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Building On The Riff: Niche’s Corey Barhorst Talks To Stereo Embers

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It was a real pleasure to talk to Corey Barhorst, the keyboard player in the band Niche.

Their terrific new record is about to be released by KYLESA’s Retro Futurist label. Corey has played bass in KYLESA and Black Tusk, and his keyboard work in Niche is phenomenal.

In fact, Niche are phenomenal.

The Savannah, GA five-piece play ’70s rock tinged with psychedelia and southern rock muscle. Together since 2009, the band’s third album Heading East may be their finest yet.

Stereo Embers: Could you tell us about the formation of Niche and when you joined the band?

Corey Barhorst: The band started with Justin and Mike moving on after their last band came to an end. At the time there was two different drummers before Lee. When I joined, Niche was on their 2nd drummer(Scotty). I was originally only to play on a few songs as the band wasn’t looking for an organist/ keyboard player. I only got to join because I forgot which songs to learn from the tape. So, I just learned them all. Soon after that first record, Scotty left and in comes Lee. Then a year later, Kris finished up the line up.

SEM: You’ve recently played bass with Black Tusk, but you play keyboards in Niche. Is there an adjustment period when you switch from bass to keyboards?

CB: Maybe, but I never stop playing/practicing music. After tours, while most people want to take a rest I am always wanting to start jamming the next day. I never feel tired of playing.

SEM: Does your bass playing influence your keyboard playing and vice versa?

CB: Sure, both influences both. When I am playing bass, I get keyboard ideas. And same for bass.

SEM: What bands from the ’70s do you guys cite as inspirations?

CB: Well, there are the classics of course. But, while this record was being written we would all take breaks and take turns DJing and looking up old videos . A lot of early Steely Dan was played as was Yes, MC5, and of course, Thin Lizzy.

SEM: Are there any particular ’70s keyboardists whom you admire?

CB: Oh yeah. John Lord, but thats a giveaway. But, I really look up to Vincent Crane of Atomic Rooster and Jean-Jacques Kravetz of the German band Frumpy for their Hammond work. As far as the synths, just the sound of those machines on all the ’70s stuff is amazing . Like that Moog riff in the end of “Magic Man”–it makes the song! The feeling you get hearing them. That was enough for me.

SEM: Let’s switch gears and talk about Niche’s new album, Heading East. Who did the compelling album cover art and how does it reflect the songs?

CB: Samantha Muljat is the artist. We first saw her work for the latest Earth record and thought it was amazing. So we contacted her. Pretty much we sent her the album and this is what she came up with. And it totally fits the album and helps put the finishing touches of the vibe we wanted to go for! It reminds me of those mid ’70s smooth rock covers–so awesome!

SEM: What role did Kylesa’s Phil Cope have in producing the album? In other  words, how involved was he in “getting” the band’s sound?

CB: Phillip is an old friend of ours, He has recorded Mike and Justin’s older band and I have worked with him a bunch. He expressed an interest in working with us on this record. And as far as his role, he did what you would think a producer would do: slaved away at the desk for days getting the right mixes, giving suggestions on amp tones/pedals etc…We would have had a tough time without him, for sure.

SEM: “Exiled to Islands” is a compelling and original opener. Please talk about how you use Justin, Michael, and Kristopher’s harmonies to create musical climaxes throughout the song.

CB: Well, we are all fans of older ’60s bands where most members all sing and having 3 vocalists, we really wanted to bring that up front in the songs. This song, Justin had the idea and worked with Kris and Mike on writing the harmonies.

SEM: “When I’m Gone” is one of the many songs on Heading East that feature dueling guitar solos. How do Kristopher and Justin approach composing these solos? Are they previously written? Improvised?

CB: Those two worked together a lot on their own for this record. At the time, they both happened to be living together. So there was a lot of talk between them about the whole record, including the solos.

SEM: This song also has a cool, psychedelic instrumental in which your synths and Hammond play a prominent role. How did you come up with your parts, especially as they’re so intertwined with the guitars?

CB: Really, we recorded a lot of demos of the record. And I took those and worked on them away from the band. Many to save the other members hours of me making noise–you know, just one synth has like 100’s of sounds. So I would work on them at home. And after I thought I had something, I would record it to the demos and show everyone. But this song always has a good live feel. On the last record, we started diving into the psych/jammy parts. “When I’m Gone” is where we wanted to get to. We all wanted this driving trip part that just builds as it goes. So that’s how I treated the keyboards. I am very excited with the way this song turned out.

SEM: How did you create the main organ riff on “On Down the Line”? It sounds like this song was built on the riff…

CB: Well, to be honest, the song was written before the keyboards were added. Same with “When I’m Gone”–this song was I believe our 3rd one we wrote. Mike was off visiting family around the time, so I played bass in helping Justin and Kris write it. Mike returned and added the real bass you hear on the record. So really the organ part was what I was doing on bass, just moved to the keys.

SEM: Please talk about the instrumental outro in this song. Was prog rock an influence? Classical music?

CB: Def prog rock. I was able to use a Mellotron patch for the sting songs and Kris’s trippy guitar parts really gives it that psych feel we really wanted.

SEM: Lee’s drumming really comes to the fore on “Dear Sweet Anne.” What can you tell us about him as a player?

CB: Lee is an amazing drummer. His approaches to the songs are great. He’s always on top when new ideas are presented at practices. He is also a custom drum builder for Gretsch drums, so his kits always sound amazing.

SEM: The vocal melody really sticks out on this song. It’s beautiful, as are the words. Did the band approach the composition of this song differently than the others? It seems to be less “jam-based” than the others, with the possible exception of “Tough and Mean”…

CB: Justin pretty much had this song fully written before bringing it in. But, we still at first treated just like the rest, in regards to writing it. It wasn’t till we recorded the demo of it that we really started focusing on shaping it, which was a little different that the others.

SEM: How did you guys create the heavy section with which “Tough and Mean” begins?

CB: We all really wanted to have an intro like that of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”–something that would make Prince happy. So Kris worked out the lead guitar tracks. We also had use of a gong, so what better place!

SEM: As a straightforward rock song, “Tough and Mean” sticks out from the other songs on Heading East. How was it conceived?

CB: Justin had this riff for awhile, and we used to try to jam on this a bit faster, which wasn’t working. Kris and Justin rewrote it slower and added the duel leads–the rest started to make sense on how everything should go.

SEM: The effects on the vocals are very apparent on “Days to Come.” Why did you guys decide to go in this direction?

CB: We all wanted to do something trippy to the vocals. And this is one of the times we wanted Phillip to step in and make it strange. It’s one of the things he does best if you let him.

SEM: “Days to Come” is 9:30-minute epic. In your opinion, does it summarize the musical territory that Niche covers on Heading East?

CB: “Days to Come” was actually the first song we wrote for this record. so I wouldn’t say a summary but, more the direction we were moving towards. The song is a perfect closer. I will always have a fond memory cause of this song. Athon’s side band practiced in the same building as us. One day a few months before he passed, he sat through listening to us play this song over and over. after each time, he would just say, “God damn” while shaking his head. This wasn’t a put down but his way of saying he enjoyed something.

SEM: What plans does the band have for supporting Heading East on the road?

CB: Well, to hit the road, play what and when we can. If someone is willing to listen, We are willing to play.