Norse Horse is So-Cal born and based Ryan Beal's original baby, which first gestated during a year long stint as an English teacher in South Korea. We've swooned on consecutive occasions over the cross-blended tapestries spun from far-away places with the aid of a life listening to countless corners of world music, from balmy cumbia beats on a track like “Shoodikids” to digging some guy named Robby who played sitar with the Beatles.
Beal recently released a split on La Station Radar with Ancien Crux, and last year he released the gorgeous Secret Geographies. We talked with Beal through the power of gee-mail about ex-pats in Seoul, the overlaps in the world's musics, and solid evidence that it's just fine to hear things and then call them “tropical”. He also was kind enough to share with us an exclusive track, the original acoustic of his lead-off to the recent La Station Radar, “Meat Whale”.
Why were you living in Korea?
I was going to school in Riverside, California studying anthropology and ethnomusicology. My graduation roughly coincided with the end of a pretty long term relationship and I was feeling pretty bummed about life. I sat down one day, started looking for a job and the teaching position was the first thing I saw. I decided almost instantly to do it.
How old were you?
I think I was 25.
Did you have peers in Korea making music you related to?
I should distinguish between the Korean music scene and the music being made in Seoul by foreigners like myself. Because many foreigners in Seoul are teachers, they're usually only there for a year or two and then leave. There is some overlap between Koreans and foreigners, but it's probably not what you might expect.
As far as the transients are concerned, I was actually in a band in Seoul called The Literallies, which is the musical alias of Sarah Gautier, who also happens to make my shortlist of greatest people in the world. I should be clear that my role in the band was the least pivotal. I didn't write any of the songs. I pretty much just played keyboard and Sarah's music doesn't have much if anything to do with mine, but her songwriting is so amazing that I had to be in the band. Another member of the Literallies makes great music as Blakey Bear. He's got an unreleased EP called The Disappearing World which I've had in heavy rotation for a while. The Literallies helped me play my first Norse Horse songs live. There's also a band called Sighborg which makes really exciting electronic music, but Sean Maylone (from Sighborg) has been in Seoul for some time now and maybe doesn't count as a transient anymore). Foreigners in Seoul who are interested in music tend to find each other pretty quickly, because the music scene, or at least the music scene which is accessible to foreigners isn't too developed. Sean has been trying to help change that, bringing a lot of big foreign acts to the country, but not being there I can't really say how that has changed things. The strange thing about an expat scene anywhere you go is that since you've got so many disparate sounds and interests clashing together it makes it more difficult than it might usually be to find common ground. People's musical tastes are entirely geographically determined, but enough of them are present to make it a relevant issue.
As far as Korean people making music, I had some fun times with a group of older Korean guys who were way into making noise. They have a performance space called Yogiga in Hapjeong, which is a neighborhood of Seoul near Hongade and Sinchon. I didn't know much about them because it was somewhat difficult to communicate. I wanted to believe that they were all in amazing undocumented psych rock bands in the 70s, but I'll never be certain. There are some Korean hardcore bands, post rock bands, rock bands, etc, but to be entirely honest I never encountered anything I really connected with. I was only there for about a year, though, so I probably only scratched the surface.
The Korean music that I was most into was a style known as trot or bbongjak. Apparently young people in Korea don't like trot, but plenty of old men do. You're likely to hear it in cab rides at 2:00 am, replete with ghostly voices giving speeches with heavy doses of reverb and delay. There's both vocal and instrumental trot and it tends to be dominated by ridiculously pleasant, pastoral sounding melodies. It's often about the beauty of Korea's natural properties; mountains, rivers, etc. Some of my favorite trot is the instrumental stuff, often played on old chord organs and utilizing drum machines. But since the best trot sounds to my ears like it came from the mid to late 70s and because its popularity has waned significantly in this decade I never encountered anybody who actually played it. On the way from my apartment to the nearest subway station there was a brothel which always had the most amazing trot music emanating from the entrance stairwell which led down into its basement. I always wanted to go down there and explain that I just wanted to know what music they were playing and nothing else. It never happened. I bought a few trot tapes and records, but I'm really looking forward to the day when Sublime Frequencies decides to do some real archaeology and dig up the gems that I missed.
Do you have any opinion about our media's propensity to shuffle most world influences under the tidy carpet that is the word “tropical”?
I guess I'm not really bugged by it. To be fair, I think a lot of people have an ear for music that comes from the tropics. We associate music from the Congo, Nigeria, Hawaii, Jamaica, etc. with the tropics whether or not we're geographically adept enough to actually have any clue what constitutes the tropics, or where the music is coming from. I don't think people are going to label Bulgarian folk music tropical. They're not going to listen to blues and confuse it with music that came from the equator.
I have a job teaching English to people from a number of different countries, many of whom aren't exposed to much Western media at all. I recently showed some of them a few songs I'm working on. I got three different responses in general. Some of them said that it sounded “tropical.” They said that without any knowledge of how bloggers classify modern music, so I think there's something to it. Others said that it sounded like dreaming of a faraway place, which was my favorite reaction and the closest description of what I'm really trying to do. Finally there was one guy who told me I should make a “more popular melody.” I'm trying, man!
Your Myspace cites a full five person band — how were the new tracks from the split and the Secret Geographies record put to tape?
