Original Photos by Sarah Hamilton and HORSE the band, Edited by Nina Faelnar.
Original Photos by Sarah Hamilton and HORSE the band, Edited by Nina Faelnar.
HORSE the band are dripping sweat. They stand cramped together under a parade of fluorescent lights. They’re in a town they’ve hardly heard of, in a venue they’ve never seen before.
On the other side of the world.
Over the last seven years they’ve pioneered an entirely new genre of music - Nintendocore - and now they’re taking it global, but their lead singer turns his back to the crowd and blasts out a warning.
“Everybody stick your Nintendo up your fucking ass”
Nathan Winneke is slapping himself in the face, over and over again.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
He shakes his head. Behind the curtain in front of him, his bandmates are on stage at the Night Train in Adelaide, Australia.
The venue is small with a capacity of, perhaps, 500 people. Tonight, about 150 pace around between the makeshift moshpit in front of the stage and the bar, through the doors at the back of the room.
Winneke, who performs lead vocals in HORSE the band, turns to the camera, chuckling. "That did it. That fucking did it.” He steps through the curtain onto the stage. Marching band drum rolls and whirling synth sounds envelop him. Muted hollers and cheers from a hungry audience fight for the noise.
Tonight, along with Winneke, four others share the stage. David Isen softly strums his electric guitar with his back turned to the crowd. Dashiel Arkenstone stands ready with his bass. Jon Karel, a transplant from contemporary metal act ‘The Number 12 Looks Like You’, keeps time with a constant tap of his snare drum. Erik Engstrom lords over his synthesizer at the front of the stage, fingers punching keys like they bullied him in high school.
In the space between them, a countryside of guitar amps and cables rise from the floor.
These five people exist as a single unit: HORSE the band, a heavy metal act out of Lake Forest in Orange County, California. Adelaide’s Night Train is the fifth stop in an around-the-world tour they’ve dubbed “The Earth Tour”. Over the next three months, they will visit 45 countries and play 86 shows – and filmmaker Gary Lachance is going to record the whole thing.
As Winneke makes it to the front of the stage, he takes the microphone in one hand. He ties the slack around his palm. The cacophony of noise around him dies to silence.
Not even the crowd stirs.
Then, with the swiftness of thunder in a storm, Karel pounds the snare drum and peppers his cymbals.
HORSE the band are the godfathers of Nintendocore.
The genre wouldn’t exist without their contribution to it. There wouldn’t be a Wikipedia page dedicated to it or YouTube compilation clips of ‘the best Nintendocore songs of all time’ without HORSE the band.
HORSE the band are what some might describe as ‘metal’. Others call it ‘hardcore’. They play heavy and loud. Chaotic tempo changes, breakdowns, guttural screaming vocals. Shouts. Distortion. Grinding riffs and cymbal clashes that resonate in your ears. All these elements characterise a typical HORSE the band song.
It would be easy to lump them in with their contemporaries from the Los Angeles hardcore scene circa 2000 - bands like Bleeding Through or Avenged Sevenfold - names that made a big impact in the global scene throughout the early 2000s.
HORSE the band have something different. A slight tweak to the formula.
The addition of Engstrom’s synthesizer.
Not a revelation in and of itself - many bands had begun incorporating keyboards into heavier music - but the addition of Engstrom’s synth allows HORSE the band to infuse 8-bit sounds and tones, reminiscent of NES and SNES era video games, into their music. On top of that, Winneke’s lyrics layer 90s nostalgia-laced video game imagery, calling out the heroes and villains of his youth.
The heroes and villains that he met, as a kid, in video games.
HORSE the band name songs ‘Cutsman’, ‘Birdo’, ‘House of Boo’, ‘Big Blue Violence’ and ‘Pol’s Voice’. Audiences hear those name and images begin to float into their head. Memories of their childhood.
Memories of days spent playing Mega Man. Mario. F-Zero. Zelda.
It was lead singer Nathan Winneke that, during an interview, jokingly referred to HORSE the band as ‘Nintendocore’, birthing an entire genre and inadvertently crowning his band the gatekeepers of the entire realm in one breath.
Early on, it was an appropriate label.
In fact, Winneke describes it as “a dream come true”.
