Horsegirl: Chicago gang making boldly idiosyncratic noise-rock

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. After sparking a label bidding war during lockdown, the trio's thrilling debut album shows a band ready to come good on all the potential. Words: Rhian Daly

“SXSW was bizarre because we would play and look out at the crowd and it was a bunch of people who looked like my dad’s age or older, moving like that,” Horsegirl guitarist and singer Penelope Lowenstein recalls, recreating a languid head-nodding as her bandmates laugh either side of her. “Of course, we really appreciate it,” she adds quickly, but the Chicago trio’s aim is not to make music for the generations above them: “If older people feel our music is for them that’s great, but we don’t want them to feel too comfortable.”

Horsegirl, the latest signing to Matador [Snail Mail, Pavement], are making atmospheric and percussive rushes of noise-rock, and are – as you might have guessed – sprightly upstarts, both in terms of age and the freshness of the group. Lowenstein is just about to graduate high school, while fellow guitarist and singer Nora Cheng and drummer Gigi Reece are just finishing up their first year of college. The three of them met through playing in youth arts programmes in Chicago and, after bonding over their favourite music, started their own band in Lowenstein’s basement, where they’re speaking to NME from today.

In the years since, they’ve been part of building a youth-focused community in their home city – one that’s filled with like-minded bands around their age, including Friko, Lifeguard and Dwaal Troupe. Being a part of a scene has meant “everything” to them, they say. “It definitely pushes you when you go to shows of kids your age and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen’,” Lowenstein explains. “We’re able to do something cool because we’re seeing other people do it.”

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The trio’s focus is so much on creating a world of guitar music for their peers because they’ve sometimes felt like they haven’t had bands they can get supremely excited about while they’re at the top of their game. “All the bands I would die to see live, either they don’t exist anymore or they’re on a reunion tour,” Cheng says. “Sure, they probably still play quite well, they still rock and it’s awesome to see older musicians still being into it, but it’s obviously so different to seeing this band in their prime.”

“That’s why being in Chicago is so exciting,” Lowenstein jumps in. “It’s all young people, and the music is really good and it feels unique and special. I feel like I’m getting to see young guitar bands in their prime.” “Or right before they hit their prime,” Reece adds, laughing.

That Horsegirl are the first band to be picked up on by the world outside their community is “unusual”, they say. “It feels like it could have been any of us,” Cheng says, with a shrug. “And then, somehow, it just turned out to be us, which we’re very happy about.” Uplifting their friends’ bands, though, is something they’ll continue to do as they gain more attention, the guitarist and singer noting they make sure to mention them in interviews and ask them to play their shows whenever possible.

Aside from being the chosen ones to lead the scene out of Chicago, signing to Matador in itself was a strange experience for the three friends. They were approached by the label during the height of the pandemic, when they would take their virtual classes sat next to each other in Reece’s mum’s empty office. When school ended, they’d jump onto the same computer to do label calls, the digital nature of the experience making them question if it was even real. “Only recently have we started to feel the physical, tangible effects of this big thing,” Lowenstein says.

Horsegirl will be able to properly feel the reality of their journey soon, with the release of their John Agnello-produced debut album ‘Versions Of Modern Performance’, which arrives next week (June 3). It’s a record that justifies the hype surrounding the band and then some – an intriguing, intoxicating mesh of jagged indie-rock, fragments of no-wave and Sprechgesang vocals cushioned by dense clouds of guitar. ‘The Fall Of Horsegirl’ bows between glittering, discordant ornamentation and stormy chords, while ‘Homage To Birdnoculars’ rolls brightly through spiky riffs and rich layers of intertwining sound. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as find the three-piece decorating it in their own style; familiar but fresh.

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Credit: Cheryl Dunn

Lyrically, the album stands out in part for flying in the face of modern music’s obsession with relatability. The words don’t lay out tales of personal strife or joy but offer cryptic riddles for you to place your own interpretations on. “Writing about our personal lives is just not something that I’ve felt the need to do,” Cheng explains. “I hear people talk about how they went through this emotional experience and wrote this certain song about it – it seems like a natural thing, they use that as an outlet. But it’s not natural for me to do.”

Just because they’re not pouring their feelings into their lyrics so explicitly doesn’t mean their songs don’t carry emotion, they counter. “It just doesn’t have to be so direct,” Lowenstein says. “Sometimes it’s just about capturing the energy between the three of us. We think of the vocal parts as an instrumental layer and if we sing ‘Dance, dance, dance’ [as on the urgent chorus of ‘Anti-glory’], it has this percussive energy to it.”

Horsegirl’s natural instinct to do things differently extends to the final tracklist of the album, which varies between the physical and digital editions. On the physical version, you’ll press play and hear ‘Electrolocation 1’ first, which they describe as a “seven-minute ambient song”. “We were like, ‘Wow this is the best song on the album, it has to be the first track’,” recalls Lowenstein. “Everyone who’s put out records before was like, ‘Why do you guys want to make a completely instrumental song the first track?!’”

“I’m glad they said something cos I think about if it did start like that on streaming…” Cheng laughs. “No one would listen,” Reece says, finishing her thought. Changing things up for the digital release was a compromise they’re happy with, allowing them to keep the physical version fresh for fans who already know what they’re getting with a band like Horsegirl.

As it is, plenty of people will be listening to ‘Versions Of Modern Performance’, ambient opener or not. But regardless of their burgeoning fanbase, the trio are staying focused on school. Lowenstein will soon join Cheng and Reece at college in New York, with all three saying they see staying in education as a way to stay inspired and to continue being engaged with their music-making.

Aside from their studies, now they have somewhat of a platform, their focus is on creating something their peers can be excited about. “We would love to get kids interested in guitar music and punk music,” Lowenstein, clarifying that Horsegirl’s album isn’t punk but comes from a punk mindset, bandmates once again laughing either side of her. If anyone can kickstart a youth rock revolution, it feels like Horsegirl can.

Horsegirl’s debut album, ‘Versions Of Modern Performance’, will be released on June 3

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