Great art is often said to be a product of one's surroundings. You might create something with the intent of being independent from a homespun environment. In the end, however, some part of your identity, and the origins of that identity, will win out. That largely sums up the music — and the somewhat sudden popularity — of Houndmouth.
The Americana-and-more quartet hails from New Albany, Ind., which is the across-the-river backyard of a much larger and far more fertile musical metropolis, Louisville. Houndmouth didn't discover specific inspirations in New Albany that led to the dozen songs on its debut album, From the Hills Below the City, released in June. It also didn't pound the pavement of hometown haunts (or even ones in Louisville) before landing the gig that got them discovered.
Similarly, the rogues' gallery of characters who inhabit the songs on From the City aren't necessarily autobiographical — especially not the hard-living protagonists who sit at the heart of Casino and Houston Train, two tunes sung by keyboardist Katie Toupin. But somewhere in the midst of the album's Band-like harmonies, folk narratives, roots-driven grooves and overall barrelhouse sass sits a little bit of New Albany.
"No matter what you do, where you're from is going to influence you," said Toupin, who will perform with Houndmouth on Saturday at Buster's in Lexington. "In New Albany, there is not a whole lot happening. But that is the idea of folk music, in that what we do are story songs. We just had to really use our imaginations to create these stories."
The members of Houndmouth — Toupin, guitarist Matt Myers, bassist Zak Appleby and drummer Shane Cody — were all friends and collaborators before joining forces and issuing an independent EP.
"We've all played together separately before Houndmouth in some form," Toupin said. "Me and Matt sang together for three or four years, so I can harmonize with him all day long; it's just second nature. Also, Matt and Zak played together in blues bands all through high school, so they know how to play off each other really well. So it was sort of a natural thing that occurred. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we want to be a band where everybody sings and harmonizes.' But when we stepped into our first practice, that's just how we did it because that's how we knew to do it."
Initially, gigs were in short supply, but a revivalistic Houndmouth tune called Penitentiary (first honed by Myers and Toupin during their days as a duo) started to gain notice in the blogosphere. Then came an invitation to play at the huge, influential 2012 South by Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas, but at a dubious gig at a club named Molotov deemed so "horrible" that even their booking agent advised the band to pass on it.
"It was the first time we had ever been on the road — any of us — as a band," Toupin said. "We hadn't done any traveling before Houndmouth, either. We had played probably four or five shows. So many bands play for years in their hometown. That didn't really happen for us. We put that song online and it started getting some buzz.
"But we just wanted to go to South by Southwest. Our booking agent kept saying, 'You don't have to come down here for a show like that.' And we were like, 'No, we really want to come.' So we did, against his advice."
Among the invited guests at the Austin show was Geoff Travis of the seminal indie label Rough Trade. Travis signed the band, putting the wheels in motion for From the Hills.
"The house that we practiced in was Shane's great-great-great-grandparents' house," Toupin said. "So we got to take over this old historic home. All of the furniture was antique. We've done several music videos in the house because the vibe, the whole aura of the place, has influenced the sound that came out of it."
An equally colorful setting was chosen for the actual recording sessions, which were overseen by Kevin Ratterman. Having previously recorded bands in a makeshift studio set up in a funeral home, the noted Louisville producer began work on From the Hills in a renovated church. The name of his studio couldn't have more apt given its placement as the creative starting point for Houndmouth's fanciful but still rootsy new music: La La Land.
"It wasn't air-conditioned, so it was like 100 degrees in the church," Toupin said. "We used the church organ. We used the piano from the chapel. So we worked in a lot of stuff just from the church itself. It was a really neat experience. And we did it all in a week. It was really cool."
Since its summer release, Houndmouth has been a guest on Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman; has opened shows for Drive-By Truckers and Alabama Shakes; and has performed at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, Bonnaroo outside Nashville and, fittingly, the Forecastle Festival in Louisville. Saturday's show at Buster's is part of the band's first full tour as a headliner, indicating that this little outfit from New Albany could be become the next big thing.
"We're showing up now in towns we've never been to," Toupin said. "People are there and they're singing along. It's kind of a surreal experience."
IF YOU GO
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 9
Where: Buster's Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester St.
Tickets: $12 advance, $15 day of show. Available at (859) 368-8871 and Bustersbb.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.