It was 1 am Easter Sunday. The band 16 Horsepower had just left the Bowery Ballroom’s stage as I climbed the stairs to the cramped backstage, where the band was catching their breath with a few friends. David Eugene Edwards, Pascal Humbert, and Jean-Yves Tola sat on a couch. In front of them was a coffee table crammed with equal parts of beer, Poland Spring water, and plastic cups serving as ashtrays. Everyone was smoking, drinking, and shaking hands, their relief palpable. Having driven themselves from Cleveland to Philly, where they had played the night before, then on to New York, where they hadn’t played in three years, no one had slept in over forty-eight hours; but it’s hard to tell, as the energy generated in their performance seemed to be carrying them through.
Everyone was excited — there was a definite buzz in the air. The band looked pleased with the performance and it was apparent this was a good ending for the tour, short as it was and as long overdue as it seemed. Pascal later agreed, “Yeah, I have a very good memory of that show, I think as far as the U.S. goes it was one of our best shows in a long time.” And everyone who came to see them agreed.
The room filled up fast, and David got up from the sofa and sat on the floor to make room for a new arrival. Someone made a comment about the lack of alcohol and asked why so little is provided. David explains, “It’s in our rider — we put down everything we like — but every time we fax it to a club or concert hall they fax it back with a big X through that part. Of course, in Europe, we never have that problem. There we get everything we need.” Pascal the bass player jumps up, goes down to the bar and comes back with a case of warm beer and some ice. Everyone is happy. As the conversations split up and deepen, the room settles down and it becomes increasingly apparent that there is an unusual lack of ego in the room, a sort of eurhythmic equanimity between the three performers.
At 1:30 A.M. the band has four more hours to kill before they will get on a plane to return to their respective homes after their six-city tour. Their van and the trailer that serves as their tour bus sit outside on Delancey Street waiting to be driven home by their tech crew. This time they are flying home, and for a change avoiding the long, cramped ride home, which at this hour seems even more grueling.
Around 2:30 A.M., the bar is closed, and the manager wants to lock up. The band has decided to hang out in town instead of heading to a hotel room that awaits them at the airport. So someone suggests a bar nearby where they can drink and actually smoke (legally). Everyone heads downstairs and out onto the street and we walk across town. Eventually, we file into the bar and finally get a real drink. The conversation ebbs and flows and the bar owner sends over a round of drinks, and I’m thinking, this is more like it — at least someone is giving them the star treatment.
Finally, we parted around 4:30 as they closed yet another bar. I head home and they make their way to the airport and possibly a few hours’ sleep on the plane. Nobody realizing this would be their last concert in New York and one of their last shows ever as a band. This all would have seemed like a typical day in the life of a struggling rock and roll band, but that’s where the irony lies.
These people aren’t a struggling rock and roll band — they are mature professionals who have honed their skills playing in various bands, performing, or recording with a network of musicians and producers reaching back to the early 1980s. 16 Horsepower was a band that has been together for over a decade, had released six well-received albums, and did extensive touring to sold-out venues in Europe and in America They all have roots in what Pascal calls “post-punk pre-new wave era bands.”
Who together developed a sound that continues to defy critic’s attempts to label them. These people have been around. Pascal and Jean-Yves were drawn away from their classical studies as children in Paris to the music and energy of the punk scene during the early eighties, eventually playing together in the band Passion Fodder. They recorded with producers like Brian Eno and opened for acts like Iggy Pop, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Violent Femmes. David started his first band in 1982 — a punk band called Restless Middle Class. He did his time in Denver and then L.A., performing with several bands before joining the Denver Gentlemen.
Pascal and Jean-Yves eventually moved to L.A. with Passion Fodder, where the band put out two more albums before breaking up. So after touring for a few years with Passion Fodder, and several albums later they found themselves living in L.A. without a band and out of cash. So they went to work building sets for the Roger Corman movie studio, where they met David. They quickly realized they had a lot in common musically, especially a love for what David calls American Traditional music. It was this bond that eventually led to the creation of 16 Horsepower. What made the band so outstanding was the delicate balance of the classically trained Pascal and Jean Yves juxtaposed with David’s self-taught musical style and his haunting voice.
Their songs are powerful, provocative, and memorable. Their music is driving, dark, and complicated, and their act is polished, dramatic, and unrelenting. On stage, they move from song to song so quickly that neither the band nor the audience has a moment to catch its breath. With barely enough time to switch instruments, David is on to the next song. His energy is frenetic and contagious, his presence mysterious and seductive. Never knowing what’s going to happen next is one of the most compelling things at a 16 Horsepower show.