Norse Horse has seen a few different incarnations as a performative entity so far. I've played the songs with anywhere from three to five people at any given time. When I first began recording the songs I played them with a few friends that I made while I was in Korea. After returning to the Inland Empire (which is where I'm from), Sam Woodson who does the Family Time label and who had already told me he wanted to release something of mine volunteered to play drums. His band No Paws No Lions is great, so I was happy to have him. The band continued to fill out with members of other local acts like Twin Lion/Dazzle Ships, Mothers of Gut and eventually Brother Mitya. We played some great shows, but I dissolved the live band recently due to certain members moving and the fact that I was planning on doing the same and the logistical struggle of doing things like practicing would have become too demanding. I actually just moved to Los Angeles about two days ago and I'm hoping that some of my friends, or even future friends, want to be a part of Norse Horse with me. It's exciting in that moving to a new place always seems to have a positive effect on my level of musical productivity.
My method of making songs has a lot more to do with mood and atmosphere than it does formal songwriting, which probably has a lot to do with the way that my taste in music developed. For example, I was way into Brian Eno's ambient records before it ever dawned on me that I'd been missing out on all his amazing song songs. I've always gravitated toward soundtracks and music which seems to be itself evocative of a certain kind of feeling, regardless of lyrical content. The only problem with this approach to songwriting is that it's hard to get started actually doing anything. I had tried to use an early version of ProTools when I was younger, but was quickly thwarted by inferior hardware, latency issues, and a generally difficult program. My experiments with 4 track recorders never yielded results I was happy with, either. When I was 25 I got my first halfway decent computer and started using Logic to sketch out some ideas. I moved to Korea and before long, I had recorded some songs for what would soon become Norse Horse.
Where are you now based in California?
At the moment I've just moved from Riverside to Los Angeles. As fate would have it, I'm working for a Korean school again.
How did your relationship with La Station Radar come about?
I think Fleur from La Station Radar talked to Ancient Crux about a possible split first and Ancient Crux approached me about being on the other side. Fleur speaks more French than English and I'm somewhat capable of speaking French, so we discussed certain details in French and others in English until we all managed to come up with something we were happy with. We got pretty lucky with the artwork, which was contributed by the amazing French duo Icinori, which was exciting for me because it continues both Norse Horse and Ancient Crux' tradition of getting great artists, like Kirstina Collantes and Damien Correll, to contribute art to our releases. In any case, La Station Radar is a pretty exciting label and I'm happy they wanted to release something of mine.
In the past few years it's become less unusual for artists to plumb a wide array of world musics and you refer to a number of varied cultural influences in making your music — how does this translate for you during the actual act of writing a song? Are you quoting things you've heard, trying to mimic specific sounds, burning incense in the name of Phumphuang Duangchan?
As generic an answer as it might be, my earliest exposure to world music was seeing a clip for the Beatles Anthology in which George Harrison is playing sitar with Ravi Shankar on the banks of the Ganges. I was like, “Who the fuck is Robby Shankar?!” and was immediately transfixed. I was 12 or 13 at the time. I started watching the Namaste America program on Saturday mornings to see Bollywood videos instead of watching cartoons. I started mining all the music that I owned and that my dad owned for influences from India. My ears became attuned to picking out a tampura part here, a tabla part there. My dad was a fan of Philip Glass which I now am too, so I also grew up listening to his music without having any idea that Indian music played such a pivotal, albeit more structural than timbal role in his whole cosmology of the musical universe. Before long I was really interested in string music from the Middle East. When I was 20 I got really into prog and math rock and listened to a lot of 80s King Crimson. I read somewhere that the overlapping guitar patterns were influenced by Indonesian gamelan music and got hooked on that when I went to check it out. It seemed that no matter what I got into, it eventually led back to music from some other part of the world.
At about this time I started working at a record store, getting exposed to lots of other new and old music, learning about Pitchfork and going back and trawling through all their old reviews. I started using Soulseek as a search tool to enable me to hear all this diverse and obscure music that I'd heard about over the years, but had been unable to either find or afford. I had plenty of sleepless night, doing nothing but searching for music. I discovered all kinds of amazing Thai music, cumbia from various corners of Latin America, and a whole wealth of ideas along with it. I think that when music that I make is somehow inspired by music from, say, Thailand or Peru it's no different than tuning my guitar in such a way that I get lots of repeated notes so that it sounds something like Sonic Youth or Glenn Branca. It's usually less a thing of trying to quote a certain sound than it is reaching for and utilizing an extended vocabulary. A lot of my favorite music from Thailand, for example, utilizes familiar Western structures. Listen to the song “Bangkok by Night” by Johnny Guitar. It's structurally indistinguishable from something a California surf band might have done, but melodically and timbrally it's uniquely Thai.
With the new Station Radar split, you hear two very different sides of Norse Horse. “Shoodikids” is basically just a cumbia jam which happened to turn out really nice while “Meat Whale” is a much more concentrated attempt at songwriting in which I took a song that I had already written and stylized it as a Norse Horse song.
If it's less unusual, or at least more common for Western artists to incorporate international influences today, there's probably a direct relationship between the increasing accessibility of international music.
Do you have any demo scraps you could share with us for the web? If so maybe talk about what it is?
I'm working on a lot of new stuff right now, but since I just released the song “Meat Whale” on the Station Radar split, I'll contribute the original acoustic recording I made while I was still in Korea. It's a significantly different version and there's absolutely nothing tropical about it. I recorded it with a beat-up 1/2 scale classical guitar that I found in a dumpster and I like it almost as much as the finished recording.
If you come out to New york let me know we will throw you a good show!
I was just there a few weeks ago, but sans band. Wish we could have hung out!