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Dead Horses Q&A: misfits, musicianship and maturity of new album, ‘Brady Street’

Today, Milwaukee’s Dead Horses release an album four years in the making — and celebrate that release less than a couple miles from that album’s namesake.

Brady Street is where Sarah Vos and Daniel Wolff feel most comfortable. Their album, which shares a name with the East Side thoroughfare, has the same lived-in nature that comes from the passage of time and the familiarity accompanying it. It feels like breathing out.

With all its intimate nuances, “Brady Street” is a total headphones record. But it’s also a record that cinches the magic, energy, sound and feel of Dead Horses’ live show, intensifying that energy with new instrumental embellishments. There are thoughtful moments of vast space and moments of straight up, shake-you-awake indie rock. 

Throughout it all, Vos’s trademark searching lyricism again centers on understanding and finding light in the dark. “In previous records, I felt I was still searching for an anchor,” she recently told The Bluegrass Situation. “In ‘Brady Street,’ I realized that the anchor is me.”

Vos and Wolff spent some time with me to take a closer look at their latest release, which they’ll officially welcome to the world at 8 p.m. tonight, Aug. 12, at Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets are available now online and two hours prior to show time at the Turner Hall Ballroom box office.

You can also find their new record on all streaming services and order it from the band’s website.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The new record is called “Brady Street.” When you say that name, every Milwaukeean knows what you're talking about. So, what does Brady Street — the place — mean to Dead Horses? 

Sarah Vos: To me, Brady Street is an eclectic place that welcomes all different types of people. You never know who or what you're gonna see. 

Dan Wolff: Yeah, probably the same to me, too. It was one of the first places I found in Milwaukee. It’s just full of surprises. I spent a lot of time there, worked down there at the old futon shop — gotta plug that … get your Brady Street Futons! We’ve played shows on Brady Street, we've partied on Brady Street.

In a recent interview with No Depression magazine, you mentioned that Brady Street is this place for misfits. Could you elaborate a little bit about that? 

SV: Yeah, absolutely. I think relating to being a misfit is something that I think I’ve always felt. Growing up, being kind of involved in a lot of religious stuff, feeling like I didn't quite fit in for that reason. And as an adult now, I feel like we don't fit into the paradigm of how most people live their lives with how we make our living. Living an artist's life is just a whole different experience. So I feel like I relate to feeling like a misfit, and I don't mean it in a bad way, either. I think that's what I like about Brady Street. It's almost celebrated that you don't quite fit in. Everyone is welcome. 

Misfits are the central characters of your albums, both present and past. And though the characters have stayed the same, has the plot changed since your 2018 release, “My Mother, the Moon”?

SV: Yeah, I think it has changed quite a bit. I think that our new record, “Brady Street,” takes a lot of the thoughtfulness that happens in the older records — in the woods, in nature — to an urban setting in Milwaukee. And it also kind of is, to me, a coming-of-age record where we’ve honed in on the chemistry that we've built as musicians playing lots of shows together and also kind of coming of age in our personal lives, too — realizing what you know, who we really are and what we're about. Whereas I feel “My Mother, the Moon” was searching for some source of strength and stability, I think “Brady Street” is: “Hey, you look inward for that.” Like you have everything you need. You are everything that you need.

So much of your bread and butter comes from touring, and 2020 was a tough path. Did having an unexpected break speed this album along, or was it already waiting in the wings? 

SV: So when the shutdown began, we were at the start of a six-week tour. We were promoting an EP that we had just released, so I would say that we didn't quite have anything in the works for a new project. And I think the shutdown really enabled us to kind of breathe new life into this project, step back from it, you know? That's truly what you need much of the time, especially for creative endeavors. Maybe it's almost counterintuitive, but taking a step back and a break from it actually did, like you said, kind of speed up what we were going to do next, which was to record. Because … at the end of the pandemic, I was just determined. “Let's get in the studio. Let’s make the best record we can.” And I think we were able to do that. 

