Interview: Haunt the House
by Rob Ribera
The Newport Folk Festival is upon us once again, and one of the acts we’re really looking forward to seeing is Rhode Island’s own Haunt the House. The festival has a great history of supporting local New England musicians, and particularly those from The Ocean State. Joe Fletcher, Brown Bird, the Low Anthem, Deer Tick, and now Will Houlihan will bring his harmonies to Fort Adams State Park. We caught up with Houlihan before his Friday morning appearance. Get there early so you don’t miss his set, you won’t regret it.
What was it like to get the call that you’re headed to Newport?
It’s most certainly humbling. Knowing about the history of the festival and having been part of the crowd is an experience in itself. For us as a band I think it helped solidify our efforts and light a fire. We’ve been awakened to what Newport could be for us as well as what lies beyond. That’s a wonderful feeling.
Do you think you’ll have to adapt your stage presence at all to match the audiences at the fort at all?
I think there are minute things we adjust according to the crowd, but stage presence is a thing that should come from within, not necessarily put on, in my humble and inexperienced opinion. My naïveté could be showing. I hope people like the music we play because of honesty, and much less a catering attitude, however, I could be wrong.
How long have you lived out in Westerly?
I actually live in Charlestown, although I’ve lived in Westerly at intervals. I have a love/ hate relationship with Westerly. There’s no question of my love for Charlestown. I’ve grown up here. My father built our house when I was six. I watched the whole thing, from the original site visit to the pouring of the foundation and finally closing it up in the winter. We rolled around on the new living room rugs like indestructible little puppies. I love that house.
Watching that must have had some impact on you as a child–it’s rare to build your own home these days.
My parents qualified for a Farmers loan back in the 80′s and it was a long process for us. It took 18 months total. I have a distinct memory of my dads shadow on the wall from a shade less lamp he was working by, As he put the finishing touches on the protective wall for the wood stove, while listening to bluegrass gospel. Ralph Stanley, to be exact. I long for my own home. Nothing large, just a small cabin on an acre or two somewhere.
Newport has been really inclusive about Rhode Island artists–how do you like the RI music community?
The Rhode Island music community has been for me, a warm and welcoming one. I think for that reason alone it can be renamed the New England Music community, for its breadth spans Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and further. Everyone I’ve met has been genuine, hospitable and sincere not to mention talented, honest and supportive.
How did Ben and Jeff from the Low Anthem help shape the last album?
I leaned on both of them quite a bit for this record. I’ve admired their music so much for a long time, so I trusted their hands in it. Ben’s influence can be heard heavily in the track “Jealous Vow” and Jeff’s on “Ease Your Troubled Mind”. It’s clear they step into their unique and complimentary roles and their hands on approach was just what this record wanted.
What was the idea behind recording in the Columbus Theatre?
Ben had approached me about making a record there early on, I was undecided as to where I would take the songs. It didn’t take much persuasion on his part. I think I said yes before he finished his sentence. It felt right.
It’s always nice to hear about bands recording outside of a studio–no surprise that Ben suggested that since the Low Anthem recorded their last album in an abandoned spaghetti sauce factory.
I think I need to clear that up. We definitely recorded in the studio. They have a whole space upstairs dedicated to the Columbus Recording Company. So it was less an off site experience and more of an honest to goodness studio one.
What did recording in the theatre bring to the album?
Ben and Jeff are talented in a great number of ways and I think that their involvement gave the album the voice it needed. I’m very happy to have met them.
On the Newport podcast they talked about how you handed out lyrics for “Mandolin”–do you think that will happen at the fort?
In a word, yes. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.
I really liked how you phrased the sing-along, describing it as a group of people “Singing with broken voices.” There’s an idea of inclusion there.
I surely hope so. I hold a deep reverence for the human ability to express through music. I like a lot of sounds and I like a lot of voices. Most of those sounds and voices aren’t typically classified as beautiful, but I’d rather listen to those than any polished sound or trained voice. There’s beauty in the common.
And with folk music as well. Where do you find the idea of the common in your own lyrics and work?
What I write is all I know. I don’t think my experiences are really that different from anyone else’s, therefore it becomes relatable and accessible to anyone. Heartbreak is universal, in any capacity. All art should be accessible to the common person. If it isn’t then it is nothing short of empty.
There’s going to be a lot of talk about Bob Dylan this year–what do you think now that there are fifty years behind us since the famous electric set?
I think it’s a humbling observation of time. The first thing that strikes me is the longevity of Dylan’s career. That was so long ago for many and much before I was born and most of the artists playing this year at the fort. I think that set most certainly helped shape some characteristic of the festival since. I think Dylan did what he wanted to do and continues to. I believe that quality alone has set him apart and helped him become legendary.
Are you working on a new material?
I am, but I don’t want to say too much about it. I’ve found things seem to unravel beyond my reach if I do. We are working on an EP and I’m writing for another full length.
Looking forward to seeing you at the fest–I saw some printed “Mandolin” pages on your Facebook page!
Yes. Yes you did. We can’t wait to see you too.
Check out Haunt the House at the Alex and Ani Harbor Stage at 11:00am Friday.
And listen to his music at his Bandcamp page.