HORSE the band’s debut and sophomore releases featured frequent callbacks to Nintendo interspersed with the controlled chaos of staple hardcore elements. However, over time, journalists and critics began to latch onto the Nintendo angle, highlighting one single aspect of the multi-layered, fluid chimera that was HORSE the band.
They began to distance themselves from that descriptor because they felt like it detracted from their music. It was just a small fraction of what made HORSE the band, HORSE the band.
“I reject it because I think it cheapens our music” muses Dashiel Arkenstone, the band’s bass player, as he’s riding shotgun on the way to the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“Nintendocore sounds so childish.”
But it was Nintendocore that helped elevate them from relative nobodies to potential somebodies.
2008 was a different era for video games.
The world was introduced to the crippling claustrophobia of Dead Space, the unfulfilled potential of Spore and Niko’s bowling-obsessed cousin in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Two years prior, the Wii had reshaped the notion of ‘gaming’. Two years later, famed film critic Roger Ebert would pen an article decrying video games, explaining that they could never be art.
All that is to say, in 2008, video games were still considered the domain of children and loathsome sloths slouched into a couch crook, controller in hand, burning through packets of potato chips and carbonated drinks.
Video games were misunderstood.
In the early months of 2008, HORSE the band members David Isen and Erik Engstrom devised a three-month, 45-country road trip that would send them across continents playing songs off their three full-length albums, R. Borlax, The Mechanical Hand and A Natural Death.
HORSE the band were misunderstood.
They’d cultivated an image of being impossible to work with, of being impossible to tame. The ‘suits’ didn’t really understand HORSE the band.
And after setbacks and issues with tours, management and record labels, HORSE didn't really understand the suits either. They wanted nothing to do with that side of the business.
For their next tour, HORSE the band decided to take matters into their own hands
“Having no real idea what we were getting into, we used a small pile of credit cards and a large pile of emails to do something so amazing, so thought-provoking that the world would never be able to acknowledge that it even happened... until now” Winneke tells me, via email.
Not only would they play their music in places few other bands dared to tread, they’d record every moment and eventually put out a documentary about the whole experience. A chance meeting in Vancouver during the tour’s conception allowed them to recruit professional film-maker Gary Lachance and photographer Sarah Hamilton, bringing all of the pieces together.
The seven of them embarked on a journey in March 2008, taking a flight out of the US and into Australia.
“We cast ourselves, full of hope, into an unknown void of the vast seas of humanity”
It was a journey that they called ‘The Earth Tour’.
Nathan Winneke, Lead Vocals
Erik Engstrom, Keyboard
David Isen, Rhythm Guitar
Jon Karel, Drums
Dashiel Arkenstone, Bass Guitar
“It had become clear to me that this show was going to last forever and perform retribution on me for all the things I had done wrong in life.”
In a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, visitors mingle in front of icons, statues and a row of elegant gold-framed paintings of Buddha. The lights give the room a mythic glow. The room is dotted with worshippers, slowly moving through the temple, casting their thoughts.
Above, a more chaotic form of worship is taking place.
HORSE the band are playing to a raucous crowd in one of the temple’s upstair halls. The room has no air-conditioning. Kuala Lumpur’s average temperature at this time of year is approximately 32 degrees celsius. The hall is illuminated front-to-back. A ceaseless heat hangs over the entire crowd.
“That was the time I stood at the arches of the gates of Hell” Winneke tells me.
“Each breath between lyrics was too hot to be rewarding or recuperative.”
Winneke has to leave the stage and enter a stairwell out back frequently, where the air is cooler and thinner, to prevent himself from overheating.
“Screams began coming out as frail whispers of boiling breath and I had given in to just mouthing the words while trying to save my own life.“
The final song they play is ‘ Cutsman’, a reference to the Capcom-created adversary Cut Man, a boss in the original Mega Man. As the song begins, the audience tilts towards the stage. Cutsman is one of HORSE the band’s most popular songs and one of the tracks that still mesmerises fans sending them into a trance in the moshpit.
As Cutsman reaches its breakdown, Winneke growls “Cut, cut, cut, cut” into his microphone over a metronomic synth. The audience place their hands above their heads in a V shape, mimicing the shears that appear on the head of the song’s namesake. With each cut, the slap of audience hands rings around the room.
