The expressive, instrumental six-piece finds a distinct musical voice with their new release, “Stranger.”
“I appreciate sacred music,” says Rob Lowe of Austin-based instrumental band Balmorhea. And that’s what he creates: sacred music. Balmorhea (pronounced "Bal-more-ay") uses acoustic guitar, strings, heavy percussion, piano, and a variety of instruments in a carefully composed, dynamic way to create ambient music of unrelenting energy. Their latest record, Stranger, is out today on Western Vinyl, and tonight, the six-piece plays Cafe Istanbul in New Orleans.
Lowe—guitarist, songwriter, and one of the band’s original members—began his music-making with piano lessons at age seven in a “standard, American, rehearse-three-minutes-a-day” kind of way, he says. He knew little of independent music until college, having been raised on classical and traditional music. “I was in the Methodist church choir as a kid. I did plays in high school with music and singing, but I had an isolated musical childhood. When I moved away from my hometown after high school, I was exposed to worlds of music-making.”
Nothing could replace his first love of classical music, though. Balmorhea relies on the music itself, not words, for its expressive, emotional quality, much like the classical composers Lowe looks to. “When I sit down to write music, I don’t even think about lyrics,” he says. “There’s a long tradition of music that doesn’t have words, and it feels like the natural way of writing music for me.”
Balmorhea formed in 2006 during Lowe’s college years. But what exists as a six-piece now began as a simple, two-man project. “My bandmate Michael Muller and I started playing together, and we said, ‘Why don’t we, you know, start a band?’ We didn’t really have any ambition. We just said, ‘Oh, let’s record these songs and make a CD and try to go on a tour and see what happens.’ We would meet other people that played instruments, and we’d say, ‘Hey, you want to come and work on this violin part for this song?’ Which would eventually develop into someone becoming a member of the band. It’s been a long, slow process of building and growing.”
A band with an expansive palette of instruments and six people playing them could easily get out of hand, but Lowe is the careful composer. He and the rest of Balmorhea built the songs on Stranger bit by bit because for the first time in their career as a band, they weren’t in the same physical location. “When we all lived in the same city, we’d all get together in a room,” he says. “Someone would come up with an idea, and we’d work it up that way. But this time, we were at a distance, spread out all over the country for this album. It was written in the studio, pretty much. I did a large share of the song-building, and the part-writing.”
Without the band around, Lowe looked to his electric guitar and his loop pedal when working on material. Because of it, the album has a liveliness, an energy, that previous Balmorhea albums don’t tap into. Emotionally connecting with an audience remains a primary goal of Balmorhea, but for the first time, Lowe began to explore the thought of making his audience want to move physically. “I started playing a lot of electric guitar, and with this loop pedal,” he says. “Because I wasn’t around my band, I was working on these songs that are built around loops by myself. It gave a rhythmic, pulsating, more regimented feel to these songs than any of our previous albums. It still retains the heart and soul of what we have done with the rest of our music, but it’s more pop-oriented. We wanted to use new sounds, synthetic and electric.”
Pulling these sounds off live, though, requires much practice and dedication. The band hasn’t played any song off of the new record until this tour, but even with the new material, Lowe says it’ll still be a Balmorhea show: “Six people on stage playing a bunch of instruments, and everyone’s switching around."