One of the biggest challenges, and often demises, of independent bands is trying to match up schedules of several people to write, rehearse, and perform. Despite the obvious challenge, Martian Horses have made a commitment to disprove the popular notion that less is more, and it's an easy argument when the details of their double-digit roster come together in beautiful accord. Martian Horses are, in all their glory:
James Bailey: drums
Ian Carroll: trombone
Rachel Emmons: violin, viola
Eve Gross: keys, vocals, marimba
Andy Hekman: guitar, melotron, percussion
Steven Hilferty: bass guitar
Seth Lutske: cello
Chris Meng: saxophone, flute
Jimmy Olivo: guitar, piano, marimba, sprog!, vocals
Jonathan Piper: tuba
We sent them a couple questions and Jimmy, representing all ten, replied with answers proportional to the size of their ensemble.
How long have you been working on this project?
This project began with a song called 'Fall' which I wrote specifically for Rachel to play in 2000. I'd attended some sort of irritatingly cultish workshop type thing at the behest of an ex, whom I imagine really wanted me to get out and discover myself. One of our assignments was to get out and do something out of our comfort zone. At the time, my comfort zone was never letting a single soul know that I wrote or played music. I hid it from everyone as much as I could. So I did the assignment...I grabbed my guitar and hit Newport ave in Ocean Beach, where I knew there'd be people playing. And that's where I met Rachel, who was playing a mandolin with a brilliant songwriter named Ricardo Lopez.
Anyhow, Rachel, myself and our friends played together constantly, walking up and down the beach, sometimes leading a Conga line of drunks behind us. We did that for a year or so, and then I got the news that Rachel was leaving town, which devastated me because she had become like family. The night before she left, I wrote the music for 'Fall', and tried desperately to catch her before she hopped on the Greyhound so that I might squeeze one last recording out of her, but she had already gone, and being a military brat – a life where goodbyes are forever - I was sure that was the end of it for us.
But she came back. And not long after that, I met Andy on the train, and soon Andy, Rachel, my brother Steven and I found ourselves recruiting for Martian Horses.
What is the songwriting process for a band with so many members?
Everyone in the band does arranging to some extent. The process begins when I write a basic melody and arrangement and record it using a melotron to create the best approximation of the strings and horns that I can. I write about one hundred or more of these per year, but I only send the ones I think will be well received by the band. If they give the nod, the song will move on to the next stage, and either Andy or Chris will transcribe what I've written, and if there is any space they'll either modify the existing arrangement or write one of their own. Between Andy, Chris, Rachel and myself, we meet at least once or twice per week to do notation...the three of them are musically literate, and they're patient with me...I am only just beginning to read music, so I have to hum or play notes for them and they'll translate my nonsense as best they can. It's fantastic to work as a group, however...I didn't think I'd enjoy sitting around looking at staff paper and tearing apart every detail, humming our best 9ths and 11ths and calling people to find out what their highest comfortable note on their horn is, but it's become an exciting ritual no matter how naked it makes me feel. And I've noticed that each time we meet, I'm armed with new vocabulary and knowledge I'd gained on our last meeting. I'm starting to feel a bit more music-smart.
I used to work with Chris in Bologna Ponies, and given his knowledge of music and composition, I started visiting him and getting him to transcribe music for me before he officially joined Martian Horses. He ended up not just transcribing but writing a three part horn arrangement for “The New Diaspora” which fit perfectly among the nascent cello, flute and guitar arrangements I'd already worked out, and given that we had only two horn players to play it, it didn't take long before we figured he should just become a Martian Horse.
Andy, among other things, has composed and added a choir arrangement to my horn and string arrangement for The Vanquished Kids, and it gives it a fantastic kind of ethereal feel. Rachel has done extensive work on string melodies for “Fall” and “The Skin” and “Pigeon Talk”. Steven, James and Seth have given us more than a few inspiring grooves, and Eve writes a lot of her own harmonies and vibraphone work... By the time a song is ready to perform, every single member has had a say or made a correction or alteration. It works for us.
Of course, sometimes a couple of months will go by and we'll discover that the score for a single song is on eight separate sheets of paper and only half of them are even in the same city, but our habit of documenting everything, right down to recording every single practice and uploading the recordings to our web server has been instrumental in keeping this project alive. Since we officially formed in late '08, early '09, we've had a lot of different instrumentalists step in out. Flutists, trumpeters, French horn players, cellists, pianists...and nearly everyone playing a song for the first time adds something unique to the entire production, and the whole time we're capturing these moments in recordings I make from my phone. And some of these moments stick with us and get passed along to whoever takes their place, like how kids covered in glitter become a vector for sparkly clothes.
Martian Horses are slowly but surely working on an album but for now, here is an excerpt of a rough mix:
The Vanquished Kids
Martian Horses will test the stage capacity of The Casbah this Thursday, January 21 when they open for Joel P West and Jamuel Saxon as a part of Sezio's 501(c)3 Celebration. 9 PM / 21+