For Hank Sullivant, the creative force behind Kuroma, the making of his band’s new album The Dark Horse Rides Again was a balance of grace and despair, and of finding inspiration in places least expected. It’s the kind of art that can only come from deeply personal examination and reflection, and the trust in one’s closest communities and one’s self to do the resulting emotions justice, with honesty, courage, and no small amount of hip-shaking, earth-rattling, psychedelic groove.
Since the mid 2000’s, Sullivant, along with his current bandmates Simon O’Connor, James Richardson, and Will Berman, have steadily made a name for themselves, playing shows in and with MGMT and The Whigs, as well as proper Kuroma tours with heavyweights like Tame Impala, Jarvis Cocker, The Walkmen, and more. The band has grown upwardly since its 2007 full-length debut, Paris, the subsequent Psychopomp in 2010, and Kuromarama in 2015. The story behind The Dark Horse Rides Again reveals both a new side to the band as well as a deeper, more introspective look into its leader’s spiritual history and psyche. “It is a really personal album,” Sullivant says. “All this music is through the lens of my spirituality and my conversion to Catholicism. The album goes into a lot of deeply personal areas.”
Raised Episcopalian by a church-going mother in the religious and musical hotbed of Memphis, Tennessee, Sullivant says he has always identified with spirituality to some degree and its relationship to creativity. “Even if I wasn’t thinking in terms of God, I’ve always believed there is an element or a presence that we can’t see that’s always with us,” he says. “I’ve felt that with music, too, when I hear music that truly engages my soul.” After experiencing what he calls an “acute psychotic episode” while on a school trip to France in high school, Sullivant lived several years under a dark curtain-involving moments of paranoia and schizophrenia that he calls “dark moments with lasting effects and depression.” But after a few years of living with those afflictions, he learned to channel the feelings into unique personal expression while attending the University of Georgia and playing in bands.
“Towards the end of college, I had a manic episode where I was on fire with creativity,” Sullivant says. “During that period I wrote all the music that would become the first Kuroma record. It only lasted three weeks, and then I was depressed again. But it was pretty wild. It was partly a creative purging of the horror I experienced in France.”
Sullivant made the debut Kuroma record quickly, feeling for the first time a pure creative joy. “That led to a feeling of grace, and from there my faith grew and I became more drawn to Christianity,” he says. During that time, he also met the woman who would become his wife, and it was her Catholic faith that led Sullivant to embrace the religion fully.
“I fell in love with her completely and, loving everything about her, I started to look into Catholicism,” he says. “She’s a good example of what it means to live life as a Catholic. I had to deal with a lot of holdups. All those things that I used to question became incredibly revelatory for me. I keep discovering more and more. You receive a lot of grace from suffering and a lot of good can come from it.”
Sullivant wrote the new song “Perfect Girl” about her, a tune featuring a poppier sound with strings played both by a MIDI synth as well as a live quartet, with the real strings pushed to the top. After returning home from an Australian tour with the legendary Neil Finn, Sullivant was inspired to write the simple and direct love song for his wife. “Neil Finn just blew me away with the friendliness of his music and how well communicated it is; he’s not afraid to be really simple and direct, but somehow it still has this alternative feel to it. When I got home I wanted to write a song like that, and that’s what became ‘Perfect Girl.'”
The Dark Horse Rides Again‘s title comes from the after-the-fact serendipitous revelation that the word Kuroma means “black horse” in Japanese, and its linking to finding creative inspiration while shrouded in darkness. “Vincent van Gogh called his process ‘active melancholy,'” Sullivant says. “Even though he was wrapped in darkness, he was able to paint. It’s different from depression, because depression is total emptiness: you’re stammered and you don’t even want to pick up your guitar. Last summer, when I wrote some of this new music, I felt like I was in a crushing darkness. The world felt extremely dark to me. My problem is that sometimes I succumb to despair, which is bad-but this wasn’t that. I like the image of the dark horse riding because the darkness is active. Also the feel of a lot of the music makes me think of bopping on the back of a horse.”
