Words by Andrew Lampela
It’s not often that ‘Parkersburg, West Virginia’ and ‘one of the best metal albums this year’ find themselves used together in a paragraph, but these are very strange times so here we are. If you’ve been paying attention, though, it isn’t so shocking that Horseburner have delivered not only their best album to date but one of the best metal albums you’ll hear in 2019.
Every band has touchstones, and Horseburner have been leveling crowds with their potent mix of High On Fire thunder and Thin Lizzy by way of Baroness guitar-monies for a decade plus now. With The Thief, however, Horseburner have fully come in to their own, delivering their most diverse, nuanced album to date.
I caught up with drummer Adam Nohe and guitarist/vocalist Jack Thomas, two of the most genuinely nice dudes in metal, to discuss The Thief. Please, feel free to add “[laughs]” before and after every sentence hereafter, because there was quite a bit of it throughout our conversation.
OffShelf: Congrats on this new album, it’s fantastic.
Adam Nohe: We’re very excited to finally get it out, it’s been forever. This was our attempt at writing songs, and not just putting riff after riff after riff, so I hope that people dig it.
OS: Somehow, this is only your second full length?
AN: I guess so. We put out a CD that was, I guess… we never really knew whether to call it a full length or an EP, when we first got together. It was around thirty minutes.
Jack Thomas: I mean, what do you call a CD that is right at the thirty minute mark?
OS: A full-on maxi EP, man.
AN: [laughs] Right! So we’re just going to go ahead and call this our second full length. We don’t really like to talk about that first one anyway. It’s really bad.
OS: Ah, c’mon, it’s fun, although you guys have come a long way since then.
AN: I guess. A friend suggested we should start playing some of those songs again, and it’s like, man…we’ve worked so hard to move away from that! [laughs]
OS: So, what’s taken you so long?
AN: The biggest thing has just been member swaps, and substitute members, and lots of people being super nice to us and helping us out, but it didn’t really give us any time to actually write new material since the last one came out.
JT: I’ve taught the live set to probably six or seven different people now.
OS: It’s got to be your well documented love of post-show Waffle House that’s been scaring people off, right?
AN: I would think that would attract more people!
OS: This is your last record with Zach, that’s a bummer.
AN: It’s definitely bittersweet. Jack and I have been playing with Zach since about 2003. I mean, he also hasn’t gone on tour with us for two years now, so we all knew it was coming, it was just a matter of time before it got brought up and discussed.
OS: Did you know it was going to be his last record when you started working on it?
AN: Not when we started, because there have been ideas going back and forth for a while now. It was getting to a point… we were supposed to record this record in August or September of last year, and we had all summer ahead of us with just one song left to write, like no problem, we’ll get this done. Then Zach had a child and we didn’t see him for literally three months. We had to reschedule studio time. I think it was somewhere in that stretch that we all figured out he was going leave when it was done.
JT: Yeah, it was at the end or very near the writing process but before we started recording that we knew he was gonna be done.
AN: Which is funny to me, because with the last record, we knew that Rob was leaving the band before we started recording that one. Every time we do a full length, somebody leaves.
OS: Yeah, this is the first record with Seth.
Both: …uh, yes, it is, isn’t it?
OS: How did that affect writing?
JT: We have a little bit of an ongoing joke that he doesn’t have any opinions. Any idea we throw out there, he’s not going to be the guy to shoot anything down, that comes down to the rest of us.
AN: Every idea that was tossed his way was met with ‘sounds cool’. Because we keep swapping out so many members and Seth was like, ‘no, I’m gonna be the guy’, I especially tried to make sure he felt like a member of the band, so I would always try to defer to him and give him a chance to speak up and every time he’d just be like ‘yup’. It was cool, though. He didn’t come to the table with anything that built the songs, but when he got the chance to flourish and add some fancy things here or there he stepped up to the plate really well.
OS: Seth is a very different bass player than Rob…
AN: Rob always said he was a guitar player playing bass, Seth is a bass player.
OS: …and this is most definitely a much more mature record from you guys.
JT: Good, it’s about time!
OS: The dynamics are much more pronounced and while you guys have always been excellent at the riffs, there is a depth that really lets these songs breathe and punch harder, “The Oak” being a perfect example, and probably one of my favorite Horseburner songs to date.
AN: That’s my favorite as well
JT: That was a goal we set out on day one.
AN: I feel like the last record was on eleven the whole time. As we started on the process for this one, we definitely felt there had to be more give and take on the volume. I think we managed that. I’ve got to say, though, you were saying that Rob is a different kind of bass player, but I’ve got to give him a shout-out because I think he was trying to push us in a more dynamic, melodic direction before and we were all like ‘NO!’, and now I feel that influence has kind of sunk in on us, and now that he’s not with us anymore, we probably owe him a little bit of credit.
OS: I always felt like he added, and I mean this in the best possible way, the more emo feeling parts of your sound.
