We caught up with C-U locals Penny Horses ahead of their double album release show with Waterfowl on Friday night to discuss how they got together, their new album and what they hope to see in the local music scene.
buzz: To start us off, can you guys talk about the origins of Penny Horses? How’d you all meet?
Tim McGee: It started in my basement, right?
Bryce Brown: Yeah, pretty much. That would have been in 2009 or 2010. I had written some songs, trying to figure them out with Tim. I’d just go over to his basement and just sit down there with his cat Fat Max and just try and work on things, just recording them on that little 4-track. We were just doing that, going through things, trying to figure out just how it’d work. I’d never taken anything too seriously, and I think it was two years after that that we both moved. Tim had moved for a job, I was unemployed, had nowhere to go, and moved back home to my parents’ house for a year. ot my shit together, moved back here, and one night I ran into Tim and found that he’d moved back to town the same year.
TM: This was like three or four years later, too.
BB: Was it? Yeah, I think that’s true. Then I think I saw you at Cowboy Monkey one night and I was like “hey, we should play together one night.” We had never really done anything serious, then I kept asking again and again and eventually he kinda caved. With our other guitar player, Chad, I had worked with Chad at a restoration service, tearing out drywall and stuff, really dirty situations! That’s where I met Chad, and at the time he was thinking about going back to school, and I had moved here so he moved back here as well to go back to Parkland. He came here, and I was the only person he knew in town, so he’d call me and we’d hang out and it was just one of those things where it was like ‘hey man, you play guitar, let’s go play some music together.’ So I played with him while I was hounding Tim to start playing again, then us three finally got together and things just really matched really well.
TM: I remember Bryce always had songs he’d play drunk at the end of the night at parties. You’d always play your songs and they were kinda incoherent at the time, but I could tell there was some substance to it because you were so passionate about them. That’s where we were like “you need to play those songs in my basement!” So then we start playing and then you start hounding me to talk to Remy to drum with us.
BB: Yeah, so Tim, Chad and I were jamming and playing those old songs but we were like we definitely need to get a drummer in on this, and I had Remy in mind because I used to get drunk with Remy and he’d give me a few rides home from parties. I didn’t have Remy’s number but Tim had it so he got hold of him, and Remy would play the bongos at Tim’s and he actually enjoyed playing them.
Remy Tipei: Yeah, I remember saying to myself “wow! Bryce has gotten a lot better since three years ago!”
BB: Yeah, you know it was that year of exile that did it. But anyways ,there’s Remy’s involvement, and we’ve also got Blake, our bass player. I worked at a furniture store driving a lift and he worked in the same huge furniture complex and I’d always hear Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and great things coming out of that warehouse and so I was like “I’m gonna ask this guy if he plays music”, and he plays the bass, and that’s how things really got started because that night was our first real practice. I think we all met at Pia’s that night before we went over to Remy’s to practice and I got to really reconnect with the people I knew and meet Blake who I didn’t know, so it was a good thing to get into before we went right into playing.
RT: Yeah, then I brought in my girlfriend because we’re attached and she’s way more talented than I am. She lays down the amazing vocals.
buzz: What’s up with the band name? How’d you guys come up with it?
BB: We had a handful of weird names… just some ridiculous names and they were very fun and easy going in nature…
TM: But we kept coming back to horses.
BB: Yeah, we wanted something with horses. I think at one point we even said ‘Pony Grinder,’ which was a horrible name, but most of it was just a fact that we thought the music represented fun and having fun, so we always liked that freedom of being on a horse. I don’t remember when it was but I had mentioned Penny Horses and I got kinda blasted with Blake one night and he’s like “that’s it, that’s the name.” And it’s fitting, it’s that thing where it’s fun and you hope it lasts long, but we’ll see.
RT: I was super reluctant, but I remember Chad looking at me one day and I was saying “Penny Horses? Really?” and he looks at me really seriously and says”‘it’s a cheap thrill.” And then I was like OK… I get it!
buzz: You’re releasing your debut album on the 30th. What kind of things were you guys doing musically before forming Penny Horses? Any prior experience in the Champaign music scene?
BB: I had none, at all. Remy was in a lot of bands, but I think Tim and I were both stuck in a basement, trying to get out of depression by crying on a guitar.
TM: I mean, Remy and I kinda played in a band that kinda became something without us, but after that it was us trying to write sad songs.
BB: But Remy was in quite a few bands, right?
RT: Yeah I was in Mitten, it was amazing, I was in The Dolphin, which really wanted to be like Lightning Bolt basically. It was really experimental and out there, and I was very politely told to leave which was honestly the best kind of break up because they said, “hey we want to keep hanging out with you, we love you as a person and you’re a great drummer, but you’re too steady for what we want to do. You play too well.” And I’m like alright! Melanomie was my last band with my girlfriend Ashley… I’ve played in like a hundred different bands but a few of them were like really good.
buzz: How has it been making your first album?
TM: It’s been a lot more consuming than we imagined it would be. We’ve been a lot more emotionally involved than I thought we would be.
BB: Yeah, we’d get in a lot of text fights. Especially Tim and I; we both knew what we were doing and most of the time we had the same plan with how to go about things, but there’s time where those things falter and we go on a little bit different separate paths and that’s when it can get a bit heated sometimes but it always ends with an apologetic handshake.
TM: You’re always very critical with our music because you really want to get it right, and I’m more loose and say “that was good enough,” but I can’t really think of any specific times where we disagreed.
BB: It would really come from ideas from shows or some things that we put ourselves up to doing. There’s been a lot, but all of them have been so minor that there’s nothing that really sticks out.
buzz: What are things you wish you had done differently while recording the album?
