Interview with Mathew Carroll, Sara Bertuldo, Alex Kirts, and Nate Van Fleet | By Kayla Greet

The Omaha, Nebraska-based band, See Through Dresses, returned to Tiny Engines with a new full-length record called Horse of the Other World on June 30. This latest LP is a stark contrast to their past recordings, which tend to skew more rock and shoegaze. While they certainly always had earmarks of dreampop, Horse of the Other World almost sounds like it comes from a different band all together.

The four-piece—consisting of vocalist and guitarist Mathew Carroll; vocalist, guitarist, and synth player Sara Bertuldo; bassist Alex Kirts; and drummer Nate Van Fleet—take a moment to share a bit about the new record and why they chose to head down this new sonic avenue.

This new record is so much dreamier than the last. What took the band in this direction? How did you start on this path?

MC: With the End of Days EP [in 2015], we very simply wanted to make a bunch of very basement [and] DIY show friendly songs. That urge came as a result of our first tour supporting our [2013] self-titled album. We realized that we had a dormant energy that came out in the form of really raw and unpredictably raucous, sweaty sets, and we loved it. Nate would break drum heads and sticks. Sara would roll around on the ground and dance with the crowd. We’d all be bruised and sore and smiling the next day.

We basically had a blast with all our friends and wanted that to continue, so when we came home, End of Days simply came out of us, because I think—whether intentional or not—we wanted to do something that would continue to make touring like that possible.

With the new record, we still had a strong interest in making pop songs with more elaborate production techniques and more synthesizer. I’d like to think that with Horse of the Other World, we simply continued to develop the sounds we were working toward on side B of our self-titled album.

SB: Yeah, to touch on that more, End of Days was a live, no-frills, four-piece rock batch of songs. For the lack of a better term, Horse… is our art record. We didn’t care about how we would pull it off live and decided, “Yes, let’s put a dozen tracks of synth on one song.” [Laughs]

What have you learned as a band between the last two full-lengths? Any major takeaways from writing two records that are so tonally distinct?

MC: With the self-titled album, we learned how to play together and make something that we could all be proud of, both on an individual level and as a unified band. We did some dreamy stuff, we did some heavier stuff, and we used a synthesizer on a few songs. Sara and I experimented with our vocal deliveries a bit. We were relying pretty much on our individual instincts and working to get those instincts to line up. We learned about our identity as group; we learned what was possible.

On End of Days, we threw distortion on everything, but we very specifically wanted to do it without sounding lo-fi. We tried to develop tighter pop song structures. It was an experiment in trying to tie together a set of songs that all stood separately on their own merits.

With Horse…, we were very consciously pushing to unify all these traits. We tried not to limit ourselves. We weren’t afraid to take songs and rework or experiment with their arrangements so they all locked together as a record. The biggest takeaway, though, is that we realized—at least for the time being—we do better making our music when we don’t try to write something that is very specifically meant to be played a certain way live, as we did with End of Days. We tried a million things and abandoned nearly a million things, but we never really asked ourselves how we’d do it live, at least not in a way where answering the question would have meant throwing out something that felt good.

Do you two tend to work on songs in concert with each other? Or are your songs lyrically your own, then you build music around them?

MC: We usually work separately and then show each other maybe on an acoustic [version], or we show a demo of what we’ve come up with. At that point, lyrics are usually mostly written. If we hear something questionable in the lyrics, we critique. If we hear something promising, we congratulate. I love Sara’s lyrics and mostly never suggest changes. I think she likes mine too, maybe—I hope. We did co-write lyrics to the song “Pretty Police,” and it very quickly became one of the most favorite things I’ve ever been involved with. We did a lot of trading of arrangement ideas on that song too.

SB: I have, in recent years, opened up to the idea of writing with someone else. That someone else is Matt. Songwriting had been a very private thing to me, but I like the challenge of collaborating. I feel comfortable around Matt and have a great amount of respect for his songwriting.

What is the meaning behind the title of the record?

MC: I’ve somewhat mythologized this story—and there are a few different tellings I’ve probably put out there, because it happened a few years ago, and I’m probably fabricating small details—but it came about mostly like this: I was working in the middle of winter at my day job as an ice cream shop manager. A man walked in and sat down at a table by himself. As you might imagine, business was slow, and he was maybe my first customer of the day and was mostly the only person in the shop with me for the duration of his visit. He periodically rested his head on the table, used the bathroom, but he never approached the counter. I was concerned about him, and so I asked if he was OK. He said he was fine, and I think he asked for some water or I offered him some water. He seemed kind of drunk. I got him some water and some coffee and asked if I could sit with him. He said sure. I asked if he needed me to call him a cab to take him home or wherever. He told me he simply needed to rest. For the next hour or so, he talked mostly. He kept saying things like, “The great mother and father are going to descend on the earth and judge us for what we’ve done.” Kind of a vague religious apocalypse kind of thing I suppose. And he kept referencing what I think was his actual dad: “My father was tough on me.” He’d periodically interject between these phrases, with tears, things like, “It’s been a rough time.”