Cut-clap. Cut-clap. Cut-clap.
The recorded track, on their second album R. Borlax, is prefaced by an audio clip ripped from The Wizard, the 1989 cult film about a Nintendo tournament that featured the notorious, maligned Power Glove.
It’s this imagery, conjured by the band, that contributes to their appeal. Whether or not they choose to believe it: the idea that they are a Nintendocore band is a way to interact with their audience, to get outsiders interested in the art they’re creating. It allows them to seem more grounded, to erase the gap between band and fan.
“Whenever we went new places there was always someone who wanted to engage on the topic or was visibly inspired by it. It was a smaller percentage but it was always an added dynamic to the existing crowd” Winneke explains.
It’s clear how important Nintendocore is to their fanbase.
After the show, the band sits in a breezy exit stairwell, still hardly dressed. Engstrom and Winneke are beaming. After being away from home for almost a month, you can sense that this show has invigorated them.
“That’s what the Earth Tour is meant to be” declares Winneke.
“That’s what I wanted out of this” replies Engstrom.
“No complaints, it was just plain brutal.”
In Transylvania, Romania, HORSE the band is finishing a show in a dimly lit venue that looks like an ancient subway tunnel. Brick arches reach out for the roof from the sides of the room. The attendees in the front row are lighting cigarettes. One girl bobs her head side to side. Disinterested.
It’s not an enjoyable show – the band are so frustrated by the smoking that Engstrom steps out from behind his synthesizer, steals the cigarette from an audience member’s hand and throws it on the ground. He squashes it under foot. Winneke cackles maniacally. The show goes on.
Immediately after their set is complete, HORSE the band have to travel approximately 900km to get to their next gig, in the Ukraine.
In 24 hours.
The band piles themselves and their gear into a rented, dilapidated van and puts their faith in Peter, a weary driver operating on just two hours sleep. To reach their destination on time, they’ll have to drive through a phantom country unrecognised by the United Nations or any international governing body.
A country that isn’t a country.
Transnistria doesn’t show up on many maps – type it into Google right now and you’ll be redirected to the eastern European nation of Moldova.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommends reconsidering your need to travel to Transnistria due to ‘high level of risk’.
The not-country - an ‘autonomous territorial unit’ – is a remnant of the USSR that runs along the Dnister River, sandwiched between Moldova and the Ukraine. It’s a Soviet time-machine, a pin dropped on a map trapped in the late 80s.
Though it’s not recognised as a nation, it isn’t a lawless no man’s land. It’s a place with its own currency, government and constitution. Half a million people live there. Emblems and trinkets of Stalin and Putin litter the province’s monuments and parks. A statue of Lenin guards the entrance to City Hall. Menacing.
The hammer-and-sickle marks the pseudo-state’s flag.
Its residents still love Mother Russia.
The roads out of Romania are terrible, filled with gaping potholes and lacking road signs, and the journey does not go to plan. Talking to Lachance via phone, he describes that journey to me as the most wretched drive of all the wretched drives.
“It was just dark, we couldn’t communicate with anyone. We were lost, thinking we’re going to end up in Transnistria and who the fuck knows what’s gonna happen… they could just steal all of our stuff.”
The band gets stopped at the Romania-Moldova border, where officials tell them that they will not be able to enter the country with their equipment because it’s simply too expensive. The band, with only four euro between them, bribe the guards and continue on their way after three hours of limbo.
"It occurred to me that if we broke down out there we would essentially have to just convert the van into a house and live there.”
The protracted delay causes the band to be travelling well into the following night, missing the show they were going to play in the Ukraine. In the darkness, they reach the Moldova-Transnistria border but are turned back by the border officials and told that if they enter the country, their passports and possessions will be confiscated.
“I guess American rock bands have literally never gone down that road. Eventually, with the help of our driver Peter they stopped pointing their grenade launchers at our vehicle but wouldn’t let us pass into Transnistria.”
They are redirected, told to drive around the rogue nation and enter the Ukraine another way. Peter is approaching a full day without sleep, stopping at gas stations and on the side of the road to ask locals for directions. He shows a passer-by a map, but the man just scratches his chin and looks off into the distance, offering no reply.
