Untamed Denton: An Interview with Cameron Neal

Summer arts dispatch from Denton, TX

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Inside Dan's Bar in Denton, Texas.

I spent a good portion of my interview with Cameron Neal worrying about the ox head.

It was huge, mounted on the wall right above my comparatively fragile skull, and sat slightly lopsided—surely someone had missed a nail somewhere hanging up this gargantuan specimen, and soon those frightening horns would be the last thing I’d ever see.

It certainly did, however, fit the decor in the rest of Andy’s Bar—I couldn’t begrudge it that. Everything was quintessentially Southwestern, almost to the point of caricature, with blanched wood floors and sprawling red cowhide couches.

In retrospect, the place was actually quite nice. It was relaxed, and cozy–– sleepy with late-afternoon sunlight spilling in through a dirty window, and a single ceiling fan that cut lazily through cigarette smoke.

Neal, my interviewee, is the lead singer and guitarist for the band Horse Thief. They got their start playing at places like Andy’s, back when all the members were fifteen and sixteen years old. They gained some local clout, and by the time its four members were old enough to go to college, they were headlining shows and had two full-length LPs under their belt.

Three of the original four members moved to Oklahoma City, but they still play shows in Denton all the time. It’s a story that a lot of bands from the area can tell. They were incubated here in Denton, until their sound was mature enough that they could make it on the national or even international stage. (Horse Thief will be playing at the massive End of the Road festival, in England, at the end of August.)

In every other respect, though, there really isn’t a stereotypical Denton band. I sat down with Neal to get his take on Denton’s music culture.

“Denton has this special thing about it,” he said. “And they don’t want it to get out, because they don’t want it to get ruined.”

Musing on what it’s like to play in Denton, he said, “It’s a small town, so you know everybody there, and you know all the bands, and you hang out with all the bands, so you’re all feeding off of each other’s inspiration.”

“I feel like in Austin, it’s kinda hard—there’s probably, like, forty different scenes down there,” said Neal. “In Denton, you know everyone,” and he concluded—“I think that’s why so many bands come out of here, more than other places.”

Denton’s size isn’t the only thing it has going for it—if that were the case, every town of 100,000 people would have a music scene this vibrant. I’d chalk that up, partially at least, to the University of North Texas’s presence in the town. It has a world-renowned music school that churns out top-notch instrumentalists—so the talent-to-population ratio of the town is very high.

The result is a bunch of damn good musicians in a small place. And because it’s a manageable size, all of them know each other.

Horse Thief’s sound is instantly familiar. There’s Fleet Foxes’ spaciousness and meandering melodies, Grizzly Bear’s psychedelic affectations and intricate guitar work, and Local Natives’ insistent percussion and expansive energy.

Neal’s voice is one of the band’s standout features and there’s an earthy simplicity to both Neal’s voice and the lyrics he writes; a mountain-man affinity for earnestness and natural imagery––“I am the bear / and you are the tiger / and I will use my paws to protect her,” go the opening lines of “I Am the Bear.”

The openers for Horse Thief’s show that night included a solo performer pounding on a sampler while making noises with his throat that I was sure were limited to cats and exotic birds; and a female duo that sounded like the freak-folk band CocoRosie. It was a bit bizarre, sure, but at least it wasn’t boring.

Back in Andy’s, the speakers played a version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on a wobbly theremin—impressionist music on LSD, strange but still very pretty. Ending the interview, I asked Neal, plainly, why he loves Denton.

“Here we have open doors to do whatever we want,” he said. “There’s no boundaries.”

Matthew J. Watson is blogging from Denton, Texas. His series traces his exploration of Denton's music and culture.

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