Arts at UNCW

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Interview With 9 Horses 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Known for their eclectic style and their high-level artistry, musical group 9 Horses will grace the stage of Kenan Auditorium on March 20th at 7:30 p.m. The reputation that precedes this dynamic trio prepares us for music that fuses genres, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources.

To get to know them better, we asked a series of questions that band members Joseph Brent, Andrew Ryan, and Sarah Caswell, kindly agreed to answer.


Where did the name 9 Horses come from?
JB: 9 Horses is the title of a Billy Collins poem and poetry collection. The poem itself is about small things that have a large significance, and that represents a lot of what this band and this music mean to me.

What have been your biggest challenges as a musician/band, and how do you overcome them?
JB: A band like ours presents lots of different kinds of challenges. The fact that our music encompasses several different genres and treats them all equally means we’re difficult to market. I don’t begrudge an industry that knows it’s easier to sell something if you can describe it in a word or two; “jazz,” “classical,” “electronic,” etc. But I’m not really motivated to change how we do things to fit a pre-existing space in the market. Another challenge we (and just about every other band) face is financial. Because we live in an age when recording music like ours is wildly expensive, with no monetary support from a record label, just making the music is often financially prohibitive. We’ve sunk tens of thousands of dollars of our own money into the project we’re recording now, and still had to crowdfund another $10,000 just to finish it. And since recorded music is no longer a real income generator in the era of streaming, many bands like ours won’t ever see any money back from the investment. It’s a true labor of love. Finally, my own greatest challenge with 9 Horses as the bandleader is logistical: Andrew and Sara are essential, irreplaceable members of the band, and I respect them as such—from the way our pay structure is organized, to planning performances, to the composition of the music, and even to making the setlists. The best version of this music is where we all feel like we have agency over what goes into the world with our name on it. But the primary reason they’re so essential is that they’re really, really good musicians! Which of course means they’re in-demand outside of 9H’s activities as well. Arranging tours, travel, rehearsals, etc. around our busy schedules can be tricky.

How long have you known each other? And how did you meet?
JB: I met Sara more than a decade ago when we performed together with a Japanese pop singer, started playing together as a duo, and eventually expanded the ensemble to include a bass at its core, with a rotating cast of guest artists we like to play with depending on the context. Our original bass player, Shawn Conley, became quite busy playing with The Knights and Silk Road and a few other groups, so he recommended Andrew to replace him in 2016 and that’s been our core trio since.

What are each of your musical backgrounds, and how do they impact your process?
JB: I began studying classical music when I was four on several instruments, eventually settling primarily on mandolin and studying jazz and composition in college. I have also played in a ton of jazz, folk, and bluegrass bands. The variety of the kinds of music that are a daily part of my life is an important part of my process with 9 Horses. I just always wanted to be in a band where I would get to do all of the things, rather than just one at a time.

AR: One of the things that actually drew me to the bass when I was young was its versatility, that it seemed to be this key ingredient at the bedrock of so many different kinds of music from all over the world. I was lucky enough to find teachers who would indulge me in exploring everything the bass had to offer, and as a result, I often got pulled into situations playing classical music, jazz, tango, folk, rock n roll, funk, salsa, and bluegrass. My hope is that these experiences broaden my musicianship and help me fulfill whatever needs the music has. 

SC: For as long as I can remember, my parents have constantly played music on the stereo—everything from Schumann to Springsteen, Monteverdi to Mingus. It was no surprise, therefore, that this musical diversity carried into my violin education—I began taking classical lessons when I was five, baroque lessons when I was eight, and jazz lessons when I was nine. And though I practiced each style separately, there was always a desire to blend them in some way, to find common musical threads and weave them together into a unique sound. Joe has done this beautifully with the music he composes for me and Andrew—drawing upon the traditions we know and finding new sounds and colors to explore.

How would you describe your music?
JB: When you put me, Sara, and Andrew in a room together, our music is what comes out!