Onstage David’s mind at times seems somewhere else as if he’s hearing the words he’s singing for the first time through some listening device that taps into the unknown One member of the audience seeing the band for the first time described it as “sort of channeling.” David doesn’t disagree with this, saying, “The songs that I write — they are speaking to me as much as they would be to someone who is listening. I feel like I could be in the audience listening to it … the songs just kind of take me and they use me in a sense … I’m kind of just at the mercy of the songs themselves.”
Early on they decided to ignore the clichéd notion that they had to live and play in the major urban music centers and chose to remain in Denver so they could concentrate more on their music. It was in Denver that they developed their sound and worked out their performances, attracting the attention of a major record label, and 16 Horsepower was born. Eventually, they built a strong foundation in the United States, but they knew they had to go to Europe. Jean-Yves remembers, “That was kind of a funny thing. I knew that we were going to do well in Europe, because I was from there, but they (the record company) didn’t want us to go, they said ‘No, you have to work the States first,’ but finally, through some friends we got offered this tour with Grant Lee Buffalo, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s go, let’s go,” but we could not afford it. And the label said, ‘No, we’re not going give you that money to go there,’ and we said, ‘Well we’re going to go anyway, we’ll put it on a credit card, we’ll figure it out. But we’re going.’ And so they finally agreed.”
Their success wasn’t just limited to their music, individually their personal lives became more and more fulfilling. Jean-Yves had a Horse ranch in California, Pascal lived on a Ranch in Colorado and David had his family in Denver. They became increasingly reluctant to leave for anything but truly important reasons. This led them to cut back on their touring schedules, recording sessions, and so on. Each member basically gives the same three reasons though in a slightly different order.
The first is that they didn’t want to spend all their time cramped in some tour bus. The second is that touring in America is just too difficult on many levels in comparison to Europe. In Europe the cities are closer together, the clubs and fans more receptive, and the radio and television more diverse when it comes to presenting music. Most important, though, is that they all seem to agree that they wanted each and every show to be important, not just a required stop on a long list of tour dates. The same goes for the recordings: they wanted to take the time to make the music as true as possible, despite record companies demands for some sort of release schedule.
Pascal says it best when he notes, “We all have passions and other things on the side, and it’s just we’ve never said music first, one hundred percent. Yeah, music is first, but the other projects are as important in a way, because you have a family, and a wife, you want to fulfill that as well, and it’s not impossible.” He goes on to say, “A lot of people think it is, but I don’t agree, I really don’t agree, like when we decided to strip down the touring to two tours a year, the record company first was like, you guys are going to commit suicide by doing that because you have to tour more often and you need to do promotion, and were like, ‘No, no, we have a very strong fan base, we have faith in them, and one tour a year in Europe is enough, that’s just it, and if you don’t want to support us we’ll go somewhere else. I’ll co-produce the album, it’s OK.’ You know it doesn’t change. I mean, actually, our public in Europe grows each time we go back there, so I think it’s just that the music talks.”
Everyone in the band has their solo projects. Pascal and Jean-Yves have put out two albums under the name Lillium. Pascal has recently scored a feature film called La Cage produced by Canal Plus in France. These projects were an important part of keeping the band together. By encouraging each other to explore their music as individuals, 16 Horsepower only seemed to get better. From their early days, they have been in constant collaboration with someone, either as a band or individually — the list is long and unfinished.
Every album features various guest artists, from musicians to producers. Just listen to Low Estate (European Nouvelle version) with the two songs with Bertrand Cantat of Noir Desir and you realize just how important these collaborations are to the band.
We brought six people to the show that night at Bowery Ballroom in New York City. Half knew the band’s music and half didn’t, and days later everyone was still talking about the show. Everyone agreed that it was one of the best shows they had seen in a very long time. I don’t think anyone expected the force of the emotion that went on there that night. Somehow you got the impression it was more than just good music — it was somehow deeper than that.
