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Bending Style with Lily and Horn Horse

. 12 min read
Bending Style with Lily and Horn Horse

Written by Abe Etkin

There are some album conventions we as listeners take for granted—the three-minute song, the tonal harmony, the bass-drum rhythm section, the track-to-track continuity. But when a band comes along and turns these rituals on their heads, it scratches a previously unnamed runaway itch.

That is just the sensation one gets from listening to a Lily and Horn Horse project. In bouts of blissful melody, jazz harmonies, and colliding electronic dance waves, Lily Konigsberg and Matt Norman challenge our understanding of songwriting.

Matt and Lily met while living in the Hudson Valley, where they recorded their self-titled debut in 2017 and their second release, Next To Me, later that year. The duo moved to Brooklyn before the release of their most recent EP, Republicans for Bernie, in May. Their previous two releases each hovered around 20 songs, but Republicans for Bernie is a quick 6-track punch. Lyrical tidbits suck you in and leave in a flash, disappearing into spaced-out contrapuntal MIDI jams and oscillating vocal harmonies. Lily and Horn Horse are in conversation.

I spoke to Matt and Lily over Skype in the beginning of June amid the surging pandemic and the early stages of widespread civil rights protests. We discussed their new EP, their pre-COVID tour with of Montreal, and the spaces where they exist and experiment, from the home to the studio to the stage.

Things are pretty crazy these days to say the least, so thank y’all for taking the time today.

Lily: Yeah, for sure.

I remember loving one of your other groups, Palberta. And now y’all have toured/played with a bunch of other groups like Deerhoof, Palm, Kalbells with Kal from Rubblebucket, of Montreal, and so on. So my question is, how important is touring and involvement with other bands to your project?

Lily: I think people hear our recordings and enjoy the music. I’ve developed connections over the years as a musician, so if people knew my solo work and they knew Palberta, they would want to ask about this other project.

Matt: Yeah, we started with a bunch of recordings.

Lily: We didn’t know how to play the songs live, and in some ways we still don’t.

Seeing you do it live is great, though.

Matt: We’ve been thinking of winding it down because, oftentimes, it’s an awkward experience. It’s still fun, but the intentionality is always missing to some extent.

Lily: Yeah, it’s weird… It’s pretty stressful because both of us have played live music alone, and it’s so much more fun to do it together. You don’t have to rely on performing with just your body and entertaining people. When you're playing alone the music in the background sometimes doesn’t come out well—issues with speakers, feedback. It’s really complicated sometimes.

Things just have to fall into place.

Matt: Yeah. But also sometimes we’ll be surprised by how fun a show can be. Like, we have fun with it, but it’s never been something we earned from preparing a live set that might go especially well. It’s always something circumstantial.

Y’all were going on tour with of Montreal when the shit hit the fan with Corona. I know their live set is so visual and intensely organized. Did that push y’all to think more about your live setup?

Matt: Well yeah. Whenever we make plans to go on tour or play live, we do try to put something together, but it’s almost always an adaptation of a recording. It’s always been a struggle to make it special or meaningful that we’re doing it live. Usually I’ll listen to a recording and pick a part I want to play on the horn and learn it. That process is fun for me, to find and play these complicated parts that normally I can’t improvise and would have to sit down and figure out. Some of the solos are improvised on the keyboard. And Lily improvises, changes phrasing and stuff.

Lily: Over time you develop the best way to sing a song. I get to sing to a recording over and over and improvise and say little things in between.

So it sounds like some of the songs are never really “done,” even once you’ve put them out on Bandcamp or whatever?

Lily: I feel like you always put out songs and then play them a bunch of times and continue to feel like, “Ahh, I’ve figured out the best way to sing and play this part. I wish I could re-record it.” But that’s the nice thing about recording as documentation.

Matt: And to answer your question, we are pretty aware of the extent of arrangement and planning that goes into a set. Usually, when we’re performing, especially in the context of a bill like that [with of Montreal], it feels very candid. It can come off as pretty goofy, but I don’t think I’ll end up regretting it as long as we continue to enjoy the music.

Lily: Also, the of Montreal tour people really loved us because we’re pretty bare bones but not something you see very often.

So it gave some welcome contrast to of Montreal’s heightened visual aspect?

Lily: Yeah, they went really hard optically.

Matt: Our set is really the opposite of the total theater thing they’re doing.

I’m interested in the way you use dance and movement as means to explore your sound. Specifically I was wondering about your music video for “Balloon,” which you just released in March. Was it a response to the desire to get the kinetic energy of your music out into the world, as you can’t perform it live during lockdown?

