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By Brian Turk
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About three years ago, Scooter James was at a point where he'd done a few shows with Pinhead Circus, the well-regarded punk band he formed in 1988, but wasn't really set on pursuing music full-time anymore. Then he saw his friends in Tin Horn Prayer, and the band just completely inspired him.
"They had that soul and that edge that I grew up with and that we all still loved," he recalls. "They still had a real folky kind of undertone to it; I always like to call it 'outlaw folk.' I saw them open up for William Elliott Whitmore at the Larimer Lounge, and something about it — they just had such good energy; it was amazing. I literally told my wife that night I was super-jealous and that I wanted to join this band. And a week later, I got the call to join."
James grew up listening to a lot of country, bluegrass and blues, but played punk mostly by default. He loved the fact that these guys, who all come from punk backgrounds, were playing acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos.
"We tell people we're a punk band that plays weird instruments," says early member Andy Thomas, a onetime Backbeat contributor who's played with Only Thunder and also currently drums for the Knew. "They're not really weird instruments, but in the realm of punk.... You should see the sound guys. They think we're a ska band, and we start pulling out an accordion, banjos and mandolins, and I play a resonator guitar."
Originally a duo that was started about three and a half years ago by Mike Herrera, former frontman of Blackout Pact and Sleeperhorse, Tin Horn Prayer eventually grew into a six-piece that included Thomas, James, Dan Gilbert (formerly of Clusterfux), Eric Epling and Ethan Steenson.
Thomas says that when Tin Horn Prayer played its first show, opening for Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan in Colorado Springs, it was a weird amalgamation of part of the group's current lineup and a few other friends. Some of them sat down in a row and played acoustic guitars. Herrera went back and forth between guitar and banjo, while Thomas played a bass drum/hi-hat hybrid while playing guitar.
Once a drummer was brought into the fold, Thomas says, Tin Horn Prayer became a real band, as opposed to a side project to Sleeperhorse and Only Thunder.
"We definitely did Tin Horn Prayer while both those bands were going on with the assumption and the understanding that it was a side project," Thomas says. "It was hard not to look at it as a side project."
Herrera, who has a Tom Waits tattoo on his arm, took the name of the band from the opening line of the Waits song "Sins of My Father" ("God said don't send me your tin horn prayers").
"It was always in my mind, this half-assed plea," says Thomas. "Don't do it unless you mean it. Don't do it half-assed. I feel like all of our songs are like this weak plea — 'Man, I'm really horrible, but I'm not going to do enough to fix it, but I wish something would change.' I think that's a theme throughout Tin Horn Prayer."
While the group — which Thomas says gets characterized a little too often as being a crazy, out-of-control party band — does play a fair amount of party tunes, there are also songs about "the way you've been living your life, how it's affected you and where it's gotten you at this point," Thomas points out. "And I don't think that I dwell on that personally a lot — like, I don't sit around and second-guess a lot of things that I've done. But when I sit down and write music, for some reason that comes out."
Whereas the band's debut, Get Busy Dying, was primarily a collection of solo songs written by Herrera, Thomas and James that was then put out by a band, Tin Horn Prayer's sophomore release, Grapple the Rails, is much more of a collaborative album, for which each member was part of the writing process. Similarly, although Thomas, Herrera and James take turns on lead vocals on the two albums, anyone who feels like singing during shows can do so — even if they don't have a microphone. "That's kind of the spirit of it," says Thomas. "It's this big, communicative gang mentality that we're all going to have a part in it."
Given all of the members' punk backgrounds, it's not surprising that they approach their live shows with a rowdy, punk attitude. "And for a band that kind of tackles a lot of heavy subject matter," notes Thomas, "we try to make it as lighthearted and fun as possible when we play, because it can get real depressing."
"It's definitely a lot easier," James agrees. "You can either laugh about it or cry about it. It's definitely a lot easier to laugh about it. It might be a little morbid at times and a little scary, but I think that's a lot of what we have in common."
Take "Execution Line," for instance, the song that opens the album: It's about a guy who imbibed a little too much, kills somebody, gets sentenced to death and ends up on the execution line. "Call a Priest," meanwhile, is about a man wondering if God will save him from being hung.
Recorded over a few weekends last July at Black in Bluhm Music with Chris Fogal, Grapple the Rails is being issued on the Paper + Plastick imprint formed by Less Than Jake drummer and Fueled by Ramen co-founder Vinnie Fiorello. The album's cover was designed by Ryan Besch, who has done design work for acts like the Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Flatfoot 56. Grapple the Rails is the first sophomore release for several members of Tin Horn Prayer, Thomas notes, since the earlier bands they were in never got that far.
"For a band that started as a side project for so many of us," he says, "and to have it come to this point and have three and a half years and two albums out, you look back and it's a nice benchmark.
"I've gotten more compliments on this band more than on any other band that I've been in," he adds. "I think that kept us going. We don't do a lot of self-promotion. We don't put ourselves out there a whole lot. We actually have an audience at this point. We'll still have clunker shows, but it seems like the good shows are a lot more frequent. We'd see people singing along, and we'd have these really amazing shows."
It's even more amazing when you consider the volatile personalities that make up the band. Despite any inner turmoil they may have experienced, at the end of the day, the positive response they've received is the gratification that motivates them to keep going no matter what.
"It's been the most rewarding, in that respect, than any other band," Thomas concludes. "I've been in bands that have had followings, but it's always seemed to sputter out to a point. This one seems like it's building. And it's exciting, and it makes us all want to stick around and see what happens."