringle circled back around to his initial heart for it in the first place. Business be damned, Ringle is a musician for the very love of the music. That turned out to be enough for Horse Feathers’ new album, So It Is With Us.
Stereo Subversion: I read a quote where you discussed your own disillusionment at the end of the last album cycle, and I’d love to start there. Was there a particular moment where you thought you didn’t want to do this anymore?
Justin Ringle: There were a few. I’m trying to think of the most poignant. I’ve been doing this since 2004. Coming up here in Portland and playing the start of my career, I signed to Kill Rock Stars in 2007 and it felt like the usual. I used to sell records. I used to feel like I understood where I fit in the music galaxy and I was comfortable with that. I thought that I knew what was happening.
By about 2012, on the last record, everything started to change. Obviously you had the industry, but I also felt that musically. I think things were starting to change direction, not just with me personally but overall. This is all just foreshadowing.
It was the first time I ever even questioned it in 10 years. Before it was just, 'This is what I love, so of course I'm going to do this for forever.'
I remember coming back from the first tour that we did where we actually had the most successful live touring experience that we’d ever had. The shows were great. I thought, ‘This is working out just fine.’ Then we got home and the label said, ‘That’s great, but we’re not selling records.’ It was a wake-up call where it created a major question mark. It was a mind-blowing moment.
I could feel that things were changing — with Spotify getting traction, the prevalence of interaction through social media. I mean, we’d always operated by word-of-mouth. The write-up in the local music paper was good enough. On the debut week of our last record, we’d sold the least amount of records that we ever sold since the second record in the first week, but we also charted on Billboard. I could feel these changes happening, and it was very confusing.
I felt like I loved this thing, but I didn’t understand it. It clouded the experience of me going out and playing and driving all over the country and world to do this thing. On some level, you feel underappreciated, because you’re just scraping a living from it. I don’t know if all of this makes sense, but all of this swirling changed the way I looked at it. It was a paradigm shift. I knew then that I had to change the way I approach this personally so that I can enjoy it, regardless of what I get out of it monetarily.
I just needed to take it back a few steps. What did I like about music when I was 17 that made me want to do this? And certainly some of this is just getting older. I have more wisdom now at 33 than when I was doing this at 24.
So I guess the real moment was when we’d finished the last major touring for the last record. We’d been touring and then flew to Europe for a few weeks then back from Europe to tour Colorado for three more weeks. It was just long and grueling and I came home and that question was there. I just thought, ‘Am I really going to do this until I’m 40? If I am, it has to be better. I need to have fun.’ It had stopped being fun.
I might also add that even playing shows has changed. I related recently to an article Jack White wrote about how the actual amount of applause at shows is half of what it used to be because everyone has a beer in one hand and their phone in the other. They physically cannot clap. I see that. We’re obviously leagues different than Jack White, but I can’t imagine being in a stadium, finishing a song, and seeing a mixed response. That would feel very weird, but I feel that in a mid-sized venue.
So all in all, there are many things that drove me to that conclusion. It was the first time I ever even questioned it in 10 years. Before it was just, ‘This is what I love, so of course I’m going to do this for forever.’
SSv: How did you begin to come around?
Justin: It took me like a year to calibrate what I even wanted to get out of it anymore. Now I feel great. Everything feels great. It was a little bit of a soul searching type of thing. It’s hard. A lot of people listen to music at this point and it’s so ephemeral now. I wouldn’t expect them to think of it this way, but they don’t understand the song that they’re streaming took, all in all, maybe 100 hours. You can’t quantify it that way, but people just think of it as something that’s so disposable. We’ve arrived at that point, and that’s hard to stomach, especially when it’s your whole life. You’re like, ‘Really? Is it really that meaningless?’
I have a million complaints but I won’t go into it. [Laughs] But those are the things that go through your mind when you go to sleep at night and you’re a musician. You think, ‘What the fuck? Why am I doing this?’ Of course, you do get feedback from people who do care about what you’re doing. Ultimately, that’s a big reason why you continue to do it, but it’s just harder to make sense of it now.
SSv: So I take it you were at a place where it was something has to change or else? If so, what would the “or else” be?
Justin: That was the scary part, because I don’t know what the ‘or else’ would be. It’s how I’ve made my living for the last seven years or so. In the beginning I’d work some part-time jobs, but then it became a full-time endeavor. Now you turn the corner at 30 and you’re like, ‘Woah, my resume outside of music is pretty thin.’ [Laughs] That’s part of the stress of it is that I’ve committed myself to this and sacrificed quite a bit to do it. If it feels like it’s not working then you wonder what you are going to do.
SSv: How and when did things begin to get fun again?
Justin: I think music-making is a life thing. To me, I’ve never been able to divorce it in my life. It’s always going to be in the expression, almost this therapeutic action. I’ve always felt compelled to do it. It was happenstance playing open mics here that people liked it, which made me try to do it a little bit more. But it was really the conversation I was having with myself in my room. That’s where music existed for me.
SSv: Are the new songs on the album all dated after this sort of period?
Justin: It’s half and half. I had a bunch of this stuff written — about half the record sketched out — and threw the songs at the band in that arrangement sense and just built off of that. I’d throw out a song that’s like a folk song and then we’d see what the rhythm section could do with it. It was a process at first, but we found our footing and enjoyed working on the songs in that way. It was simple.
In some ways it was a much easier record to make because of the rhythm section. I made a bunch of records without any real rhythm. I’ve been focused on string arrangements for years that can be complicated and arduous and harmonically dense. A lot of musical consideration goes into that. But when you start playing with rhythm, it’s a completely different animal. You can be more visceral, and stuff can be more direct.
SSv: Now that you’re through the other side, does music feel the way you hoped it would again?
Justin: It does. The response from the shows have been more than I’d hoped for. People really like it, and that has been enough for me. That’s justifying it. I already liked it. [Laughs] It was just a question of whether or not other folks would be attached to it. I want them to enjoy it because I enjoy playing it for them. I love that exchange and the energy is fun.
I wasn’t concerned prior to this record, really, with how fun the song was to perform. It was almost like each song was a painting and I would make it exactly how I wanted and then playing it live was only considered later. Now each song is fun to play and that’s what we were concerned with. It’s a simple thing and it probably sounds dumb, but for this group, it was a weird change for us. The drummer would say, ‘So you want me to do what?’ [Laughs] It’s been good.