Houndmouth is known for two things: a vibrant live show and an affinity for storytelling, often delving into narratives about hard drugs or hard time. On Little Neon Limelight, their sophomore LP with Rough Trade Records, the band has grown more adept at weaving in their own personal narratives, albeit subtly.
“This record we got to take personal experience and then make that into a story, so that was fun,” says keyboardist/vocalist Katie Toupin. “We’re not just singing about random people. It’s a more metaphorical story that we feel more attached to.”
Keeping songs vague may universalize the feelings behind the tracks on Limelight, but the integration of firsthand experience is a side effect of one Houndmouth’s great strengths. Each of the four members contribute to songwriting and vocals, and the change-up as they take turns on the lead make for a continuously interesting listening experience: it’s like listening to a conversation between four wildly different personalities instead of listening to a monologue.
“When we started, we all had been doing so many separate projects that we had just been writing,” guitarist/vocalist Matt Myers says. “So we had all these songs: we’d go into rehearsal and somebody’d bring up a song, and they’d sing it, and then we’d all try to fit in on harmonies.”
On Limelight, they had an added push from producer Dave Cobb, whose work on landmark albums for Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are only some of the most recent of a long line of transformative work in the studio. When the band was getting antsy to get recording, they got in touch with Cobb and ultimately made the trek down to Nashville.
“We called him and we go, ‘Hey, do you want to make a record with us?’ And he goes, ‘Yes, but I’m not gonna make another fucking Americana album.’” Myers remembers. “He says, and this is quoting, ‘Let’s put our hats on and get weird.’”
For Houndmouth, getting weird in the studio was all about harnessing their spirited live show. Rather than lay down tracks separately, Cobb had them record everything together: it was revolutionary in its straightforwardness.
“We always thought that we were a live band,” Myers says. “We had no idea what we were doing recording-wise until he came in and was like, ‘Do this! More energy!’ And he’d be in the room with us shaking stuff.”
Bringing that kind of spontaneity into the studio feels like the obvious choice: Houndmouth has built a career off of throwing themselves into things, ready or not. While the four knew of one another growing up, occasionally playing together in different groups, it was still a little random when Myers first called up drummer Shane Cody to play.
“”I was like, ‘I know somebody that could play bass. And I mean could play bass,” says Myers, talking about now-bassist Zak Appleby. “He didn’t have a bass, he’s never played bass. So we went out, we got like a hundred dollar bass and we stole one of my buddy’s bass amps.”
Finding a home at Rough Trade Records back in 2012 was the result of a similarly impulsive plight: against the advice of their booking agent, they made the costly trek to Austin for South by Southwest almost exactly three years ago, just four months into Houndmouth being a band.
“We definitely lost money, but we were like ‘Ah, we’re gonna come anyway,’” Myers says. “And Matt [Hickey, Houndmouth’s booking agent] was like, ‘Well, fuck. Maybe I can get Geoff Travis to come to a show or something.’ It was all just, whatever: let’s make something happen.”
Something did happen, and well-respected A&R man Travis showed up for one of the band’s few sets. From there, things happened rather quickly: they signed to Rough Trade and were getting slots at big festivals almost immediately.
“Any pressure there is, we push out,” Myers says. While a well-received debut and a move up the bill on festivals they played as rookies might seem like plenty to live up to, expectations aren’t Houndmouth’s thing. “We just have always been like that: Going down to South By was more for fun, just getting our foot in the door. For this record it was just like, fuck it.”
Every move Houndmouth has made seems like it would have had to be calculated: Make an EP. Play a few live shows for exactly the right few people. Record a full-length with a well-respected label, and nab spots at big tests like Forecastle and legend-making ones like Newport, and do all of it within a breezy three-year timeline before releasing a sophomore album with a great producer. But it was less robotic than just those essential pieces of the narrative coming together, and most of their team has been there from the beginning.
“We would have dumped all of our songs out into the abyss, and it would have never gotten recognized,” says Myers, laughing about the abandon with which they approached things starting out. “We’re all just kind of figuring it out, trying to make something from nothing.”
Myers cites Jim James as an major role model right next to Louisville producer Kevin Ratterman, and while he’s effusive about their musical prowess, he’s more focused on attitude and personality when he glosses over what he’s picked up along this journey.
“It’s mostly the people we meet, I admire their personalities,” he says. “I want to be around them and [have them] influence my outlook on life.”
For a group so focused on narratives in their songwriting, they’ve got a compelling real-life plot, with a cast of developing characters and their own unique setting to boot.
“Louisville’s not like any other music town, and New Albany doesn’t have a music scene,” says Myers, who gushes about the community in Louisville that has embraced them while cherishing their more isolated neighborhood. “We walk to Dollar General and you don’t see a pair of skinny jeans for miles. It’s awesome.”