If you've been living under a rock the past few years, Sugar Horse is a rather mercurial UK quartet that's been building an impressive catalogue of experimental downtempo metal since 2015. Never content to settle on a single sound, Sugar Horse take their time exploring the outer reaches of post-metal, sludgy stoner doom, noisy prog rock, and anything and everything between. No matter the approach or style, Sugar Horse tracks often have one thing in common: a total lack of urgency that allows for spacious meditations on a theme.
With their new EP Waterloo Teeth, Sugar Horse came in with a pretty wild approach. Armed with a wishlist of potential collaborators, the group secured the expertise of what seems like half the UK underground to help fill in the gaps, including members of Conjurer, Pupil Slicer, Heriot, IDLES, Oceansize, Biffy Clyro, Vennart, Mclusky, MXLX, Black Peaks, Lonely Tourist, Wych Elm, and more.
We had the privilege of hearing from guitarist and vocalist Ashley Tubb about how this enormous project came to be. Read the full interview and check out the exclusive premiere of Waterloo Teeth below!
Sugar Horse feels pretty synonymous with experimentation. What drove the songwriting process this time around, and how does it differ compared to previous releases?
We wanted to streamline slightly this time. I think we’ve done the big extended song structure thing quite a lot and a couple of tracks on this EP kinda proved, to us at least, that we don’t have to make every song 6-mins plus to work as we’d like.
It’s difficult purely because of the tempos we tend to work in. Just mathematically, everything being at 70bpm tends to result in us getting to the end of the second verse of a tune and it’s already at the 3-min mark.
It was interesting to try and get a couple of the tunes on the EP somewhere a little closer to a “standard” pop song length.
Obviously, there are still a couple that feel a bit more expansive like our older material, but I think it’s another interesting juxtaposition. We’ve now got so many opposing parts - heavy to melodic, quiet to loud, longer to shorter, etc. - that it feels super unpredictable and it’s liberating not having anything in particular expected from us.
Did you have any preconceived notions about the kind of sound you were going for before sitting down to write? Any specific influences?
I liked the idea of taking drone music and trying to make it work within a pop-ish format. Normally it’s very much a meditative genre and that alone makes it hard to add any kind of hook into. There are actually surprisingly few chord changes on this EP. We’re really just hammering away at open notes a tonne, but with interesting (at least to me) dynamics and rhythms falling behind them.
In regards to influences, there’s a relatively wide range of stuff been drawn on I guess. We nicked a bit of the clangy Shellac sound in a couple places, attempted to steal some floaty stuff from Cocteau Twins here and there. The general feel of the recordings themselves is very noisy, which is something that’s repeatedly edited out on records nowadays. You can hear all the earth hum, wonky patch cable connections and even the sound of someone clicking a fuzz pedal on at one point. I think it adds to the feeling of it being a real band playing. The grime and the untidiness give it some life. Perfection is a bit overdone at this point.
"Disco Loadout" is filthy. You've toyed with similar sounds before but never to this extent. Where did that track come from?
"Disco Loadout" started out as a bit of a joke idea to be honest. Could you do a minute long song where all the guitars have their strings tuned to entirely random notes? Maybe we could only hit all open strings as well, so it’s kinda this completely atonal white noise drone thing.
It’s complete simplification. The easiest thing you could play. We’re all about that really, just taking all the technicality out of the music. We’re not really good enough to play virtuoso stuff anyway, so why not completely embrace that?
I see "Disco Loadout" as the logical conclusion to that idea. It’s essentially just rhythm and dynamics, which are the basic building blocks you need to make music. Everything else is decoration.
Lyrically - especially on heavier tracks - I like to inhabit exaggerated versions of different real life characters I deem abhorrent. Mostly as a sort of satire I guess, but it’s also an interesting lyrical exercise.
This track centres around those evangelical, 'right-wing for ratings' types that you see all over the TV and internet now. I won’t name names, as mentioning them here would only mean another ratings victory for them, but you know the kinda people I’m on about. They take this maddeningly reductionist view on society in an attempt to get people to read/watch/endure their “content”. I suspect they rarely believe some of the views they spout. They do it for a living at the end of the day. It’s just the height of modern cynicism to me and is frankly disgusting.
