By Jordan Reisman
Photo by Pedro Anguila
Balmorhea from Austin, TX is having some down time right now. After having released their career defining fifth album, Stranger in October of 2012 and touring extensively all throughout the United States and Europe, the instrumental post-rock group is ready to regain their bearings and fall back into the town that they come from.
BTR was able to speak with two of the founding members, Michael Muller and Rob Lowe, and they seemed happy at the time that Austin was “cooling off”, making this the “one time of year you can walk around and not die of heat.”
It seemed perfect for them, as it was their first time being home in a while, and they can get to know their city once again in the precious time they get in between SXSW and Austin City Limits.
Lowe says about his time spent in town, “It feels like to me, most of the people that I know, if you live here long enough you kind of figure out a way to see exactly what you want to see without having to put all in for it. Like, somehow finding a wristband to go to ACL for just one of the days because maybe there’s three bands you really want to see that day. I feel like if you live here long enough you just figure out how to manage taking advantage of what you want instead of being fully immersed in everything.”
The history of Balmorhea is quite simple, coming from the original movers and shakers themselves. Rob and Michael met in 2006 as both of them were living in Austin and they just gravitated towards each other upon realizing they had similar tastes in music. They both brought tracks and demos that they were working on, adding guitar parts to each of them. From these scraps they formed a collection of their first songs, though without the true intention of forming a band out of them.
Their first show occurred at a biker bar in Austin called Beerland, obviously the proper venue for the “sensitive and dramatic at times” Balmorhea. They recalled fond memories of asking the burly soundman with a septum piercing permission to use an “old stand-up piano”, him taken aback by the request and the band was able to use a novelty instrument for their first time playing live.
The band takes their name from a tiny town in West Texas of 500 people where Lowe’s family would go to get away from their own city called Midland. He remembers driving with his family and best friend to Balmorhea to swim in the natural springs because around them there weren’t “a lot of natural places to go.” When it came time to finally write songs and decide on what kind of band they were going to be, Lowe said, “We felt like it somehow fit with the aesthetic of what we were doing.”
Muller commented on this aesthetic, “When we started it was all acoustic instruments; Rob played piano and guitar and I played guitar. We also incorporated a lot of field recordings in the first couple of albums so it kind of gave the music a very visceral, organic type of natural sound. You could hear aspects of the outside world in the music more than you would in our newer stuff that’s more produced with electric instruments.”
Balmorhea is an instrumental minimalist band meaning they feature no lyrics whatsoever. Their music somehow acts as a voice though as Stranger explores the entire gamut of emotions and at a certain point you forget that the band doesn’t have a lead singer.
The band didn’t really seem to decide this as consciously as others would. It seems that their idea of Balmorhea was something that even went beyond what we think of “songs”, as Muller says, “the type of statement we were trying to make, the type of sound we were trying to make just didn’t require [lyrics]. We weren’t writing songs, per se, with verses and choruses. We were just working in a different way.”
Balmorhea certainly works in a different way because some bands feel they need to write lyrics just to fit a certain mold, but Balmorhea doesn’t do so because, well, that’s just not what they do.
“I am not naturally a writer, that’s not something that I do on my own. It wasn’t something I feel like I had to deny. I’m kind of starting to try to write some stuff with lyrics and it’s proving pretty difficult. It wasn’t part of what naturally was occurring, at least for me. None of us had journals full of material we were dying to put into the songs. I think music was the most natural thing,” says Lowe on his process.
When asked whether or not this came from a feeling of uncertainty,” Lowe had a lot of thoughts on the concept of self-criticism and putting something new out there. He says that, at the beginning of the band, he just let the muses, “come however [they] wanted to” but at the stage they’re at now the band, much like during Passover, has been asking themselves more questions about what they do.
They strive to strike a balance between actively trying to do something differently with each album but also avoiding “getting in your head” and “asking too many questions.” Lowe’s mantra on creation seems to be, “Let it be natural but also know how to turn some ideas away when they’re not fully-formed or right.”
On the subject of differentiating each album from the next, what does Stranger do differently than their last album Constellations?
“With Stranger, we took a step in the complete opposite direction and added a bunch of new sounds and filled it out; recorded it in a completely different way, mostly in the studio just layering everything. I guess at the outset, I feel like we’ve always made a decision of what statement we want to make and then pursued that throughout the entire process of making the records,” says Lowe.
With Balmorhea’s break from the grind of recording and touring, it gives them a lot of time to think. Think about where they come from, what they want to change about themselves, and what they want to do next. Maybe they’ll put those thoughts into words or maybe they won’t, but it’s comforting to know that they’re thinking ahead.
To get inside Balmorhea’s insides, click here.
Check out Balmorhea’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.