AR: I often call it improvised chamber music, though I like Joe’s description better. Any description of genre can leave a lot unsaid, I’m always interested in the listener’s answer to this question.

SC: These descriptions from Andrew and Joe are perfect: our music is us at any given moment. What does the audience hear?

Who writes your music, and what inspires them? Are there recurring themes in your songs?
JB: I write the basic structure of the tunes with varying degrees of specificity, and then we hash things out in rehearsal or over time. There’s nothing we’ve ever done that didn’t have load-bearing contributions from all three of us. I usually describe my compositional process as being similar to the way they used to write I Love Lucy episodes; first, they’d come up with an entertaining scenario they’d love to see Lucy find herself in, and then they’d sort of reverse engineer the episode so that she wound up there. I often think of a cool thing I’d love to hear Sara or Andrew or myself do, or maybe a texture or chord progression, and then reverse-compose a bit until I have a path to that moment or texture and beyond.

There are lots of recurring musical motifs in our music. For example, on our first album Perfectest Herald, there’s a 4-movement suite at the center where the A theme of the first movement returns in the coda of the final movement. On our upcoming album Ωmegah, that same theme comes back during the final track. There’s also an ‘Ωmegah’ chord progression which will reappear at various moments during the album. The spark of recognition the audience feels when something they know returns in a new form or context is a powerful color on a composer’s palette, and I use it a lot. Obviously classical composers use this technique but songwriters do the same.

Do you ever get performance anxiety? If so, what is your advice to other artists who deal with that?
JB: Depends. With 9 Horses, no, because I’m playing within my comfort zone, with musicians I know really well. When I’m playing a classical solo, especially with a group I haven’t been able to rehearse much with, or maybe improvising with musicians I don’t know very well, I still get a bit nervous. But I like being outside my comfort zone. I kind of like the nerves (most of the time).

AR: YES! I’ve gone through so many peaks and valleys of anxiety affecting my playing. I think everyone finds their own way through it, and don’t want to prescribe perse. I will say that performing a lot, especially when feeling anxiety, has helped me cope with it. I’d also recommend meditation and creative visualization, and the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

SC: Yes, although it varies from gig to gig depending on a variety of things ranging from the repertoire to the venue to the audience. We each find our own way of coping with whatever anxiety we feel - and as Andrew said, that ability improves with experience.

What is your favorite part of being a musician? What is your least favorite part?
JB: My favorite part of being a musician is the music. My least favorite part is all the other stuff.

AR: I’d have to second Joe on this one. I often feel like playing music is really only about 10% of being a professional musician. The other 90% is travel, logistics, accounting, grant-writing, email, social media, scheduling, etc.

SC: I third Andrew and Joe on this—the music is my favorite part. And if you’re lucky enough to tour with a great group of people, see beautiful places, and perform for awesome audiences, it’s icing on the cake.

What would you be doing right now if it wasn’t for your music career?
JB: My answer to this has changed over the years, but I’ve always liked being outside making and growing stuff. I’ve been volunteering at an organic farm in Vermont quite a bit recently, so right now I’d have to say farming is what gives me the most joy outside of music.

AR: Good question. I’ve always loved teaching, and both my parents were teachers so that was always a possibility for me, and I’m a voracious reader, so maybe something in writing.

SC: I love creating things with my hands: pottery, jewelry, scarves, and blankets. I could see myself building a kiln and setting up a pottery studio for me and my students (like Andrew, I love teaching—I’m sure that would be part of the studio setup).

What is one message you’d like to give your fans?
JB: Thanks for your support! We’re really glad you like the stuff we make, and we promise to keep making more.

AR: I’d just like to thank folks for being engaged with the music, and hope they’re deriving as much joy out of it as we are.

SC: We couldn’t do what we do without the fans. It’s their support, presence, and engagement that make each performance memorable and thrilling. Thank you!

We hope to see you at this dynamic performance! Tickets can be purchased online, in the box office at Kenan Auditorium, or by calling (910) 962-3500. Use promo code PRESENTS20 to receive 20% off your ticket!

- Cara Marsicano