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Preaching the Booze 

Drunk Horse rocks, dammit

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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Photo by Jack Gould

THE FLUSH-FACED RANGE RIDERS OF DRUNK Horse are crammed in their van with a post-gig case of Budweiser. They've just laid down a sweaty slaminar in rock & roll at Spaceland, and here, in the misty chill of a January night, is their reward. For all you do, Drunk Horse, this Bud's for you.

Listen to Drunk Horse :

Eli Eckert, whose job is yowling into the mike and plucking big old nasty riffs on his guitar, wants it known that this Oakland quartet is a beer band, not a stoner band, at least not mainly. Here are young men who don't believe that rock and dope will save the world, unless, as John Niles, the other guitarist, suggests, "lots of tanks" are also involved.

Other things Drunk Horse are not: a joke band, or street-cred posers, or "purveyors of 'Fashion Music,' in all its ugly, soulless forms" (as a "no thanks" on their 1999 debut CD had it).

Or romantic balladeers. Eckert, the main songwriter, just never left his heart in San Francisco. "You can't fake that, you can't . . ." Crooning, he demonstrates: "'I remember, I saw you there . . . beautiful hair!'" He's right, it would not work. More like "Ain't got no use for my dignity/This temperamental woman is the one for me." That's about as close to amore as Eckert gets.

To describe what the Drunk Horse sound is . . . Well, there are riffs, riffs that could've been yanked from any early-'70s album by Aerosmith or Lynyrd Skynyrd, loads thereof. These are generally employed at the service of sleazy butt-burners like "Ass Out/Passed Out" (self- explanatory), "Lube Job" (subtlety itself) or "Tanning Salon" (about a UV booth with a peephole in it). Or several guitar figures can be linked together illogically but brilliantly in smoke-outs like the slow-building arpeggiated horror "White Lady of the Mesa" or the rock-kills-jazz epic "Is, Was . . . (And Ever Shall Be)" ("on the infinite, eternal and generally lengthy," expounds its CD caption).

If that last title sounds evangelistic, it is, being a selection from the second half of the group's 2001 CD, Tanning Salon/Biblical Proportions. Eckert comes by his Scripture honestly, having been raised Catholic and dragged into church twice every Sunday. He gleaned material aplenty from the pulpit, mining the Good Book for songs like "Manchild" ("history's first asshole"), which is about Cain, one would guess, though it's hard to tell given that his divinely rockrollin' but essentially unmelodious voice wails only just above the surface of the band's stormy flood, even on record.

Same goes for live, where Drunk Horse kick with a really impressive combination of togetherness and feel. Drummer Cripe Jergensen is all over the rhythmic accents and all over the cymbals, but with the help of bassist Cyrus Comiskey's lowdown slide he keeps the lurchy riffs driving forward and the female fans' asses shaking. Though the hunched, hair-in-face Eckert could hardly less resemble the erect, geeky Niles, they play like a unit, improvising a bit but not really soloing, their guitars delivering the beef through Ampeg amplifiers older than they are. (Horse members range in age from 24 to 28.)

What's the deal with these ancient tube amps, choice of the Rolling Stones in the early '70s? Do they endorse 'em?

Niles: "I endorse Ampeg. They don't endorse us!"

Eckert: "I endorse the V-4 head that they don't make anymore."

Niles: "We're basically endorsing the amp-repair technician."

Asked if anybody in the band assumes the kind of role the recently deceased George Harrison represented in the Beatles, the four agree: "We're all Ringo!"

Who's the group's responsible party? "We take turns being irresponsible."

Are their wives and girlfriends happy they're rock musicians? Niles: "Yes! I have neither." No comment from Eckert, who wears his wedding band onstage.

What do they do in the studio to get into the right mood to produce their inimitable sound? "What we're doing right now." "Yeah -- drink!"

Eckert: "We record the basic tracks as a full live band. We don't record the drums to a click track. We try not to do too many takes -- we use the first good take that doesn't have a major clam in it. Usually vocals are done in a very inebriated state.

"I'm a little bit of a control freak," Eckert admits. "I'll have a really precise idea of how I want the drums to fit in, in the context of a riff. A riff is like a blank canvas. You've got your colors on the side, and you've got your canvas, and it's what you do with those colors."

Niles: "Sometimes it's all pink and mauve."

Somebody jokes that Drunk Horse are influenced by Penderecki and Varèse -- mispronouncing the latter, as of course one should, though slipping into shameful accuracy with the former. And actually, some of their CD interludes suggest the remark isn't entirely facetious. All agree that Pink Floyd's Meddle is awesome. They divide, however, on the value of Dark Side of the Moon, half of them praising the songwriting, half saying the disc sucks. A small part of the Drunk Horse aesthetic perhaps echoes Floyd's early instrumental side.

Eckert likes instrumental music. "I'm not a vocalist by choice. I like to sing, but I wouldn't die tomorrow if I stopped. I do the best I can with what I've got."

So how come these young dudes resonate with the '70s? Jergensen had a special head start: "I grew up with a rock dad, who had walls of records. He blasted it every day."

Soon Jergensen's friends discovered they liked to blast the same kind of shit. Today's lineup of Drunk Horse dates back four years, and their interpersonal ease has roots: Eckert, Jergensen and Niles all went to the same grade school.

Eckert gets a little misty as he fondly recounts to Jergensen the circumstances of first beholding him as a youth. Jergensen had spat in class, a teacher had assigned punishment, and that's how Eckert found him: "Holding the spit glass. You had to spit in a glass until it was full. I walked by the library, and I saw you sittin' there, just lookin' at it."

THE GLASS IS HALF FULL. DRUNK HORSE HAVE NOT made a CD lately, because their label, Man's Ruin, went bust. Still, they keep playing. It's fun. And they get to hear a lot of good music -- for instance, their friends and Spaceland billmates this January night, North Carolina's the Cherry Valence, who've just finished a high-voltage, R&B-tinged set, switching instruments, switching lead vocals, tearing it up.

"Their show is the music," says Eckert. "It's them being really into what they're doing, it's not, like, costumes and funny hats and makeup." Valence is "the kind of thing that excited people originally about rock & roll, and that's been so beaten down by the corporate rock world that it's basically lost most of its life. People complain, you know, 'What happened to all the really great rock bands?' They're around. Tons of 'em. You just gotta look for 'em."

That's right.

Drunk Horse play Spaceland on Saturday, May 18, and the Smell on Sunday, May 19, both nights with the Fucking Champs. Their Web site is www.drunkhorse.com.

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