Ahead of a 2010 Balmorhea show in Brooklyn, the New Yorker gushed in its listing sections about the band’s fourth album, Constellations. “It is an exemplary experiment in restraint, lush with a slow-burning, wordless, and ambient Americana that manages to captivate while avoiding the histrionics of its post-rock forebears.” Stranger, the six-piece instrumental ensemble’s fifth effort, out October 2, features a more exuberant and less reserved sound.
The Austin-based band kicks off its month-long nationwide tour at home, with a release party at Mohawk slated for September 28. (This is followed by two more Texas shows: in Dallas at the Church of the Incarnation September 29 and in Houston at Fitzgerald’s on October 1.) And then, after performing in nineteen states (plus Washington, D.C., and British Columbia!) Balmorhea’s tour wraps up with an appearance at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Below, an exclusive preview of “Masollan,” followed by an interview with Rob Lowe, the band’s co-founder who plays guitar and piano:
You filmed the video for “Masollan” at your parents place on the Llano River outside Mason. How is Texas reflected in your music?
It is the landscape. Because we don’t generally use lyrics, a lot of interpretation of the music relies on basic human emotion and naturalistic descriptions. Reviewers have written things such as, “[t]he band traces an infinite, gorgeous desert horizon with its songs” and that our 2009 album, All is Wild, All is Silent, is “all about undulating space, and sounding gob-smacked by nature.” Although these images might not be intentional, I think it makes a certain amount of sense that those are the images that people gravitate toward. So, since I didn’t spend the majority of my life in the Delta or in a redwood forest I think that the landscape I know the best, a Texan one, is the one that is most often expressed in the music.
And, more specifically, how did your childhood in Midland and West Texas influence your work?
Growing up, my family would take lots of trips to Big Bend National Park and Balmorhea State Park to camp and hike and just generally be outside. I feel lucky that from a young age I was introduced to that vast and beautiful landscape. I think an appreciation for that feeling of isolation and grandeur is something that comes across in our music.
I also had absolutely no clue about independent music living in Midland. The music I interacted with growing up was through the Methodist church my family attended, the community theater, or at school. When I got to Austin I was exposed to a whole different world of musicmaking. But, because I was so unaware of so many things as a kid I think I have retained my own idea of what I want to do. I never really felt much desire to fit into a certain scene or genre because I really just didn’t know that much about them. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t raised on a compound or anything like that; I just was pretty unaware of the independent music scene and a lot of the history of great popular music.
Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to?
I sang in my church choir my whole childhood, until I was about 15, so music was kind of introduced to me as something sacred. I also have very vivid, nostalgic memories of records that my dad would put on, including the John Prine record, The Missing Years. I also took piano lessons as a child so I was introduced to some great classical repertoire—Beethoven and Chopin and all that. And my dad went through a new-age music phase in the late ‘80s so I got a bit of that. George Winston, for instance. So, my musical exposure growing up was pretty scattershot, but I like that it was strange.
Your background is in classical piano, correct? How about the rest of the band? How do these sensibilities mesh?
Well, I wouldn’t say that my background is in classical piano. I did play piano for much of my life and I actually attended UT for a year or so as a piano student, but to be honest I was a pretty haphazard and mediocre student. I never had much drive to perform classical music. I think that I appreciated the austerity and history of classical music, but my heart was always in pop music. We have some really great players in Balmorhea. Dylan Rieck, our cellist, has his masters in cello performance from UT and our drummer Kendall Clark has his degree in percussion from UT. They are much more fluent in the technical language of music, which is helpful because I am not usually good at expressing the technical details.
How did you pick the name Balmorhea?
We just kinda picked it. When Michael and I started the band it was just the two of us working up some songs that we had previously written. And, as I mentioned earlier, Balmorhea was a place I had spent a fair amount of time at as a child and it had a specific aesthetic connotation to me that seemed to fit what we were working on.
After putting out four albums in four years, you worked on Stranger for two years. How does this album differ from your previous efforts?
We had all been in Austin together for a number of years with some people coming and going from the band. After Constellations, I moved out to Alpine with some friends, Michael moved to Brooklyn, Dylan was in Seattle. We continued to tour during that period but it was more difficult to get together to work on new music. I think this was a natural breathing period that allowed us to spend more time thinking about what we wanted to do next.
After making Constellations, which is pretty quiet and subtle, I was interested in trying something with a lot more energy. And I wanted to take the songwriting in a new direction that was a little more pop oriented and diffuse. Stranger is also the first album written with Kendall, our drummer, who is really good and opened up a lot of possibilities that weren’t there before. Mike started playing bass more and I started playing a lot more electric guitar. We had made all of our previous records in the same studio in Austin, and it felt like time to venture out to some other studios. So we went up to Chicago to record a couple of tracks at Soma EMS. We did the rest at two great spaces in Austin, Church House Studios and Estuary. The different physical spaces also affected the sounds we got on the record. Stranger is a departure for sure, but it still retains the core that we have developed over the years.
Which musicians have had the strongest influence on your work? What other bands are you commonly compared to?
The one band that really made me think that it was possible to make interesting beautiful music that didn’t have lyrics or fit solidly into a genre was Rachel’s, a fantastic group making music from the mid ’90s to the mid 2000s. They are, in my mind, the closet kin we have. Other than that, our influences change from season to season and from record to record. We are often compared to Explosions in the Sky. And, strangely enough, a few of their members are also from Midland. But they are much, much louder than we are and much more in the rock genre.
What are you most looking forward to about your upcoming tour?
It is the first time that we have ever attempted a full U.S. tour. So we will basically be making one large loop around the country. There’s something exciting about pretty much driving the perimeter of the United States and stopping off every night to put some vanishing musical expressions out there for people to hear. I feel like I get to both take the pulse of the whole country and try to have some small effect on it at the same time.
Have you ever had good Mexican food or BBQ outside of Texas?
Mexican food: Only in Mexico. BBQ: No. When we travel and people are taking us out to restaurants that know we are from Texas I think they avoid taking us to eat Mexican or BBQ. They know they will lose that battle.