The band, all five of them, are zombified in the back seat. Deprived of sleep, worried about the potential threat of straying into a sovereign state where their possessions will be stolen from them and disappointed that they won’t make their next show, they’re exhausted.
Wandering husks trapped in a four wheeled prison with no way of escape.
Winneke plucks his thoughts from internal despair.
“It occurred to me that if we broke down out there we would essentially have to just convert the van into a house and live there.”
The tour hasn’t been easy by any stretch but this drive is the first time the mental and physical toll is apparent on every member, all at once. They just want to be at the next show. They just want to be anywhere but expanses of empty European countryside, where the roads are made of dirt and even the GPS fears to tread.
This is no joke. Bands don’t do this to themselves as a joke. They don’t sing songs about Nintendo so you can laugh at them. They don’t travel to countries that you’ve never heard of for an Instagram post or a prank YouTube video.
They believe in it.
As Winneke puts it earlier in the tour “All I really want to do in my life is love the people I love, experience all that I can and create some form of art that reflects both my love for my people and for my experiences that I’ve had in life, whether they be good or bad, from child abuse to fucking touring the world – whatever it may be. I never, ever do shit for a joke, for humour or for funny.”
"You guys are invited to have the best time of your fucking life"
At Matrix, a brick-walled venue in Bochum, Germany, audience members hand Winneke a blue t-shirt with Cut Man printed on its centre. The shirt is two sizes too small for him and leaves his belly button exposed. He pulls the audience members on stage, revealing they’re all dressed in the same midriff-exposing uniform.
By the end of the show there are at least 20 people on the stage with the band, dancing and singing.
Winneke doesn’t recall much of the in between.
“I had a bunch of XL dudes in youth medium Cutsman shirts on stage and next thing I know I’m being checked for a concussion backstage.”
As revellers begin to leave, Winneke lays curled up on the floor, groaning. The band’s photographer rushes to his side and at Winneke’s command – “get me the fuck out of here” – she throws his arm over her shoulder and drags him out.
Backstage, propped up against a ladder with his hand on his forehead, his voice breaks, wincing for him, as he speaks. “I really, really want to go to bed.”
Excruciating pain doesn’t stop Winneke from taking the stage in Stettin, Poland the following night. The video footage shows his left arm dangling, suspended in an invisible sling. “I feel like hell. And I don’t care as long as one of you fucking smiles and has a good fucking time – then it’s worth it.” His left hand swivels at the wrist, pointing at his audience.
Winneke, whether because of insanity or pride, will continue to play but he wants to know that it’s worth it.
Not long after, in a break between songs, it’s keyboardist Erik Engstrom who tells the crowd “this is our second best show in Poland ever!”
But Winneke quickly adds an addendum: “It’s also our second show in Poland, EVER.”
He’s been giving the crowd as much as his body allows, arm ready to slip off his shoulder, and they’re disinterested. They’re giving nothing back. They’re an army of terracotta soldiers, unmoving, gathering dust. There’s no energy for Winneke to feed off, no shot of adrenaline to spark his unconscious arm to life.
As the set comes to a close, the crowd want an encore. A “one more song” chant erupts but Winneke heads backstage and stands statuesque, facing a wall. His band mates are ready perform the encore, but Winneke doesn’t want to be out there. The pain isn’t worth it.
The chants escalate.
"Play a song, don't be pussies!"
Winneke doesn’t budge. Deep into the Earth Tour, he seems to have finally broken.
Three nights later, HORSE the band are playing at Tochka in Moscow, Russia. The crowd are ready to strip the paint off the walls. It’s one of the biggest crowds of the tour so far and Winneke is at his best – even with his left arm bandaged and limp at his side.
It’s hard to tell whether it’s the painkillers or the sudden rush of adrenaline that’s keeping him upright.
The unsteady tide of humanity is held back only by a simple metal barricade. Throughout the night, the locals jump over it, rushing the stage at will. Winneke’s bandages act like a muleta, the crowd charging and prodding it like an angry bull. They’re targeting his arm.
During the show, he uses the butt of his microphone to bludgeon any fan that makes it on stage in the back of their head. He kicks one of the storming crowd members off the platform and watches them tumble face-first into the crowd.
