A widescreen tour-de-force, a sonic blast of psychedelia and indie-rock, Antlers In Velvet, the bold, arresting new album from Leon III, sounds like a relic from another age. In a time when so much of today’s music seems as disposable and temporal as a tweet, Leon III is standing athwart the tide; and here, the band conjures the spirit and ambition of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead. Make no mistake, this is an album with the potential for a serious shelf life – and one that begs for an immersive listening experience. So sit down, pour a whiskey, let the needle find the groove, and prepare to float downstream.
Even though this is only the second effort from Leon III, the project can trace its roots to the late ’90s when Andy Stepanian (vocals, guitar, songwriter) and Mason Brent (guitar, bass, banjo) started a band in Charlottesville, Virginia called Wrinkle Neck Mules, a honky-tonk outfit that made six albums, had a song featured in a GEICO commercial, and built up a dedicated and far-ranging fan base. Stepanian and Brent also collaborate in the form of Howler Brothers, a popular outdoor clothing line based in Austin, Texas, which they operate and which bears their artistic imprimatur.
Stepanian and Brent grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where country and roots music informed much of their musical development. But the two have always been drawn to the progressive, exploratory ethos of the psychedelic masters, as well as left-of-center folk artists like Vic Chesnutt and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. This new record, Antlers In Velvet, is the consummation of that vision.
For the band’s debut, Stepanian enlisted the services of producer and engineer Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Lambchop), who worked on some of Stepanian’s favorite records. Leon III made the first album at Nevers’ Nashville home studio, Beech House Recording, before it was torn down and Nevers decamped to South Carolina. “I had a bunch of songs and a concept, but Leon III had never played a show and, for almost all purposes, didn’t even really exist,” Stepanian says of that maiden project. “So, the entire first album seemed like an experiment and a learning experience. When it was all over and the album was finished, Mason and I already knew we wanted to work with Mark on another one.”
Stepanian and Nevers stayed in touch and the two met up in South Carolina over beers and fishing to discuss making another album. Nevers’ studio in South Carolina was still being built, so he suggested making the record at Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, California, an idyllic location on a mountain near San Francisco that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Nevers proposed a sort of “live-in” recording scenario a la The Band and Big Pink, where everyone would sleep, eat and make music together for the entire week. Stepanian jumped at the idea. “There were wildflowers, a rusted-out tractor, and many deer in the yard,” he says of the locale. “The place really looks like a sort of forgotten castle, complete with a turret. Inside it doesn’t look at all like a traditional studio, because the engineer’s control room is downstairs and directly beneath the tracking room. But the place feels cozy and well-suited for laying back and making an album.”
Nevers and the band recruited some of Music City’s best players for the session. One of those was Kai Welch, a member of Kacey Musgraves’ touring outfit and a talent whom Stepanian calls “a wizard on synths and keys, but who can probably hold his own on about 20 different instruments.” William Tyler, a Nashville wunderkind who now lives in L.A., joined the ranks as guitarist for the sessions. Matt Pence, formerly of Centro-matic and now an in-demand engineer, signed on for drum duties. Brent, who normally handles all guitar work, agreed to play bass during tracking now that Tyler was aboard, but would add guitar overdubs later.
The recording transpired over five days in March 2019. The sessions were loose, collaborative, and free flowing, with everything recorded live in the same room. “I remember the sessions pretty well, but when you’re knocking out song after song, certain things blend together,” Stepanian says. “I remember thinking that this was the first time that there seemed to be a complete absence of country-feeling influence in my songs. None of the songs or players were coming from that place and, to me, it was a positive.”
Months later, Stepanian, Brent, and Nevers traveled to Nashville for overdubs at the Sound Emporium. Seasoned vets like steel player Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Justin Townes Earle) and keys-man Tony Crow (Lambchop) offered their services. Jordan Caress (Ponychase, Caitlin Rose) recorded backing vocals in a Boston studio, and Dana Colley (Morphine) contributed horn parts from his home studio in Boston as well.
“When it was all over, Mason, Mark and I felt like we had an album that was interconnected,” Stepanian says. “The songs blend and the whole thing is intended to have a dream-like quality. We want it to be consumed as a full album.”
Featuring eight tracks, the album clocks in at just under 43 minutes, with opening-track “Fly Migrator,” with it’s Dead-like guitar preamble, stretching over nine minutes and establishing the sonic ground for what’s to follow. Next up is “Faint Repeater,” a slow-burner anchored by Pence’s martial snare and haunted by Caress’s backing vocals. “The Whisper Is Ours,” an eerie Gothic chorale, was inspired by a macabre incident in Houston (Stepanian’s current residence) where a couple hired a hit-man to murder each of their former spouses, except the hit-man turned out to be an undercover cop. The song was remixed by Jamaican reggae and dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, who also contributes vocals. “Divining Rods” and “Rumors Of Water” were conceived as companion pieces, with the former being inspired by all the jazz Stepanian had been listening to of late. The latter takes off like a rocket from its gentler sister before flowering into Steely Dan territory. “Skeletal Pines,” with its barroom piano and Sunshine Daydream feel, recalls Elton John during his trippier Goodbye Yellow Brick Road days. “Tigris,” a more discordant number, throws gravel in the eye of its marmalade sky predecessor. It’s a comedown moment that wipes the slate clean for the closing title track, “Antlers In Velvet,” a song about the passage of time and the cycle of death and rebirth. “Tell me, crow, where does the old growth go?/ Flying by and acting like you don’t know,” sings Stepanian, who counts the song as one of the best and most personal he’s written. It’s a cryptic ending to a challenging album.
The advent of Covid-19 and the “safer at home” mantra has disrupted the supercharged tempo of 21st – century life. As difficult as it’s been, the period has also been a time for reflection, for patience, for a new way of looking at things. With that in mind, Antlers In Velvet is the perfect album for an imperfect time – a song cycle that allows for a deeper dive into some of the darker and more complex corners of American music that speaks coherently to the very strange times in which we find ourselves.