Baltimore's Horse Lords confound expectations for a rock band

Meet Baltimore's Horse Lords: From forming as a joke to glowing reviews, including the New York Times.

Horse Lords, the instrumental rock quartet from Baltimore, loosely formed as something of a joke band — a young group simply learning to cover the Can song “Halleluwah“ for a 2010 Artscape performance.

A lot can change in a short period. Fast-forward to April, when the band received a glowing review from The New York Times that described “Interventions,” their third album, as “invigorating” and “daring.”

“Our moms were so excited,” said drummer Sam Haberman with a chuckle, seated around band member Andrew Bernstein’s dining table in Lauraville last week. “It was definitely a surprise. Very pleasant.”

A favorite among Baltimore’s music scene since forming, Horse Lords has garnered fans locally, in the U.S. and abroad with an inventive ability to confound what listeners have come to expect from the combination of drums, bass and guitar (along with alto saxophone, electronics and other instruments). In the process, they’ve developed a funky, danceable sound that pulls from many directions — drone music, krautrock, Afro-beat, rap, rock ‘n’ roll and more — but is wholly theirs. (The band plays the Creative Alliance on Friday.)

Guitarist Owen Gardner’s initial idea — let’s start a rock band — was always something of a tongue-in-cheek mission statement, the band said.

“It’s been an unspoken understanding that when we say ‘rock,’ we want to use the basic reference points of the rock form but inject it with all of the musics that we’re interested in,” Haberman, 29, said. “I feel like being instrumental was kind of another unspoken part of that. It just lets us do the stuff we want to do without having to worry about making songs, per se.”

Horse Lords formed like many bands do — friends of friends meeting each other through the Baltimore music scene, and wanting to jam together.

A Connecticut native, Bernstein met Gardner (who grew up in Dubuque, Iowa) while both attended Goucher College. They played in a band called Teeth Mountain, which included eventual Horse Lords bassist Max Eilbacher. Haberman and Eilbacher also played together — having met through the Baltimore duo Matmos — and not long after Teeth Mountain ended, Horse Lords became the foursome’s next project.

Since then, Horse Lords has remained busy through lengthy tour runs around the country and releasing new material. Not only has the group made three albums (2012’s self-titled effort, 2014’s “Hidden Cities” and April’s “Interventions“), Horse Lords has adopted a standard hip-hop practice: releasing three mixtapes filled with looser, less fussed-over material. (Haberman said rap drums and production, in general, have influenced the band’s sound.)

The mixtapes are “lower pressure, sort of experimenting with different ideas,” Bernstein, 30, said. The band laughingly agreed they’re “way more fun to make” than albums.

“We’ll come up with a part or riff that we’ll record on the mixtape,” Bernstein said. “Then we’ve develop that into an actual piece that ends up on the album. It’s sort of like a sounding board.”

The mixtapes offer fascinating stretches, but it’s Horse Lords’ albums that have made the most significant impact. The nine-track “Interventions,” their first release on the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Northern Spy Records, is the band’s most accomplished and well-received record to date.

The album does not shy away from the members’ deft playing abilities or penchant for experimental music. They utilize the hocketing technique (where individual notes are played in succession by different instruments), and proudly wear their love for repetitive and avant-garde music — not to mention Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti — on their sleeves. Polyrhythmic beats keep the listener from ever feeling too comfortable.

All of this has led critics to describe Horse Lords’ music as “difficult” — a label the band doesn’t court but doesn’t mind.

“We don’t want to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, but we’re willing to do weird, difficult stuff if it seems cool and interests us,” said Haberman, a Gambrills native who lives in Charles Village.

Considering the alternative, Eilbacher doesn’t mind the distinction.

“I’d rather get pigeonholed as difficult than easy,” said the 25-year-old from Phoenix, Baltimore County.

Most strikingly, Horse Lords’ music possesses a quality that allows a listener to “zone out” to certain parts that can feel cyclical. The band members are trying to achieve this trance-like release as they play, too. The band points to its collective love of minimalist art as the reasoning.

“It’s a really satisfying feeling for me to be in that zone-out place, to be able to zoom in and out of a seemingly static texture and notice different things,” Bernstein said, “where it seems like nothing is happening, and it gives you space to let you focus on everything that’s happening.”

The band aims to create such moments at Creative Alliance, its last show in the U.S. before its first European tour next month. That tour has long been one of Horse Lords’ main goals, which means it’s time come up with new ones.

They hope to release their fourth mixtape next, and have begun writing material for another full-length album. The hardest part, the band said, is finding the time to practice and write together. They learned long ago there is no formula to writing a Horse Lords composition. For songs this intricate, there’s only one way for the friends to make them.

“We have to be in [Bernstein’s] basement together for hours every week, just sort of trying things out until we can find something that doesn’t suck anymore,” Haberman said. “There’s really no shortcut.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

Horse Lords performs Friday at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown. Kaynak Pipers of Bulgaria will also perform. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12-$18. Call 410-276-1651 or go to creativealliance.org.

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