Like a tornado spinning out of the heartland of the country, the Holy White Hounds are on the move. Hailing from Des Moines, Iowa, a city best thought of by outsiders for agriculture and presidential politics, DM (as locals like to call it) actually has a burgeoning music scene.
Holy White Hounds have a sound all their own. The names “Beck” and “Queens of the Stone Age” are often invoked to try to paint a picture of their sound, but they are best experienced firsthand, either by seeing them live or listening to their recordings.
The band was begat several years ago by Brenton Dean, who handles lead vocals and guitar, and bassist Ambrose Lupercal. The other half of the quartet consists of guitarist James Manson and drummer Seth Luloff. In chatting with Screamer, Dean and Lupercal are eager to explain all things Hounds.
“Des Moines has been a growing scene for a while,” says Dean. “We have the 80/35 Music Festival here, there’s been startup labels, and there’s been people finding success. The cool thing about Des Moines is not just the support of the music scene, but also the location of it. It’s not too far to go to Chicago and Minneapolis and Omaha and Kansas City and Milwaukee. You know, it’s kind of like in the heart. So any way you branch out, it’s a nice spot, a home base to tour from. And I think a lot of bands are finding that right now.”
When the comparison to the above-mentioned, more famous bands is mentioned, Dean has a rather surprising comment. “You know what’s funny about that? And by the way, thank you for saying that. We really appreciate it. I have a feeling a lot of people aren’t really going to believe this, but I went in to [the studio]…it was one day after we had tracked all the scratch tracks for our songs and stuff, and I went in. And our producer and engineer, they were kind of like just getting ready for the day, so they were just pulling up tracks and doing real rough mixes and stuff for us to sing over. And I heard them listening to this band when we went in there, and I’m like, ‘Man, these guys are pretty cool.’ And I went up to the recording room, and I said, ’Who is this band?’ And it was Queens of the Stone Age. I had never heard a Queens of the Stone Age song except for, obviously, the ‘bah, bah, nah nah,’ No One Knows. That’s the only song I ever knew of until after the album was recorded. So yeah, now I’m a huge Queens fan. I love Queens of the Stone Age. But that wasn’t even…I think if anything, it could have been subconscious, but it wasn’t really on purpose, you know?” Mention is made that the mark of a true innovator is an artist who takes influences from everything they’ve heard and then blends those influences together to make a unique sound they can call their own.
Dean replies “Thank you. Yeah, I hope so. I hope other people see it that way, too.”
While the Hounds may be well-known in the Midwest, they are probably strangers to the coasts, so Lupercal chimes in when asked to recount a brief history of the band. “Me and Brent have been playing in various projects together for about 10 years. But we got together and wanted to do something different, just different from other stuff we’d done before. That was about maybe three, three and a half years ago. And then we added our drummer Seth about two years ago. We went through a couple of guys before him. Then we added James, playing guitar, maybe about a year and a half ago. From that point on, we’ve just really been working on building up our following in the Midwest.”
Being an indie band is never easy. “Cool” and “innovative” do not automatically translate into “selling lots of music and merchandise.” That’s why it’s gratifying to see local media embracing local bands. Des Moines radio station KAZR (known as LAZER 103.3) has been supporting the Hounds by playing their music and including them in the lineup of LAZERfest, a Des Moines music festival. Lupercal explains how the relationship developed: “Basically, Brent just took them a CD; an EP, I think maybe like a week after or a week before the EP dropped. And they liked it, and then we just kind of started…they’d call us up, and we’d go get a drink and just talk, and they imparted a lot of wisdom onto us, just about radio and music and life in general. And it was exciting. We got to work with them. They had us open up for Rob Zombie when he came through town, and that was a hell of a lot of fun. We had just played their local LAZERfest show, in early May, which was also a blast. So it just kind of…not to sound too cliché, but it just kind of goes to show that if you put yourself out there enough, I think someone might be willing to take a chance on you or listen to you. And these guys did, and now they’re practically family.”
Since the Hounds have achieved a measure of local success, the logical next step would be to expand their visibility to other regions—something easier said than done. The non-musician who’s only idea of being “on tour” is colored by watching documentaries on the lavish lifestyles of huge bands has no idea of the reality small bands face: Instead of concerts at stadiums, travelling by private jets, staying in five-star hotels and partying in lavish tour busses there are gigs at dive bars, beat-to-hell band vans and seedy motels. Dean agrees that’s a tough path to take.
“For the past several months, we’ve been touring about three days a week. We try to come home on Monday and Tuesday, because those are generally so slow that when you don’t have a name for yourself, you’re just running yourself and your body into the ground. So yeah, we’ve been doing that, and we tend to try and tour semi-strategically. We hit up places more than once, and try not to go places that are too much of a shot in the dark. We just kind of know what we’re doing, so we can keep growing the band.”
