HESS, a psych-folk solo artist known for his role in New York band Mail the Horse, caught up with COLLiDE to discuss his debut LP Lamplight Motel.
The project paints a portrait of life and death on the coast of New Jersey and features HESS’ R&B-inspired vocals, warm synth sounds and electronic percussion.
Read below and learn more about HESS and his inspiration behind Lamplight Motel, out Oct. 9, 2020 via Baby Robot Records.
How long did you work on Lamplight Motel? What was the lengthiest part of the process?
The recording of the album took place from winter 2018 through summer 2019, but there are songs on this album that are almost a decade old, such as “Red Clouds,” which was originally written and demoed in 2012.
That original demo that I recorded in my old apartment in Bushwick was actually released on cassette only on a “Tour Tape” in the summer of 2014 that Mail the Horse was selling on the road for $5. I made like 20 copies of that tape individually on a broken cassette recorder in my bedroom.
Then I attempted to record the song another 3 times, twice alone and once with Mail the Horse, and I bailed on them all until Paul Hammer (the producer of the album) and I finally recorded the version that made the album. A b-side on the album Old LA (coming this winter!) was written and demoed in the summer of 2010 on a small Casio keyboard in New Hampshire and then I sat on it for 9 years.
“Whisper Wildwood” was another older one that I sat on. I wrote it in 2015 and it has since gone through a million edits and versions. I think this version that made the album is version five.
Other songs like “Long Dream,” “Believer Outta Me,” and “I’ll Drive,” and “Rented Rooms,” were all written in 2017 right before we started recording. Then I wrote “No Delays” and “Lamplight Motel” while recording the album. Despite the years that it took to finish and record a lot of this music, the lengthiest-feeling part of the process was probably the decision to actually put it out. I sat on most of the material for years and years, and then even after the album was recorded, I sat on it for an additional year!
It never felt like the right time to release it because of all my other activity, especially with Mail the Horse. In the past, I was always afraid to distract from the band’s effort by releasing solo work, until now.
What were some of the similarities and differences between working on Lamplight Motel as a solo project and working on previous projects with your band Mail the Horse?
Historically, writing with Mail the Horse was always a very collaborative process, especially in the early years. When we all lived with each other or at least near each other in Bushwick, either Donny or I would be heard plucking out some chords on an acoustic or on the piano and humming a melody and then it would be off to the races, and Donny, Brendan and I would have the song arranged within the hour.
But when Donny moved upstate a few years ago, the vibe of the band changed, and we weren’t able to work in the way we used to, or rehearse as much as we used to, so I started writing and recording on my own a great deal more, demoing songs at length, playing all the instruments. Kind of a Paul McCartney approach. And that mentality was what led directly to the process behind Lamplight Motel.
I made demos of every song you hear on the record that I spent considerable time on, playing every instrument, recording at 2 or 3 in the morning at my rehearsal space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when there weren’t other bands rehearsing in the building so I wouldn’t have drum bleed coming from the other rehearsal spaces. Then I would share the demos with Paul. And then I would drive up to his studio in Newburgh, NY and we would just launch into the song, multi-tracking in Pro Tools, he and I playing everything.
Paul and I work seamlessly together and most of the time finish each other’s thoughts and sentences when it comes to production choices, so that part was very, very easy and super fun, and a stark contrast to how MTH used to record.
We have only ever recorded live, as a full band, in a room, straight to tape. Analog and old school. Live takes for 8-10 hours straight, earning your dinner. So, working this way on Lamplight, just two people in a room breaking it all down and building it back up again, was something very refreshing and new and fun for me.
Lamplight Motel deals with difficult themes such as questioning faith and continuing in the midst of loss. How does it feel to be putting those difficult feelings out into the world?
It feels very scary but also very uplifting and empowering, and as if a weight has been lifted. The songs that I would bring to the table for Mail the Horse were more often than not either character-based tunes that were inspired by real-life events but with a manufactured, fictional narrator, or songs that were literally about or inspired by Mail the Horse, whether it was the people in the band, or times we shared as a band on the road living the crazy lives we used to live.
This album, as well as the album that I recorded this past spring when Covid hit, are the most personal, heartfelt songs I’ve ever written. It feels like I’m putting myself out there for the first time, with songs about my own life and my own family.
If you could give your listeners a piece of advice when listening to Lamplight Motel, what would that be?
This music is about love, hope, work, sickness, and the American dream for a small family in a small beach town on the Atlantic Ocean, where people live and people die. Think about what those things mean to you when you listen.
Stream Lamplight Motel below: