16 Horsepower was an alternative/traditional musical group based in Denver, Colorado. Their music was usually serious in tone with distinct Christian religious lyrics dealing with conflict and redemption. For the bulk of their career, the band consisted of David Eugene Edwards, Jean-Yves Tola, and Pascal Humbert (the latter two formerly of the band Passion Fodder). After releasing four studio albums and touring extensively, the band broke up in 2005, citing "mostly political and spiritual" differences. The members remain active in the groups Woven Hand and Lilium.
David Eugene Edwards and Pascal Humbert formed 16 Horsepower in 1992 in Los Angeles, California, where they had met building movie sets for Roger Corman’s Hollywood Studios. Friend, co-worker and trained jazz drummer Jean-Yves Tola joined shortly after. The trio performed once as Horsepower before they parted ways with Humbert as Edwards re-located back to Denver, Colorado, soon followed by Tola.
Back in Denver, the band once again became a trio as Edwards' old acquaintance Keven Soll, a luthier and accomplished double bass player, joined the band. Frustrated by misconceptions about the name Horsepower being related to heroin and inspired by a traditional American folk song about sixteen horses pulling the coffin of a beloved to the graveyard, the name was changed to 16 Horsepower. The band spent the following years rehearsing and gaining a reputation for their intense live performances while touring extensively across North America and eventually they released a seven-inch single, "Shametown", in 1994. By this time they had gained the attention of A&M Records, and recording of "Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes" began in 1995. For various reasons A&M decided to postpone the release of the album, and so the band returned to the studio and recorded their eponymous debut EP which was released the same year.
The debut full-length studio album "Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes" was eventually released in 1996, garnering praise from the international music press. At this time Pascal Humbert had re-located to Denver and joined the band as a second guitarist, although his primary instrument is the bass. Following differences about the musical direction, Soll was asked to leave and was replaced by Rob Redick, later known as the bassist for Candlebox. Redick did not last long because of what the band has referred to as "kind of a mutual unhappiness", and Humbert took over the bass duties. Jeffrey-Paul Norlander joined on second guitar shortly before recording began on the second album, "Low Estate", with John Parish as producer. Edwards and Norlander had previously been in several bands together, most notably The Denver Gentlemen.
Norlander departed in 1998 and was replaced by Steve Taylor, the band's guitar technician, who had already been performing on a handful of songs on the bands European tour in 1996.
Spending two years touring and writing new material, 16 Horsepower’s third full-length album "Secret South" was not recorded and released until 2000. The album marked a distinct change in sound and tone from earlier releases as the up-tempo rock influences had all but vanished completely and left room for a more melodic folk-inspired sound. A planned European tour during the summer of 2001 was canceled because of what seemed like internal conflicts within the band, and rumours of a break-up began to circulate shortly after. This rumour was further fueled by the fact that the band members had begun to focus on solo and side-projects. Humbert had released his solo-debut with the band Lilium the previous year and Edwards had begun recording and performing live with his new project Woven Hand.
16 Horsepower, short of Steve Taylor, returned in 2002 with "Folklore". As hinted by the title, this fourth studio album took the band further into traditional folk territory and featured only four original 16 Horsepower compositions. While the band went on several tours in support of the album, their creative output was focused on Woven Hand and Lilium, Tola having also joined the latter. "Olden", a compilation of previously unreleased version of early material was released in 2003. This release was supported by a tour in early 2004, including their first US dates in three years, featuring a set split between early material and Folklore-era songs. In April 2005 the band announced their official break-up, as a result of personal, political and spiritual differences as well as finding the constant touring incompatible with their daily lives.
Alternative Tentacles Records, a San Francisco-based record label run by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra absorbed American distribution of the band's latter records shortly before their breakup. Since the band's demise, the label has released two DVD-format retrospectives, and in 2008 released a two-CD set Live March 2001.
It has always been difficult to describe the band's music in simple terms as it borrowed just as heavily from folk music, country, bluegrass, and traditionals as it did from rock music. 16 Horsepower and Edwards' later project Woven Hand were described by one critic as "incendiary gospel, hallowed folk and mordant tones infused with a high, dark theatricality worthy of Nick Cave."
Edwards' grandfather was a Nazarene preacher and young Edwards often went along as his elder preached the gospel to various peoples. This experience coloured his approach to songwriting as well as the instrumentation employed to develop the band's unique sound. On several tracks over the course of the band's career, Edwards evoked decisive Christian imagery, particularly that of the redemptive capacity of Jesus Christ.
16 Horsepower, especially in their early days, saw themselves first and foremost as a rock band. David Eugene Edwards, however, had an interest in all things from past times, including musical instruments. One instrument that was paramount during the nascent days of 16 Horsepower was the Chemnitzer concertina. It was erroneously credited as a bandoneon (a closely-related instrument) on "Sackcloth 'n' Ashes". The antique instrument used on the early tours and recordings was falling apart and quite cumbersome to tour with; some time before the sessions for “Low Estate”, it was replaced with the more modern American-made Patek brand instrument shown in the above photo.
Acknowledged influences on the band included Joy Division, The Gun Club, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party. 16 Horsepower would eventually share the same management as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and tour with them. They also collaborated with French band Noir Désir on a cover of The Gun Club's "Fire Spirit" for the 1998 EP The Partisan.
Original and final line-up: