Justin Ringle finds success with Horse Feathers despite the high turnover

Paul Flahive

Over the phone, Justin Ringle seemed to have trouble remembering something as he counted. It wasn't the number of years he's led the indie folk band Horse Feathers, which is now near eight. It wasn't the number of albums he's released -- four, including "Words Are Dead," which landed on National Public Radio's top-10 albums of 2006. Nor was it the number of shows he's playing in Alaska -- three, one each in Anchorage, Seward and Fairbanks.

"Probably six," he paused. "Or seven."

It's the number of times Horse Feathers has changed lineups, from just a guy with a guitar singing at open mikes in 2004 to the current five-piece ensemble that includes two violinists, a cellist and a drummer/multi-instrumentalist.

Nearly all of the departures have been amicable, Ringle said, but a rotating cast of characters isn't what he wanted when he started. He intended to keep a crew of crack players, a known dynamic and chemistry, a strong foundation -- it just never worked out that way.

Whether it's his bandmates leaving for "real jobs," a desire to front their own bands or the need simply to move on, it's hard for Ringle to cycle through players. But at 31 years old, he said he doesn't take it personally.

That wasn't the case at 26. Five years ago it felt like being stabbed, he admitted.

"I'm bringing these people into my band and in a lot of ways, when I am playing with them, I am closer to them than anybody," Ringle said. "They're in your inner circle."

Five years ago is also when the Portland, Ore., outfit released "Words Are Dead." The album proved a critical success, with NPR describing it as "homey and soaked in strings" and drawing comparisons to Iron and Wine.

The band will continue its high profile on public radio when the group performs the Fairbanks taping of the popular radio show "Mountain Stage."

That critical success doesn't mean Horse Feathers is making a killing, Ringle said, joking that the band getting its own green room was a success eight years in the making.

But four albums and seven or so incarnations after the band's breakout record, Horse Feathers doesn't seem fazed by the rollover, even if it wasn't part of Ringle's plan. The most recent album, "Cynic's New Year," came out earlier this year and naturally was recorded by a series of musicians in what Ringle described as impromptu recordings sessions in the home studio he had set up in Portland.

"It ended up a little livelier than the last record (2010's 'Thistled Spring')," said Ringle. "I had more fun artistically (working on 'Cynic's') than almost any other. It felt like a step (forward) where the previous record was, to be honest, a little more anal retentive."

"It's not the Horse Feathers I fell in love with, but it's still the Horse Feathers that I love," said Kent Ueland, member of the Spokane, Wash., band Terrible Buttons, a group that recently toured Alaska and has opened for Horse Feathers. The 21 year-old fell for the band at 15 and has been a fan ever since.

"It's sort of like going to watch a string quartet; everything bounces off everything so well," said Ueland. "If you blink, you might miss things that they've clearly spent a lot of time perfecting."

Ringle said that adding drums has changed the dynamic. Horse Feathers isn't as quiet as it used to be. Now the band mixes it up, he said. He doesn't want to be quiet and intense for an entire set.

When asked about the band's future, he thinks for a while, conceding that Horse Feathers has already been more successful than he thought possible.

"I think there is something more grand than just the song," he said. "Song writing is something I am totally into and obsessed with on a lot of levels, but to me it always feels like the beginning. And I am trying to reach the end with all these other people, and all their other energy and skills help shape that."

Maybe someday they will stick around.

By Paul Flahive
Daily News correspondent