Plugged In: Gift Horse

Plugged In: Gift Horse

Written by Chrissy Mauck

Plugged In is an ongoing feature on Fender.com, highlighting Fender artists who we strongly recommend you “plug in” and give a listen. Some of you may have recently caught this up-and-coming band live at SXSW in Austin, but Athens-based Gift Horse is dashing towards the release of their debut album.

The members of Gift Horse — vocalist/keyboardist Hunter Morris, guitarist/vocalist Mike Stokes, drummer Brandon Scarboro, and bassist Vaughan Lamb — are of the opinion that finding a band name is a necessary evil. 

“I’m a firm believer that every band name is a terrible band name,” says Stokes. “It’s just the music that makes you like the band name, and makes you not think about how bad the band name is.”

But the Athens-based rock/grime quartet at least selected a motivational name based on the “never look a gift horse in the mouth” proverb.

“As corny as it sounds, we have this gift and this ability to play music and we just need to do it,” says Stokes. “We don’t need to let anything hold us back from playing because we feel we have this gift to play.”

Although the foursome comprising Gift Horse all hold degrees from the University of Georgia, attending college in Athens was actually all about moving closer to its budding music scene.

“You come up here to go to college, but you are pretty much just lying to your folks,” admits Stokes. “It was all a front for coming up here and playing in a band.”

High school friends back in Augusta, Ga., Stokes and Scarboro hooked up together in a cover band during their freshman year at Georgia.  After graduating in 2007, the duo began scouting for more serious band mates.  

“We know that we’re not good at anything else; I’m not good at anything else,” says Stokes. “I work at a restaurant in downtown Athens, and make tacos for a living right now. I can play music, but I don’t have any other career options. So we decided that we wanted to pursue music with people who feel the same.”

Their search eventually led to Morris, who had just returned from spending a year and a half in Jackson Hole, Wyo., doing some soul-searching of his own.  As a youngster (also raised in Augusta), Morris wrote poetry and played the piano, trumpet and acoustic guitar. But his musical interest fell by the wayside during his high school years.

“There was a period between middle school and college when I just kind of quit playing music and where I felt like I was wasting a talent I have, not just with singing or playing music, but just feeling like I wasn’t being creative,” Morris says. “That’s kind of a depressing feeling. 

“When I finished college, I became really convinced that I wanted to make a real go of it with music,” he continues. “So I moved out to Jackson Hole and worked as a fly fishing guide to pay the rent and completely immersed myself in music. I lived by myself, didn’t have a TV and pretty much played music incessantly when I wasn’t working, fishing or drinking. And sometimes I would drink and play.”

After refining his skills on the keyboard, he left Wyoming for Atlanta and moved in with his cousin Hardy Morris, a member of southern psychedelic rock band Dead Confederate — an outfit whose drummer just happens to be Scarboro’s older brother Jason.

“I’m the old man in Gift Horse, and so I was actually good friends with Jason in high school,” says the 30-year old Morris. “Once I got back to Atlanta, I was pretty hungry to find the right people to get a project going with. Jason hooked me up with his younger brother Brandon and Mike and we started jamming and eventually writing stuff and that’s how Gift Horse came together.”

Guitarist Mike Stokes, who uses a ’65 Fender® Mustang®, discusses his passion for our guitars.

“Ever since I was a kid, Fender guitars and Fender musical instruments in general, are like the pinnacle of cool instruments. I remember when I got my first Fender guitar, it was years after I’d started playing the guitar, and it was a very big deal. Then, the Mustang that I’m playing now was a graduation gift, pretty much everybody in my family chipped in and bought it from this private collector in Augusta. So it’s very sentimental.”

The band struggled to find a bassist who’d stick, but eventually teamed up with Lamb, a native of Burlington, N.C.

“We’ve put together a like-minded band, and honed a sound that we are really proud of now,” says Morris. “It’s very gratifying to see things coming together.”

That sound is a mixture of Gift Horse’s musical influences, ranging from the psychedelic shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine, to the mid-‘90s grunge of Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and The Breeders, to the ambient drone-rock of bands like Low and The Black Angels, combined with their own underlying dark and somber tones.