At one point, he approaches the front row and crouches down. The crowd drags him into the human sea by his arm as he yelps into the microphone, trying to yank himself free. Later again, another fan makes it on stage and throws his arms wide, ready to embrace the singer in a hug but Winneke stares at him in confusion. He doesn’t want a hug.
He’s using all his energy to push back against the pain. He doesn’t move as he stares at the cuddle-hungry fan in front of him. The fan moves in for the kill, his arms encircling Winneke for a bear hug, falling right over his bandaged shoulder.
Winneke yelps. An inhuman cry from the depths of his being.
A bear hug that sent Winneke into “an agony-based twilight zone.”
“He would get super excited when he was on stage, people were hitting the cast, but he would get off and the adrenaline would wear off and he’d be in a very dark place” explains videographer, Gary Lachance.
By the end of the show, he’s brutalised, beaten and the pain is slowly becoming worse. Backstage, he takes a giant swig from a clear glass bottle. The alcohol isn’t helping. He’s reached his limit.
Winneke in front of the Kremlin, Moscow, his left arm slung across his body.
Nathan Winneke is sitting on the sixth step of what looks to be a partially-abandoned apartment complex in Moscow, Russia. The building is in a state of ruin. Cracks between each concrete step, twisted metal railings that are rusting away.
The wallpaper looks like it has been dipped in coffee. Dripping latte brown, it seems ready to seep off the wall.
The singer sits in a brown coat jacket, a style that looks unusual on him. Scruffy hair flops over his head. He explains to the camera that he just got a “sweet x-ray done in an empty room off the Commodore 64’s they were using” before pulling out a black and milky white image of the bones in his chest.
On it, he points to a white line on his acromion, the shoulder bone that juts out above the humerus like a calcium umbrella.
It’s a fracture.
Winneke has been playing shows, for a whole week, with a broken shoulder.
“He was completely at the end of everything” film-maker Gary Lachance tells me.
Yet somehow, the Earth Tour didn’t end with Winneke on a flight back to the US, arm in a sling, sweating painkillers and wincing with every shuffle in his seat.
Though Winneke was brutalised, the band carried on.
“I think we all openly accepted death was more likely [than quitting the tour] at a very early point.”
A band with little to no commercial success decides to max out five credit cards, going $60,000 in debt, to play shows around the world in places like Transylvania, Belgrade and Tel Aviv. There are no guarantees that they make that $60,000 back - and it’s $60,000 they never had in the first place. If something goes wrong, if someone gets sick, if they have to cancel every show, if their gear gets stolen, if they get dysentery, if they miss a few flights, if the wheels fall off their hire van, if they trash a building or hostel room? They’ll be in financial ruin.
Why would any band want to do this?
For HORSE the band it was a caustic combination of boredom, frustration, disillusionment and self-destruction.
It had become clear to the members of the band that constantly touring the US was no longer fulfilling. The same venues, the same faces. In their boredom, they began to burn bridges. They started to get an (entirely deserved) reputation for crazy live shows where they ‘didn’t give a shit’ and spent the majority of the show drunk off house beer.
“Serious people” in the industry had problems and HORSE the band couldn’t care less.
“When it became clear to us that the modern day rock musician is really just a McDonalds-eating, American-cheese-loving, internet troll who goes on tour in other states and countries so they can exclusively practice their guitars in different mouldy rooms full of trash we began to get later and later to shows.”
Winneke explains that they’d just skip their sound checks altogether, partly because the sound guys forgot what they did during a sound check and partly because the band would rather spend time at a petting zoo or a natural history museum in whatever town they were travelling through.
They were bored and they didn’t care anymore.
During the Earth Tour, during this “rare extreme fetish touring” as Winneke calls it, HORSE the band experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows.
They lived that cliche.
The tour left them sleep-deprived and oft-hungover. It left them with a credit card debt totalling $100,000. Some nights they played to disinterested fans, choking on cigarette smoke. Some nights 20 people showed up and other nights 1000 people showed up. They played in a Buddhist temple without air-conditioning that left them gasping for air and had fans eating out of the palm of their hand.
