The Horse Thieves
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The Horse Thieves

Spokane, Washington, United States | SELF

Spokane, Washington, United States | SELF
Band Pop Americana




"Thieves Double Down"

In a way, Marshall McLean’s story begins at the end.

The Montana transplant has been a popular staple in the local singer-songwriter scene for years. And his band has been praised as one of Spokane’s hottest newcomers in 2011.

But Horse Thieves is making its second debut of sorts with a double album release tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater.

For the first time, the group will appear with its solidified lineup – highlighted by new drummer Tiffany Stephens – simultaneously releasing recorded material that was conceived before the band existed, and recorded before the roster was complete.

“I sat down and titled the album, then I wrote it. I knew what the end of the story was before it had a beginning,” McLean says.

The result is two separate-but-connected albums, “Outlaw Ballads” and “The Valley of Decision.”

“Outlaw Ballads” is heavily acoustic-based alt country, while “The Valley of Decision” veers toward alt-rock. Both tell an episodic story of choice and consequence.

“We’re treating it like an art exhibition,” McLean says. “Each picture supports the larger concept, like an art gallery, except with songs.”

Horse Thieves – McLean on acoustic guitar, lap steel and baritone electric guitar; Adam Miller on acoustic and electric guitar; Miller’s brother Jordan on electric guitar; Fawn Dasovich on keyboards; and Stephens on drums – was inspired by the deadline McLean set for the album release before “The Valley of Decision” was finished.

Dasovich joined the band during the recording of “Outlaw Ballads.” Jordan Miller jumped in as drummer after much of it was complete, but shifted to guitar recently when Stephens came on board.

The albums were recorded by Adam Miller while band members were sequestered in a guest house at his family’s ranch in Elk.

“Adam and I were writing about what we were going through and that struggle led us to ‘The Valley of Decision,’?” McLean says. “I was faced with a decision about the music, and Adam was faced with a decision about a relationship, but we were all in a valley of decision.”

“Outlaw Ballads” was finished in January, at a time when McLean was at a crossroads with his solo career. Ultimately coming to the conclusion that it was a conflict of interest with the band, he decided to shelve his solo record to focus on Horse Thieves.

At first the plan was to release an EP, but the band kept writing until the EP turned into a full-length record, then it decided to release both albums together.

“We weren’t that ambitious to begin with, but it felt like ‘Outlaw Ballads’ was half of the whole picture,” McLean says. “The cool thing is that the narrative of one album folds into the other. It’s a continuation of choosing to put down one thing and pick up another.

“The albums are about the quest we’re on and the decisions we’ve made to get there … wandering and wondering where we’re going, what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to get there, and what to do when you get there and it doesn’t look like what you expected.”
- The Spokesman-Review

"Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves"

After all they’ve been through, after all they’ve seen and all they’ve done, the Horse Thieves are finally ready to talk. Metaphorically speaking, the band tells everything they’ve experienced in the past year — the bad deals, the faulty relationships, the listlessness, the loss of hope — on two albums: a debut and a sophomore record. And they’ll release them both on the same day.

The Spokane quintet, led by singers Marshall McLean and Adam Miller, chronicles a year in the life of the Horse Thieves on Outlaw Ballads and Valley of Decision.

Outlaw Ballads, the “debut” album, was written after the band holed itself up at Miller’s family ranch in Elk, Wash., during “one hard winter” last year. The result is a snapshot of where McLean and Miller — the band’s primary songwriters — were at “mentally and spiritually at the time,” says McLean, who was struggling to get out of a contract for his work as a solo musician.

“We were having that age-old conflict: Do you stay, do you go, do you go back?” McLean says. “We felt like outlaws from real life. We were trying to deal with these real problems that the people around us didn’t really understand.”

The album’s song titles alone tell a story: “Travelin’ Man,” “Ignorance is Bliss,” “Trouble.”

But within the lyrics, the band talks of moving forward while learning from the past. Still, it seems that they can’t help but look over their shoulders at a string of long-gone yesterdays. The old days have sugared with time.

The Thieves flirt with the classic outlaw archetype, too, kicking off the record with the stomps, hallelujahs, and amens of “I Am What I Am.” They talk of “playin sinner,” chasing demons and grabbing “that devil by the tail.”

Across horizonless landscapes of rolling snare drum, plinking guitars and piano, each member singing, the band constructs a sound that is distinctly Northwest: rock music infused with a Western twang and restrained, deliberate folk. These outlaws don’t feel much like bad guys in spurs; they’re nomads, thinkers, worriers, muses — heartbreakers who’ve had they’re hearts broken and are wandering as far as they can from the pain.