DW: Yeah, at first we were even a little unclear about how we were even gonna resume Dead Horses. Like, what did we wanna do with it? So the break was pretty monumental for both Sarah and I. It just gave us time to do other stuff and let things simmer for a little bit. It’s actually kind of traumatic, having all of the shows go away. Though, looking back on it, I really enjoyed that break.

SV: I think the fragility that everyone became very aware of with the shutdown — not to say that our way of life is so fragile, but it is all kind of interwoven. And if you take out the wrong piece, it really can send things into a weird spiral. And to some people, myself included, it almost was a relief in a weird way because I guess I had always felt the fragility of the way we live our lives. It was almost like, “OK, you're not crazy. Things do happen. Crazy things happen.”

It’s like Jenga, right? Take out the wrong piece, and everything just topples.

SV: Yeah, that's kind of what it was. And one of the themes we talked about a lot in that No Depression article, it’s often in those dark places that you find the source of your light. 

When you were piecing the album together in the studio, you must have had a little more of a cushion of time to work, right? Where did you go to record?

DW: We stayed close to home. Previous records, we always traveled — either Nashville or San Francisco. We recorded in Neenah, Wisc., where we did it in four-day time spans and stayed right at the studio. We had recorded some songs with Honeytone Studio for our prior EP, which was the tour that got shut down right at the beginning of the pandemic, so we decided to go back and work with them. We liked the process and felt like we could continue to grow that process, which I think we did. I feel like they’re family. There’s this dynamic that just works so well. They were just really good about just letting us go with our ideas. Once you get the idea down, you can work with it, you can add parts, and it's really fun to just see something grow. We demo’d the songs prior at my place and just kind of worked the songs out that way. We were used to playing songs live a lot and kind of working ’em out that way, but we got to sit with these a little bit more, which was fun because it was a slightly different process than in the past. 

Being a steadily roots-centric group for so long, how did it feel to shift in sound on this one? You added some fresh instrumentation. What are some of these new sonic elements that you played with on this record? 

SV: It felt great to be able to do that. So, at this point, we're touring as a trio: It’s Dan on the bass, I'm playing different guitars, and then drums. We wanted to keep the record true to that form but still add in other aesthetic, colorful things. That’s what you're hearing — mostly keyboards and synths. It’s really cool how you can add that in without sacrificing the true nature of the song and the sound that we create as a trio. A trio is its own thing, and I love watching other trios because it's like, “How do you do it? How do you try to fill in the sound?”

You can do a lot with sounds with synths, especially to create atmosphere. So when you go on this upcoming string of tour dates, will you officially go out as a trio? And are you adding any special guests or anything else to your hometown release show?

SV:  Well, if we did, I think it might be a secret, Erin . No, I'm just joking. Well, we're playing with The Brother Brothers. Are you familiar with them? 

No, I'm not …

SV: They're a duo out of … I'm not sure where they're out of now, actually — like Los Angeles and New York, I think? They’re identical twins. They're very folksy. They have those blood harmonies and really are the special guests because they're really fun. They’re also joining us in Milwaukee and Chicago this weekend. But other than that, I think we really wanted to stick to the power trio and really challenge ourselves in that way and just keep working on that chemistry that the three of us have built over the last few years. 

Aside from your big release show, what do you have planned for “Brady Street” for all your local fans? If they can't make the show, what other ways can they absorb your record or see you in the coming months?

SV: I mean, we are touring a lot if anybody's willing to travel even a little bit. We're playing lots in Wisconsin and Minnesota and in the Midwest — all over the country, really. Outside of that, we’ll be playing a Madison show, a Green Bay show, there's still some festivals coming up, too, that anybody could catch us at. Obviously, you can stream the record. You can order it online, and eventually we'll have the LPs when they finally come in because that stuff is all on such a huge backlog right now.

Before we go, I’m hoping to know: What is the last song you two can't stop listening to? What song are you obsessed with the most?

DW: Probably St. Panther. I was just telling Sarah that I was introduced to her on 88Nine. The song’s called “Highway.”

SV: The song is called “Midnight Sun,” and the artist is called Nilüfer Yanya. I heard it recently while at someone’s house. I like that song a lot. The whole record is really neat.