Lily: I like that analysis, but no, it was already in the works. Matt is an iconic dancer. [Laughter] I feel like his dance moves symbolize what we’re doing.

It doesn’t seem choreographed.

Matt: It’s not.

Lily: Yeah, no, he just did it in our bedroom upstairs and I filmed it on my phone, and then our friend ShonRay Nichols did what I think is called a rotograph to animate the dancing and movement as it appears in the video. He was fully in charge of the visuals, other than the video of Matt dancing that we sent.

Matt: Yeah, I’ve been familiar with his artwork forever and basically just wanted him to run with it.

Something that stands out is that, other than your song “1, 4 and More,” which breaks the four-minute mark, all of your songs hover around one to two minutes, some even down around 20 or 30 seconds. Is that intentional, or is it just the way the cookie crumbles?

Lily: Cookie.

Matt: Yup.

Lily: That happens with almost everything I’m involved in. [To Matt] I feel like you make short stuff as well.

Matt: Absolutely.

Lily: It’s just how we both do it in other projects, so... yeah. It’s concise.

Many of the tracks do have whole songs packed into them, but some of them feel like interludes.

Lily: That’s definitely true.

Matt: Oftentimes there’s a part or two that doesn’t repeat, but some of them will be in ABA form.

Lily: That’s where you find the most poppy constructs we have, I think.

So is “1, 4 and More” a reference to the beat or the chord progression?

Matt: Well, there’s one other song on that EP called “1, 2 and 3,” and the titles and lyrical contents are derivative of each other.

Lily: I say, “My 1, 2, and 3.” Then I say, “You wanted 1, you wanted 4, you wanted more.” I don’t know why. We just thought it was a cool, funny pattern.

Matt: It’s like a nursery rhyme, pleasing nonsense. I don’t know, I just like sounds. Sounds of words.

Lily: It’s like when someone is listing something, they say, “You did that, you did this, and you also did that.” It’s that colloquial feeling but doesn’t have to actually mean anything. It’s also how our cat meows.

So you guys have never really played Lily and Horn Horse stuff with a bigger band, right?

Both: No, never.

Matt: There have been times where we try to get other people involved, and for whatever reason, it never works out.

That’s interesting but also makes sense in that your music represents somewhat of a dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s quite accessible and comforting, and you feel like you get it and want to groove to it. On the other hand, especially live, it’s something of an enigma. As pleasing and inviting as it is, it’s hard to comprehend. Would you agree?

Lily; Well, yeah. But in general it’s just too complicated to spend time making a band. We’re both really busy and have other pursuits, so we’re just keeping it as a recording project, for the most part.

So you two aren’t really wrapped up in seeking economic stability from this project?

Matt: Well, it’s the only project I’m currently in that’s active, and Lily coerced me into quitting my job to pursue it, but—

Lily: [Laughter] Pshh, that’s not true. That’s really accusatory. Fuck you.  

Matt: It’s sort of true, though. You said quit your job so we can go on tour.

Lily: Yeah, because you wanted to go on tour, dummy.

Matt: Yeah [Laughter].

Lily: But it wasn’t like, “Ooh, we’re gonna be famous!” or anything.

Matt: Yeah, I’m just joking, but no, neither of us rely on it in that way.

Lily: But we really love it. We simply love the music we make.

Matt: We’re both just trying to make music as much as possible. I’m trying to transition to having my work and music line up. I guess for me this project has assumed the role of something to work on in hopes of producing music as a livelihood.

Lily: It’s hard because I have three projects I’m in right now, and I try to keep putting equal effort into all of them, which I was doing for a while and think I still am doing. But I can’t focus on three projects forever.

Matt: Yeah, Lily has her new project of her solo stuff. I play keyboard and horn in that, and the tour we were just on with of Montreal, we were playing half that project and half Lily and Horn Horse songs. We were discussing the possibility of merging the two. Like, Lily’s band absorbing some of the material from Lily and Horn Horse, maybe using a backing track or something just to expand the palate of what the band does.

Lily, is your new project just your name?

Lily: During that tour it was just called Lily’s Band or The Lily Band. It never really had a name.

How would you compare your styles of lyrics and vocals? How do they come together?

Matt: Usually one of us will record first and then the other will make relevant lyrics.

Lily: I did vocals on almost everything. And there were parts where Matt would give me something and I’d have no idea what to do. It didn’t make sense to me with the rhythm, or it wasn’t like anything I would write to, because Matt and I have very different natural musical styles. So then he would sing on it, and it would make so much sense in how the parts could fit together. Sometimes Matt will write specific harmonies for me to sing on his music. Also, we used to have songs where we would sing the same thing. We sometimes bring songs that are just written by Matt into the shows, so I’ll just sing in unison with him and harmonize. But we don’t set out to write lyrics for each other.

