The Richmond rockers of Horsehead have a simple way of describing their sound.
“We’re a product of just about everything we love,” singer and principal songwriter Jon Brown writes ahead of the group’s set at Fifth & Federal Station this Saturday.
Taking inspiration from everything from Big Star and The Rolling Stones to The War on Drugs and Booker T & the M.G.’s, Horsehead has become something of staple in the RVA music scene, releasing six albums since its start in 2004.
“If you like your music raw and ragged, with tangles of guitars and stomping drums, direct your ears to Horsehead,” Kate Bredimus wrote for Richmond Magazine in 2013. “This band of veteran musicians specializes in American rock ‘n’ roll built on hooks, harmony and heart.”
The band didn’t set out with the intention of fusing their musical interests into one sound. In fact, the plan wasn’t even to form a band at all.
“I entered the studio to make what I thought was a solo record,” writes Brown, who grew up in Madison Heights. “I asked [guitarist] Kevin [Wade Inge] to come help out with those initial songs, and the band quickly and naturally grew out of these sessions. ... We never gave much thought to creating a sound; we simply let the music take shape organically.”
Brown and company have kept living the rock life ever since. Nothing derails them, not even the open heart surgery Brown had in the middle of making Horsehead’s sixth album “Pageant Wave.”
This dedication is helping the Richmond band make its mark, and not just in Virginia.
“The group sets the trend for a new wave of Americana-laced uprising,” Susan Welch wrote for roots music journal No Depression ahead of “Pageant Wave’s” release last year. “... It is certain that Horsehead is a name you’ll be hearing over and over again.”
Before the show, Brown talked about growing up in Madison Heights, his heart and the new album.
I believe you are the son of a Baptist preacher and grew up in Madison Heights. What was your musical upbringing?
“I did indeed grow up in Hogtown and my dad was a Baptist preacher, so I’m sure you can imagine how modern pop/rock music was off limits. Two things saved me, however: I had an older brother who would get the keys from Mama and crank up K92 on the car radio in the minutes before Sunday service would start. Second, oldies were OK; I inherited a love of Buddy Holly, Elvis and any Atlantic or Motown soul.”
You’re the primary songwriter for Horsehead. Do you have a specific process? How long do songs typically take to write?
“I try not to be too precious about it or think about it too much because, sometimes, the songs come out of nowhere. What I consider to be the best songs I’ve written have happened almost as fast as I can write them down.”
What inspires you most as a songwriter?
“I would have to say everyday life is my biggest source of inspiration in the writing of the songs.”
Horsehead released its sixth studio album, “Pageant Wave,” last year. What is the album’s theme?
“The title track, while not completely accurate to real life, is about my parents’ relationship. They were a classic story of high school sweethearts and when we lost my mom, my dad was just lost. Close to 50 years together can make two people physically need each other. Overall, I would say the record is mostly about growing up and old in a small town.”
You had major surgery in the middle of making this record. Can you tell me what happened?
“I had open-heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, ascending aorta and pulmonary valve. I knew, at some point, that I would have to have some sort of surgery, but [the doctors] were fairly certain that it would be a much smaller procedure. But after experiencing some chest pains one morning, I went to the ER for docs to discover that my aorta [the main and largest artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body] was at almost 6 centimeters and it should have been at about 2.5 centimeters. ... In all, it took about 2 months to get back to some semblance of normal life.”
How did that affect the roll-out of the album?
“We had finished most of the tracking for the record when my condition was discovered, with the exception of the vocals. So, we had to wait until I could physically breathe well enough to sing. We likely should have held it back until I was ready to perform a bit more, but, particularly right after my recovery, everything took on a bit more sense of urgency.”
Did that experience affect your creativity or your music in any way?
“That experience affected everything in my life, including how I write. It really set everything into perspective and, for that, I will be grateful until it is my time.”
After everything, what keeps you all rocking?
“It really isn’t a choice; we’re all lifers and I think it’s safe to say, we’d all be a bit lost without it. I relate everything in life to how I can express it in a song.”