On Girl With Fish, feeble little horse Are Covert Poptimists

On their sophomore album, the Pittsburgh quartet blend noise and pop thrillingly—and they’re just getting started.

Music Features Feeble Little Horse
On Girl With Fish, feeble little horse Are Covert Poptimists

When we log onto Zoom, reporting from different ends of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, all of the members of feeble little horse and I are nursing cups of iced coffee. I report from my at-home desk; the four of them—bassist/vocalist Lydia Slocum, guitarist/processing wizard Sebastian Kinsler, guitarist Ryan Walchonski and drummer Jake Kelley—report from Oakland, the neighborhood where the band was first dreamed up. The night prior, I had the privilege of celebrating four musician friends’ birthdays in one night in West Philadelphia, while feeble little horse dazzled an enthusiastic audience at The Deli, a hometown venue where they shared a stage with fellow rockers Ex Pilots. For both of us, the centrality of our home music communities made our Saturday nights truly special. Now, on this spring Sunday morning, the five of us are back in action, thinking about the past, present and future of the noise-pop band—as our caffeine sources work their magic.

The Pittsburgh quartet has had a whirlwind two years since bandleaders Walchonski and Kinsler got the idea to embark on their own creative passion project. They had a fun enough time playing together in a friend’s garage rock band, but the two experimentalists had a nagging desire to try their hands at something messier, grittier. “We weren’t concerned with being a serious band yet, but we were having so much fun making these recordings,” Kinsler says of the early feeble little horse demos. As the two got more serious, they brought in Kelley to contribute the drum lines that took their recordings to the next level. When they finally finished a demo, Walchonski spent hours listening to it: “I kept thinking to myself, ‘this is crazy,’” he says.

The dizzying blend of post-punk and art rock that Walchonski found so mesmerizing came to fruition on feeble little horse’s first EP, modern tourism, which the band self-released in the spring of 2021. Walchonski and Kinsler borrowed many of their early stylistic choices from trudging alt-rock bands like Hotline TNT and A Country Western. But, with the addition of Kelley’s Sonic Youth-inspired drumming, modern tourism displayed the band’s tendency towards propulsion. While feeble little horse can often be found sharing playlist inclusions with Philadelphia’s growing list of shoegaze and slowcore bands—many of whom the band considers to be friends and inspirations—their music is openly energetic and confrontational.

Early feedback for modern tourism was quite positive, with praise from Pittsburgh-to-DC label Crafted Sounds. Together, they collaborated to release the EP on tape. When Walchonski visited Crafted Sounds’ HQ in Pittsburgh, he was petrified: This was the home of Pittsburgh’s finest DIY output. Was feeble little horse really equipped for this? As it turned out, label manager Connor Murray thought the band was destined for more, encouraging them to look into labels in Philadelphia and New York with the capacity to sustain their weirdness. Walchonski recalls: “We agreed to send the album to Doug [Dulgarian from Julia’s War Recordings] and he texted back right away that he wanted to put out our full-length. We respected what he was doing so much that, once we had his buy-in, we were set.”

That album, Hayday, arrived via noise-rock tape archivists Julia’s War in fall 2021. The band leveled up tremendously; the three-piece became a quartet with the addition of Lydia Slocum, the multi-disciplinary artist whose nonchalant vocal delivery and level, witty lyrics have become endemic to feeble little horse’s sound. Kinzler’s bold processing of harsh, synthesized electronics, samples and pop hooks help form the sound that the band works from today: “We’re sneaking pop music into pretentious people’s ears through layers and processing,” he explains. “Chores” was an early breakout hit, but tracks like “Termites,” “Picture” and “Kennedy” are just as memorable. Hayday’s screeching earworms made the band unforgettable, and the band became a go-to Pittsburgh opener for touring bands who traffic in noise, like Wednesday.

While each bandmember brings their own influences and experiences to the project, they’re unified in their mission to create pop music so otherworldly and intense that it connects with everybody. For the indieheads who think they’re above pop music, feeble little horse’s layers upon layers of processing mask the traditional genre approaches the band starts from. For pop fiends, the hooks and melodies are strong enough to cut through the noise. They’re inspired by other modern indie rock bands who challenge their listeners with abrasive noise while keeping the lyrics fresh and catchy, like Momma or Horsegirl. Lydia says: “I remember watching a video of Grimes saying that pop music is smart. That always stuck with me. It takes more effort to write a melody with a pop hook. It’s not that easy to come up with one. Pop is a commitment to making something catchy and fun where you’re not afraid to look dumb.”

