Outside a punk house in Pittsburgh called The Deli, the members of Feeble Little Horse eye a sky full of clouds that look mean and imposing. A sound system, drum set, and amps already line the wall of the little parking lot behind the duplex, located in the student-heavy neighborhood of Oakland. The stakes are perhaps higher than your typical house show—this a “secret set” for Feeble Little Horse, who, despite being college-aged themselves, have quickly become local-scene stars—and everyone is worried that the weather might not cooperate. “The rain might just pass by us,” says drummer Jake Kelley, in a tone that suggests he’s not convinced that is true.
As opening act Ex Pilots set up their gear, the drops of water start as a dribble and turn into a downpour. People jump into action unplugging power strips and speaker cables, a gaggle of musicians and friends rushing to get everything into the basement and the alcove under the porch. An executive decision is made to move the show inside and hope for the best—fire codes be damned.
Though Feeble Little Horse started off in basements not long ago, their following has grown to the point that they’re playing 500-person clubs on an upcoming summer tour. Since their inception in early 2021, the quartet—bassist/vocalist Lydia Slocum, guitarist/vocalist Sebastian Kinsler, guitarist Ryan Walchonski, and drummer Kelley—have released an EP, modern tourism, and a full-length, Hayday. Both records—along with their forthcoming LP, Girl With Fish*—*highlight the band’s commitment to adventurous guitar tones, catchy hooks, noisy atmospheres, and dry, cutting lyrics.
They make reference-heavy indie rock that pulls from all directions while feeling new, but their pop-centric approach to songwriting makes them especially accessible, and in Pittsburgh, beloved. It’s this devotion that leads to more and more people joining the crowd outside The Deli. Huddled together in the rain, fans jockey for a position near the basement door, ready to rush in and post up near the makeshift stage.
Earlier that afternoon, while it’s still sunny and clear, Kinsler leads me up the steps of a tan brick duplex just a couple of blocks from the venue. The rest of the band is already gathered in his living room, listening to the Jonas Brothers’ new single “Waffle House” on someone’s phone. A box-fan hums in the window, a familiar sound in a neighborhood lined with student rentals. There’s a flier for Feeble Little Horse’s first show, at a storied house venue called Rothko, framed on the wall. Walchonski and Kelley are settled on the well-loved couch while Slocum lounges in a nearby armchair. Their camaraderie is easy to spot—how naturally they fall into doing a bit, how frequently they laugh.
Though Slocum is the only Pittsburgh native among them, and Walchonski moved to D.C. after graduation, they consider the city their home base. They all met here—Kelley, Walchonski, and Kinsler at the University of Pittsburgh, where Walchonski was Kelley’s freshman-dorm RA, and Slocum around town at shows. “This is where we link up and record,” says Kelley. “It’s where the music was made and our first show was, and it’s my home,” says Slocum. “We got established in the Pittsburgh DIY scene before anyone else was listening,” adds Kinsler.
The scene itself left an impression on the members of Feeble Little Horse. Kinsler and Walchonski have long been fascinated by Crafted Sounds, a tape label founded in a Pitt dorm room that’s at the epicenter of the local indie rock scene. Kelley recalls attending a wild show during his freshman year that sparked his desire to get involved. “I went to some benefit and Water Trash was playing, and there was a hole in the ceiling and the basement was packed. I’d never been to a house show before. People were crawling through the hole and passing drinks down. I was like, ‘I want to play in a band in a place like this,’” he recalls.
The group’s unique style of noise-pop also sounds like a synthesis of several pockets of Pittsburgh music. While non-local listeners might hear whispers of My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and the Swirlies, I hear the catchy shoegaze of Gaadge, the driving and dirgy post-punk of Sleeping Witch & Saturn, the vulnerability and thoughtful lyricism of Merce Lemon, and moments of sinister-yet-playful energy akin to Silver Car Crash. It’s not necessarily that this is their intention, but more the subtle influence of musical geography.
Feeble Little Horse began with just Kinsler and Walchonski writing songs together. These songs, which would become both modern tourism and Hayday, weren’t workshopped in front of live crowds but rather crafted and recorded in the duo’s insular world. They recorded modern tourism in the apartment Walchonski shared with Kelley, so it was natural that he’d jump in to record drums. It wasn’t until the tail end of recording Hayday, in the summer of 2021 that Slocum was brought into the musical fold, though she’d been a part of the EP by way of making the cover art. Slocum had never played bass before, but it didn’t matter. She wrote the lyrics and placed stickers on her bass guitar to correspond with the correct notes for each song, and the band began rehearsing together.
