7Horse is what happens when you dump accelerant on the smoldering embers of creativity.
The fresh avenue for rock veterans Joie Calio and Phil Leavitt, 7Horse’s music burns where cosmic country meets dirty blues, where primal urges unfold into bawdy nights, and where two friends — and longtime bandmates — discover radically new sides of each other. All that, and maybe a bucketful of booze and a few bottles of pills, are embodied on the duo’s debut album “Let the 7Horse Run.”
“This is all about riff and groove,” Leavitt says of the duo’s quest to tap into the roots of rock ‘n’ roll’s rich past. “It’s about laying something down that’s so good you want to hear it forever.”
The journey began innocently enough, with Calio standing among throngs of fans at a major music festival getting the itch to rock out. “I kept thinking, ‘I could be up there tearing this place apart. I want to still be doing that,’” he says. “I called Phil and that started the conversation.”
Calio and Leavitt were stuck in a seemingly interminable holding pattern with their longstanding project dada, the trio responsible for the hits “Dizz Knee Land” and “All I Am” but whose efforts to make a sixth studio album had stalled. Both had been involved in other projects, Calio having released three solo records and Leavitt having been part of Butterfly Jones and Blue Man Group.
But the notion of creating something new and sonically different took hold. The pair began trading ideas via iPhone, sometimes as little as just a riff and a phrase. “I’d get a sound file with a killer riff on it and the words ‘Meth Lab Zoso Sticker,’” Leavitt says of one exchange that would become a 7Horse song title.
Neither was quite prepared for what happened next. Convening at the Woodland Hills, Calif., studio of Scott Gordon and using time originally booked for dada, the two began taking their song sketches and filling them in.
“Joie plays bass in dada, and I knew he’d been working on a lot of guitar — finger-picking and slide. And we’d been talking about the blues a lot,” Leavitt says. “But I had never heard him do this. I heard him play those riffs and thought, ‘Something is going on here. Who are you?’”
Calio had a similar reaction after the duo rolled the dice and decided to have Leavitt carry the load as lead vocalist. “Phil started talk-singing into these bullet mics and megaphones, and it was like a wave hit the room,” Calio says. “Take away the guy’s drumsticks and he became a different person, with different body language. It sounds amazing to me.”
Wrapping up basically one song per day, “Let the 7Horse Run” was recorded over three racehorse sessions in Gordon’s room in Woodland Hills and with Gregory Haldan and Jon Chi at In the Pocket Studios in Forestville, Calif. “We were not gonna be precious about anything,” Leavitt says. “It was, ’Let’s get it on tape and move on.’” Dave Way did the mixes for the album, and Howie Weinberg mastered.
The sparks that flew during the making of “Let the 7Horse Run” are reflected in the feeling of immediacy on the album. As Calio and Leavitt stitched together pieces from their sketchbook of riffs and lyrics, things fell into place seemingly by stream-of-consciousness.
“Phil and I have a symbiotic relationship. We don’t need to talk,” Calio says. “It’s like when we walk into a room, one guy has the match and the other guy has the fuel.”
Leavitt ran with some of his lyrical ideas, often using as inspiration his upbringing in the underbelly of Las Vegas. “We wanted the album to be dirty and sexy,” he says, “and I’ve got plenty of that.”
“Low Fuel Drug Run” refers to a substance-aided race across the desert to return a rental car on time. “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” has its obvious antecedents. You can feel the sweat dripping from “My Dirty Lover” and “Most of That Is You and Me.”
And the arresting start of “Blackjack Moon” — with Leavitt chanting the rhythmic “hoo-ba-bow-bow-ba-ba-hoo-ba-ba-hoo-ba-bow” — happened by accident. “We were working on that song, and Joie had some kind of weird harmonics coming out of his amp that sounded like that,” Leavitt says. “We thought, ’Let’s put it in.’ It makes the track work.”
In total, “Let the 7Horse Run” recalls a long lineage of blues music from Robert Johnson and Son House to Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin and early ZZ Top and even to contemporary purveyors like the Black Keys.
It feels like nothing short of a coming-out party, not just for Leavitt as a singer and lyricist but for Calio, who reinvented himself as a blues guitarist. “I’ve been in a band with one of the best guitar players around,” he says, "but I’ve always wanted to learn it, and I knew I had some serious work to do. I totally immersed myself for months in the masters, absorbing everything I could about finger-picking and slide — I knew it was going to become the palette for my future creative endeavors.
“When 7Horse happened,” continues Calio, “it was like throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Says Leavitt: “It just feels like a total breakthrough. We’d tried for so many years to make something that would hold up to the standard of what we’d done before. We blew all that out and started fresh.”
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