Austen Carroll & the Better Neighbors’ new album comes from a basement studio imbued with the feel of an outdoor porch. The walls are covered in plastic ivy, and string lights hang under exposed beams. And late last June, its lamps, lawn chairs and sofas provided a welcoming space for a small audience to help co-create the band's latest recording, capturing a communal moment in time. The resulting nine-track album, Live at Clubhouse Recorders, will be released on Tuesday, January 17.
“Live shows have always been the thing that I love the most,” says Carroll. “Any human connection [with the audience] adds to the sound and to the music.”
Austen Carroll & the Better Neighbors is a self-described Western indie-folk project composed of Carroll, Tate Ignelzi (drums), Neil McCormick (upright bass) and Sarah Michaels (violin). The band formed in 2021 for a show at Lost City and has gained a following not only for its lyrics and musical style, but also its stage banter and stories.
Originally from Sherman, Texas, Carroll has been playing shows in Colorado since 2012. He fronted the campfire-country Grayson County Burn Band from 2014 to 2020 and played with pop-punk outfit Bud Bronson & the Good Timers from 2012 to 2019; he's also performed solo as a singer-songwriter for a decade.
His current band came together organically. Carroll remembers that McCormick introduced himself after a 2018 Grayson County Burn Band show, saying, “I may not be your biggest fan, but I’m your biggest fan who plays upright bass. So if you ever need one, give me a call."
Ignelzi and Michaels were part of Carroll’s COVID-19 circle. During the pandemic, the three of them would sometimes spend the weekends together at Ignelzi and Michaels’s house, which they called "Camp Longmont," and entertain themselves by playing music, rollerblading or fishing.
All songs are written by Carroll, but the music evolves through the bandmates. McCormick and Ignelzi use their extensive musical backgrounds to “integrate cadence into a song,” Carroll says, while Michaels often finds “powerful and beautiful lead lines” to fill out the tunes.
The resulting sound boosts Carroll’s lyrical combination of folk narratives, punk undertones and political commentary. It’s also a cumulative expression of the many styles of music Carroll has played, overlapping genres that reflect the years Carroll spent "finding [his] voice and not trying to fit into a certain prescribed genre," he explains. “We have pretty straightforward folk songs, singer-songwriter ballads and country two-step songs, and it all seems cohesive."
Last summer, after the group had been playing together for a little more than a year, Clubhouse Recorders sound engineer Ben Waligoske suggested making a live recording. They were looking for a homecoming venue after a ten-day tour, and Waligoske offered his studio and proposed doing a casual recording as well. “I was really excited about capturing this moment, this band and this sound with these songs,” Carroll says.
Even though they were performing for an audience they knew well, the bandmates were still nervous about recording everything in one shot. It can feel more vulnerable to record that way, Carroll says, because “little bruises and blemishes” remain on the album instead of being edited out.
“It’s also really freeing,” he adds. “Maybe because it’s forcing you to be present to what’s happening at that very moment.”
Still, not everything from the live performance made it into the final album. Carroll says he has a tendency to “shoot from the hip” and tell stories during live performances, and while each of those stories might entertain the audience in the moment, they might not appreciate listening to the same story repeatedly on the album.
The edited version is a concise 34-minute recording comprising nine songs. “It captured the playfulness, but also makes it user-friendly,” Carroll says.
And the songs all tell stories. There’s “Has Anyone Seen the Moon,” the tale of a woman loudly commenting on the moon over an Arkansas campground while everyone else is trying to sleep; “Manipulated,” which tells of a man who robs a bank in order to afford health insurance; and “Let It Burn,” a story of someone coming to terms with who they actually are versus who they had hoped to be.
“The sound of the audience is definitely in it, too," says Carroll. "The applause and laughs and coughs."
Live at Clubhouse Recorders will be available on all streaming platforms Tuesday, January 17.