Published Aug 22, 2010Ever since David Eugene Edwards introduced a goth element to the alt-country insurgency of the early '90s through his trio 16 Horsepower, he has always seemed one step removed from his peers. Wovenhand began as a more acoustic-based side project, but over the course of six albums has become Edwards' main focus in terms of combining his love of many European and Middle Eastern styles with his Old Testament-infused songwriting. Wovenhand's latest release, The Threshingfloor, is the most accomplished product of this unlikely marriage so far. As the grandson of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Edwards himself has never sounded more prophetic as he rides the pulsating desert rhythms that form the new album's foundation. The overall vibe clearly suggests why Wovenhand was tapped to open for Tool this summer, and why the band has been embraced by scores of black metal devotees. At the same time, Edwards can never be accused of pandering to anyone. His vision transcends genres, instead reflecting the vast period of human history when music was the most direct way to communicate with a higher power. Edwards seems to get closer to pure enlightenment with each album he makes, meaning The Threshingfloor will offer plenty of awe-inspiring sounds for even longtime fans. Exclaim! spoke to Edwards at his home in Colorado just prior to the start of Wovenhand's current North American tour that stops in Toronto on Oct. 1 and Montreal on Oct. 2.
How was the European tour you just finished?
It was long and tiring. No, every time we go there it's usually better than the time previous. Before that we were on the road for about 12 days here in America with Tool, which was quite an experience. Then I had one night at home and we were off to Israel.
Yes, I wanted to ask about that. Had you been there before?
No, I hadn't. We've had opportunities to go in the past, but for one reason or another it never worked out. So finally we got over there and, as has often been the case in the past, there was something going on that was a posing a problem. I just said, we're going to go ahead and do the shows. Other bands had cancelled as part of some sort of boycott against the country. We were one of the only international acts willing to come, so they were really excited and happy that we were there. They of course treated us really well, and we had a great experience. It was overwhelmingly hot, and overwhelmingly interesting. It was like a dream, actually. It's always a surprise to have fans in places you've never been before who know your music so well.
Did you have a chance to see some sights?
We did. We went a day early, so we saw most of Jerusalem. We stayed in Tel Aviv, and that was great as well. Being on the beach there was fantastic.
Did you feel a connection just being there?
Of course. These places are so significant to the history of the world. It was quite something to see all of this stuff, but at the same time I guess I was less interested in the place itself and more interested in the people. That's usually the case wherever I go. I've been all over the world and seen some amazing things that man has built, or God has built, but usually it's the people that are the most important thing to me, and the relationships you build as you go. Most of the people in the music scene I met in Israel were separate from the religious establishment of the area. They're kind of outsiders themselves. It's a small community of independent-minded music people, so you basically meet everybody. But we also were sardined among thousands of Muslims going through the Old City for noon prayer and they were looking at me like I was from the moon. Everyone was taking pictures with their phones of these cowboys, while we were taking pictures of them. Everybody was just so kind.
That leads into the questions I have about how you've incorporated Middle Eastern sounds on your last few records, including The Threshingfloor. Did you go into making it with a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve sonically?
I never really go into any record with a clear idea of what I want to do. It just kind of comes to me as it comes to me. Whatever music I'm immersed in at the time usually leads me in different directions when I do start to write. In the last year I was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music, either from Iran or Afghanistan or North African Bedouin music. We also played in Istanbul where we met some musicians and bought some instruments there. I should say that while we love the pure sounds from these places, we're not purists. I'm not a purist about any kind of music because I don't consider myself an accomplished musician in any style. I just borrow or add from whatever music excites me, and it's always a hint rather than something really solid. I'm not trying to be anything I'm not. I'm just trying to experience a different culture within the sound. To be honest, I don't really put much thought into it. I just let it happen and fake my way through it, basically.
I understand that your sound is the culmination of a lot of discoveries you've made along the way, but do you recall any specific instance when you heard something that changed your whole perspective?
I really, really like Iranian music. It's very different in terms of tonality and timing. It's just so foreign to what I'm used to. I love to listen to it, I love to watch the people play it. It's very sophisticated compared to Appalachian folk music, which of course has its own sophistication, but the music from over there is so much older and consequently so much more defined. I like to go as far back as I can go with music. My favourite music is probably medieval music, but medieval music from everywhere, not just what most people would associate with their local renaissance festival. And I really like music that's of the street, not of the concert hall, where it's people who are possibly not so accomplished, and the tunings are maybe not perfect, but the spirit of it is just as simple as it can get.
