Funeral Horse's Psalms Is the Captain's Log From Walter Carlos' Long, Strange Trip

Funeral Horse
Funeral Horse Photo courtesy of Artificial Head Records

Café TH is a quaint Vietnamese restaurant where lunch patrons may not normally discuss divorce, destruction and death over bowls of pho. But, at least for today, those are the Lazy Susan items on our table because we’re dining with Funeral Horse’s front man, Walter Carlos. We’re discussing the band’s new album, Psalms for the Mourning, which debuts with an album release Saturday night at Spruce Goose: Social Flyers Club. Sonically, the album takes Funeral Horse in new directions. Thematically, its signposts are confessional and cathartic. Carlos said the album’s opening track, “Better Half of Nothing,” is a road map for what’s to come.

“This is going to be a very painful journey, listener, that you’re going on with us and you should realize, while there is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s going to be painful,” he says. “If you stick with us, I think you’ll be rewarded.”

If that sounds like the world’s most no-nonsense travel agent promoting an especially stark excursion, there’s a reason. Carlos is viewing the world as an explorer these days. He’s chronicled an especially difficult voyage on Psalms. He’s cherishing the travel mates who are making his present odyssey more enjoyable. And, he’s excited about where he’s headed next.

For example, the new tones Funeral Horse hit on the album are leading to a follow-up which he says will be in line with The Clash’s Sandinista! Not a triple album, he says, but one which takes on a myriad of styles as that 1980 classic did.

“Our previous albums hinted at the diversity of what we like to listen to as a band, what I like to listen to as a musician. I’m not somebody who listens to just one genre and I’m happy that way. I need a lot of variety in my daily listening intake and the band is a reflection of that,” he says. “After playing the same thing over and over again, all of us get tired of it. We want that (diversity), we love that, but we somehow have to figure out how to play all of these different styles but still keep it Funeral Horse.”

Carlos says the time is right for a shift in tone. He and band mates Chris Bassett and Clint Rater are more comfortable with one another musically. They trust each other and that assurance comes through in sounds that are different than longtime fans of the band might expect.

“I’m very lucky – I could use the word ‘blessed’, I guess – to have two incredible musicians in the band who are very good friends, but amazing musicians.”

click to enlarge L-R: Clint Rater, Walter Carlos, Chris Bassett - PHOTO COURTESY OF ARTIFICIAL HEAD RECORDS
L-R: Clint Rater, Walter Carlos, Chris Bassett
Photo courtesy of Artificial Head Records

Of their new work together, he said, “It’s kind of like taking a radio dial and moving it around to hear what’s going on. That’s what happened with this album. It was a stylistic choice, it didn’t just happen on accident.”

“The whole album is about loss. Loss and despair,” he continued. “It’s this punishing self-loss. I’m punishing myself as a writer. The things that I’ve gone through and experienced and that I’ve done as a person, there’s been a lot of trying to atone for that. And then witnessing these things happening around me, as well.”

For instance, “Emperor of All Maladies,” which borrows its title from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning tome, reflects on Carlos’ current relationship with cancer. He had a friend stricken by the illness, who died a few short months after diagnosis. His father is treating against the illness presently. The album’s closing track, “Evel Knievel Blues,” are the parting words to a friend who’s passed away, delivered after learning of his death.

But, a large chunk of the album is about the dissolution of Carlos’ eight-year marriage. There are signs of this not just in the lyrics and temperament of the songs, but in the album’s packaging. As head of Artificial Head Records, he knows the role the album’s packaging plays in delivering its message. Example: the album’s inner label, he says, uses a pair of icons from the I Ching.

“One is storm and the other is stress. So, tumultuousness and absolute stress. And then, when you look at the dead wax, it’s a message to myself. The ultimate lesson I’ve learned from all this is in that dead wax. And it says, ‘Clearly, you should have been more transparent.’ And the vinyl is clear. You don’t quite get it – you think it’s funny; but, when you know that backstory,…” he tails off.

