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2010-12-03 / Features


By C. Marner HTF Contributor
A local band creating quite a bit of buzz as of late, Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses, are slated to release their debut album Then and Now in early December. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the group’s front man Matt Ray for an informal chat about music, and the group’s upcoming CD release. C. Marner: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in music.

Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses. Photo by Peter Lee. Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses. Photo by Peter Lee. Ray: Well music has always been a part of my life really. I don’t ever remember it not being there. As a young child, my folks were both performing musicians. My father played guitar and my mother played bass and often ran sound. It was just all around me really. The first band I was in was at the age of 15 and I played drums. I didn’t start to seriously get into songwriting until college. Up until that point, it was mostly poems to myself and stuff like that.

C. Marner: So, what caused you to turn in that direction? What was the impetus?

Ray: I think it was a combination of a few things. First, I really started to go out and SEE this kind of music. Growing up in a small town, there were very limited opportunities to actually see this kind of live music. Once I got to college, it was everywhere. Secondly, I just really enjoyed performing. As a child my family was highly involved in community theatre and so I was on the stage all the time.

C. Marner: What about your songwriting? How do you create a song?

Ray: For me, it always starts with the lyrics. I’m always scratching things down here and there. Sometimes these are complete thoughts, and other times they are just little phrases. Then, I often sit down with a general theme or concept in mind and simply start to write. Sometimes the words come out so fast I can’t get them all down. Other times, it is a real struggle to write anything at all. As I am writing these lyrics, I very often am thinking of a melody that suits them in my head. Quite often, it is at this point that I will pick up the guitar and begin to strum the basic chord progression that I am hearing in my head. Then, it just evolves from there and at that point, can really go in any direction. A good example would be a song I recently wrote called, “Home.” When I wrote this song, I had a slow ballad in mind. But, as I played it, it just didn’t feel right to me. At the same time, I had been messing around with some different tunings on my banjo, in particular what is known as the “Mountain Minor” tuning. As I was working on this, a riff just fell out. I immediately applied this riff to the lyrics of this song “Home” and it just clicked. Everything worked. That is the best case scenario. But, you know, I have piles of lyrics that I simply can’t find any music for. So, it can go both ways.

C. Marner: Shifting gears a little bit, how did “Those Damn Horses” come about?

Ray: First off, TDH has been an ever evolving thing, which in my opinion, is really the true nature of the music that we are trying to play. It all started several years ago when I was first starting to play places on the Iron Range. As a solo musician, there were not many opportunities for me and I often found myself being the opening act for a larger band. One of these bands that I worked with several times was Four Horse Johnson. A couple of the guys in the band really enjoyed the music that I was playing and suggested that we just get together for some informal jamming. It started with a guitar, banjo, and bass. As we begin to play, we all really were enjoying the sounds we were making and started to work out a good amount of material. At the same time, I was playing in a band called The Toasted Roosters out of Duluth and I suggested that we bring our fiddle player and washtub bass player into the mix. By this time, we had started to also work with “Trapper” Al Ranfranz – a local harmonica legend. We then realized that we had a full band capable of performing a good amount of material and decided to give it a go. Since that time, the lineup has moved around a bit, and we have now settled into a core group of musicians who are all dedicated to this music. In addition to myself, our current line-up consists of:

Eric Krenz – acoustic guitar, vocals “Trapper” Al Ranfranz – harmonica, kazoo, vocals Dave “Flea” Tech – fiddle Ian Koivisto – washtub bass, mouth harp, jug, vocals Kyle Ollah – washboard, snare drum, briefcase, vocals

C. Marner: What IS this kind of music? Where does it come from?

Ray: Well, it’s really a combination of several things. The cover material we do is largely our interpretations of traditional American music. This is what is commonly referred to as “pre-war” music. Most of the material comes from old minstrel shows, mountain music, and a variety of other roots. People see us with a banjo and a fiddle and immediate want to categorize us as a bluegrass band and we couldn’t be further from that. For example, I play what is called “clawhammer” style banjo which is a very different style and form than traditional bluegrass banjo. What we do, is take the basic idea of these old songs, and perform them with somewhat of a modern twist. We are not really covering this material as much as we are redefining it. Most people in our audience have never heard this kind of music before and sometimes leave our shows scratching their heads a bit. But, what we are trying to do is to take this old music – the music that is the foundation for all of the music we hear today – and present it to people in a manner they have not heard before. It’s loose, high energy, foot stompin’ music – roots music in its most basic form.

C. Marner: Your debut album as Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses is being released on Dec. 1. Tell me a little about this project.

Ray: Our new album is called “Then and Now” and is released as a double album. When we began talking about entering the studio to record some material, it was brought up that it might be fun to try a different approach. We would record TWO albums – one of totally original material and one of covers of the roots music that have helped to define our sound. All in all, we ended up recording about 32 songs at Sparta Studios under the guidance of Rich Mattson. The completed project is a presentation of duality – “Then” is the disc of roots music. “Now” is our songs – modern roots music.

C. Marner: What about the future of Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses?

Ray: The future is really wide open for us. We’ve been getting lots of offers from good venues across the state and will be playing around the area. We are also in discussions with a production and booking agency out of Minneapolis that we hope to work with to help us get our music out to a broader audience. Personally, I’m always writing songs and would like to record another solo album of material sometime so that will no doubt happen. We also have enough material to record another album of material as a band so you can probably expect that as well. Finally, I’ve been in discussions with an old friend of mine. Dom Flemons, of the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and myself have been discussing the idea of putting together a traveling old time minstrel tent show. We’d like to get this going in 2012 after his band takes a bit of break. So, hopefully that will work out as well. I don’t know what the future will bring us – we all enjoy the music and enjoy playing together so as far as I can see, there is no end in sight.

C. Marner: Where can folks see you perform?

Ray: Our CD Release on the Iron Range is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 3 at Mac’s Bar in Mt. Iron. Our old friends, the Iron Range Outlaw Brigade, will also be performing so it should be a great night of music. We’ll be selling our CDs at a very reduced rate for this show. Other than that, we are pretty busy for the next couple of months so if someone wants to see us live, and that IS the way to experience our music, check out our schedule online.

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C. Marner is a freelance writer living and roaming around the Iron Range. You can contact him at:

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