McLean remembers the exact moment his mind shifted out of the darkness that inspired Outlaw Ballads.

“I was camping back in May, and I felt like that was the night I made the decision to get out of my [contract],” he says. “I stayed up all night and watched the sun come up and sat by the fire and just made this decision.”

And suddenly, McLean says, he and Miller had an outpouring of inspiration for new music. Their burdens were behind them, the wanderlust was gone.

“And all the songs poured out at once,” he says.

The band emerged from the fog and found Valley of Decision, an album no less obsessed with myth and allegory. But this one, written “during one American summer,” as the band explains in the album’s liner notes, explores new ideas. By summer, the band had added Miller’s brother Jordan to the band, along with drummer Tiffany Stephens.

“[The album] has some more synthetic elements in it,” McLean says. “We explored the abilities of the new members we had.”

Valley of Decision came out less alt-country than Outlaw Ballads but still drives home the point that this band’s lyrical roots are anchored in reflection and rejection. On “I Won’t Keep You,” keyboardist Fawn Dasovich kicks herself, singing “I always knew loving you was bound to come to this/ Don’t they say the good times never last?”

While the Thieves try their hand at Shins-type alt-rock here and there (“Walking on a Wire”), the band never strays too far from it’s straight-from-the-heart sound, like each song is just a raggedy-edged journal page ripped from their collective diary.

And so the Horse Thieves present to the world not just two albums, but a double-record story — of who were they were, what they’ve learned, and where they’ve ended up.

“We definitely have enough material for a third album,” McLean says, “but I think we need to promote these two [first]." - The Pacific Northwest Inlander

"Bands To Watch: Horse Thieves"

In the beginning, the Horse Thieves tried telling other people’s stories. “We went to some dark places with ideas for the sound,” Adam Miller says, “We started with a Cormac McCarthy concept album, possibly.”

“No Country For Old Men slash The Road,” says Marshall McLean.

It’s hard to imagine how their soaring, four-part harmonies (the whole band sings) would have rendered songs about evading marauding bands of cannibals, or how the plaint of McLean’s lap steel would square with a remorseless, cattle gun-wielding killer. Miller and McLean thought so, too. “It was really bad,” Miller says, laughing.

It taught them a lesson, though, about the kinds of music they wanted to make. “One of our convictions [became],” McLean says, “to keep the story of the music real close to the story that’s going on in our lives.”

The album that resulted, (the as-yet unreleased) Outlaw Ballads, is still about lawlessness, if not the kind that arises after the death of civilization.

McLean and Miller, both 25, have had success with other projects. McLean has toured regionally for years. Miller plays bass in Black Apache, a band that has a following in Portugal.

But both were feeling isolated and burned by that life.

Neither goes into any specific detail — they take pains to avoid it — about the hard year that birthed the band, but they talk with more candor about the songs that resulted. “For me it was really about the outlaws in your life,” Miller says, “the people you meet that affect you because of their lawlessness.”

McLean’s songwriting approach opposed Adam’s, in a strange way. “I wrote it from the space of hiding — like I couldn’t share myself with the people around me,” he says, “I had a lonely year and so a lot of my songs came from that angle.”

That shouldn’t suggest that when you hear Horse Thieves, you’ll think you’re listening to Waylon Jennings or David Allen Coe. Their country is more alt, tinged with folk, carried off on harmonies that soar, sometimes approaching the choral wall of Band of Horses.

Horse Thieves Who: Adam Miller, Marshall McLean, Jordan Miller, Fawn Dasovich Sounds Like: Songs of alienation sung in the key of hope (Video by Young Kwak)

“I don’t think we’re bad-ass enough to write full-on outlaw country,” Adam says. “It’s anti-‘live fast’ music,” McLean agrees.

Keyboardist Fawn Dasovich and Adam’s brother Jordan (Black Apache’s frontman) joined the band after much of Outlaw Ballads was recorded. Dasovich didn’t know about the turmoil of the previous year but says she connected with the larger themes in the work.

“Everyone has the feeling of not belonging where you are,” she says. “[The work] really rang true for me and hit me in a way that made me think, ‘Omigosh, this is describing my life.’”

There are people for whom the act of universalizing a story is a blanket against the exposure of outright autobiography. For others, it’s a tent, where listeners are welcomed into a kind of shared experience.

This young band does both of those things. They want to be open while keeping their hearts safe. In doing so, they create myths to reveal themselves while also creating myths to hide within.

