When Austin band Mike and the Moonpies decided to keep their new album, “Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold,” a secret until its release the first week of August, they stuck to the game plan pretty tightly. Recorded at England’s legendary Abbey Road Studios with members of the London Symphony Orchestra adding strings to the group’s core country instrumentation, the album was a remarkable achievement. It must have been hard to contain their excitement.
“We had this whole NDA (nondisclosure agreement) thing going on, and I didn’t even show my dad the record,” bandleader Mike Harmeier says. A handful of leaks were necessary: The album closes with a cover of Austin troubadour Gary P. Nunn’s classic “London Homesick Blues,” and the band wanted to make sure Nunn approved.
“So I sent the song to Gary,” Harmeier says. “He heard it before my dad did, and he asked my dad if he had heard it. My dad didn’t know what he was talking about!”
The Moonpies’ take on “London Homesick Blues” — the “home with the armadillo” song that long served as the “Austin City Limits” TV show's opening theme — caps a brilliant eight-song record that could well be this band’s big breakout beyond their home base. Momentum has been building for a few years now as the band increased national touring and earned Rolling Stone raves for its 2018 album “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose.”
But recording at Abbey Road is a whole other level. How did a band that still mostly tours clubs and roadhouses pull it off?
It largely came down to connections. David Percefull of Wimberley’s Yellow Dog Studios, where the Moonpies recorded the “Steak Night” album, had worked on several projects at Abbey Road over the years. “He got us in there and got us a good rate,” Harmeier says.
The studio dates lined up with already-planned overseas festival dates. “I thought it was very unachievable at first,” Harmeier says. “But everything just timed out perfectly. It was a dream for about six months, and then everything just clicked.”
ONCE ABBEY ROAD was on the table, the next step was writing the songs. “We knew we were going to do the strings from the very beginning, so I tried to write chord changes and stuff that I thought would sound good with a symphony behind it,” Harmeier says. “I listened to a lot of Ray Price and Glen Campbell and some more crooner/Sinatra kind of stuff to try to get ideas about what really works for it.”
That preparation paid off. From the gorgeous opener “Cheap Silver” to boot-scooters “You Look Good in Neon” and “Miss Fortune” to the slightly surreal ballad “Young in Love” to the hard-charging “Fast as Lightning,” the album feels like an instant classic that would fit right in with countrypolitan fare from the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Moonpies give these songs their Austin debut Aug. 8 on the Mohawk 's outdoor stage with guests Western Youth and Altamesa.
RELATED: Western Youth, Austin360 Artist of the Month for November 2018
So what was it like to record at Abbey Road, where the Beatles made the vast majority of their iconic recordings in the 1960s?
“It’s a pretty surreal experience walking through that gate,” Harmeier says. “You have all these people lining up to take pictures; they can’t get past the gate and take a picture of the front door. And we’re just like, here’s six dudes from Texas walking in the gate. So that was a moment for us. And then just walking through the room the first time was kind of a jaw-dropping moment.”
At the time, though, they didn’t have the luxury of letting it all soak in. Their budget bought them just two days to lay down tracks, with a third day allotted for the orchestral parts.
“Within the first few hours, it was kind of like, ‘OK, we’re just in another studio, and we have to make this record happen in a short amount of time,'” Harmeier says. “Just nerves about getting these songs done at some point overtook the weight of being in that room.
“But there was definitely some magic moments in there that I don’t think we would have gotten anywhere else,” he adds. “It was another part of the record, for sure, like another member of the band.”
» LISTEN — Mike Harmeier talks about recording at London's Abbey Road Studios:
Indeed, the Moonpies had plenty of help in making “Cheap Silver and Solid Gold” happen. Longtime collaborator Adam Odor co-produced with the band and helped write several of the songs. Percefull composed the exquisite string arrangements, with help from Franny King-Smith and Armin Marmolejo, a San Antonio musician whose resume includes work with Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Burt Bacharach.
“I wanted them to have his stamp on it as well,” Harmeier says. “The communal effort of this record has really been paramount to me.” Besides Harmeier, the Moonpies on the album are steel guitarist Zachary Moulton, guitarist Catlin Rutherford, bassist Omar Oyoque, drummer Kyle Ponder and keyboardist John Carbone. Guest vocals on a few tracks came from Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings and Season Ammons.
TWO GOALS WERE guiding points for “Cheap Silver and Solid Gold.” One was to make a record that didn’t sound like what the band was hearing in contemporary country music. “There’s a lot of people for the past few years who have really been diving hard into the outlaw style of it,” Harmeier says. “That’s a style of music we definitely play and that I like to play. But I didn’t hear that many people doing the countrypolitan thing as much. So it seemed like a good opportunity.”
The other motivation was to break free from regional stereotypes. “I don’t want to be pinned down to that Texas country thing. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about being from Texas,” says Harmeier, noting that the Moonpies have largely toured beyond the state for the past couple of years to broaden their horizons.
“Our Austin residencies are where we came up and started, but it’s been nice to be able to expand it on a national level," Harmeier says. "It’s really helped us get to a wider audience of people who aren’t just Texas country or red dirt fans. That’s what we’ve been trying to capture over the past year or two.”
A case in point is “Fast as Lightning,” the next-to-last track on the new album, which recounts the band’s whirlwind adventures in mid-2018. Harmeier’s lyrics mention a “sold-out show in Idaho with the Brauns and Bobby Keen,” a southbound stop in Salt Lake City, and finally heading from “Luckenbach to London, pickin’ with the symphony.”
“That song was almost written in real time,” Harmeier says. “I finished some of the lyrics after we’d already gotten back from Abbey Road; we cut some vocals on it back at Yellow Dog. We flew from London back to Montana, played a show the day after our recording session, then went and played the Braun Brothers Reunion in Idaho. That song kind of encompasses our summer of last year.”
Harmeier confesses he re-cut many of the vocals back home, partly because he was still fine-tuning lyrics. An exception was “London Homesick Blues,” which the band tweaked with minor-key chords that bring out the inherent loneliness of the lyrics.
“I couldn’t make this record without playing that song,” Harmeier says. “And then we put that really melancholy spin on it, which I feel is more true to what the lyrics are. It’s kind of a sad song, but the ‘Austin City Limits’ one (the original recording) is kind of an anthem. I didn’t want to just cut the song straight, like it was on all the previous records.”
And the vocal track is indeed straight outta London. “I wanted to make sure that was the one that I definitely sang at Abbey Road,” Harmeier says. “We even used John Lennon’s microphones for that vocal. It was really a surreal experience.”
» LISTEN — Mike Harmeier on wanting to make a crooner-style album:
READ MORE: Library rooftop concert marks 50 years since Beatles' last jam