I liked the way the reductionism of the lyrics connects with the reductionism of the music. It’s nice to create a thin veil of depth. I’m hoping it makes us look clever, but in reality it probably just makes us look like pompous arseholes.
You've mentioned before that some of the greatest artists create their best work by enforcing set parameters to create within, like Mondrian and Mark E. Smith. Why do you think this works so well, and how have you incorporated that ethos into your own work?
Putting yourself in a box tends to free you from option paralysis. Modern technology has allowed us access to all forms of art in seconds, at the touch of a button. This is incredible for the viewer/listener, but can be overwhelming for the creator. You can waste mountains of time just deciding what you want to do. Giving yourself rules from the outset can allow an artist to start creating without engaging in too many extraneous decisions.
All our music - so far - has been within a set of rules that we decided on from day one. I think most bands do this, but where we differ I guess was not enforcing those rules on the actual sound of the music. We can dip our stinking toes into any genre we like, whereas a lot of bands kind of pick one or two to work within.
Our rules are most based around how the music is played than the actual sound of it. The most obvious ones being the slow tempos and the lack of technicality in the songs. A huge amount of the tunes we’ve written are just a bunch of open strings at 60/70bpm. We also tend to steer away from powerchords, which are a huge cornerstone in rock music. They’re cool and everything, but it just leads you down a different path when you decide not to use them.
In summary, it’s all just very pretentious waffle spouted in an attempt to make us look smart, when in fact we are idiots who can’t play our instruments properly.
Despite being a relatively short release, you managed to pack a slew of fantastic collaborators in like sardines. How did you get them all to agree, and how big of a role did they play in the whole process?
From the outset of putting the songs together, we knew we’d have to leave holes in the music for other people to fit into. Easier said than done really, as you kinda have to leave songs slightly unfinished. Definitely a different process than we’re used to.
Getting everyone to agree to be on it was surprisingly easy. We had a wishlist at the beginning full of names we never thought were gonna say yes, so sent some feelers out not really expecting too much. Eventually everyone on the initial outlandish wishlist agreed save two or three that were in all honesty completely unrealistic…but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Everyone involved was super courteous and unbelievably cool about the whole thing. I’m a pessimistic fella really (quelle surprise), so seeing everyone work so hard and come up with such cool stuff made the logistical hell of organising fourteen musicians in disparate areas of the country pretty exciting in the end.
Every time an email would pop into our inbox with some more stems attached, it’d be like the excitement of hearing the song anew again. They all brought such different energies to the tracks on this record and really attacked things in ways that would’ve never even crossed our tiny little minds. We’re all, as a band, just ridiculously thankful for all the talent and hard work everyone poured into these songs. It makes this grinch’s heart grow very slightly bigger.
Is there anyone you're itching to work with again?
Hearing the different vocal timbres over these tunes has made me really wanna work with different singers again. I’ve never really heard someone else sing vocal lines that I’ve written or sing over an instrumental that I’ve had a hand in putting together before. It’s always just been my voice over it really. It’s a strange sensation. I guess it slightly removes a bit of the self-consciousness from the situation and allows you to enjoy the song from a bit more of an outsider perspective.
Having instruments like saxophone and cello blasting away over such heavy, dissonant music is something I don’t think I’ve heard that often either. Really adds to the sense of confusion I reckon. Just a completely disorientating listen and it’s definitely something we’ll explore again.
If you know of any orchestras that’d do it on the cheap, gimme a shout.
You're just about to head on tour with Conjurer and Godflesh. What's next for Sugar Horse when you get back?
We’re waist deep in finishing off the songs for a new album at the moment. It’s nearly there, just needs a few finishing touches. We’re big fans of writing new music and tend to be doing it almost constantly. It’s a bit of an addictive process really. That feeling of creating something from nothing is, in my opinion, the closest you will ever get to some kind of divine presence in this life.
Anyway, hyperbole aside, more new stuff is on the horizon I guess.
Waterloo Teeth is out tomorrow on Small Pond Records. Pick up a copy at their Bandcamp here.