The Phantom Tollbooth

16 Horsepower
David Eugene Edwards
Interviewed by James Stewart
July 9, 1999
Double Door, Chicago, Illinois

It's been a turbulent year for 16 Horsepower. Caught in the storms which engulfed record label relationships a few months ago, their contract with A & M was prematurely ended, and they were left independent. When the Tollbooth caught up with band leader David Eugene Edwards, however, he was in a buoyant mood, having just returned from playing some London dates with Nick Cave, and with good news to share.

"We signed with an independent German label called Glitterhouse Records. We just did that maybe a few weeks ago.  And we also signed with a new manager who is based in London; most of our time is spent overseas, so it kind of made sense for our manager to be there, and for our record label to be there as well. We'll have some sort of deal in America as well, another independent company, to distribute the records here."

Europe does seem to be a regular stopping point for the band. "Our biggest country is France," admitted Edwards, "and I think it has a lot to do with the two French people in the band. French audiences are very patriotic towards musicians from France, and they support them really well, especially if they do fairly well elsewhere. I think that has something to do with it. Another thing is they love Americana type of music all over--Holland, Germany. Just like I listen to Eastern European music, they listen to bluegrass and mountain music. So they have an affinity for it already, more so than the American people do, on the whole."

Edwards has obviously spent time considering why people seem to prefer the music of other cultures. "It's just what's familiar. You have contempt for the familiar. I think a lot of the early American music makes people think of things in America that they'd rather not think about. People want to get past that and move on, into the future. But it comes back around. It always goes in cycles. That music becomes popular again."

The music of 16 Horsepower certainly shows a wide range of influences, especially from the traditional music of a variety of cultures. "I love Hungarian music, Mongolian music. My favorite group is a big Hungarian, sort of traditional band.  I just love the hurdy-gurdy, anything that's kind of heavy and droning." Edwards's tastes are not limited to Eastern European music, however: "We've been fortunate to have toured with most of the bands that I really, really like. Like Shane McGowan and the Popes, and Morphine, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We just toured with them. I'd like to play with the Danielson Family one of these days."

Sixteen Horsepower's music is nothing if not dark, and Edwards was more than  happy to talk about this aspect of his art. "That's what I listened to when I was growing up. I listened to Joy Division and the Gun Club. It had that type of droning, melodramatic feel which is similar to the European music I like. It has to do with the way I was brought up, the things I was taught. I grew up in a really Nazarene church. My grandfather was a preacher, very strict: women can't wear makeup, you can't play cards, you can't go to the movies, you can't drink, you can't do anything. Basically, it's just fear all the time of losing your salvation, fear of this, fear of everything. My mother had nervous breakdowns because she couldn't handle it, and we ended up going into a Baptist church. My grandfather disowned us for a long time."

"My father died when I was really young, and I went to funerals three or four days a week with my grandparents. My grandmother was fairly morose, she always wore black, and she liked to go into the funeral parlor, "Look what's in there!" and I would go in there. I was a little kid, and there was a dead body in there. She wasn't like weird about it, it was kind of just every day life, in a way. You know what I mean?"

When asked about his reading habits, Edwards mentioned a taste for Russian authors, as well as Western writers such as C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. "Everything that I'm really interested in is going to affect my music one way or another," Edwards shared, "whether it's in the lyrics or the music itself or both."

The band has only one further trip to Europe planned before starting work on a new album, and this, unusually, may turn out to be a speaking engagement. "In October I'm doing the Crossing Border festival. I'm just doing a reading; we're not playing or anything, I'm just reading something from the Bible, something like that.

The spiritual background of the band is diverse. Edwards grew up in a strict religious environment which he has now moved out of to a slightly more relaxed situation. The others have had different experiences. "Our French members obviously grew up in the Catholic church in France, but neither of them go to Catholic church, or any church, for that matter. Steve, the guitar player is a believer; I don't know what church he goes to in New Orleans. I think sometimes he goes to a Catholic church because his wife is Catholic. And I just go to a Christian non-denominational in Bolder, Colorado."

Edwards feels that music is where God has placed him and talks of a feeling that being a musician is what he has to do, a kind of compulsion. He explained this a little more for us: "I don't know how do anything else. Unless the Lord teaches me to do something else, I'll do this. I've never been good at anything else. It's not like if this fails, I have something to fall back on. I'll probably be washing dishes or something like that. But that'd be all right, too. I feel like if the Lord wanted me to do something else, he'd give me the ability, or whatever it is I need to do."

When we talked to him, Edwards was beginning to work on the band's new album, and was obviously excited at the prospect: "It's definitely different; the music is different. It's still obviously us, but it's definitely moved in a different direction, and it's nice. We like it. Tonight we'll play probably eight or nine songs off of the new record. As far as lyrics go, I do all the writing. Music, I probably write about 80% of the music itself. Johnny, the drummer, has also written a couple of songs on the new record. But we all collaborate on putting it together and adding our own parts, or whatever."

The band are planning to produce the record themselves but bring in an engineer who will help them explore different possibilities. They hope to arrange for the album to release on the same date on both sides of the Atlantic and to tour across America and Europe. It's a situation that makes life difficult for Edwards's wife, but she is a strong support to him. "We've been married for thirteen years, and we were married a long time before I ever started touring; so we have a really good relationship. I have two children, which also makes it really hard. A son who's just turned two, and he has Down's Syndrome which makes it even harder for my wife. He needs more time spent with him, but I was just home for seven months straight, and that's all I did, every day, was just be with my family. The Lord provides times for that, but it doesn't make it any easier necessarily when I'm gone. Especially when I'm overseas. When I'm here, I can get home really quick if I have to, but over there, it's much more difficult. Hopefully, the better I do, the more I'll be able to have them with me. You have to sacrifice somewhat, I guess."