After the show someone finally cornered David and popped the question — the religious question, that is. This is the question that everyone eventually gets around to, and it’s something that haunts the band as much as it haunts David’s lyrics. David is a Christian and some people are not so comfortable with that. Everyone at some point feels obligated to talk to him about it; some probably take it too far and end up sounding condescending or superficial, or worse, contrite. You can only imagine the frustration the other band members feel when after an amazing show this is where the conversation ends up. Yet how can it be avoided, the name 16 Horsepower is from a passage from the Old Testament. So many of 16 Horsepower’s songs (and Woven Hand for that matter) are full of Christian precepts. How could they not be? David is the grandson of a traveling Nazarene preacher. He grew up in the church and often accompanied his grandfather when he traveled. David’s experience with his religion is spread throughout his lyrics; his knowledge and understanding of the Bible run so deep people often miss his biblical references. He says, “The music in church as a kid was always the part of church that really spoke to me, just the words of the music and the music itself. And early on it was real somber music, just an organ and singing, and singing hymns from the 1600s. That’s pretty much what I do now too. Yeah, that was a big influence, really, and I still love that music — probably it’s my favorite music really.”
Outside of his music David seems to keep his views to himself until someone backs him into a corner. No one really seems capable of fathoming David’s conviction. They all seem to feel there must be some explanation to his faith. So when someone starts talking to him about God, David listens quietly. Some others join the conversation and it starts to resemble a debate. But as they seem to start to qualify their beliefs David’s tone shifts, and he begins to get that look he had onstage — the one where he seems to be hearing the words to the song for the first time. David still pumped from the show — unleashes a barrage of testaments on his beliefs. Where others want to draw a line to their commitment David insists there can be no lines. He starts to hint at the possibility that God might be beyond the comprehension of everyone, including himself and leaves it at that.
When I talked to him about this alone he tells me “Religion is kind of a weird word today … you know I grew up in the Church. My Grandfather was the preacher of the Church that I went to. It was small and he led the music. Socially that was a major part of my life. There are a lot of people that grow up in the Church or whatever and they don’t care about it or they don’t follow it. Just because your parents believe doesn’t mean you are going to. But I have always believed in it, in the Bible, and it’s a huge part of my life, it affects everything I do. There is no separation between it and my regular life … you know what I mean … That’s what I sing about.
Yet it is precisely his conviction that makes his music and performances so compelling. To see him perform one cannot escape being consumed by his passion. His energy permeates the audience and its amazing the emotion that resonates with every syllable he sings. It’s the purity of his passion that transcends his music.
When asked about the stigma that seems to be attached with the word “Christian” in today’s world especially to a rock and roll band, he says, “Yeah, I get that a lot, especially here in Colorado. People in the music scene are very wary. Even though they like the music they are still wary of admitting that they like the music or something and because of that fact that no one wants to be thought of as a Christian because it’s not cool. It’s not the cool thing to be in the world’s eyes for the most part, but I can’t do anything about it because that’s what I am. You know it’s not even necessarily a choice really. I mean there is a choice involved, in a sense, but I believe that God took hold of me rather than me taking hold of him. I mean there is that exchange but it starts with him rather than me.”
This might explain the hesitancy of some and the attraction of others, and a possible root in the break up of the band. Pascal and Jean-Yves clearly don’t share David’s fervor, and they make that clear when you talk to them.
But that fervor gives the depth to David’s lyrics. His draws these Samuel Becket–like landscapes — places we don’t necessarily want to go — and fills them with dark testimony we’d often rather not hear. He speaks of warning and promise often lingering on subtleties that are forgotten or overlooked. I compared his musical landscapes to Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of the Southwest and he said, “I think that is sort of what I try to do with my music in a way. I take things that are very simple and kind of blow them up, and I think that is what he does as well, to try to get everything out of it that you can and to learn something from it and be affected by it rather than just passing it by.
I think that sometimes if you look at the words themselves, they don’t have the same impact, but when you’re in the song … I mean, the words are really simple, they seem to be obvious or whatever, but inside the music, they’re magnified in a way. Music itself, and language itself, we take them for granted … but because they’re so important and so powerful and … so misused and so discarded, I like to try to put the importance back on both of them.
For me, the great thing about music is that it speaks to me visually in every other way, just as much as it does to someone who’s listening to it who doesn’t play it. When I hear it, it’s really visual. My music has always been, to me, like a little movie.
Each song I sing is like a little film. When I perform one of the songs, I don’t mean to say I’m an actor or something like that, because I don’t feel that way, but it’s just … each song takes me in … and dictates to me how I'm supposed to act … and tells me what to do. It’s good in the sense that it’s not a chore for me to play these songs every night … because they say something different to me all the time and it changes as I change … I don’t know. It is very much like putting together a puzzle — that’s kind of how I look at it. It’s like just the music and the lyrics themselves I put it together like I just have little pieces here and there that come to me or that I have had for years, or that just came to me yesterday, or whatever. I put them together and I don’t try to make a story and I don’t have a certain end really, and it just sort of develops itself from all these pieces I have collected. I put them together and a lot of times the song will make no sense to me at all till maybe a year later I’ll be playing the song onstage, and all of a sudden it will make sense to me or will speak to a situation that I am in right then. Sometimes I feel a little bit like I should have more of a direction, especially lyrically, I should have more direction, this is what I should be saying, but it just doesn’t work that way for me, I just can’t do it that way.”