AN: Sure, that was his scene growing up. That’s how Rob and I bonded. He’s a little bit older than us and I grew up worshipping one of the bands he was in, definitely in that midwest emo vein, so that’s spot on there.
OS: Seth seems like, well, a fucking doom guy through and through.
JT: Oh, absolutely.
AN: His bass tone in the studio was gnarly, just gut churning, brain rattling.
OS: This record sounds great. You did the bass and drums with Neil at Amish Electric Chair Studio, right?
JT: Yeah, we did drums and bass with Neil in Athens and then we did guitars and vocals and all the other stuff here at my studio in West Virginia.
OS: Man, he made you sound good.
AN: That thing where you take hours to find the drum sound? Yeah, we did that. We probably spent a couple hours just on the snare. I’m super picky about how things sound. I think we really dialed in.
JT: He is an absolute wizard, yes.
OS: What’s it like being a heavy band from West Virginia? I mean, for quite a few years, this area was pretty desolate, now there seems to be a really healthy scene.
AN: Man, it comes in waves. When Jack and I were coming up, it was all ages venues and shows, and that got us started. Then as we got older and the people in those bands graduated high school and left the area, there wasn’t really much.
JT: It’s pretty boom or bust, and I feel like that’s happened three or four times just during the lifespan of this band.
AN: That’s always rough because we’ll meet bands on the road and we’ll want to bring them through because they’re awesome and it’s like ‘we’d love to trade shows, but if you come through here there will be maybe three people there and you’re going to waste a lot of money on gas’. I want to bring great stuff through here and expose people to cool bands and maybe inspire people to do something cool. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
OS: I feel like all those all ages house show type spaces have started to recede around here, or maybe it’s because I’m old. That is the trick, you want your friends to come down but it feels insulting to suggest traveling so eight people and some bartenders can watch you play. Which is weird, you would think people would want to go out and see bands, as there isn’t much else to do around here.
JT: I don’t know what people do anymore.
AN: That was us growing up. Every weekend you knew where we would be, at one of the all ages venues, or if that was done, at a warehouse we rented out or a pavilion. That’s what we did. We made bands. In high school, I think I was in, we counted, like seventeen bands at one time. I mean, I think I’m in seven right now, so not much has changed.
OS: There are lots of nautical references going on, do I smell a theme?
JT: Oh, is there. It’s a fully fleshed out concept record.
AN: Jack and I are Rush fans, and big dorks, so back in high school we always had these concepts floating around and we never got to release a full length with that band. Even when we did Dead Seeds, we messed around with some of the lyrics after the music was done and turned that into a thematic record, not quite a concept album, but definitely thematic. This one was a fully fleshed out concept from start to finish. Jack and I spent weeks just planning the story before we even started writing the lyrics.
OS: So, who’s the new dude, and is he down with concept albums and Waffle House?
AN: His name is Matt Strobel. We met through a mutual friend, our buddy Cody that I tried to get to move to Parkersburg to join our band and he was like, ‘nah, but I have a friend that might’. He lives in Huntington now, which is two hours away. We’ve tried to put him through his paces for the last four or five weeks to see if he’s ‘the guy’ or whatever, so we’ve thrown song after song after song at him, and he’s worked really hard to get caught up on ten years worth of music. When I mentioned our touring schedule for the fall, he was like ‘I’ll clear it with my manager right now’ and that’s incredible, that’s dedication. And he did! The next day he was like ‘okay, I’m good.’
OS: You’re also working with Ripple Music for this album, how’d that happen?
JT: Very organically. Todd, the head honcho, had actually bought a couple copies of our last record. Mostly because he’s got fifteen hundred records and lost the first copy.
AN: The band Howling Giant from Nashville, who have become really good friends of ours, was a rare band that we brought through and it was an awesome show, they blew everybody away, and we mentioned we were looking for a label. They mentioned a guy named Jadd that runs Blues Funeral, their label, and so I started talking to him, and he tossed us over to Todd and that was it. I talked to Todd for three hours one night, we talked about professional wrestling and then signed a contract.
OS: Any parting words?
AN: I always end interviews in the exact same way. We are friends with so many amazing bands that I want to make the world know about, but if I list them I will absolutely forget people. We made a thank you list and as soon as we sent it off, I thought of a bunch more bands I wish we’d have included, so basically, if we talk about a band or are excited about a band, people should check them out because we have an enormous amount of talented friends and I love them all.
OS: The ‘thank you list’ was super important to me growing up. That was the internet for us old folks. You’d scour Overkill’s thank you list and then hunt those bands down. Granted, seven out of ten would suck, but the three that were good were worth it.
JT: That was our thought process too. You don’t necessarily see a lot of that anymore in records that come out.
AN: Jack and I are a little bit younger than the generation that had to do it that way, but I feel like that’s how we were brought up. I think that stuff is really important. People use the word networking, and that kind of bugs me as too business-y. It’s just making genuine relationships with people that are good people and super talented people, and spreading that. That’s what you do. It shouldn’t necessarily be about ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’, I just want people to know about these bands that are so good and we love. It’s that simple.