I saw a lot of my family in him—there’s a good dose of mental illness in my family history—and even though I didn’t fully know all the circumstances surrounding what brought him in or the full reasons behind the things he was saying, I tried to follow his words carefully and make him know that I cared for his well-being. We created a small shared vocabulary. I said, “Yeah, the great mother and father are coming because people don’t take care of each other.” He said, “Yeah.” I tried actually to hear the meaning in his words. So noble of me right? Saint Matt saves the day with his benevolent ways.

Then, he told me he had something to show me and reached for his backpack. I prepared for something dangerous, like a knife or gun, and I thought I’d just run out the door if it was. He pulled out a pack of colored markers and grabbed a napkin and started writing. He said, “Look,” and pointed to the napkin on which he had written “Horse of Other World” and explained to me that it was “like a horse, but from the other world.” I felt like such a jerk. He made me a piece of artwork. To have thought I was connecting with someone and to think that I was not immune to the suspicion that this guy who was completely gentle and kind might try to hurt me, simply because I suspected two things: one, that he was experiencing mental illness and two, that he was experiencing homelessness.

His writing was one of the most inspiring graphics I’d ever seen, so I asked him if I could keep the napkin. He said yes and went on his way. It was this kinetic writing in bright red marker, and it bled through the napkin and softened around the edges so beautifully. I didn’t know at the time it would be the name for the record. We used it in the artwork for the record, which I still grapple with, because I don’t know how to credit him with the credit he deserves. I hope I someday meet him again, although it’s been so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize him. When I look at that text, I still get really emotional.

We modified the text to include a “the,” because we like the specificity of the definite article there. It’s a place we go, a concept we think of. That phrase has come to be the symbol for me that represents the elusiveness of mental illness and addiction in our country, like a mythological creature rarely seen and rarely understood.

Were there any events in your personal lives that inspired a more mellow and sweet soundscape?

MC: Not so much for me. I have, for the longest time, been infatuated with mellow and sweet soundscapes and knew I would want to make a record like this eventually.

NVF: When we were coming up with the arrangements for this record [and] preparing to track it, I was finishing a really grueling final semester of college and was ready to dive into something a bit more groove-based—as opposed to the raw rock vibe of End of Days. I’d been listening to a lot of Blonde Redhead and Portishead as we started finalizing drum parts, and I think that contributed to the pulsing, drum machine-esque vibe that I was going for on songs like “Herbivore” and “Violet.” I was also reading Questlove’s book, “Mo’ Meta Blues,” at that time and was really obsessed with the idea of perfect, hyper-precise parts, so I tried to bring some of that level of detail to the studio.

SB: I think for me, honestly, I’m aging, and the rock songs were getting louder and harder to play. My body hurts. Playing synthesizer, physically, is easy on your body.

Do you think you will be incorporating songs from both records into your live set, or do you want to focus on playing the most recent ones?

MC: The new sets will be very focused on songs from Horse… We are very thrilled to play these tunes. There will definitely be some songs from End of Days and the self-titled in the mix. But we definitely want to focus on the new.

SB: As the person who writes the setlist every night, definitely. I’m excited for the instrumentation that Horse… requires. It’ll make some of the songs from the first record accessible for us to play again.

What would you say are the major themes of the songs on Horse…?

MC: Addiction, mental illness, [and] loneliness are the big three in my writing, I suppose. Maybe instead of loneliness, it’s more the feeling of abandonment.

AK: For me, most of the record is about addiction, both physical and emotional. Emotional addiction to past loves [and] lives and how we deal with those thoughts of “what if” and “what could have been.” It’s about looking at yourself—and the people in your life—and dealing with the addictions we all carry.

Have you experienced a broader audience or better reception now that you’ve done more touring?

MC: Yeah, we have. It’s a slow growth. Little by little, we grow. But that’s probably better for us, to grow slowly. If we somehow got super famous all of a sudden, I’d probably not know how to handle it, and VH1 would have to bring back “Behind the Music” to tell of my disgrace.

SB: I’m starting to see repeat customers. Some people sing the words now instead of clapping politely after we finish. That’s pretty wild.

How has being on Tiny Engines helped the success of the band?

MC: Like a lot of labels, Tiny Engines is a label that facilitates the creation of music by musicians who would be doing it on their own anyway. They are, by default, hands off with a lot of the creative process—which shows tremendous respect for the artists they work with—but they have great insights to offer us when asked or when necessary, or when we are trying to approve test pressings or deciding what singles to use. They give us structure in the form of release schedules and press schedules, which are things that really make me feel grounded when, a lot of times in music, things can feel really out of control or anxiety-inducing. There are the obvious financial benefits that come from partnering up and dividing the burdens of cost. They have a very open-door policy to share their knowledge of all things music industry. They are always willing to put us up on tour when we come through North Carolina. They’ve given us the ability to do more touring and reach a broader audience through press. Chuck [Daley] has a basketball hoop, and Will [Miller] has the beach. I could go on and on. We’re a lucky bunch.

SB: I’m really proud to be on a roster with such diverse bands. The people we’ve met through that connection—whether they’re our labelmates or fans of the label—have been incredibly sweet and supportive. Also, Will and Chuck both have bought us meals when we saw them on tour, which I would describe as a great success for my belly.

