Spook The Horse - Keeping the chill at bay. Curt Doughty

It's 5:00 p.m. and the sky is pitch black. There's a chill in the air and snow in the forecast. Welcome to December in Seattle. The perfect setting to sit down with local quintet Spook the Horse, and discuss the dramatic, carefully orchestrated, catchy-as-hell songs on their new self-titled EP.

"We thrive off what is around us," explains lead singer/guitarist Grant Burton. "And this city is very dark. It promotes music that is more melancholy, rather than happy and poppy." Not that Spook the Horse traffic in the doom-and-gloom cartoon clichés of goth. There is a swagger to their sound that suggests a kinship with UK acts Tindersticks and Gallon Drunk, but also a disquieting intimacy reminiscent of the Walkabouts, interrupted by flashes of cinematic grandeur.

On songs like "Drag," rumbling drums and barroom piano rolls underpin Burton's vocals; his baritone delivery is theatrical, but not overwrought, cutting through the atmospheric guitar swells. Elsewhere, the titanic epics "Walls" and "Blasted Orchestra," with their strategically executed shifts in dynamics, pinpoint what makes this five-piece so special: They craft a big, powerful sound that stops just short of total cacophony. "That balance was something we talked about the entire time we were recording, trying hard not to do too much at any one time," admits Burton.

Although Spook the Horse formed in the summer of 2004, the roots of the band—which also includes singer/guitarist Brian Pake, keyboard player Brian Mura, bassist Matthew Ralston, and drummer Brian Papenfuss—stretch back to Bellingham in the mid-'90s. All the members attended Sehome High School, and played music together in various combos. Burton and Pake, in particular, spent endless hours improvising on acoustic guitars in Burton's garage, running their instruments through myriad pedals and effects, and taping every sound they generated on an old boom box.

That spirit of improvisation informs the compositional and recording processes of Spook the Horse today. Although songs generally begin with a germ introduced by Pake or Burton, from therein all five contribute. "We're all really constructive to each other," says Pake. "I'm open to everyone else giving me as much feedback as possible, and rearranging things. I've brought new songs to the table that I thought were amazing, and then, once they were developed and cut up, they didn't even sound like the same song—and were a lot better."

The thick haze of guitars and single-note keyboard riffs of "Blasted Orchestra" are a prime example, points out Papenfuss. "We spent months on that one. Every time we would perform it live, we'd do something different, to fine-tune it. We never played it the same way twice until we recorded it."

The eponymous EP was recorded this time last year, primarily in a warehouse property along the train tracks near Leary. Although the location enhanced the atmosphere, and allowed the band to work on the cheap and experiment more, it wasn't exactly an ideal spot to be spending winter nights. "It was fun, but rough," remembers Burton. "It was freezing cold. There were times when I would be wearing gloves with cut-off fingers, trying to play guitar."

For all this talk of chilly temperatures and bitter cold, Spook the Horse are a decidedly convivial bunch. Even the most unnerving moment on their EP, the fade-out of "Drag"—where glass shatters as a party whirls out of bounds—was born from a joyous evening, says drummer Papenfuss. "We invited a bunch of our friends down to the Alibi Room, and started drinking..." And then came smashing light bulbs, crockery, and empty bottles on the concrete floor, and scuffling through the debris.

Little details like that coda may catch the ear, but what holds it is the band's determination that, for all their sound and fury, they never compromise the melodic core of the material. "And I want to hold on to that," insists Burton. "I want to make our music so radio friendly that if someone puts it on, and listens to it, instantly it's a pop song—and yet it takes them some time to absorb it."

kurt@thestranger.com