When it’s done well, music, like all art, can create a truly evocative experience. Just take Balmorhea. The sextet from Austin, Texas, led by founding members Rob Lowe and Michael Muller, creates the kind of big, moving instrumental music that we tend to associate with the post-rock movement. But post-rock this is not. Occupying the space between acoustic folk and symphonic pop, Balmorhea’s (pronounced Bal-more-ay) music is rich, layered, and, at times, genre-defying; it’s music that welcomes listeners, even as it asks them to draw their own conclusions.
“The impression that a piece of artwork gives me is often the thing I’m intrigued by, more than the technical ability or the meaning or lesson behind it,” says Lowe. “It’s more about how it feels.”
This Friday, August 2, Balmorhea heads to Muddy Waters Café in support of the band’s latest full-length, Stranger. Below, Lowe chats about art, music, the band’s early days, and that whole no-vocals thing.
Can you tell me a bit about how you and Michael met? Well, we knew each other in high school — we both went to the same camp — but we remet at University of Texas in Austin through Michael’s brother. … We connected over music. That was a big thing for our friendship. I grew up in a small town, and I didn’t have much of a conception of independent music — I can confidently say I had no conception of it. Michael has always had a deep appetite for all types of music, so he introduced me to a lot of things that would become influential for me at that time in my life. Eventually that connection led us to start playing together.
What was Balmorhea like in its early days? It started very casually. We both had written pieces of music on our own; we each maybe had like five or six little pieces of music. I think originally it was just us trying to figure out where we stood as far as being able to make music together. It was pretty private, and we didn’t really show anybody for quite a while. Then we started playing and decided to start a band, even though neither of us had any clue how to do that. It was that way for about a year and a half. We made it ourselves, we released it ourselves, and we toured in some insanely weird places. We eventually decided we wanted to start doing something that was more than just two guitars, or a guitar and a piano, and that’s when we started playing with [violinist] Aisha [Burns]. From there it was just kind of a natural outgrowth from what we wanted to do. We had different members come and go during different periods of time, but it was always pretty natural.
You guys are currently a six-piece. How does the writing work out? Every album has been different, some more collaborative than others. For the last one, Stranger, I took on the brunt of the songwriting. I started the majority of the ideas and would then bring them to the group. It’s worked in different ways over the years, but Michael and I definitely steer the ship, so to speak.
What led you to take the helm for Stranger? We were all living apart. I was living in a small town in West Texas; Michael was in Brooklyn; our cellist was living in Seattle; two of us were in Austin; our engineer who we work with was living in Chicago. We were really all over for about a year, so one day it just kind of dawned on me like, oh, shit — I’m going to have to write this record. So, a lot of it was a function of us just being so spread out at that time.
Do you feel like that separation informed a lot of the songs on the album? Definitely. We’ve been together for a long time now. We started the band in 2006. I was in college, and Michael was a lot younger, so a lot has changed for us. That [time] was a point where all of us decided to do our own thing a little bit. I think we all changed during that period, and I think that Stranger is pretty indicative of that change, at least for me.
Your music tends to be very atmospheric. Does location impact the songwriting? For some stuff, definitely yes. At some moments there’s an image that will come to me that’s a very strong image, and sometimes that image is associated with a place or a location. On Constellations there are a handful of images, from my personal experience and from literature and my imagination, that kind of led me to want to make that record. That had to do with some images of the ocean and the sea at night time. And it wasn’t like we sat down and said, “We want to make an album about the sea at night.” There were specific things that sparked the emotional content behind that music.
I feel like a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that you’re not singing. Yeah. The good thing is that our music is so undefined that people can attribute whatever they want to it, really. A lot of people have very strong feelings about what our music evokes in them, and they can differ from person to person. I think that’s what music just does to people in general, but because there are no lyrics, there’s nothing really telling you specifically what this piece of music is about. I think people are often left with impressions, and a lot of times those impressions are naturalistic because the music’s not electronic.
Balmorhea plays Muddy Waters Café (508 E. Haley St.) on Friday, August 2, at 8 p.m. with House of Wolves. Call (805) 966-9328 for info.