What do you have planned for the rest of this year? Album release at home and a supporting tour?

MC: We’ll be touring a lot. Starting with a Midwest and East Coast tour In June and July that culminates with a homecoming release show. Working on more dates for the fall and winter too.  Of course, we are always trying to write new stuff and are looking to try to write on the road more. Pretty basic band stuff. Probably going to try to go on at least one good waterslide this year. It’s been too long.

SB: We keep talking about Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun. Missouri isn’t too far away.

How would you say that the community of Omaha has positively impacted the band and vice versa?

NVF: I would say our band wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the blending of genre lines that goes on in the Omaha music community. Matt, Sara, and I met at a show that my old punk band was playing, and since then, See Through Dresses has played with just about every genre imaginable. We’re open to those sorts of bills because it’s the kind of environment Omaha fosters. Omaha is tight-knit enough that you can’t effectively isolate yourself in a genre bubble if you want to succeed, and it’s made us more well-rounded musicians.

AK: I feel like having a central location with friends and family and a place to call home will always be a constant support system for anyone. Omaha has been the start and end of all our tours, and we’ve made all our records there. Here, we have a support system that we can always count on. The feeling of getting home and being with the people I love is what also gives me the energy to leave again.

MC: When I was in high school and first getting seriously interested in music, I had the good fortune of learning that there were independent musicians in Omaha that proved you didn’t have to be a major label superstar to have a career; you could build a musical life for yourself and with your friends and make it into something more, and if you did it with enough passion, it might take you to bigger cities and to bigger audiences. I am, of course, talking about the Saddle Creek Records boom that happened in my town when I was young, awkward, hilariously angsty, and looking for something else to make me feel like I could belong. I’ll never forget hearing Cursive for the first time in The Antiquarium—a record and book store that played a huge role in the development of many notable Omaha artists—and finding them led me to other Omaha artists and then to Cap’n Jazz and Make Believe.

Then, my friend’s band played a show with Make Believe at Sokol Underground when I was a high schooler, and I was like, “People from Chicago play Omaha even though they’re from Chicago?” It was thrilling. A similarly precious memory was going to watch an incredible band like Les Savy Fav open for The Faint in 2003, and then feeling proud and inspired that these people were from my town. From the same time period, I have these precious experiences of seeing local bands with my friends Tom and Bryce at a DIY spot called the Fort House. I remember meeting Craig Fort for the first time and getting too stoned and losing my mind listening to Iron Maiden with him. I can’t remember if that was the same night we all listened to Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” now a tried and true, borderline beat-to-death classic, but at the time, it was so new to me, so different, and I learned about it and loved it with my friends like it was mine—or ours.

I was and still am in awe of many of the people I met back then and often feel both intimidated and inspired by how special they continue to be. And now, I still have that same pride and respect for my community when I see how Omaha continues to evolve, both extending from and separate from the Saddle Creek Records boom. Although Saddle Creek has become a label made up of many incredible non-Omaha natives, the label still supports newer Omaha-based national acts like Icky Blossoms and Twinsmith. And we have bands like Bib—[on] Pop Wig/Deranged Records—and Bent Life—[on] Bridge Nine Records—touring and putting out great recordings nationally and internationally. There are bands like Staffers—[on] Unread/Propane Exchange—and Navy Gangs—[on] Modern Sky—that had origins in Omaha making wonderful music in their newfound communities on the East Coast. Graham Ulicny—[of] Thick Paint [and] The Faint—and Daniel Ocanto—[of] Big Harp—were just nominated for the 2017 Drama Desk Awards in New York for their score for [the play] “Alligator.” A young songwriter named Jocelyn may very well be on the way to a national stage after a wild encounter with Darius Rucker—yeah, that one—on “Undercover Boss.”

There are so many more musicians I could and should mention. There’s a nonprofit organization here called Hear Nebraska that works tirelessly to support our music and arts community. It’s a legit nonprofit that supports all manner of musical creation from every genre by facilitating various events and educational opportunities through grants and fundraisers. We have promotions companies, like One Percent Productions and Cat Meryl—operated by Sara B from See Through [Dresses]—and many others that bring us wonderful music from all over. We have DIYers at Lucy’s Pub, Milk Run, and many other houses and DIY venues—I can’t keep up with them—who have their ears to the ground for something special and new.

The point of my explaining all this is that it’s probably pretty common for people to feel like the world is getting smaller with globalization and an unprecedented access to the internet, but for a guy who, many times in his life, didn’t think there would be much opportunity to play pop music in any serious way because of his origins, the work of my Omaha peers and the work of my Omaha idols has made the world feel bigger than ever in the best way.

I’m not sure how See Through Dresses adds to the narrative of the Omaha music community and its history, but I hope we can do for our friends what they do for us: inspire the creation of more good Omaha music simply by taking part in the enterprise of playing shows and putting out recordings we are proud of.

SB: Omaha’s OK.

Purchase Horse of the Other World here: Physical | Bandcamp | Digital

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