Motorik Cycle Madness
An interview with Dan Horne
By Nick Mitchell Maiato
Multi-instrumentalist, writer, arranger and producer Dan Horne is one of the most prolific musicians on today’s hazy, cosmic, indie rock scene. A member of Grateful Dead/Chris Robinson Brotherhood-affiliated Circles Around the Sun, as well as, Mapache, Cass McCombs’ band and lauded Dead tribute band Grateful Shred, he has played with everyone from Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde to The Skiffle Players and Allah-Las. He, also, recently produced the debut album by Pacific Range.
Finally, in October 2020, Horne put out his long-anticipated solo debut—the country-fried, krautrock-inspired The Motorcycle Song EP—as a Bandcamp-only release. Nick Mitchell Maiato did his best to catch up with him and explore his breakneck working methodology, as well as, a little bit about his hobby as an amateur cannabis cultivator.
Nick Mitchell Maiato: How’s life, Dan? Last time we talked [for a Circles Around The Sun (C.A.T.S.) Special on NTS], I think I said something like, Hope to meet you in person in May. Well, that came and went. Just how weird has your 2020 been?
Dan Horne: Hey! Life is pretty good. I’ve been staying busy and trying to be productive, but it’s a real bummer to have touring cancelled. It’s a bummer for all the musicians and crew whose livelihoods depend on it. Hopefully we will come out of it more prepared and organized and stronger.
NMM: Was the lack of touring and playing live the catalyst for making a solo record? It’s your first one, so I guess I’m just wondering, why now?
DH: Well, the obvious answer is I finally had time! Life kinda slowed down and I’m now able to catch up. But, also, I’ve had the goal to put out my own stuff for a while. I like singing backups with the bands I play bass in, and the few leads I do in Shred. And the pure concentration it takes to enter the studio alone for long periods of time is very meditative, which felt really good during such terrifying times. And I want people to know what I can do so they will call me up to make their own record!
NMM: You picked an obscure Canned Heat side, Poor Moon, as the first single from the record. Kind of a humble thing to do, going out with a cover tune. I like that. What made you pick that particular song?
DH: Covers are fun because you can be expressive and make it sound however you want, but you don’t have to write lyrics! I didn’t really want to say anything new or preach or tell people what to do. I just wanted to make some cool music to escape with. I’ve been trying to get people to play Poor Moon in soundcheck and stuff but never got it going so I figured I would try it myself. I liked the idea of just singing all the weird backups. The song is about the impending doom of the planet, more of a eulogy than a call to action, but the lightheaded nature makes it seem like there’s still some hope. All of our terrible disasters we are currently dealing with boil down to the lack of protection of our planet. Nobody knows what to do and the people in charge don’t care. And the Moon is watching and probably terrified!
Covers are fun because you can be expressive and make it sound however you want, but you don’t have to write lyrics! I didn’t really want to say anything new or preach or tell people what to do. I just wanted to make some cool music to escape with.
NMM: Speaking of leading with covers, the title track, The Motorcycle Song, is a sweetened, country-fried version of Arlo Guthrie’s bananas, oom-pah folk song with pedal steel replacing the harmonica and bass replacing the walking, electric guitar rhythm. Is arranging as much fun as writing for you?
DH: Yeah, when I arrange a cover for a show or a recording, I like to find elements of the original recording to feature. It pays respect to the composer’s initial intent. So, yeah, I played the opening lick on bass because that’s my thing. Then I kinda threw the kitchen sink at it to see what I could do. It’s a similar approach to live, where you set up the song and make sure everyone starts off on a path where they can just let loose and do their own thing.
NMM: You ever wonder if Arlo’s heard it?
DH: Yeah, I hope he checks it out!
NMM: People know you, first and foremost, as a bass player, but you played everything on your new record. It’s pretty jammy, too, considering it’s just you. How did you approach composition and playing?
