Dragondeer is hippie music for the indie-rock crowd, and vice versa
James Cromwell Holden
Note: Dragondeer will release its new EP with a show this Saturday at Lost Lake Lounge. The band will also be featured in the debut of Open Music Sessions at Denver Open Media's studio's on Kalamath Street this Friday. Details on that series are coming shortly, but you can RSVP for a spot in the studio now.
After a practice session some years back with Denver indie-rock act the Swayback, frontman Eric Halborg left Colorado Rehearsal Studios and went out to his car to discover that his stereo had been stolen. Instead of replacing it, he spent the next few years driving around playing his harmonicas. When he finally got a new stereo, he sprang for one with satellite radio, and he played along with the Grateful Dead and blues channels.
That experience served him well as he crafted the debut EP of his new-ish band, Dragondeer. Called Don't That Feel Good, the album represents the point at which Halborg's lifelong passion for blues and jam-band music meets the rock and post-punk instincts he's honed with the Swayback. "We're getting a groovy reaction in jam and roots circles, but indie kids are digging it, too," says Halborg. "That's sort of what we were hoping for."
Anyone who's seen the decidedly non-jammy Swayback in the past dozen years might be surprised to learn about Halborg's musical roots. Growing up outside of Chicago, he steeped himself in the city's blues legacy early on. The music was everywhere -- playing in supermarkets and at street festivals. "If it sinks in early, it's there forever," Halborg says.
On Sundays, the teenage Halborg listened to the King Biscuit Flower Hour, a syndicated blues-centric radio show, followed by the Grateful Dead Hour on Chicago's WXRT. When he was first learning to play acoustic guitar, his older brother made him a photocopied book of Dead songs and tunes the band had covered. "Deep Elem Blues," a traditional song covered by the Dead, was one of the first songs Halborg learned to play.
Halborg made a one-way trip west to Boulder to study at the University of Colorado. At the time, he considered himself a kind of hybrid, musically. "I was coming to parties with Dead bootlegs, but I also had Mudhoney records," he says. "I always thought that was really normal. I was from outside of Chicago, where you didn't have to be one way or the other. You kind of dug whatever.
"Once I got to Boulder, the people I was hanging out with were definitely more on the jam tip, but not necessarily open-minded about JFA or Minutemen or other things that I was into at the time." He tried to find the middle ground. "I remember breaking out [Dinosaur Jr.'s] Green Mind. It was sort of a crunchier, hippie party, and I was thinking, "This is crossover, this guy rules at guitar, these people are going to be cool with this, right?' I love how Jerry plays guitar. I love how J Mascis plays guitar."
But his friends didn't see the connection. "I remember everyone at the party being like, 'What is this?' Come on, Eric. Don't play your, like, bummer music for us.'"
Frustrated by that scene, Halborg started leaning toward heavier bands like Motörhead. He even did a quick stint with a punk band called the Hung Republicans, which never made it out of the basement. Around that time, he discovered Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, and about six months later he started the Swayback. "I got into that late, but it certainly had its influence on what the Swayback was doing," Halborg says of the album. The Swayback earned a place of prominence in Denver's music scene, regularly playing large rooms like the Bluebird. And the band started to make inroads outside Colorado, touring nationally and recording with Andy Johns, whose credits also include the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, Led Zeppelin IV and Television's Marquee Moon.
But even as Halborg developed his chops as a rock-and-roll frontman, the music of his childhood was creeping back into his headphones. He started spending his time listening to Lead Belly and Son House, Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall, and psychedelic bands like the Brian Jonestown Massacre. That's when his stereo was stolen and he started playing harmonica.
As an outlet for his rekindled passion, he started hosting a weekly jam session at the now-defunct Rockbar. Dubbed JINXED!, it gave Halborg a chance to try new sounds with a variety of musicians. Jams could go on for an hour or more. "That was definitely the start of me wanting to play music that way, where it was more free-form and improvisational and we stretched tunes out," he says.
At Rockbar, he played by running his acoustic guitar and vocals through Ableton Live software on his laptop while tapping out a tambourine beat with his foot. When Lawrence Arms frontman Brendan Kelly asked him to open a few shows in Colorado, he translated that strategy to proper stages.
The shows went well, and Halborg recorded Kelly's solo album. He needed someone to play mandolin on the sessions and turned to Cole Rudy, whom he knew from the band Varlet.
Rudy is also a skilled guitarist and lap-steel player, and he and Halborg started talking about the blues. They jammed at Halborg's house, playing some acoustic Swayback tunes that the band never played live, like "Don't Go Down to the Tracks."
Halborg and Rudy started playing shows together as Cole and Eric, and soon decided to form an actual band. Halborg already owned the dragondeer.com domain for his design portfolio; the name is a reference to Kirin, a mythological creature that's half dragon, half deer.
"They consider it a creature that comes at the beginning of a new era and also a creature that is bringing good luck," Halborg says. "Once I read that, I was like, 'That's perfect.'" They recruited Swayback drummer Carl Sorenson, and Dragondeer was born.
Halborg had high hopes for the band right away. He sent Andy Johns some of the early demos, and the legendary producer agreed to mix Dragondeer's debut. But just over a year ago, at the age of 62, Johns died. Halborg flew to Los Angeles to pay his respects at a wake at one of Johns's favorite haunts -- The Cat & Fiddle, an English pub on the Sunset Strip.
At the wake, Johns's wife, Anet, introduced Halborg to Eddie Kramer, the famed producer/engineer whom Johns assisted on Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced, from 1967. They hit it off, and Kramer asked Halborg to send him some Dragondeer material. A few days later, Halborg says, Kramer called him and said, "So I listened to your music. It's rather good.... Well, I noticed something. Maybe your bassist was out that day. There are only three of you. Where's the bass player?'
Halborg replied, "We don't have a bass player. We were trying to make do without. It's easier. Less dudes."
"Well, Eric," Kramer replied, "I don't know much about anything, but I do believe that you need a bass player!"
Knowing good advice when he hears it, Halborg tracked down a couple of bassists. John Grigsby plays on four of the songs on Don't That Feel Good, and Casey Sidwell, who is Dragondeer's usual live bassist, plays the title track. The EP doesn't sound like a debut; in fact, it includes a swampy, psychedelic cover of that first song Halborg ever learned to play, "Deep Elem Blues." The album as a whole bears the mark of Halborg's years of passion for grooves and the songwriting finesse he learned with the Swayback.
He took an unusual approach to recording, setting up microphones in his house. It became something of an obsession, and he spent many late nights cramming microphones in odd places, trying to get the perfect weird harmonica tone.
"Once I got to the end of it," says Halborg, "I played it to some trusted ears, and people were like, 'Dude, you shouldn't touch this.'" So he sent it off to be mastered by Airshow founder and chief engineer David Glasser without any additional mixing. There was some good mojo in the room: Glasser had recently done the same work on some old Grateful Dead recordings.
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