Music News

L.A. Producer Mark Howard Whipped the Denver Act Dragondeer Into Shape

Denver psych-blues band Dragondeer was whipped into shape by legendary Los Angeles-based producer Mark Howard.
Denver psych-blues band Dragondeer was whipped into shape by legendary Los Angeles-based producer Mark Howard. Andrew Rios
In late 2015, Dragondeer frontman Eric Halborg’s brother-in-law passed along some of the Denver-based psych-blues band’s demos to producer and engineer Mark Howard. Howard, who has worked with heavy hitters including Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, R.E.M. and Neil Young, was skeptical.

Halborg recalls that when he asked the producer outright to record the Denver-based psych-blues band, Howard asked, “How serious are you guys? Am I going to make this and then you’re going to break up? Five other people want to record right now in that little time frame. I just want to make sure it will come out and you’ll still be a band.”

After Halborg and Howard talked on the phone for a while, Howard said that he had a two-week chunk of time available if they could be in Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon, where he lives, in three weeks.

The band booked Outlaw’s Hideout, a meditation retreat in the area, through Airbnb, and the four musicians — multi-instrumentalist Cole Rudy, bassist Casey Sidwell, drummer Carl Sorensen and Halborg — drove out there.

“We were pretty isolated,” Halborg says. “You almost needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle to even get to the space.”

By the time Dragondeer arrived, Howard had set up his mobile recording unit, which included some “wicked good pre-amps” built by Robert Lanois, brother of famed producer Daniel Lanois — whom Howard has worked with on numerous albums.

When the band rolled up, Halborg recalls, Howard said, “Put your harp in this old sauna. Cole, you put your amp in this wooden phone booth. Bass amp goes in this room. Guitar goes in this closet over here.”

Then he laid down a few ground rules. His goal, as Halborg tells it, was “whipping some stoners into shape.”
The producer wanted the bandmembers to start each day with energy. Rule number one: If they agreed to work with Howard, they would be required to eat high-protein, low-starch foods like nuts, blueberries and chocolate before recording began in the morning. Howard didn’t want to waste time, thus rule number two: They would stick to a rigorous schedule, which meant recording all day, breaking for dinner and continuing to record into the wee hours of the night.

When it came time to work, the band set up in a semi-circle around Sorensen and his drum kit, and Howard recorded a dozen tracks live, without any headphones, the music coming back at them through the monitors and subwoofers.

“He kind of kicked our ass for two weeks,” Halborg says, “and we got a bunch of songs out of it. It was awesome that we had three cats with jazz degrees to be able to try out ideas on the fly and be able to cut them live twenty seconds later or whatever.”

While Halborg says the tracks from these sessions will eventually be released as an album, he plans to put out at least two seven-inch records in the meantime. Topanga Canyon Sessions Vol. 1, which includes “When I See You” and “Broadway Avenue,” will be released at the Bluebird on Friday, May 5. Halborg says Volume 2 will have more of the band’s live, improvisational, spaced-out sound.

The Motown-soul-steeped “When I See You” was written just before the band left for California, while “Broadway Avenue” boasts more of a blues feel. Dragondeer has been honing the latter style since the outfit’s debut 2014 EP, Don’t That Feel Good, which Halborg recorded in his basement.

These days, Dragondeer has three goals: play better, play more and play longer shows. Since the release of the EP, Halborg says, the four have been playing live sets, writing new songs and learning covers. He describes the group as “a bunch of cats just sort of hashing it out.”

With A. Tom Collins and more, 8 p.m. Friday, May 5, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 303-377-1666, $14-$16.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon