Vahco Before Horses was three when his grandmother heard somebody playing Beethoven on a piano. “She walked in, and it was me sitting on phone books playing by ear,” the now-43-year-old underground hip-hop musician says.
Before Horses grew up in San Francisco’s Sunnydale Projects, the son of Rabbit Before Horses, an Ojibwe musician who played in the Universal Joint, a psychedelic jazz-rock band that once opened for Jimi Hendrix. Vahco’s mother, Michele, was an elementary-school special-ed teacher.
His grandmother grew up an orphan; her indigenous name, Before Horses, had been replaced with the surname “Strickland.” The family is switching its legal name back to Before Horses in June 2017.
The projects were a tough place in which to grow up, and even when the family moved to the Mission District, Before Horses was a restless child. At age ten, he was introduced to punk rock.
“Some skater friends gave me a black BASF tape and said, ‘If you like this, come with us.’ I don’t even remember who was on it, but I was in. Then it was all about screaming, blue hair, Mohawks. You still got stuff thrown at you, and people would beat you up. The cops would raid our clubs and hit people with clubs.”
Those skater friends took Before Horses to his first show at a warehouse in Berkeley for a ten-band bill that included Fear. A few years later, he found himself hanging out at legendary Berkeley punk venue 924 Gilman Street. He also caught a lot of Dead Kennedys shows at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens. As an early teen, he even had his own punk band: Experimental Squid Sex.
At fourteen, he was assaulted on the streets of Oakland. “I was left for dead,” says Before Horses. “I’m surprised I’m here. When that happened, I withdrew from being around that much aggression, which was really hard when you’re going to punk shows in the ’80s.”
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The attack softened him. “I became more emotional, and I discovered keyboards,” he says. He met a friend with a drum machine, and they started playing together. Around that time, he also started listening to Depeche Mode. “That opened up a whole new planet for me with electronic production.”
As the decade wore on, his musical taste continued to expand; he started listening to hip-hop, enamored with its style, its punk-like, hard-edged attitude and the way it was produced. By 1987, he had acquired his first synthesizers and samplers. Two years later, he started producing hip-hop.
“I’m not big on name-dropping,” says Before Horses. “I worked with everyone in hip-hop on the West Coast from 1988 to 1995 — mixing, engineering, production. It’s very taboo in hip-hop to name-drop unless you tell them. In that world, it’s not just about quality; it’s about speed. And I love that. It’s about, ‘Dude we got these beats I’m about to flow. I need to get the fuck up out of here.’ They don’t want to sit in the studio all day; they’re going to drop this tomorrow. I have that mentality and learned to make beats and mix faster.”
At age sixteen, Before Horses moved out of his family home and went on tour with his bands at the time: Beggars Offer, a no-wave thrash band; and 18 Dead Pigs, an industrial hip-hop group. None of Before Horses’ bands have fit comfortably in a musical pigeonhole, and that partly came out of his early exposure to the Bay Area’s eclectic music scene. He saw bands like Tuxedo Moon, an avant-garde group that took punk’s discard of convention seriously, and one of the earliest and best industrial-rap groups, Beat Nigs, which set the bar high for creativity.
Going on tour with various acts got Before Horses thinking about relocating. In 1995 he moved to Los Angeles, but he didn’t jibe with what he calls the city’s “superficial culture,” so he moved to the grittier environs of Chicago for a brief time before returning home and, in the early 2000s, deciding to move to New York City, where his neighbors included the Strokes and his bassist lived next door to TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone. Between producing and playing music in New York, Before Horses worked in restaurants and at Joe’s 13, a record store at 13 St. Mark’s Avenue. It was there that he met his wife, Melissa Mejia.
Mejia grew up in Denver and regaled Before Horses with stories of the DIY spaces, like Garageland and Monkey Mania, in her home town. During previous visits to Denver when traveling across the country, Before Horses had fallen for the Mile High City’s combination of urban living and easy access to the mountains. “I also like Denver’s crazy weather,” he says. When the impulse to seek a different lifestyle struck again in 2005, he and Mejia moved to Denver.
But even with the city’s music scene on the ascent in the mid-2000s, Before Horses didn’t jump right in. Other than performing a few times at the Larimer Lounge, 3 Kings Tavern and Cricket on the Hill, he mostly stood on the sidelines, writing music and releasing albums to perform elsewhere.
That changed starting in 2009, when he met Reid Felecos; both were working at the restaurant in the Downtown Aquarium. Felecos was steeped in the local art-rock and DIY music scenes. Although hardly a dinner-table name, he is perhaps best known for playing synth in the experimental electronic band Captain Howdy.
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Before Horses mostly lived his local music life vicariously through Felecos until 2014, when he started the industrial hip-hop band Dr. Montgomery Maxwell, which Felecos joined a year later. Since then, performing with his band and solo, Before Horses has become a staple of Denver’s underground music world. Because he already had an international audience built from his years in the music industry, Dr. Montgomery Maxwell has had a leg up on most Denver bands.
The group will release its debut album, VOICECHAIN, in 2017. The album art looks just like the stage after the band performs. Mannequin heads are strewn about, with chunks missing from their heads. The carnage is interspersed with blown-out music gear, mic stands and broken synthesizers. The imagery is as emotionally charged as the music.
“My goal in writing a song is to transport you,” says Before Horses. “Just in the last few years, I’ve been able to do that in my own music. Some people at a recent show told me I made them cry. If I can evoke that, I could quit tomorrow. That’s the true goal of my music: I want to move people in some way. I never get mad at people that hate my music, because it’s so personal.”
Dr. Montgomery Maxwell plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 9, at the Marquis Theater. Tickets cost $8-$10. For more information, call 303-487-0111.