Formed in Ithaca, NY, in the early ’80s, the Horseflies coalesced around John Hayward’s upright bass, Julie Hyman’s majestic violin, John Claus singing and guitar and Richie Stearns’ banjo and vocals. On Chokers and Flies, a split cassette release with the Chicken Chokers, the Horseflies offered expert bluegrass and folk with a nifty tinge of New England gloom — but nothing so startling or innovative as their first full album for Rounder two years later.
With a titular nod to Richard Thompson, Human Fly leaps ahead into a hybrid of farmland folk and avant new wave. The arrival of percussionist Bill Usher adds tube drums, clay drums, a balliphone and an African beat box, among other trinkets; synthesizer and Emulator specialist Brent Barkman ices the cake of the Horseflies’ otherworldly new sound (self-dubbed “neo-primitive bug music”). But neither Barkman’s eerie transformation of Stearns’ banjo into a rubber helicopter nor Usher’s delicate, tone-rich percussion would amount to anything without the others’ dead-on artistic sensibility. Few contemporary folk artists would take inspiration from the Cramps, as the title track’s liner notes admit; fewer folk artists in the ’80s were covering traditional songs with the nightmarish spirit of Dock Boggs (“Rub Alcohol Blues”) or creating originals as creepy and atmospheric as “Who Throwed Lye on My Dog.” Claus and Stearns sing with the weary pain of unemployed men wandering the Adirondack Mountains. One of the weirder jewels of ’80s new wave, Human Fly is about as good as one-album wonders get.
After the Human Fly track “Hush Little Baby” got some surprising video network airplay, the Horseflies made their stab at the big time with Gravity Dance. Although as well crafted as Human Fly (and often as strikingly unique), it suffers from overly polished production, often favoring conventional, rock-pop drums over outlandish percussion instruments. Hyman’s violin is helpfully more prominent, especially on “Sally Anne,” an ode not simply to a single prostitute but to prostitution itself. “Roadkill” eschews gore for wry cooking tips, and “Life Is a Rubber Rope” avoids the obvious clichés by allowing a warped character to offer his own odd notions. Flying in the face of grunge, the band dented video networks, with MTV using the plaintive “Needles on the Beach” as a music bed.
The Horseflies created visually dependent scores for two small films, Where the Rivers Flow North (1994) and A Stranger in the Kingdom (1997). Sadly, bassist Hayward died of cancer in 1997. A performance by the four original Horseflies and percussionist Taki Masuko the year before at the Fingerlakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, NY resulted in a live album, In the Dance Tent, which was re-played in the studio by the same lineup and released as Two Traditions, with a handful of new tracks. Band members have since been active in upstate New York bands, and a reconfigured Horseflies toured Europe in early 2003.