The band dropped their first new LP with Saddle Creek, Girl With Fish, today. While working with Julia’s War was its own dream come true, working with Saddle Creek is the pie-in-the-sky prize the band never thought they’d reach. “When we were shopping Hayday around to labels, Saddle Creek was on the list and definitely number one, but we wondered if it was even worth it to try,” Kinsler says. Girl With Fish is an exercise in writing with distance. Since the early days of feeble little horse, Walchonski has graduated from college and moved to Washington, D.C., and Slocum has always split her time between her Pittsburgh home and art school in Mechanicsburg three hours away. Each band member offers their own contribution, with Slocum a gifted lyricist, Kelley a creative percussionist and Kinsler masterful at, in the band’s own words, “fucking it up.” Trading files back and forth and sharing iPhone notes kept everyone motivated to write tracks for Girl With Fish, along with occasional meet-ups to play shows.

At one of these meet-ups, the band descended upon Walchonski’s basement apartment after playing a raucous show. Between performing, writing and celebrating, the band was exhausted but still tossing melodies and potential lyrics around. Take the bubbly track “Paces,” which evolved slowly over time. Walchonski drafted an embryonic idea, Kinsler “fucked it up” and Kelley found the ideal percussion line to support it. Obscure movements from bands like Ing and Swimming Hour helped inspire distinct sonic choices. Slocum listened to the demo while humming melodies and singing to herself in her dorm room over and over. By the time the band arrived in D.C., “Paces” just needed a chorus, which they recorded in Walchonski’s apartment –though not without difficulty: “Whenever someone walked across the floor upstairs, we had to stop and do another take. But these lyrics are the strongest on the album. I have my own interpretation, as do Lydia and the rest,” says Walchonski. That trip is full of memories: “You were singing that [“Paces”] melody while laying on the floor drunk under a blanket,” Kinsler points out laughingly to Slocum.

While only half of the band is there full-time now, the Pittsburgh scene is still a major source of vitality for the quartet. On our Zoom call, Kelley can be seen wearing a t-shirt for Sleeping Witch & Saturn, a spacey, post-punk band admired by all Yinzers. “Everyone’s been very supportive of us since we started,” Kelley notes. It helps that when the band first started, the DIY scene in town was emerging from the throes of the pandemic and attempting to stage COVID-safe shows with the new and veteran bands who were desperate to emerge from hibernation. The inclusive Pittsburgh scene venerated feeble little horse, with their genuine and unique sound, immediately and earnestly. “People don’t move to Pittsburgh for the scene,” says Kinsler, who appreciates that local musicians are in it for the love of the game and for the love of the local community. Compared to an entertainment hub like New York or LA, it’s less cutthroat and everyone pulls influence from each other. Was it difficult to put together a new album with members so spread out? Yes. But, with Pittsburgh as an encouraging home base, feeble little horse have ample support.

For Girl With Fish, the band brought in a litany of folksy influences to add a hypnotic charm that levels the band up from their Hayday era. Borrowing from the vocal stylings of Diane Cluck and the whimsical arrangements of @, feeble little horse have a new approach to their own world-building that showcases how the quartet continues to grow and push their heavily processed sound into fresh corners of excitement. Forays like “Healing” emphasize fingerpicked guitar riffs and cosmic electronics, while earworms like “Pocket” start gentle and grow more abrasive with time—throwing listeners into a conflagration of “Do you want to be in my pocket?” by the track’s end. Slocum approaches her singing unconventionally throughout Girl With Fish, darting between her chest voice and her head voice with a controlled crack that sharply commands attention. Whenever Slocum wants to grab her listeners’ ears, she thinks to herself: “How would Karly Hartzman [of Wednesday] sing this?”

Girl With Fish is something that feeble little horse are rightfully proud of, but the band are even more excited to take the album on the road with their friends in tow. “We’re super psyched for tour,” Walchonski says, “and we just bought an old van for it. We’re testing it out right now.” The band will embark on a massive string of summer shows across North America, gracing stages with some of their Philadelphian favorites, like DnB-shoegaze pioneers Full Body 2 and smoldering slowcore favorites A Country Western. They hope to visit a true honky-tonk bar in Texas and chow down on a proper rack of ribs. It’s a big world out there, and the band is ready to see it, bringing their gripping, yet challenging, music to more and more audiences. The recording project of curious young experimentalists has grown into one of DIY’s buzziest bands—with an arresting live show to boot. It’s time to embrace the fun in scratchy pop.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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