“We want people to get an emotional response out of our music,” explains Morris. “I’m a huge fan of great lyrics, but you can have incredible lyrics and if the song doesn’t create the right mood, people aren’t going to listen to what you are saying. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on creating this really powerful and emotion-evoking tone that hopefully draws people in so that they’ll search for the meaning of a song.”

Gift Horse also seeks captivation at their live shows, using theatrical techniques to create a gloomy and haunting ambience. Instead of flooding the stage with light, the band plays off the darkness onstage with a single spotlight on Morris. The band also incorporates a projector that plays footage of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

“We don’t use a screen or backdrop,” says Stokes. “We just shoot it off the wall and off the ceiling. It’s kind of distilled and grainy, but it’s cool to see Leonard looming over the band and conducting with these big, sweeping motions. It’s something that you can barely make out, but it’s just this cool movement behind the band. We just try to create an atmosphere to lock the audience in — maybe make them forget where they are for a second, give them something to look at and get lost in.”

Gift Horse got swept up themselves in the recording process of their debut album Mountain of Youth. Beginning in January 2009, the band worked nightly with producer Hank Sullivant (Kuroma, ex-The Whigs, ex-MGMT member) and engineer Nate Nelson, and we do mean nightly. In order to take advantage of the natural reverb of the studio’s downstairs glass atrium, Gift Horse recorded for over a month straight from midnight to dawn. 

“The atrium was in between these two restaurants so we had to wait until they closed, and then we’d move all the portable elements of the studio down to the lobby and record,” says Stokes. “The recording process was really quite cool, and I think it contributed in itself to how the album sounds. If you record stuff from midnight to 6 a.m. for a month and you have a unique space like that, it’s going to creep its way into the sound.”

Gift Horse also added subtle and abstract noise to the album by experimenting with chimes and a mellotron.

“Our producer Hank has this amazing ear for these really interesting tones that you would probably not think of adding,” says Morris. “There are all of these interesting layers to the sound of the album, stuff that you wouldn’t think would work. We did some strings on the mellotron, and overall, there’s just a lot of weird stuff that is really buried in the perfect place. You’d have to listen several times to hear where we put them in there.”

Morris and Stokes shared songwriting duties on the album, weaving J.D. Salinger’s loss of innocence themed novel Catcher in the Rye into the lyrics.

“We were heavily influenced when we were writing the album by what Salinger was trying to get across in that book – the loss of innocence and coming of age,” Stokes says. “There’s a kind of darkness that comes along as you grow up and get hardened by the ways of the world.”

In “Missionaries,” the track that Morris believes best epitomizes the album’s theme, he sings the line, “He seems older now that I’m grown,” referring to a son’s view of his father as an adult.

“It’s meant to be tongue and cheek, because it’s obvious that my dad would be older now that I’m older,” Morris says. “But it really hits home the need to hang onto the innocence of your youth, because everybody is getting older every day. And just because you are getting older, doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to hang onto the optimism and open-minded view of the world that you have when you are an innocent kid. So even though it may sound morbid, there’s really an element of hope. We just feel like when something sounds and looks dark enough, it evokes an emotional response to dig a little deeper.”

Morris emailed the finished track to Jason Miller of Athens Soundies, who had offered to produce a music video for “Missionaries.” Upon hearing the song, Miller immediately responded with his video concept — people of various ages from three different time periods coming to the river to be baptized.

“I thought it was really cool how his idea fit with the song after only one or two listens,” shares Morris. “The baptism thing wasn’t meant to be deeply religious; it was more symbolic of the search for a higher power and the search for meaning in life. Life is a continuum of people being born and getting what they can out of life and then inevitably dying.”

Gift Horse spread an open casting invite via social networking sites, bribed friends and family with the promise of beer, secured donated costumes, and then shot their first-ever music video at Ben Burton Park in Athens.

“Tons of people showed up, and were willing to wade out in the water and stick around all day,” says Morris. “We couldn’t afford to pay over a 100 people to be in our video, so it was cool to see so many people willing to give up their whole day just to support us.” 

Gift Horse is counting on continued support from their fans as they celebrate the long-awaited May 4 national release of Mountain of Youth.

Singles “Missionaries,” “Both of Me,” “Eyes” and “Plastic People” are currently available for your listening pleasure on their MySpace page, so head there now and plug-in!



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