Both are forms of controlling the narrative. After what they say they’ve gone through, regaining control was important.

“It feels kind of dorky to do it,” McLean says, “But I think that’s part of it. Myth has power.”

Jordan adds, “Everybody [is mythologizing themselves] at some level.”

And if you’re not the one making the myths, McLean concludes, “Who is?”

Some goddamned outlaw. Or worse, maybe, no one at all. - The Pacific Northwest Inlander


Outlaw Ballads 2011
Valley of Decision 2011



Marshall McLean and Adam Miller (both 26) first talked about starting a band while sitting in a broken down car on a dirt road somewhere in Montana. Lots of things were breaking down then. Both Miller and McLean were approaching the ends of different paths and neither knew how to get out. Past relationships hung on like old guitar strings, stretched and ready to break; and both were looking for a sign to follow.

“I’ve been thinking,” said McLean,“how the best stories have their ending in mind before they begin. Let’s make a record together and call it 'Outlaw Ballads'. I’m not sure what it'll be about, but it feels right, doesn't it?”

It was spring of 2010. The future was hazy and the story was unclear, but it did feel right to tell it. Perhaps as they told it, it would start to make sense.

The name The Horse Thieves also felt right. Mclean was descended from a long line of horse thieves somewhere in southwest Scotland, and Miller, who raises Arabian horses, had aspired to be a professional horse trainer before music took over. The name, like the music, was the natural outgrowth of who they were, both alone and together.

Miller had tasted some success in Europe playing with the band Black Apache, but the band was on hiatus, its future uncertain. He'd written the song 'Travelin' Man' while playing with them, but the song had seemed distant, from another time - possibly the future. McLean had been pushing his solo career uphill for half a decade, but felt like it was going in the wrong direction. Both felt the growing tension of their plans, their projects, and the people in their lives.

That summer, Miller’s marriage of five years ended, clarifying the looming sense of heaviness he'd felt for some time. As many do in dark times, Miller retreated, stoking fires of loss and heartache in the dark parts of the soul that only true outlaws ever visit, and rarely with another. Which is what makes this story so special. Out of a wasteland of deep loss and rejection, a true friendship was cultivated and Mclean began to write songs with Miller in mind. Songs like 'Vagabond', written by McLean, tells a piece of Miller’s struggle. A real story, though a hard one to tell, was finally beginning to unfold.

In the fall, they began recording Outlaw Ballads in a guest house on Miller’s family ranch. Miller took over most of the production, and they pieced together songs that each had written in response to the difficulties he was facing. 'Ignorance is Bliss' and 'O River' came out at this time, born of long talks and meditation about how life is never what you think it's going to be. They recorded through the winter, often working through cold nights and shoveling cars out of the snow in the mornings. 'Outlaw Ballads' began to take shape. So did the band.

As the project neared completion, Fawn Dasovich - a mutual friend of McLean and Miller - heard the recordings and felt an immediate connection to the songs. Dasovich began working on the record, bringing it to a new place. After adding her haunting keys to 'The Devil Told Me So', everyone knew that Dasovich was there to stay.

Finishing the record that winter was a milestone for the still forming band, but they were now faced with obstacles that McLean had foreseen for some time. He'd been working with a small record label as a singer/songwriter, and the conflict of interests was becoming obvious. Still wanting to keep his other commitments, Mclean chose to put The Horse Thieves on hold.

He spent that spring touring, but The Horse Thieves were never far from his mind. The songs that stirred in him when he put his pen toward that band felt like home, and home is an alluring thing when you are far from it. 'Throw the Dice' was written during this time, as McLean agonized over which endeavor to follow. By late spring The Horse Thieves had played some small shows locally, but were afraid to draw much attention to themselves while McLean worked out his issues.

Despite the band's reluctance to self promote, what had started out as a side-project - little more than songs scribbled like road maps looking for direction - was gathering its own inertia. Having not yet released any material and largely keeping the band a secret, The Horse Thieves found themselves featured on the cover of The Pacific Northwest Inlander, a publication with a circulation of a quarter-million people. It turns out people are drawn to secrets, and the band was suddenly handed unintentional success.

It was this success that McLean contemplated one night while camping with friends in a valley, beside a lake. He stayed up all night, thinking how there are things we work hard for, and in the end, bring about almost reluctantly. Other things seem to stir at the very thought of them. The Horse Thieves was the latter and he knew it. He was tired of standing in the way.

'Outlaw Ballads' - ironically titled, in light of how he now fe