With the luxuries of home gone, they shat in a river. They ate stingray and drank Red Bull and vodka in Singapore. They complained and sometimes they whined. They fought over who got to sleep in the one bed they’d booked. Along the way, Winneke broke his shoulder. A long drive through Eastern Europe and a run-in with border security officials wielding grenade launchers almost broke their spirit.
But unless it killed them, HORSE the band were going to finish the tour.
You’d have to take those grenade launchers and send their entire van, and all their earthly possessions, up in a cloud of smoke before they quit.
They survived and after 86 days, they returned home.
Bassist Dashiel Arkenstone quit. Jon Karel, who’d only been filling in on drums, resumed activities in The Number 12 Looks Like You. The band was suddenly down to three members. HORSE the band had just experienced the entire range of human emotion, distilled into a three-month sojourn across the planet. They came home with broken bones and tired hearts and lost two band members. On top of that, men in suits from their record label held out their palms and demanded HORSE cough up a chunk of the money they’d ‘made’.
“We returned a tattered ghost ship with a skeleton crew”
They began falling apart.
It was “a period of total oblivion” according to Winneke.
The ‘godfathers of Nintendocore’ had aged years in less than 90 days.
Nintendocore had one foot in the grave.
A year after the Earth Tour, HORSE the band released Desperate Living, their most ambitious, complex album to date. An album that most acutely captures the feeling of a HORSE the band live show. It’s punctuated by piercing synths that evoke 80s films like The Thing, a complete recalibration of Winneke’s vocal stylings and the raw, crunchy sound that HORSE had honed over eight-plus years.
During the album’s fourth song, The Failure Of All Things, Koji Kondo’s famous Super Mario Bros. track ‘Ground Theme (Hurry Up!)’ is woven between circling, descending synths. It heralds a doubling in speed of Engstrom’s rapidfire synth strokes and Pouliot’s pounding cymbals.
It is the only overt reference to Nintendo contained on the album.
Desperate Living was born in the emotional peaks and troughs of a world tour.
“Desperate Living was an accurate representation on what we went through and how we felt [during the Earth Tour]”
For a band that had become disillusioned with the idea of constantly touring the United States in a cycle of self-destruction and depravity, constantly searching for fulfillment and ways to sate their boredom, HORSE the band had achieved something few other bands dared to try and it changed them. It reinvigorated them. It helped them produce their best work yet.
Before the Earth Tour, HORSE the band were that Nintendocore band that self-funded and self-booked an around the world tour. People scoffed at them. It seemed insane.
They made it home.
After the Earth Tour, HORSE the band were something else entirely.
They’d transcended their own reputation. They’d buried it. You thought HORSE the band were crazy drunkards who destroyed venues? They were worse than that and yet, they were somehow better than that too.
They’d not asked for respect or acknowledgement. They didn’t even care if they had it and still they went out and found it, pants-down, shitting into a river in China. They showed the world their art was beyond references to beakless egg-throwing enemies and haunted houses full of ghastly white bodies that can't bear to stare you in the face.
They made music. They created an entire genre. They took that to the world. Then they killed it.
HORSE the band killed Nintendocore.
Since the release of Desperate Living in 2009, HORSE the band have been on hiatus, occasionally popping up to play shows in the US or abroad, but largely remaining out of the spotlight. In early 2017, they became a little more active, going on tour and updating their Instagram. In March, they unveiled an entirely new song.
2018 marks ten years since the Earth Tour took place and I ask Winneke what’s next, if anything, for HORSE the band. He leads on that HORSE the band might not be completely through - that there will indeed soon be “a small ‘Reason to live’”.
You’ve probably never heard of HORSE the band. You’ve probably never heard of Nintendocore. You probably didn’t know that five people could be brave enough (or stupid enough) to pull off something like the Earth Tour.
I look at HORSE the band and the Earth Tour and see fearlessness and a desire to achieve something more, something greater than just being a band that plays heavy music.
I figure that there must be some hope that it wasn’t all just for the thrill of it. That when you start a band and take your music to the world, that you hope something grand will come of it.
I figure that HORSE the band want to be remembered.
I begin to wind up my interview with Winneke and ask a simple, final question.
“What do you hope people will remember about HORSE the band?”
Winneke’s reply is three words long:
“I don't care.”