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16 Horsepower – Are They Almost Famous Yet?

David Eugene Edwards: vocals, banjo, bandoneon, and guitar.
Jean-Yves Tola: percussion
Pascal Humbert: bass-guitar and double bass.

People have been telling me since I moved to Denver that I have to check out this band, 16 Horsepower. Until recently, my exposure was limited to bar-jukeboxes, but since the band is gearing up for a mini-tour this April, they sent us a couple of promo CD’s and I got to immerse myself headlong in their world.

David Eugene Edwards is the grandson of a traveling Nazarene preacher from Colorado, and you can hear the influence of the fire and brimstone in their music. 16 Horsepower are one of the few bands that I can safely say don’t really sound like anyone else. Their haunting style utilizes many instruments rarely heard in the “rock’n’roll” scene these days – resulting in an experience that is at once folkloric and utterly new.

Drummer Jean-Yves Tola was flattered by my view of his band, and took time to share with me his views on art, Denver, and Nick Cave, and was patient while my tape recorder made our lives difficult.

Kaffeine Buzz: So my press notes say that the band formed in L.A. and then moved to Denver, and I’m just wondering, why Denver?

Jean-Yves Tola: Well, because David, the singer, that’s where he’s from.

KB: So he convinced all of you to move up here?

JT: We felt that L.A. was not the right place for us to be. After a couple of years we thought we should just go away, and David wanted to go back. I was into going basically anywhere, so I went to Colorado.

KB: You guys definitely don’t have what I would call an L.A. sound. I wouldn’t picture that coming out of that town at all, so I think whatever it was it worked for you!

JT: Yeah, it was good to get out of there. L.A. is such a strange town.

KB: People have been telling me for the past couple of years that I would love your band because I’m such a Nick Cave junkie, and of course I did. What it reminded me of was–have you read Nick Cave’s book, “And the Ass Saw the Angel”? My feeling was that if the main character had a band (and wasn’t mute, of course), that it would sound like 16 Horsepower.

JT: Wow! I’m very flattered. Nick Cave, the Birthday Party, Gun Club, all those bands were major influences for us, of course, but a lot of other things as well. I do think that we can differentiate each other quite easily–we never tried or thought to try to do a Nick Cave-y kind of thing. Actually, we’re not that young. We were around at the same time as the Birthday Party. But the funny part is that we ended up having the same management and doing a lot of stuff with those guys, which is a strange thing.

KB: I would say it’s not so much the sound as maybe a similar feeling you get from the music . . . I don’t really know how to say it.

JT: I think I can help you with that. I think that the similarities are in the need to hear stuff that you don’t hear a lot, but at the same time play within certain chords that we all like. Actually, I think that we’re very different from Nick Cave. David [Eugene Edwards] and Nick Cave are two very, almost opposite kind of writers. So that makes you look differently at the delivery of the text. It’s trying to get away from the mainstream sound, whatever it takes to do that.

KB: Well I can tell you, I get your CD’s in a stack of press releases that all sound the same, and it’s so nice to put those in and go “Oh, this is somebody who’s not trying to do what they think will sell or what is or was popular at the time and is just trying to do something that really feels like it means something to them.”

JT: Well, it does. The first reason we do it is because we want to and love it, not because we want to be in the spotlight or get famous or whatever. There’s a definite need for the approval of the people otherwise you wouldn’t make records or go on tour, but it’s really something different going through the whole process, a real desire at the very beginning–we never cared about trying to please anyone, we would just hope that people would like it. There was no trying to say, “Hey, this will please these people and this will please these people.”

KB: Everyone that I’ve talked to about it, it’s always “16 Horsepower, I love that band.” I’ve never heard anyone go, “Oh, 16 Horsepower, they’re kind of O.K.” Either they haven’t heard of it or they think it’s great.

JT: Well I think there’s probably some people that hate us too, but I think you’re right. I think we’re the kind of band that people hate or love. And that’s fine with me. That’s the way it should be with art and music, I think.

KB: I think so. I think if you can be indifferent to it than it hasn’t achieved its purpose; it hasn’t affected you.

JT: Then it becomes, I don’t know, mediocre art. I mean, I hate to be judgmental. . .

KB: You get into the discussion of “What is art?” and a lot of that can come down to the effect it has on people. If it’s just another album that sounds exactly the same, my reaction tends to be “I got these five CD’s to review this week, and they all sound exactly the same, and if you stuck one in a CD player I couldn’t tell you which was which,” and it doesn’t have any effect.

JT: I don’t think that’s art anymore. I think that means–I don’t know, sometimes I feel like I sound like an old fart. A lot of people have forgotten what creating and art is. And it’s not their fault. I think they’re conditioned by the media, and these companies that are always thinking about money. That kills creating ideas. Kids get together and they’re not like “Let’s play something out-of-this-world,” or “Let’s do something really different,” they’re like “Let’s be like Nirvana,” or “Let’s be like this or like that.”

KB: It’s a common trap that I fall into when writing CD reviews, too, is to say “They sound like this,” or whatever. They sound like a cross between this and this.

JT: I think that’s different. You can’t avoid that.

KB: Yes, but then people fall into the trap of thinking that they have to sound like a cross between this and this.

JT: I don’t know very many artists in the music world that actually sound altogether different that are pleasing to the ear. Especially the rock world. A lot of stuff has been done between the ’20s and nowadays, and all that you can do is just give it a new–but it’s very difficult to do it. It’s very satisfying when that is what you want to do.

16 Horsepower’s 2002 release Folklore and their newest album Olden from 2003 is available on Jetset Records, Olden dives even deeper into Edwards’ traveling preacher upbringing, while tapping into the use of those sweet and artistic nuances that separate them from the herd. It also includes two rarities, “Train Serenade (a song never released in any form) and Slow Guilt Trot (only available as the B-side of a rare vinyl single). Colorado’s 16 Horsepower play the Gothic Saturday, April 3.


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