We’re joined at lunch by Whitney Andrew, the local musician and promoter who is also a low-key manager for the band, as well as Carlos’ girlfriend and business partner in Artificial Head Records. She passes a copy of the album over rice and tofu plates and points out the cover art. Faded, almost indiscernible flowers on the front cover. A blown-out speaker on the back. The inner art is imaging from a Romanian divorce prison. It all fits, thematically.

“The Catholic church, a long time ago, was like if you’re going to get divorced, you have to go to prison first and try to reconcile that way,” explained Carlos, whose penchant for literary references in music includes influences like Victor Hugo, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. “They locked you in a tower. And that’s what that image is, it’s the inside of a divorce prison.”

Carlos’ own parents divorced when he was young. His mother joined the Navy, so he bounced around a lot growing up, he says, from his birthplace in Mississippi and right into Houston about a dozen years ago. He said he got into music early because of his rocky home life.

“Right away, it was KISS,” he said with a smile. “It was the mid-'70s; who are these comic-book, crazy people? This is awesome! And I just dove into music right then and there. I saw KISS in 1979. My mom took me. She took her needlepoint with her, too.”

A bad record deal caused him to shelve his guitar and music career for a half-decade. When he returned, he did so with Art Institute, a post-punk group that produced a lone album, the first of Artificial Head’s catalog. The label’s newest album took two years to record, beginning at Bong Island Sound and wrapping at Sugar Hill. When it was time to press the album, the label reached out to Third Man Records, Jack White’s independent label, which has a state-of-the-art vinyl pressing plant in Detroit.

“I was talked to as a professional, as a real record label. They were very good. The decision to go with them was, it would be neat to have Jack White’s pressing plant press our album,” Carlos said. “It was a little more expensive, but the quality control is awesome, you get that Third Man sticker on the jacket and that will start turning some heads. That whole process went better than expected.”

“It just all ties in so beautifully together. I mean, Third Man as a brand, Jack White, is sort of known for taking themselves very seriously and this is a very serious album. It even physically feels heavy,” Andrew added. “The paper that it’s printed on, after you take it out of that sleeve, every time you touch it you will see your fingerprints from where you touched it before. You have to really wipe them away to get them off. What I like about that is it feels like it’s a reflection of how everything you do has this consequence. It has your fingerprint on it, your DNA.”

click to enlarge The album art conveys its heavy themes - ALBUM COVER
The album art conveys its heavy themes
Album cover

“Artificial Head pushes that every release,” Carlos jumps in. “We want our customers, both new and existing, when they pick up an Artificial Head record to be like, ‘This is quality, this is gonna be an experience, this is something special.’”

Carlos said that applies to every act on the label, too. Every copy of the recent release for The COPS came stamped with an individual “classified case number.” The upcoming album from Jody Seabody & The Whirls will feature art by Dead Kennedy’s art designer Winston Smith. The label is still working up something unique for an album planned by Darwin’s Finches.

“I look at Funeral Horse and the packaging may be special and the pressing plant, but I treat every band that way,” Carlos said. “Everyone is special and they’re all close to me. I want you to have the best. Because, ultimately, I want people to buy these things!”

Saturday’s show is going to be a celebration, Andrew promises. It’s also the kickoff for a week-long, seven city tour.

“We haven’t locked everything down yet but we’re going to try to make the evening sort of like the album where there’s different stuff going on at all times and you don’t really know what’s coming next,” she said.

As for Carlos, he’s glad this particular journey is concluding. He’s ready to set a course for his next adventure.

“I’m hoping other people who are listening, maybe they’re going through something similar and they’ll connect with it,” he says of the album. “Some of the (new) lyrical writing I’ve done is kind of the aftermath songs. Like, where am I going after this? It’s like coming home from war, if you will. That’s kind of where I’m going with all this.”

Funeral Horse releases its new LP, Psalms for the Mourning, 8 p.m. Saturday at Spruce Goose: Social Flyers Club, 811 Congress. With Darwin’s Finches, Ruiners and Trillblazers. All ages, $5.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.