Conner O’Neill and Fareed Sajan are fascinated with mythology. Six years ago, in a sleepy suburb of Allentown, Penn., the pair first played together in a band called Night Owl Café Killers and now, based in New York, they’re still at it as Headless Horseman.
Avid fans of The Microphones, the band takes its name from one of Phil Elvrum’s folk-inspired songs, but for the pair, Headless Horseman also means "just being a body and kind of relying on intuition and the space of non-thinking that you can try to get into while making music," says Sajan.
Despite the somewhat Goth name, Headless Horseman’s music maintains the intimacy of an acoustic singer-songwriter set, while exploding that sound with static, glitch and electronics, plus an extensive repertoire of instruments. In addition to a standard rock band’s acoustic/electric guitar, bass and drum kit, O’Neill and Sajan make use of a baritone ukulele, glockenspiel, pots, pans and even doors. As a result, Headless Horseman’s live performances are part sideshow and part whimsy, reminiscent of Bert’s one-man band in Mary Poppins, but fully cathartic in a thrashing glory.
Infused in these polyphonies are Sajan’s falsetto vocals, which pay homage to Sigur Rós, Grizzly Bear, Michael Jackson and ’90s R&B influences like R. Kelly. From loops of what sounds like a chorus of spirits and sprites to what could be the happy upbeat chanting of Smurfs, it’s not a mistake that the lyrics from many of Headless Horseman’s songs are indistinguishable. Focused on intonation and melody, the words that Sajan sings are similar to fairy tales: Sometimes they’re real and sometimes they’re not. Once a budding poet, he explains, “Sometimes it feels contrived to add words… I went through that whole phase of just really liking words [but] I stopped writing because I feel like music can say it with its abstractness.”
After graduating respectively from Wesleyan and a culinary boot camp, Sajan and O’Neill arrived in New York City last spring. Like the hordes of other musicians who flock to Brooklyn, they quickly learned that making it in music is anything but easy.
“Anybody who gets into music seriously as a way to support themselves is kind of masochistic,” says O’Neill between spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream in Sajan’s tidy Bushwick apartment. Though living off of his savings and floating between stays with friends and family, he concedes, “I like sometimes not having money. Even though it’s very frustrating, it can make you appreciate things a lot more, obviously.”
For Sajan, whose parents hail from India and emigrated from Kenya, the burden of being the first generation born in the United States weighs on his decision to pursue music professionally. In lieu of becoming a doctor like his sister, Sajan, like most struggling artists, works a day job (at a gourmet pizzeria in Greenpoint), while striving with O’Neill to carve out a name for Headless Horseman.
In a city over-saturated with upstart bands, knowing how to record, edit and re-edit yourself is key to getting ahead.
Without thousands of dollars to spend on a professional studio, Headless Horseman’s extreme DIY approach makes it possible for the duo to record and edit tracks with an old laptop and an out-of-date recording program called Magix. In lieu of standard presets, O’Neill and Sajan make their own equalizer settings to produce a sophisticated recording quality.
Learning all of this is baffling when you listen to the five Headless Horseman tracks available on its website. But Headless Horseman’s clean sound is exactly what landed the band its first show, opening for Avey Tare of Animal Collective at Glasslands, the interest of record labels and a residency at Pianos coming up in January.
“From just the first listen I could tell that it was something that was legitimate,” says Billy Jones, a talent buyer at the Lower East Side venue. “I really liked the quality of the recordings… It’s just something you hear and you get a really good vibe from what they’re doing.”
Judging from Headless Horseman’s breadth of sound and a new track, fittingly entitled “Growing,” Fareed Sajan and Conner O’Neill have the potential and ambition to become infamous in their own right.
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