What I find fascinating about your work is how you've managed to combine the underlying devotional aspects of all of this music with your personal beliefs.
Most of the Middle Eastern music I've been exposed to is very high religious music. There are a lot of religions out there and they all have their own devotional music, oftentimes very similar from one region to the next, and one religion to the next. I find it beautiful, and at the same time there's some sort of religious pride that I find quite distasteful. From my point of view, the purists would probably look at what I do and say that it's ridiculous. In a sense it is, and I don't care. I'm not really interested in making something beautiful for God. What I am interested in is experiencing the beauty of God, rather than trying to bring something to Him that is beautiful. To me, God is beautiful in so many ways; He can be beautiful and present in this high art, just as much as in an old woman singing on the street. He's everywhere, and He's in everyone's life whether they recognize it or not. That beauty is always there, and one of the things I enjoy about life in general is seeing that happen, and acknowledging it.
That begs the question, do you believe that American society needs to be more open-minded toward religion?
I don't like religion, and I'm not interested in religion. The religion of America to me is very close-minded, just as religions in nearly every culture are very close-minded. Every religion is for itself and doesn't want anyone coming in from the outside and just playing with it. All religions demand that people give themselves over completely, and as I said, that becomes a place of pride in people's lives. I grew up a Christian in America, where there are many different shades of that of course, and they all disagree with one another. It's no different in Iran; there are people who believe in certain things that others don't, and they kill each other over it. That's what religion breeds this pride within man that he's willing to kill for. It's an I-have-this-and-you-don't attitude, and I'm not interested in that at all. It's interesting to observe and try to understand, but it's not something that I want to be a part of my life.
Do you think that has any bearing on how much more responsive audiences in Europe have always been toward you compared to in America?
Well, we've always done better there going back to the beginning with 16 Horsepower. We toured America extensively with big bands that helped us out, and of course we have an audience here, but primarily we were too strange to be placed in any specific category of music. When we were on a major label, they didn't know what to do with us ― they liked us, but they didn't know how to market us. It was difficult for them to get the hype going like they would with most bands. For us it was always about word-of-mouth and our live show. We never got any radio play, and we didn't make videos. I've never made music for those purposes, so we were caught in a dilemma, really. No one knew what to do with us, but we survived. People still come to the shows, and I don't know why.
Well, I have to say how much I enjoyed listening to the reissue of Secret South when I got it last year, and it reminded me of how much of an influence 16 Horsepower has had. Is there enough distance that you can perhaps see that too?
Yeah, I definitely see it. When we first started in the late '80s, and even before 16 Horsepower when I was in this band called the Denver Gentlemen that was very similar, we were the only band I knew of that was doing this type of music. I mean, I was a fan of bands like the Gun Club and the Birthday Party that kind of toyed with these, what would later be considered, American Gothic themes, but at the time we were a complete oddity. So that led us to spend more time in Europe when things didn't happen for us in America. As the years went by, we'd come back and see bands doing similar things. They'd be playing banjos and going back to the roots of American music. There have always been people who have done that sort of thing with a genuine attitude; they've just never been popular. But I can say that there are a lot of bands in Scandinavia and Europe that have been heavily influenced by 16 Horsepower and they do really well, better than we ever did, which is fine. It is interesting to see that you've had an impact like that, but people are very wary of admitting that they were influenced by our music. It's like they want to keep us a secret or something. I'm not looking for people to pat me on the back; I just find it odd.
Touring this latest Wovenhand album, are you finding it a challenge to replicate the sound live?
Getting any sort of sound live is a challenge. Of course, a lot of the instruments I use on recordings I can't bring. They're too fragile, or there would just be too many, so I have to simplify everything. But it does come through, I think, in the way it should. If I played something on an oud or a lute, I just tune the guitar as I would that instrument. Live, we're always much heavier, in general, than on record. Even our heaviest record is nothing compared to what we are live, and I like that. Live, I want it to sound different than the record. Sometimes we tour acoustically, but then the next tour it will be so heavy that people will be like, what happened? Over the past 10 years we've developed quite a following within the black metal world, and I love it. It's just so cool to see black metal guys standing next to alt-country guys, standing next to punk rock guys. The crowds are so varied; there's no scene, if you know what I mean. People come for so many different reasons, and I really enjoy that.