Mike and the Moonpies Record Orchestra Country Album at Abbey Road

It’s the day after a tour stop in Nashville for Mike and the Moonpies, and the band members, bloodshot eyes and dizziness, slowly make their way to the Red Door Saloon in East Nashville. The Texan band’s tour bus is in the store for a roster, and singer Mike Harmeier and his crew have both time and hangovers to kill.

Everyone is in their comfort except for red-blooded guitarist Catlin Rutherford, who likely sleeps in his star and striped cowboy boots, and the denim-clad Harmeier, who has left his wardrobe. of day – Head-to-toe Adidas tracksuit and matching sneakers – on the bus.

While it’s hard for Moonpies fans to imagine the frontman in anything other than his usual Yoakam skinny jeans and denim jacket uniform, it can be even harder for them to understand the orchestral sound of the band’s new album. . Cheap silver and solid country gold, surprise outing Friday at midnight. Recorded last year at Abbey Road Studios in London, the eight-song LP features the Moonpies and producer Adam Odor with members of the London Symphony Orchestra. To call it an ambitious project for a band often equated with the Red Dirt scene is an understatement. But it’s a sonic adventure that Harmeier dreams of embarking on ever since he took the stage to sing standards like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack the Knife” in costume – not a Nudie – at a concert in the land of Austin, dive the White Horse in 2015.

“I’ve always loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and I’ve wanted to make a crooner record like that for a long time,” said Harmeier, lighting a cigarette between sips of beer on the bar terrace.

But the string section apart, Cheap silver and solid country gold, like its predecessor, the 2018 is superb Steak Night at la Prairie Rose, is unmistakably a country music album, stamped with Rutherford’s Telecaster, Zach Moulton’s Heavenly Steel Pedal and Harmeier’s Texas Twang. It’s not a Countrypolitan album, however – it’s mostly bar songs with orchestral flourishes, unlike Billy Sherrill’s lush ’60s and’ 70s productions.

It was important to Harmeier that the songs could fit perfectly into a typical Moonpies dance hall setting. “The songs had to be self-sufficient,” he says. “I wanted us to play, but with a whole layer of strings behind it.”

When Odor proposed the idea for a country and strings project to David Percefull, his collaborator at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas, the idea for a country and strings project, Percefull suggested aiming high and cutting at Abbey Road. With the Moonpies already booked for a series of European festivals and their travel costs covered by the promoters – a big plus for a band that mostly survives by selling merchandise and playing concerts – they pooled enough money together. to schedule three days of recording in the legendary studio. where the Beatles redefined the idea of ​​the album with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Group.

“There was that first day at Abbey Road, everyone walked through the doors and looked around,” Odor recalls. “It’s one thing that everyone knows his songs and we can go in there and nail it, but now we’re adding this story element: Oh, are we really here?” “

In one corner was the idiosyncratic “Mrs. Mills” that Paul McCartney played on “A Day in the Life”. John Lennon’s Neumann U47 microphone was also ready. Almost instantly, Odor and Percefull focused on a vintage but precarious Hammond B3 organ they wanted to install for Moonpies keyboardist John Carbone.

“[The studio workers] Said, ‘OK, let’s get it going, but hold on a second.’ They put this stick in the back of the Hammond and pushed it aside to operate the switches. They said if you don’t use the stick you could be electrocuted and die, ”Odor laughs. “It’s the biggest studio in the world, and they still have that old Hammond where, in the wrong position, you could get electrocuted.”

For Omar Oyoque, a steel player who joined the group eight months earlier as a new bassist, the sessions were particularly nerve-racking. “It was my first Moonpies record,” he says. “I had never recorded bass on any record and my first time is at Abbey Road.”

At the end of the sessions, the group, completed by drummer Kyle Ponder, flew to the United States for a concert in Billings, MT, and the string musicians arrived to play on the charts that Percefull had. written. Harmeier continued to write and rewrite the lyrics for the new material, and would reduce his vocals to Wimberley at Yellow Dog – all except for one track he was adamant about recording at Abbey Road using the U47 mic from Lennon.

The song was a desperate cover of Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues”, a fitting choice for Harmeier, who until this trip had not traveled overseas. “I had never crossed the pond at all. That was it, ”he says. He missed his wife and young son in Texas, he connected with Nunn’s lyrics about his desire to “come home with the armadillo” and arranged the 1973 song not in the upbeat style viewers were hearing. when it served as a theme for Austin city limits, but in a minor and lowered tone.

“It’s a fucking sad song,” says Harmeier. “Shooter [Jennings] said to me, “I don’t think anyone captured the vibe of this song until you did.”

“I didn’t necessarily care whether it was a country record or not.”

Harmeier also addresses his status as a fish and chips out of water in the song “Fast as Lightning”, a frenzied and fast-paced incident list that plays like a country “It’s the end of the world as we know it (And I feel good.) The bus breaks down, the flights are long and the language difference in Europe is difficult for a native Texan to grasp: “The words I use, you can tell I just came from. Houston /I do not speak French,” he sings.

Like “A Very Good Year” by Sinatra, a touchstone for Harmeier and Odor, a melancholy atmosphere permeates the whole of Cheap silver and solid country gold, from the title track to the last “London Homesick Blues”. The cowardly concept album is a letter to Alarmier’s son, a reckless explanation of why he wasn’t – and probably won’t be – around for much of his childhood.

“Danger,” with his guitar-licking Waylon and Shooter Jennings in backing vocals, finds Harmeier speaking directly to his child about what his old man sacrificed on the road. “I was never lazy / hell, I worked hard / waited for money and went bankrupt,” he grumbles, “but I love this life, kid / I was always going to do it . “

Yes Cheap money is a personal project for Harmeier the father, it is also a validation project for Harmeier the artist – who, with Odor and his Moonpies, managed to make the most sophisticated country music album released so far this year. And not just by adding the London Symphony Orchestra. The songs are fully formed, the arrangements complex and the lyricism lived and worldly.

When it came time to write the single “You Look Good in Neon” – a song about after-hours dating that Harmeier calls the LP’s “ringtone” because of its inherent appeal to Texas country radio – he didn’t choose Lone Must-haves like tequila or Shiner beer as a lyric lubricant, but an Italian digestif. “When it’s closing time and the lights come on / we should share a photo of Fernet,” the choir said.

Harmeier laughs at the result of that decision: Fans have started buying Fernet’s group parts when they play the song live. He is happy that they are embracing something different from the Moonpies, but he has no illusions that Cheap silver and solid country gold will hit the right notes for everyone.

“[Traditionalists] like my dad is not going to like it. My dad was always weird about us [having an organ player], because it’s not Asleep at the wheel, ”he said. “I didn’t necessarily care whether it was a country record or not. I don’t want to be cataloged in just one thing. I thought about this years ago, where I just want to have this band, with this name, and do whatever we want. It can be constantly changing.

“We’re going to do another country record in a row,” he adds.

Not immediately. With Cheap money, Mike and the Moonpies are embracing this new phase and have loose plans to perform with a local string section or orchestra in some cities. Their setlist is also evolving, adding the recent cover of Fastball’s 1998 alternative hit-rock band “The Way” and highlighting their biting 2017 anthem “Country Music Is Dead,” the message Harmeier sums up as “Kiss my ass. . “

“Some fans will want Steak Night 2“Says Odor,” but we can’t give them that because we already did Steak Night. And now that we’ve done that, we don’t need to do another project with a symphony anymore.

Harmeier stops to light another smoke. “I’m in this state of mind,” he says, “where I just want to go against the grain of what everyone else wants.”

About Roy B. Westling

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