As they began to play shows that summer and fall, word spread quickly about the quartet’s distinct sound and enthralling live show. When Hayday was released in October of 2021 Feeble Little Horse made the leap from a mythic local band with momentum to something bigger, receiving nods from indie rock heavies like Snail Mail and Hotline TNT. The hype turned the heads of several labels, and the band ultimately decided to go with Saddle Creek.
One would think that getting signed to the label that brought Bright Eyes and Big Thief to national recognition in your early 20s might be a jarring experience, but the four seem grounded and at ease leading up to the release of sophomore album Girl With Fish, and they don’t appear to have any kind of starry-eyed or blind optimism about getting swept up by the industry. They each believe in maintaining creative control of the project, and they prefer to record the music, make the art, and run their own tours.
“I’ve been the de facto manager for the band since we started,” explains Walchonski. “I’ve always been very protective about bringing people in, because I worry that it can increase the pressure to do certain things that we might not be ready or interested in doing.”
The first step was deciding on a booking agent, which entailed “saying no a lot” and searching for someone who was simply kind and supportive of the band’s goals. The label conversation was, at times, even trickier. One potential label approached them with the expectation that all four members would put their jobs and studies on hold in order to pursue music full-time, something the band has no interest in doing. “And they wanted us to make a fucking TikTok,” adds Kelley with a face of disgust.
Slocum, the primary voice of the project, often writes about the yearning and disappointment within relationships, the ever-present specter of a religious upbringing, the consuming nature of desire. These aren’t maybe the kinds of conversations you are having when you meet new people, but these are the Rorschach test paintings Slocum is presenting to listeners. “I’d never be that vulnerable with someone I didn’t know,” she says. “But I’m not thinking about all these strangers when I’m writing.”
The religious details, in particular, stand out: a plastic Catholic priest watching from a dresser in the droning single “Steamroller,” Slocum “using her imagination to sin” in the frantic and collaged “Pocket.” “I feel like when you’re raised with religion, you can’t walk it off, it’s always there somehow,” says Slocum. “I love working through it with creative stuff.”
The lyrics Slocum brings to Girl With Fish are visceral: “Steamroller, you fuck like you’re eating,” goes the single—a gnarled simile that feels both relatable and pointed. While Slocum certainly shows softness, she never puts forth any sense of weakness. The first single, “Tin Man,” is a pointed critique of people who weaponize their sadness. “I gotta go ‘cause you flash sadness,” Slocum sings, “I found you all rusted and leaky/Took him apart and I found nobody.”
Slocum’s bass-playing and catchy vocals alongside Kelley’s drumming serve as a solid foundation for Walchonski and Kinsler’s experimental approach to playing guitar. While Slocum has no pedals and uses stickers to show what she needs to play during each song, the two guitarists plug into boards with a collection of pedals and the end goal of creating guitar sounds that barely resemble a guitar at all. There aren’t rules, and that’s the point. The record is an ambitious experiment in studio sounds and textures, best listened to through headphones or extra loud on a stereo.
The live experience, however, sheds any recording or production tools. Instead the shows are an exploration of what sounds can be made with guitars, amplifiers, and traditional drums in the context of a collaborative group of musicians. During Feeble Little Horse sets, there is an unspoken communication through each riff and transition, a knowing glance, an involuntary smile. “Feeble Little Horse as a recording band is pretty different from Feeble Little Horse as a live band, and I take pride in that,” says Kelley.
Before the basement is fully packed and the chaos of the night sets in, Slocum hops up on a washing machine in the basement to write out the set with the rest of the band. Each one is written on stationary shaped like a cake, and each band member’s set list has a little portrait of them next to the list of songs. You get the sense that this preparation feels like a ritual or a family tradition. There’s a world of hype and possibility around the band, but for them it’s really about these tiny moments.
It’s not quite summer in Pittsburgh, but between the rain and the mass of people packed into the basement for Feeble Little Horse’s set later that night, it feels like it. It’s humid, sweaty and surreal. There is cheering and clapping as the band prepares to play. There is a sea of dancing and bobbing bodies, a sense of playfulness and freedom despite the tight squeeze. Most of the people who managed to pack the room intently made sure to get into that basement, leaving more than 50 attendees to listen outside. Feeble Little Horse have clearly outgrown Saturday night house shows in Oakland, but everyone here gets to experience the magic of that intimacy just one more time.