After you first listen to Headless Horseman, you might hear the angry, glitchy hisses and bleeps ringing in your ears, or maybe you’ll be haunted by the vocals sung in a mousy falsetto, a duet of chirpy coos, words you always feel very close to understanding. Only after multiple listens will the two begin to mesh in your mind’s ear: aggressive meets tender; brooding melts with lighthearted.
Fareed Sajan and Conner O’Neill construct these dichotomous sound collages using everything from pots and pans to the harp to create the raw material of individual sounds that will be isolated, layered, woven together, distorted and destroyed into a complexly textured soundscape. The resulting tapestry of noise is draped over a mischievously halting, syncopated beat that dares you to try and dance to it, and yet somehow the result is both intensely poignant, and hum-it-to-yourself-on-the-subway catchy. The influence of Icelandic titans like Björk and Sigúr Ros shimmers through, but the band’s violently cheery jangle also links them to contemporary lo-fi glitch outfits like Crystal Castles.
Listen to “SH8KR,” their most recently recorded track, to hear a typically jagged mosaic of melody.
The very fresh duo — it officially formed in August — is managed by Himanshu Suri of Das Racist. Sajan and O’Neill took the stage at Piano’s in New York on two dates in November and released a five-song EP – actually called 5songs – on their Bandcamp in October. Stereogum recently premiered a song, called “KSSD HM.” In his Bushwick apartment, Sajan and I talked about blowing up in Brooklyn, crafting beats with kitchen implements, the unlikely coevolution of indie and hip-hop, and how not to be a rock band. [This interview has been condensed and edited.]
How did you and Conner meet, and how did Headless Horseman begin?
We went to high school together in Allentown, Pa. In senior year we started a band called Night Owl Café Killers, which was sort of a post-rock, ambient thing — we were really into Sigur Rós and Mogwai. From there I went to Wesleyan and Conner went to a culinary school. I had an earlier incarnation of Headless Horseman, called Tall Tales, at Wesleyan. After college, I moved to Bushwick and so did Conner, and I showed him the recordings. I couldn’t finish any of them, so he helped me. From there the collaboration started.
While at Wesleyan, you met Himanshu Suri, and now he’s your manager. How did that partnership start, and what has it been like to work together?
He was in this sort of anti-fraternity called Eclectic. When I first met him he was like, “Yo, I’m the only brown dude in this place, you can’t apply.” [Laughs]
So at first we didn’t like each other. We didn’t really become friends until after college, here. He started managing Keepaway and Tony Castles, and I just sent him the demo of “SH8KR” and “Wavlngth,” and he was like, “Yeah, I definitely want to be a part of this.” So he’s basically been a part of it since the beginning, in August. Having him on board has been awesome, because he was able to help us with our focus.
Keepaway produced a song on his mixtape [Sit Down, Man], and they just put out a song that he rapped on. It’s really interesting, because their sound is really electro-, synthesizer-heavy, beat-heavy. Himanshu was saying that when he listens to Keepaway and “SH8KR,” he hears hip-hop, and that he wants to interject that into mainstream hip-hop, or try to integrate the two. I really see a lot of connections now. I’m a big fan of How To Dress Well — he does R&B songs from memory; it’s very reminiscent of TLC, or Brandy, or R. Kelly. I just think that there is this space for indie music to converge with that. Even Jay-Z looking to Grizzly Bear for hip-hop stuff. I think that’s really cool.
It’s almost like this generation of musicians is somehow melding together all the music they grew up listening to on the radio, fusing it into one crazy, deconstructed ambient sound.
Yeah, and it can only really happen with the way that indie music is going, and technology. People in their bedrooms are able to recreate Top 40 from the ’90s, and you don’t have to be in this super-duper studio to do it. And that’s why it comes out so broken and lo-fi.
Talk us through your process. How does Headless Horseman usually go about creating a song?
It starts off pretty traditionally, like a folk song: just two chords with some vocal melodies. Usually right after that, it’s the drums. We’re like, “OK, we have to build the skeleton, figure out what the beat is.” That’s really important to me, because I’m a drummer. Then we’ll spend months on a song, going through so many different layers, cutting it up.
Do you rely a lot on improvisation when you’re writing and recording?
I think it is more improvisational than written out, although we don’t necessarily stick to either one. Conner knows a lot of music theory, so he’ll build a whole musical arrangement with bells and voices and harmonies. But largely we rely on stream-of-consciousness. I think of it as the way a poet uses words: We’re not traditional songwriters who use lyrics or chord progressions as our main tool — it’s more like a palette of sounds. I believe that it’s intuitive for a human to want to mimic the sounds that he hears in the world, whether through nature or machinery. You can do all of that with the instruments at hand, and that’s our storytelling, through [these] handcrafted sounds.
I’ve seen you use some really unconventional instrumentation. What’s your approach to exploring new ways to make sound?