When the band heads home, Jean-Yves and Pascal are off to their horses and ranch work, things they love to do. This is the life they have earned, and you have to admire them for it. It is so rare that people live where and how they always dreamed of. Just as 16 Horsepower’s music draws so richly on the American West, Pascal and Jean-Yves inhabit literally inhabit that landscape. So it is understandable when as Jean Yves says, “To be honest, I think that Pascal and I especially have put a little bit the foot on the brake.”
Yet for David when he heads home, it’s to more music. When I ask him about this he puts it very bluntly: “16 Horsepower took a break for a year. Everybody else kind of has other means of surviving financially, I don’t. So, when we took that break, I had to keep working so I just kept writing songs.” Simple as that sounds, I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Let’s face it as mutual collaboration as 16 Horsepower was, David’s the singer and when they perform all eyes naturally fall on him. He’s the one hanging on the edge of the precipice, the one delivering the message. You can’t inhabit that space without living dangerously; it’s just easier to move forward than to try and slow down. It was during the break 16 Horsepower took that Woven Hand, David’s solo project, started. So David goes home with 16 Horsepower only to turn around again to tour in Europe with the Woven Hand project.
It was the music from the album also entitled Woven Hand that led to his meeting Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. Vandekeybus heard the music and wanted to use it for his new piece entitled Blush. David remembers, “I was playing a show with Woven Hand in Brussels and the choreographer came to the show. He had heard about it and was looking for music for Blush. He had bought the CD and he was already rehearsing to a couple of the songs off the first CD, the Woven Hand CD, so when he came and talked to me and said he wanted me to do the music for it and if I’d be willing to do so. I didn’t have any idea who he was or what he did or anything so he gave me videos of everything he had done in the past … I watched all that, and he met me at the end of the tour. I was just really impressed with it. It was something I wasn’t really expecting. I felt … we worked in similar ways. So, yeah, I decided to do it, and I just reworked the songs that they were already working on to the timing they needed to make them longer or shorter, take some lyrics off, etc. Then he just let me write music on my own, and he placed it where he thought fit.”
Vandekeybus had worked with musicians like David Byrne and Marc Ribot in the past, but he wanted someone without dance experience for his new project — for Blush he was seeking a voice.
The piece was performed in both Europe and North America with David and his musicians performing the music live. Rather than only playing the music from the pit, David and the other musicians often interacted with the dancers onstage, which took some getting used to. “Everybody in the band has a moment where they do something with the dancers. In the beginning, I start out just kind of walking through on the stage playing the banjo in and out of the dancers.” With David’s propensity for getting lost in his music and without the aid of his “wranglers” from 16 Horsepower, David had to force himself to stay present as much as possible. “Yeah, we definitely have to watch,” he says. “That was something that was difficult for me cause when I usually play I’m usually so far away from where I actually am, physically. I can get lost fairly easily, but we’re used to that life, as a band, and that’s kind of normal. But with this, I can’t do that. There are certain moments where I can let go. Most of the time I have to pay attention, I have to watch the dancers; I have a sheet that I have to follow at certain points just for the timing, so it’s very different. But at the same time, it’s making me a better player, a better musician.”
When I met David in his home I had to keep reminding myself that this guy is a rock star. Everything about him seems modest — his home, his manner, and so on. He’s very polite, well spoken, and hospitable, although he can seem reserved — even a little suspicious. He doesn’t seem to like interviews, he doesn’t like posing for pictures, and yet there is nothing arrogant about that at all. For a person who puts so much of himself out onstage, it seems only fair that he should reserve some of himself when not performing.
Still, little clues slowly leak out the longer you spend time with him. His taut, wiry body reveals an underlying intensity that is all too apparent onstage. There’s a sense of defiance, a quality necessary for anyone who wishes to survive in the world of rock and roll.
It’s obvious David is not slowing down. His recent Woven Hand show at the Knitting Factory proved quite the opposite. David seemed emancipated. His feverish performance backed by only a drummer proved David more than capable of going it alone. No, David is certainly not slowing down. One only hopes he never does. It’s just a question of where he wants to go, and where he’s going to take us.