It’s hard to label you as a specific genre, which I’d say is a good thing, but what would you call yourselves if you had to? Or is that totally out of the question?

Matt: Well it depends what the song is. We go through phases. But I guess it would be dance, jazz harmony, Americana.

Lily: We both bring in dance, but I bring in pop and Matt brings the Americana and jazz harmony.

Matt: Yeah... I guess soundtrack music.

Lily: Hmm, yeah. And I think we both come from really different places, but we have overlaps in taste. I like Matt’s taste and I think he likes my taste, and that makes it work. I think five words would be in the genre. What do they call us?

Matt: Let’s not even talk about that.

Lily: They say off-kilter bedroom pop earworm sporadic…

Matt: I don’t know if they’re genres or just descriptors, but yeah, it doesn’t really matter. I think they’re silly words. It feels like they’re intended to help the person understand the music through comparison to other things, and I wish that wasn’t a starting place for listeners.

There’s an overall notion of the music moving and changing. The instrumentation will vary song-to-song, the dance vibes will come and go. The overall ethos of the group seems to be that you can’t really put your finger on it.

Lily: Yeah, people can never describe it in words. And also, whenever people describe music to me, I still don’t know what it’s gonna sound like, no matter what they say.

Matt: Yeah, if someone told me to imagine what synth pop sounds like, I have a specific idea, but I also couldn’t be sure.

To go out on a limb, do you know the song “Arm Around You” by Arthur Russell?

Lily: [Laughter] Yeah.

The first time I heard your song “Graviton Driver,” I thought you were covering that song for a second.

Lily: I don’t listen to him anymore because I over-listened, but I was heavily influenced by him for a long time.

Matt: I think that’s a fair comparison to make in terms of phrasing and intervals.

Lily: He taught me a lot of rhythmic things. We do have an unreleased song called “Graviton Driver” which at least ten people have asked if it’s an Arthur Russell cover. I don’t know if that’s good.

Matt: If someone said the genre of Lily and Horn Horse is Arthur Russell, I’d say yeah, I guess you’re right.

Lily: I’d say that’s true too. Laughter] I even reference him in “Goodbye” on our recent album. I say, “If you can get around to it, get around to it.” I kind of edit some of his lyrics and put them in there.

I wanted to ask more about the current state of things. You two live together. You have other projects you’re working on, but how has being stuck at home, the inability to tour, affected the band?

Lily: We haven’t really made any music in this time.

Matt: Well, right before we went on tour we finished the EP we were working on, and we got through most of the tour with of Montreal.

Lily: Only two dates were canceled.

Matt: We probably would’ve taken a break from it anyway.

Lily: But I know we would’ve been playing shows, though. We had some booked.

Matt: If we’re not doing anything for the project specifically, it’s always in the back of my head as an application for whatever I might be working on.

Lily: Yeah, if I write melodies and they don’t work for a different project, I keep them in a log for Lily and Horn Horse to look at later.

Matt: We’re constantly recording music, and then eventually we have a bunch of material that seems like it could be an album or a part of an album, and then we spend a bunch of time mixing it. This way we don’t have to wait months and months to release new material if we’re playing live shows.

Lily: We perform songs that were never released. We have at least one song that we play every time but haven't released. Obviously, it’s not the way you’re gonna become super well-known, but it’s the most comfortable way for us to be a band.

Matt: The abrupt stop of all live events has its impact.

Lily: I’m so used to this life of being inside, I feel like I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s a good time to write if you feel creative.

Yeah, there’s a lot to do with nothing to do.

Lily: It’s a bit scary, though.

With the current cultural and political climate in America, do you feel any urge to try and politicize your work?

Lily: Well during the tour, Bernie was still in the running, so we were definitely being political through fundraising and selling stuff, but our music wasn’t political.

Matt: The lyrics aren’t overtly political, but we explicitly use our platform to voice our political opinions. None of the song titles or songs themselves will reveal how we feel, but the EP title is basically intended to be counter-propaganda. I just dont think it’s the place of a song to explicitly reveal how you feel or think about these matters.

Lily: But there are people who do that really well. It’s just not how my lyrics come out. They may be emotional and about what I’m feeling, but I could never really write songs like that.

Matt: That’s not to say there aren’t any of our personal beliefs in the music.

Lily: It’s just not explicit.

Matt: My songs are often from the perspective of a character who is learning a lesson, like I’m the target of an argument I agree with, the satire of a person.


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*Photos curtsey of the artists.