We have the traditional instruments: a guitar, a bass, drums, and then a lot of auxiliary drums, like pots and pans, even just beating on a door or a countertop. Conner plays the baritone ukulele and the harp, and we have all sorts of old keyboards that we circuit bend to make them sound really distorted, damaged. There’s a few other things: We’ll bow a guitar, bow a bass, and we’re really into bells: glockenspiel and xylophone. We’re not virtuosos at any of our instruments — I can barely play the guitar. If we can’t play an instrument we’ll fake it, we’ll EQ it to the point where it sounds like a harp. We sort of think of ourselves as an electronic band, but not in the way that a lot of modern bands do, with synthesizers and MPCs and samplers. We construct all of our own beats on our computers, so a lot of the sounds that we arrive at are just through mistakes and this really strenuous editing process. Editing and effects are instruments for us. That’s what makes it hard for us to play live.
So then we end up with this cohesive collage recording, where the melody is carried throughout different instruments. It’s like a ghost going through it: all these different voices.
Speaking of ghosts, you have a spooky name, and the breathy vocals and distortion in your songs often sounds magical in an eerie way. Is that an aesthetic you are thinking of actively when you write or play songs?
I like making dark music, minor melodies. But there’s also a recent side of me where I’ve been doing a more poppy, sunny, happy kind of music. I’m trying to reconcile the two, because there is this sort of bipolar split in our music.
Do you feel like that juxtaposition between upbeat and brooding might be the eeriest sound of all?
Definitely. If you can make something dark, that’s naturally upbeat or happy, that’s presented to you in a context as if you’re supposed to feel good emotions from it, but you know that it’s sort of…off — like David Lynch does — but I think that’s very hard to do musically. I don’t know if we’ve done that, although a song like “Wavlngth” is really happy, and “SH8KR” is a little bit darker.
What were you thinking about when you wrote “SH8KR”?
We wanted it to be really glitchy and harsh with the drums. Conner says that it’s his attempt at making a dance song — that’s the closest we’ll ever get. We’re OK with being folk-y, but we definitely want to get as far away from being a rock band as possible, to get away from the guitar. Until that point we hadn’t done anything where you could really call us “electronic”; it was kind of like how Akron/Family or Grizzly Bear will use some electronics in their folk songs, but it wasn’t a full-on electronic arrangement, and this was our attempt at doing that.
Would you say that you’re moving more in the direction of that glitch, electronic sound in a permanent way?
That’s the latest song that we’ve recorded, so our new stuff is all in that vein. We have the most fun recording and writing like that. I think that [“SH8KR”] is our most original song; I like it the most.
In a lot of your music, the vocals are distorted or layered and hard to distinguish. Where do you see the place of lyrics and words in your songs?
I would like them to be as clear as possible. At this point, we have been using the voice more as an instrument, with the syllables and sound being more important than the words themselves; Sigur Rós was a huge influence on me. In the new song, I’m trying to make it a lot clearer, trying to think about it more; I definitely think lyrics are important. Conner always says that no one will ever understand my words, but I like to believe that they will.
Are there other Icelandic bands besides Sigur Rós that you’re inspired by?
I really like this band called Múm. We just played [at Piano’s] with their singer, Kria Brekkan. A lot of our percussion sensibilities come from Múm, because their drummer is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s electronic, but also organic, polyrhythmic sounds that just fall and tumble over each other; it’s really beautiful.
What is it like to be a band in Brooklyn right now? How would you characterize the music scene, and what are you doing to stand out?
I think if you’re doing something good, it’ll get noticed, no matter where you are. In Brooklyn, there seems to be a lot of luck, because a lot of bands do take off. I have a lot of friends in bands; they definitely influence us.
What are some other Brooklyn bands that you’re listening to?
I’ve been a big fan of Grizzly Bear for a while. I like Sleigh Bells, I like Beach House, but they’re not from Brooklyn. Buke & Gass is definitely one of my favorite Brooklyn bands — they haven’t really blown up yet. They’re amazing. It’s folk music taken in this heavy, emotional direction. Her voice is really incredible. I have some friends in the band Cults; I like them a lot. They’re sort of new. Dirty Projectors, definitely. There’s so much stuff. Twin Sister.
What will the new year bring for Headless Horseman?
We’re doing a residency at Piano’s, every Friday in February. We’re booking that right now, trying to figure out headliners. Das Racist is definitely going to do a night. It’s just an opportunity for us to build our aesthetic through inviting other bands. We’re going to do some other weird things: commission an artist for each night to take the room and give it a theme and do something with it, then we’ll have some bigger-name DJs. We’re just trying to get everyone we know involved in some way, even if it’s not music-related, to keep it interesting.
Late January, a new single — the residency is sort of in support of that single — and an EP in the spring, with a full-length possibly in spring or summer. In March we’re going to do SXSW and tour down to Austin, Texas.
See Headless Horseman live:
12.16 Glasslands: Brooklyn, NY (For the Beat Blog Presents, w/ Wise Blood)
12.23 St. Bernard’s: Bethlehem, PA (w/ Soars, Lewis and Clarke)