“I mean, the thought of going straight out to California and just doing a bunch of shit out there, or straight to New York City, which we actually are going to pretty soon sounds inviting. The thought of just going straight there, just like on a whim sounds like a whole lot of fun. But when you’re sitting, sleeping upright in your car because the gigs won’t afford you a hotel room…that stuff weighs on you pretty quickly. So you’ve kind of got to grow in one area, then you go there. And then once you’ve grown in that area, then you keep going, until you can grow in another area. Because if you just keep going and you haven’t built your audience in places, then you’re going to be hurting by the time you get home.”
Lest one think that all topics are ultra-serious with Dean and Lupercal, the next exchange shows that creative people do have a decidedly wicked-good sense of humor (although be forewarned, it’s musician geek-speak, so non-players may not get the joke).
In music videos that the Holy White Hounds have produced, Lupercal is playing a Gibson Flying V bass, which is a very unusual instrument for a bass player—it’s much more common as a six-string. Asked about that, he says “Yeah, I have more conventional basses. I have a Gibson EB-2. But when we were starting this, I just wanted to buy like a middle finger of a guitar, like something that’s just, ‘Fuck you. I play bass.’ And I walked into a shop, had a guy who owed me a favor, and he had a Gibson Flying V, and I just bought it right then and there. It sounds good, dark, and it rocks, so I like it.”
Dean interrupts with “He wanted an instrument that was going to make him look like the biggest asshole possible,” as everyone laughs. I chime in with “Either that, or the coolest guy in the band possible.” Lupercal replies “Yeah, exactly. It’s the same thing. [laughs] In Holy White Hounds, it’s the same thing.”
The band’s new album Sparkle Sparkle was produced by Brandon Darner, who’s production credits include working with Imagine Dragons—a very impressive resume indeed. How did a local band from Iowa get hooked up with Darner?
Dean explains: “Well, when me and Ambrose were in high school, we had this band. And he [Darner] was just kind of a local guy that, you know, he plays in the band Envy Corps, and he’s played in several state bands. So he’s kind of like a local superstar, almost. I don’t know if he would appreciate me calling him that, but he…he’s just someone that everyone knew about because his product, what he turns out, is just so consistently fantastic. And we ended up actually talking to him a little bit back in the day, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I’d like to work with you guys sometime.’”
“And we just dropped the ball, time and time again. And I think a lot of that was just being younger, and thinking that we knew what was best for us, thinking that we could make something in our basement, and everybody was just going to love it. Then after the years’ time went by, and we wanted to do things the right way, we called him up again. It was like we picked up right where we left off. He was like, ‘Yeah. You know, I’ve had my eye on you guys, and I’ve still love to work with you.’ So we just went in and made the record.”
“And actually, when we started, it was like we really didn’t know each other very well at all. And now, since then, it’s like the same thing with LAZER. It’s like we’ve worked so closely, almost even intimately, with these people that they are really like an extension of the band. That’s kind of how it happened.”
The relationship between a band and their producer is crucial. If they don’t get along, if they disagree, then the recording process could be pure hell. There are legendary stories of bands and producers almost coming to blows in the control room over musical differences.
“Well, it’s a very weird relationship,” remarks Dean. “Because you’re really like…when we went into the studio, there were full songs that I had written that Darner was just like ‘This song is not going on the record. It’s not good enough. This isn’t one of your good ones.’ And that’s a weird thing to hear. It’s a hard thing to hear. And the longer we’ve been a band, the more we’ve realized, I guess, maybe just that listening is just so much better than talking, so much better than thinking, you know. Because I could have argued with Brandon in those moments and said, ‘No. I love this song. This is going on the record.’ And it would have gotten me nowhere.”
“But in time, you actually even come to see what they are talking about. The other day, I was listening to an old demo of a song that was like one of my favorite ones that Brandon said, ‘No. This song’s not going on the record.’ And I was kind of sore about it, in private. And the other day, I was listening to it, and I was like, ‘Man, he was right. This song is not as good as the other ones that got on the record.’ So even when I didn’t agree with him, I just kind of trusted him, and I came to see what he saw. And I came to understand his point, and see that he was right, you know? So it’s a weird relationship, because there’s trust involved that goes beyond your opinion. You know what I mean? It’s hard to say.”
What isn’t hard to say is that the Holy White Hounds are a young band making a name for themselves regionally. Now, with a promising debut album that’s just been unwrapped, there’s a good chance the rest of the nation will soon find out cutting edge indie bands are not exclusive to cities such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. Some even grow in places you’d least expect it.