Dragondeer Gets Help From a Heavyweight and Ghosts of Topanga Canyon

For an inspirational setting to record their forthcoming album (release date TBA), Dragondeer dug deep into the heart of California’s Topanga Canyon. The idyllic area, located in the Santa Monica Mountains, has long been a safe haven and a place of respite for such legendary musicians as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Doors and Crosby Stills and Nash, all of whom recorded well-known albums in the area.

“There was a meditation retreat that they used for an Airbnb space that had a main studio area called the Outlaw’s Hideout, and then sort of these gypsy tents floating all over that we would sleep in,“ singer/guitarist Eric Halborg says. “It was pretty remote, and we hardly left the property. We were in sacred ground.”

The group, fleshed out by multi-instrumentalist Cole Rudy, drummer Carl Sorensen and bassist Casey Sidwell, chose Topanga Canyon for its storied past, but also because it was close to the home of lauded producer Mark Howard, who has produced albums from massive names like R.E.M., Tom Waits, Dylan, Iggy Pop and a host of others. While Dragondeer’s name doesn't carry as much clout as most of his client list, Howard heard and liked the band’s demos, and agreed to produce the album after Halborg assured him they were not just hobbyists.

“He called me on the phone and asked me if we were a serious band. He said he wouldn’t waste his time if we weren’t,” Halborg says. “There were a couple of other bands waiting to work with him, so he wanted to make sure we weren't gonna record and then break up. I told him we were serious and wanted to do it full-time; that’s why we were doing it. He said, ‘Cool. Can you be here in three weeks?’"

Not wanting to waste the opportunity, the bandmembers tightened up their songs, and three weeks later, they were working with the famed producer, cutting an album in a place where many of their heroes had done the same. 

We asked Dragondeer — clearly a band that knows the importance of musical history — to identify five songs that have had the most profound effect on the band’s sound.

"Deep Elem Blues" - Grateful Dead

Sidwell: It’s an important song for this band because it was a cover we were playing when I first joined. It's representative of this band’s ties to the blues, but also the blues through that psychedelic San Francisco-Grateful-Dead lens. It captures the essence of the spirit of that time and that movement, so we all tried to do our best job of channeling some of that. I personally hadn't had a chance to play that stuff before.

Halborg: My friend had Jerry Garcia’s custom guitar; he was raised in the Grateful Dead family, and Jerry gave his dad this guitar. He had never even plugged it in. When we cut the demo, I asked if I could use that guitar, and he agreed. I think people are surprised because of my punk background that I am so into the Dead. When we started this band, we wanted to play blues, but we wanted to stretch it out. This song was a big part of the idea that we could take blues music somewhere else.

"Spoonful" - Willie Dixon 

Rudy: That song, for me, is real gritty blues. Any recording you hear is always super-mean and has this bite to it. That rawness is what we try to inject in what we do. I play mandolin when we cover this song, and I always thought that was a strange thing to do, I had never done a lot of mandolin before this band. It’s a challenge to take the raw sounds of these early songs and add our own textures and sound to them.

"Messin' With the Kid" - Junior Wells

Halborg: My favorite blues record is Hoodoo Man Blues, by Junior Wells. It has a blues feel, but also has this funky bump to it — it had something that made me want to dance to it. When we covered this song, we saw that we could keep the blues format but see people dance.That has become an intention of the band.

"Here Comes the Metermen" - The Meters

Sidwell: I deeply love this band, and I think Carl and I are heavily influenced as a rhythm section by them. This band is lucky in that Eric and Cole can really take a song and stretch it, really emote and connect with the crowd. Carl and I end up pulling some of the weight of keeping the engine going, and we rely on that deep funk foundation like the Meters did. They just hold it down.

"To Be Alone With You"  - Bob Dylan

Halborg: There's no record as a songwriter that I listen to more than Nashville Skyline. This song is a perfect balance of session tightness with some deep grooves. I always wonder what woman inspired [Dylan] to be so outwardly poetic and unabashed without cliché. That’s always been inspiring to me as a lyricist. 

Dragondeer plays Saturday, January 16, at the Larimer Lounge.