DH: I start with an idea in my head and kinda work on it while driving or in the shower or whenever you have time to think. Then when it’s ready I just start layering instruments in an order that I think will capture the intent of the song quickly. I add and erase stuff until it starts to feel good, then add solos and noodles and blips and bleeps. Sometimes it happens really fast and sometimes it takes forever. The hard part when you’re working by yourself is knowing when something is done. Like, when I record pedal steel alone, sometimes I’ll do like 50 takes and still not know what I’m doing, but if I’m recording a part on a Mapache song, I’ll play two takes and Clay [Finch, guitarist and vocalist] will be like squirming in the back of the room and yell, “Yeah, it's done!” You want it to be polished but also keep the feel of a performance or a jam. That’s the trick. It’ll always be a mystery to the listener whether some recording is live or edited or how the hell they did that. And that’s the fun of it! I’m always trying to guess how people recorded stuff and I’m usually probably wrong. But I have a million tricks up my sleeve and I just keep massaging recordings until I think they sound cool and like a real record.
Photo: McKenna Kane
NMM: There’s this accepted notion within popular music that certain genres have a lifespan and are limited by their tropes. Your music successfully rebuffs that, with some flair. For instance, Rhythm 55 from your new one is a beautiful, motorik, almost Neu-like take on cosmic country with a rip-roaring pedal steel front and centre. How do you remain so explorative within a particular aural framework?
DH: I guess the idea is to push the boundaries of a genre while still trying to pay respects to the musicians before you and around you who developed the scene that you’re in. You want the listener to identify with it but also it has to be something new. Rhythm 55 started out as almost an exercise. There’s a tradition of pedal steel music that is meant to be learned and played along to as a lesson. So it started out like that with the simple chords and drum machine beat and then it kinda took on a life of its own.
NMM: What strain or strains of weed were you hitting while you made the record and what effect did they have on the outcome?
DH: I grow my own weed. I actually enjoy cultivating it more than consuming it these days. This year I grew a bunch of a high CBD, low THC that smokes really nice but doesn’t get you very buzzed. It’s cool because you can add some stronger stuff to it and then smoke a whole J to the dome without getting too weird. I also grew Tangie and a strain that my friend and fellow musician Chad Brown gave me that he said his uncle or someone in the family had brought over from Vietnam. It came out great! The trick around here is finding a strain that doesn’t get eaten up by the caterpillars. I think they’re called cabbage loopers. Super dense Indicas are like ice cream or pizza to those things but more spindly Sativas seem to hold up pretty great outdoors in LA.
This year I grew a bunch of a high CBD, low THC that smokes really nice but doesn’t get you very buzzed. It’s cool because you can add some stronger stuff to it and then smoke a whole J to the dome without getting too weird.
NMM: California’s long been known for being ahead of the curve in terms of innovations and policies that benefit the wider society and its attitude towards cannabis is reflective of that. Still, you can’t consume it in public, you can’t carry more than an ounce and you can’t possess it at all on federal land. What’s the general vibe there, and do you see a nationwide legalization on the horizon?
DH: Weed was actually way more fun when it was illegal. [laughing] Now the mystery is gone. No, but really there’s no way you should go to jail for cannabis or any drug, for that matter. It’s medicine and people use it to make themselves feel better. Same with heroin or crystal. We need mental healthcare; not jail. Now I don’t really think you should be allowed to spark up a blunt while walking down main street out of respect for people that don’t want to smell it or their kids to smell it. But that’s probably up to people to figure out for themselves.
NMM: You have so many different projects on the go—Cass McCombs, Grateful Shred, C.A.T.S., Mapache—and your production work for bands like Pacific Range. What’s in the pipeline for 2021? I guess touring is still too much of an unknown to really comment on right now?
DH: There will definitely be live music in some capacity in 2021, for sure. We need it! In the meantime, I need to finish another solo record ASAP. Also, I want to record some new bands, so if anyone out there has a project, feel free to hit me up!
The Motorcycle Song EP is out now on Bandcamp, through which portal Dan can also be contacted, should any musicians out there wish to take him up on his offer.
Follow Dan on Instagram at: @danhhorne
Cover photo: McKenna Kane
Listen on Spotify
A multitude of influences went into the creation of The Motorcycle Song EP. On this custom mix, Dan Horne offers up a handpicked selection of tunes that influenced and inspired the album. Listen to our custom Dan Horne-curated "Dan Horne Mix" on Spotify.
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