Winter Sleeps in Summer’s Arms

When EW caught up with The Horde & the Harem (THATH)’s Ryan Barber, he was in heaven. Well, at least music heaven for the hip-and-up-and-coming as well as the hip-established: South by Southwest.

“It’s like 75 degrees out, and there’s a million bands playing,” singer and guitarist Barber says. In the less than 24 hours THATH had been in Austin, Texas, the indie-folk band had performed three shows and was heading to the stage for their fourth. For us northerly music and film folk that haven’t been able to migrate south for the region’s great arts mecca, Ryan says, “Imagine your downtown is blocked off and every bar is a venue and the street is filled with people.” And that’s not for a weekend, like Eugene Celebration, that’s nine days nonstop with over 2,000 bands and a handful of major film premieres, like Harmony Korine (director of Kids)’s Spring Breakers.

Despite the sunny Texas T-shirt weather, THATH were in Austin to promote their 2012 album, A Long Midwinter. Named after the title track, A Long Midwinter was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story Master and Man, a tale spun around a master, his servant and morality in Russia’s unforgiving tundra.

“I like Tolstoy — how he does the heady social commentary,” Barber says. Spoiler Alert! The master, after abandoning his servant in the cold during a business journey, experiences a flash of humanity and returns to the man, and wraps himself around the servant to warm him. The master dies; the servant lives. “I like that imagery,” he says. That imagery is front and center on the album cover; a fur coat lies in the snow wrapped around a bouquet of vibrant flowers.

The track, and the rest of the album, however, are far from bleak. Lyrics like “As the snow kept falling / It sent a chill, it sent a chill to our hearts / And death was singing / Single dirges, not for the churches” are punched up with Barber’s Ben Folds-esque voice and layers of keyboardist Hanna Steven’s honey vocals, as well as those of guitarist Noble Monyei, whose stand-out rich baritone sounds like a cross between The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts. Streaks of sunlight filter through the album in the shape of joyous trumpets, shiny guitar solos and rollicking piano layered over four-part harmonies.

“Our live show — there’s a lot of energy,” he says. “There’s always something happening. I don’t want to say it’s a play, but everyone has a different part.”

The Horde & the Harem play with fellow Seattle band Blvd Park 8:30 pm Saturday, March 23, at the Axe & Fiddle; $5.