A Texas band can be a Texas band for an entire career and make a pretty good living. That was especially true throughout the 90s and 00s. They came in varying measures of success and varying types of swing, but the list has been expansive: from Jack Ingram and Aaron Watson to Randy Rogers and Stoney LaRue. For years, few crossed over the barrier–be it imagined or be it the actual Mississippi River. There were obvious exceptions like Willie Nelson and George Strait, and later troubadours like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.
But recently, folks like the aforementioned have led a stampede into Nashville. This year’s Americana Fest–currently taking place in the Music City–practically became South by Southeast, showcasing many of those Texas, red dirt acts forcefully pushing their fiddles and pedal steels into a town filled with songwriting rooms. Among them is Austin-based Mike and the Moonpies, a band that dropped their sixth studio album just over a month ago without warning. Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra, and it’s one of the best country records of 2019.
Ahead of their visit to Birmingham, lead singer Mike Harmeier talked about the secrecy behind the release and about the effort to bring red dirt country east.
What was the strategy behind releasing this record with no buildup?
It was such an off-the-wall idea that we had, anyway. It was kind of just better to not give anyone any preconceived notions about it. We didn’t want to tell anybody anything; we just wanted it all to happen at once. Nobody was going to write anything about it, “We can’t wait to see what this is gonna be.” We just wanted to throw it out into everybody’s face and surprise everybody. We try to do interesting things on releases. We’ll probably promote the next one differently. We just wanted to make it an interesting release and album–the whole package.
Even the recording of it was stealth. I follow most of your social media channels and I never had any inkling that you were doing it. Were you touring Europe and just decided to take some time to go into the studio? How did the process work?
We were touring France and Italy. We had done two festivals over there. We knew that we were going to go to Abbey Road at that point; we had the studio time booked. We spent our last two days over there just recording at Abbey Road and flew out the next day. It was all kind of organized, but it was really hard not to post pictures on social media and stuff. We had to keep it all quiet. It was the hardest secret we’ve ever kept.
So you recorded and they added the orchestral arrangement after?
The strings were on the third day. Our producer Adam [Odor] recorded the strings. We had to fly out to do a show with Turnpike [Troubadours] in Billings, Montana. So we had to fly from London to Billings the next day.
How does that sound work in your live set? The strings just aren’t there? Or do you find some way to compensate?
We pick up some of the parts. Our guitar player has some stuff that he picks up that cover some of those string things. But we wrote the songs and arranged them in a way that we knew we could pull them off without the strings behind it. It was very well thought out. We knew we were going to tour without it. And we do plan to do some shows with a string section, probably in 2020. But right now, it all translates pretty well. I wanted to make sure it was just the band playing the songs when we started with the pre-production.
You already had those songs in your back pocket when you left for Europe?
When we decided we were going to go over there and make the record, I didn’t really have enough songs. The whole band got together for a week or so at the Yellow Dog [Studios] in Wimberley [Texas, just outside of Austin] where we record most of our other stuff. We kind of pre-productioned everything and recorded and wrote most of those songs over that period of time. Then we gave them to Dave Percival so he could arrange the string section and write all the string stuff for it while we were touring. Then we could all meet up at Abbey Road two weeks later and record it.
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose was really the first record that got you some attention beyond the walls of Texas. Is that fair to say? Do you feel like you were more of a Texas band until that point?
Yeah, absolutely. That record put us on the map nationally more than anything else had, and that allowed us to tour more nationally and have successful tours throughout the country.
So many Texas bands can spend their entire career touring that state and make a good living. Has it always been important to you to leave or were you comfortable staying in Texas and doing your thing?
No, we always wanted to break that mold. We started out doing the Austin thing, then we started doing Texas dancehalls. We always wanted to not just be a Texas band, and it’s hard to break that moniker sometimes. We’d do a lot of things intentionally to spread ourselves to a national and worldwide audience.
How do you think you’ve been received on the east coast? Are the audiences getting a little bit bigger each time?
Yeah, every single time we go, it’s easily double the audience. Especially on this tour, we’ve seen a huge amount of growth already in the cities that we’re hitting for the third time or even the second time.
Was that part of that quick release on Cheap Silver? Capitalizing on that national popularity of Steak Night and not waiting three years to follow it up?
Yeah, that was definitely in our thought process. But I think that’s what we’re going to try to do from here on out. We want to be prolific. We want to release as much as we can. We already have half the stuff tracked for the next record. We like to keep content coming out and keep people interested in what we’re doing. And it keeps us interested, and it keeps us wanting to play new shows with new songs in it all the time and make new records and be creative. I see that as our trajectory for a long time.
What is that songwriting process like for you guys? Is it mostly you bringing ideas and the band fitting their own around them? Or is it a full collaboration?
It has been mostly me in the past, but this record was the most collaborative we’ve had yet. We got together to write this whole record together, basically, and this is the first time that everybody in the band has had a part of writing the entire album.
Who’s following you out of Texas? What’s the next thing we need to be aware of that’s coming this way?
I think it’s Garrett T. Capps. I think this guy out of San Antonio is making some major waves. We did Pickathon together in Oregon. He’s on a tour promoting his record right now that just dropped. There’s a fire under him, and I think it’s gonna happen.
Mike and the Moonpies return to Zydeco on Wednesday, September 11. Cam Spinks opens. The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $15.