The Horse Flies
Glenn Brooks, 30 December 2001
It is time to talk about the Horse Flies, the amazing alt-folk-punk-rock-string band. Although the band no longer exists, their best albums are still available, and a couple of albums recorded in 1996 were just released last year. They were a rare group of musicians who encompassed and absorbed an extraordinarily wide range of influences and yet retained a clear and distinctive identity. When I listen, I hear American fiddle band music, modern classical minimalism, West African trance music, Laurie Anderson, Middle Eastern microtonalism, traditional country music, and much more. Yet they are always the Flies.
The Horse Flies started in the mid-80s as a slightly left-of-center folk quartet from Ithaca, New York, with guitar player Jeff Claus, banjo wizard Rich Stearns, fiddler Judy Hyman, and the late John Hayward on bass. Hyman and Stearns, in particular, create the core of the Flies' sound. Hyman's violin playing is rhythmically energetic, heavy on repetitive patterns, while Stearns uses his banjo like a percussion instrument, chuffing and thwacking rather than picking and strumming. Rhythm is the name of the Flies' game, with Hayward on bass always providing a rock solid foundation.
The first acoustic version of the Flies appeared on one side of Chokers and Flies in 1985, sharing the spotlight with another skewed traditional band, the Chicken Chokers. The next incarnation of the band saw them moving toward a New Wave sound on Human Fly. The album appeared on Rounder, and was re-issued by MCA when the band moved to that label in 1990. The fiddle and banjo are still there, but so are synthesizers, emulators, quite a bit of percussion, and some Macintosh programming. Jeff Claus is the main vocalist, doing for the Flies what David Byrne did the Talking Heads - composing, setting musical directions, not singing all that well but still managing to put the songs across. They cover the Cramps' "Human Fly" (how could they not?) and completely transform it into a wonderfully demented folk tune. Then, moving things back the other way, they take the sweet folk lullaby "Hush, Little Baby" and - somehow - give it a slightly creepy edge. Perfect for a David Lynch film, with that hand-in-glove madness just below the everyday normalcy. Beautiful, in the way danger often is.
The almost full-fledged rock band version of the Flies emerges on Gravity Dances, released by MCA in 1992. The original quartet is aided and abetted by Taki Masuko on drums (which make a big difference in the sound) and Peter Dodge on accordian and keyboards. A sense of the mood is suggested by song titles like "Roadkill," "Needles on the Beach," and "I Need a Plastic Bag (To Keep My Brains In)." There are touches of humor here, and some sense of redemption, though much of the landscape is bleak. But again, beautiful. "Hush Little Baby" returns, in the same version as on Human Fly. If you are primarily a rock fan, this the safest entry point to the world of the Horse Flies. For me, it is the Flies album I listen to least.
After Gravity Dances, the Flies took a different direction and created soundtrack music for two films by Jay Craven. Both films, Where the Rivers Flow North (1994) and A Stranger in the Kingdom (1997), are based on novels by Howard Frank Mosher, set in rugged upstate Vermont. The group in each case is pretty much the electric version of the Flies, with drummer Masuko dropping out on Rivers. The albums are instrumental, so you get to hear the tight interplay of the musicians. Stranger is made up of many small "cues" (as they say in the movie music biz) and, because of that, plays less well than Rivers as an album.
Where the Rivers Flow North is my favorite Horse Flies album, and one of my all-time favorite albums, period. The atmosphere is dark, introspective, often ominous, and yet ultimately optimistic, even spiritual. The acoustic instruments are supported but not supplanted by electronic sounds, including lonely calls of loons. There are several beautiful themes that weave through the CD, repeating and changing like light and shadows in a tall forest. In the middle is a wonderful nostalgic piano waltz by Dodge. I often listen to this album when I am feeling drained by a stressful experience and it never fails to buoy me. For me, this is a unique and treasurable album. But keep in mind I am a fan of Mexican Day of the Dead art - others may prefer livelier music. The movie is fine too, with a good performance by Rip Torn as a doomed logger and a great performance by Tantoo Cardinal as his common law wife. And the music fits the film perfectly.
Finally, two albums appeared in 2000 that were recorded back in 1996, just before bassist John Hayward died of cancer and the Flies packed it in. In the Dance Tent was recorded off the soundboard at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in 1996. The original Flies quartet appears with three percussionists in a fine reprise of "Human Fly" and several extended jams on traditional tunes, including "Iko Iko." This is a high-energy album, the yang/light to Rivers yin/dark. There is an insistent pulse, especially noticeable in the forward propulsion of John Hayward's bass. It is a pulse that makes you dance, as opposed to one that makes you want to dance. In an email exchange with Judy Hyman, I commented on how it seemed to me the album showed how fiddle bands had influenced classical minimalist composers like Philip Glass. She replied: "Or how Philip Glass has inspired me/us." However the influence worked, the high spirits here are delivered with a certain relentlessness, which is not unpleasant.
Two Traditions plays like a continuation of In the Dance Tent, this time in the studio. The driving force here is percussionist Jim Roberts - this is not really a Horse Flies album. But on many of the songs, the lineup is identical to the group from Dance Tent. The tunes are shorter than those on Dance and the percussionists - especially Roberts on balafon and djembe - are featured more prominently. I prefer the energy and extended jams of Dance Tent, in spite of the poorer audio, but I would not give up Two Traditions.
Wonderful music by versatile, talented musicians. All these albums are available from the Horse Flies web site. Pick one that sounds interesting to you and give it a spin. Then, when you become a fan, try the others.
of related interest
Although the Flies are gone, Hyman and Claus have collaborated in a group called Boy with a Fish, which has an album due out in 2002. Rich Stearns has joined the group Donna the Buffalo.