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The brains behind music’s newest genre


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The Native Howl’s sound isn’t only bending musical barriers, it uses history to create art within the sounds.

By Brooke Clayton

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Alex Holycross, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the Native Howl, a producer, independent record-label owner, and composer since the age of 13, has some advice for artists entering the music industry.

“If you’re just interested in making a radio hit … and having big record labels push your stuff for you, and losing the rights to your music, then I would suggest playing the lottery and doing it that way,” he said. “But if you have a specific, more-or-less religious reason you want to keep your art unadulterated and out to the world as intended in your soul, then I would suggest doing it the way we’re doing it.”

Holycross captured the country’s attention in 2016 with the Native Howl’s song “Thunderhead,” which went viral for its acclaimed combination of thrash metal and bluegrass.

“The video is just a picture of me laughing in the rain, and there are explosions going off and guns being shot, and I think the romance behind the concept really drew people in,” Holycross said.

The Native Howl had only one other member, longtime friend Jacob Sawicki, when the banjo plucking, mandolin thrumming, fast-beating heart of bluegrass drew Holycross in at a music festival.

He was fascinated by the pure talent of the genre’s practitioners and soon added drummer Joshua LeMieux and bassist Mark Chandler to the mix. He believed that bluegrass could only benefit from the intense, simultaneous precision and improvisation of thrash metal, and the Native Howl named its genre-bending sound with the release of its third album (2016), Thrash Grass.

With guitar, piano, harmonica, banjo, and djembe playing at a pace that’s impossible not to move to, it’s imperative that the band perform with precision. Holycross believes the musicians have just about found perfection.

“If I was given a magic wand and someone told me I could swap out one of my members for any musician, living or dead, in history —  I wouldn’t,” Holycross said. “I literally have my MVP lineup.”

The title track on the band’s new album, Out of the Garden and Into the Darkness, is available now, and it exemplifies the influence of nonfiction and history on Holycross’ music.

“I wrote [it] while reading a book called Shooters, which is an old Western biography that goes through all the famous gunslingers in the late-1800s,” Holycross said.

Other songs have a heavy influence from books he has read about the Vietnam War and from “Twilight Zone” episodes.

“I’m such a history nerd, and if I can combine it with music, it’s my favorite thing in the world,” Holycross said.

His ability to turn fact into feeling through sound is something he taught himself.

“I’ve been writing music as a life blood since I was 13, and I’m 28,” he said. “But I never took a single composition course in college. I just live and breathe it. It’s all I care about … I just kind of try to write whatever gives me chills.”

When it comes to finding inspiration for the group’s music, he believes that “pain leads to the best art” and pays particular attention to his emotions.

“The guy in the 2013 Mercedes cuts me off, anger consumes, and boom:

I’ve got a song about the bourgeois and the patriarchy,” he said.

Holycross won’t shy away from his prowess as an up-and-coming composer and producer. He prides himself on the group’s decision to remain on an independent label, free from corporate strings.

“I refuse to have some business suits come in and tell me how to write and tell us how to create art,” he said. “I’ll sooner die.”

The Michigan band will be in Sioux Falls on July 20 and at the Yacht Club on July 21. The group’s new album is available online before the July 27 release date.

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