Sullivant is proud of the band’s growth from the previous album to the present, and acknowledges the depth and fullness of Dark Horse. “Kuromarama was like seeing what kind of wild combinations we could come up with as a way to make this really colorful pop,” he says. “This album I wanted to sound deep and full. I think texturally and melodically in the chord progressions there’s a lot of emphasis on making part of the chord come out-not having something that contrasts with it, just really fill it up. That was the mindset for the whole album, and my band was totally on that wavelength. We didn’t want to add stuff just to add stuff; only to enrich what is there. I wanted to paint in bold strokes.”
Dark Horse‘s opening song, “A Day With No Disaster,” launches the album’s full-on assault immediately with a blast of shoegaze sound and a gorgeous, out-front melody. Written on just an acoustic guitar without any ornamentation, Sullivant was heavily influenced by a specific track on the latest My Bloody Valentine album while writing and added distorted chords with the melody placed on top. “Normally you talk about their distorted textures, but I think what makes My Bloody Valentine phenomenal is the beauty of their progressions and melodies,” he says. “In the course of part of a verse melody you’ll feel a rise in emotion and then Kevin Shields will just crush you and bring you down. I think the song ‘Only Tomorrow’ is one of their best pieces of music, and I think ‘A Day with No Disaster’ is influenced by that.”
Sullivant cites his growth as a home musician and in writing by himself as a huge proponent to the easy vibe found both on the album and in its recording. Investing in a home studio, and relying more heavily on plug-ins and computers, he was able to record demos as he wrote songs, and to come to the recording sessions with nearly completed material. There, he capitalized on the shared time with the band and the engineer, taking cues from everyone involved to expand upon his drafts and craft the material into dense, complete songs.
“There’s so many ways to do it on your own,” he says. “Plug-ins are such creative tools now and it gave the writing process more of a natural flow. Previously, I would write on my acoustic guitar or a keyboard, and I’d ditch any melodies or chord progressions that I couldn’t remember later. It was all, and it still is, based around a song; the song always happens in my head first, and once I was in a proper studio, I’d attack it. But that made for a lot of waiting around; whereas with this, I could get it going right away. I got down a lot of the arrangement on my own and it felt really natural. By the time we all got together, a lot of it was fully formed and the other guys all put emphasis on stuff I hadn’t thought of. Recording this album feels like it’s flown.”
Kuroma went into the studio with producer Al Carlson in Brooklyn at the end of October 2015 to build upon Sullivant’s demos. As the first Kuroma album with a budget going in, the band worked at an inspired clip, finishing the recording in just two weeks. “The environment was fun and we were just going with the flow,” Sullivant says. In addition to Sullivant’s new level of preparedness and the luxury of a budget, it’s clear that the speed with which Kuroma is now able to produce music is symptomatic of the seasoned veterans in the band. Calling upon both their own personal experience as well as their familiarity and ease with each other, the band was able to find a groove quickly and easily. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the music on Dark Horse is reminiscent of the golden age of rock and roll during the ’60s and ’70s when bands would work quickly and tirelessly to release multiple albums in a small span of time. The result is a cohesive and self-assured album that presents multiple styles, sounds, and heights.
“I’m the Kind” was inspired by Sullivant’s love of classical music, specifically Maurice Ravel’s “Le Gibet,” while other tracks, like “The Island in Me” and “I Want the Kingdom,” were Sullivant’s attempts to write more along the lines of classical pop songs. Taking cues from his favorite giants of the genre like Françoise Hardy as well as from Japanese literature and poetry, Sullivant says the simple and vivid imagery in his tunes came to him over time and progressed intuitively.
Looking back at the album as a whole, the singer is both proud of and wizened by the emotional journey that brought him here, and is enthused and excited to expand upon the new directions signaled by The Dark Horse Rides Again. Kuroma will be touring in the second half of 2016 and beyond, and Sullivant also plans to expand his own reach into the worlds of production and mixing as well as composing for films. “I love how the album turned out,” he says. “It was a big musical step and production step and I think it’ll lead to more. The hope is that it improved me and it’ll keep moving farther and getting better.”For tour dates and more visit: www.facebook.com/RealKuroma/