TM: I wish we had more time!
BB: Nah, I totally disagree with that. I think, with the sound we’ve made, it’s supposed to sound old and it does sound old, and I think recording it on analogue has definitely helped that because the tape we used had been used so many times. But what would we do different…?
TM: Well, we could have spent less money, but to do it the way we did it, I don’t think we could have done it with less money.
RT: What I would have done differently is recorded an EP. Digitally. Just like 4 or 5 songs just for the experience. The analogue is amazing but it would have been good experience, you know?
BB: I just think that for where we were and for the material we had I think it was a good call to go with the tape. When I go back and listen to the album now, there’s a few songs that I know were newer for the time that we were just like let’s just throw that one on there… and we actually worked with someone to fix the vocals digitally. There’s one song on the album in particular where I wish we’d gone back and I’d re-recorded the vocals digitally, because the song itself started to grow from where they recorded it.
TM: I think if you asked any band what they’d do different, they’d say they’d spend more time actually recording in the studio. We did four days and 12 songs, but we weren’t too experienced. Ideally we’d have had a month and unlimited money, but you know that’s impossible.
buzz: What track off the album do you think best reflects the sound you’re going for with the band?
BB: ‘Hole in my Head’ or ‘Devil’s Shoes.’ They both have their own kind of sound, one of them is a little more folky-country, one of them has this almost Stones or CCR vibe, but they seem to be honest. I feel honest about them. I feel really honest. And I think the sound reflects that with my honesty towards these songs. It is what I envisioned them to be. You’re giving everyone else a little bit of you when you’re getting a band together because you want everyone to have a little bit of a piece of themselves in what they’re playing, even if you’re the one writing the songs. So we kinda just always let everyone go. Go free and go play; feel free to do what you want and make up your part. There’s none of the ‘I wrote this song. I want your instrument to sound this way, and this and this.’ There’s not that. But those two songs… writing them, I think everyone in the band felt how much emotion I had with them, how emotionally attached I was to them, that they found a spot in themselves to sound who he is. For that, I’m most respectful; I’m so respectful to these guys for those kinds of things because I feel that.
RT: I kinda feel the opposite. I play around with ‘Hole in my Head’ the least because I hear you singing and I feel that that is the most personal to you and I don’t want to fuck with it. It’s Bryce’s, ya know?
TM: That’s the thing with ‘Hole in my Head,’ it changed hardly at all from when we recorded it in the basement in 2009.
RT: I agree with you on both of those things. I’d add ‘Meth Head Mary’ to the list as well, because that one started out one way and as a band we completely evolved it into something completely different.
BB: Yeah there are those things that were from very early on that we kinda just stuck with all the way; we don’t want to change them at all. Then theres this other song I wrote, ‘Meth Head Mary,’ where we went back and forth between playing it this way, or this way, or that way, and continually played this country folk song the way I had intentionally written it and then Remy one day said “let’s play this different,” and changed the timing of this thing…
RT: Six-eight. Woo!
BB: And then the next thing you know it’s this really… Celtic… psychedelic… I don’t even know…. It turned into something I never thought it would, but it’s actually better. And I think that’s why I want everyone to give a piece of themselves to this thing, you know, so it’s not just me with people feeding off of me, or if Tim’s playing a song of his own, feeding off of Tim, so that song really helped us grow because everyone had their own little piece of what it is.
buzz: What’s something you want buzz readers to know that we haven’t covered yet?
TM: This is gonna seem stupid, but we never see young people at our shows and it doesn’t really matter to us, but…
BB: Yeah, I agree with Tim. When I was 19 to 23, if I had the opportunity to see live music once a week and it’s all different kinds of things going on, then I would totally take advantage of that and I’d be there quite often. This town has a pretty good reputation for having real, REAL music. It’s not like you’re going in there seeing guys in their 50s play Journey covers, but if you want to see that there is a place where you CAN go see that. That’s wonderful too. But most places are 19+ to enter in downtown Champaign. Maybe that’s one thing; if you’re a huge fan of music, really get out and see what’s in your town. Get out there and see what there is because there’s a lot of good things out there. Almost too much.
TM: I could not fathom this. Growing up in a small town, you absolutely cannot fathom this. We take this for granted, that you can go out any fucking night you want and see any fucking kind of band you want. There are places, not very far away, where that kind of stuff is going on. It’s almost overwhelming. It’s a blessing and a curse for newer bands because any given night there’s like 5 things going on. When we initially booked the 30th show we were like “yes! There’s nothing going on!” but now there’s multiple.
BB: But that’s always going to happen; you’re always going to have competition when you’re playing live in this town which is a good thing. It gives everyone an opportunity to pick and choose what you’d like to see.
RT: For buzz readers, though… the U of I music department has some of the most amazing, crazy shit, and their professors are some of the most amazing performers you can ever see. That’s what pisses me off; that there’s kids going to the college in this town not taking advantage of that. Krannert is amazing! For example, when I was a little kid, Tom Siwe, one of the most amazing percussionists you could ever see, you could go there [the music department] and see this guy play! You still can! Ricardo Flores, an amazing percussionist, he’s over there… all the trumpet professors are amazing, all the performers are amazing! And if you want to take that as a class, you can too.
BB: But really, I think all of us would really like to see more of a spill of music enthusiasts to get down to downtown Champaign. There’s a lot to offer them there.
Penny Horses will play with Waterfowl, Flamingo and Finger Feelings this Friday, October 30 at Cowboy Monkey. Show at 9:30 p.m. $5 cover. Ages 19+.