Standing Room Only: Behind the Scenes With Roky Moon and BOLT!
SCR was extended an invitation to sit in on the recording sessions for American Honey, the new album by Roky Moon and BOLT. It was a chance for me to soak in the creative process of a band that has been an enigma to me for the better part of two years, and it would also be my first foray into the hallowed halls of the legendary SugarHill Studios.
I really had no clear expectations of what would await me when I pulled up into the lot. I just thought it was cool that the people at ZenHill Records would extend an opportunity like this.
I’ve sat in on recording sessions before, and honestly, they are long, tedious ordeals. Usually an engineer will lay down a few scratch tracks of the entire band as a reference so that they can go back, piece by piece, and record each instrument and performer on his own separate track. Then on top of that, the performers record take after take, trying to get their performances just right. I watched a band once take three months just to track a three-song demo, so imagine my mortification when I found out that Roky Moon and BOLT were recording their entire album in one day.
Stepping into SugarHill Studios was magic, just to be able to soak in the history and be in the presence of where so much American music history was made. Roky Moon and BOLT, a relatively young band, was recording their album where a long list of legends, like Lightin’ Hopkins, Freddy Fender, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Calvin Owens, and Dizzy Gillespie recorded hits, not to mention Destiny’s Child, Smash Mouth, and ZZ Top. Take a moment to let that sink in, and that’s just pretty damn cool.
By the time I made my way into the control room, Roky and company were already halfway through their first of four takes. The ambiance was electric. Rows of candles lined the studio as the band played. The control room was packed full of people, including engineers, reporters, photographers, execs, and, of course, Afam the intern. Floating through it all was SugarHill owner and co-partner of ZenHill Records himself Dan Workman, whose head bobbed to the current of the music but who at the same time listened with a critical ear for what he wanted the band to focus on for the next take.
Inside the studio, things were no less chaotic. Not only did you have a eight-piece band, including Roky Moon on vocals and guitar, Aaron Echegaray on lead, Jeoaf Johnson in the drum booth, Chad Pinter on bass, Cassie Hargrove on keys, as well as a baritone sax player and two backup singers; you also had W. Ross Wells, of ZenFilm and also a partner of ZenHill Records, inside filming the band.
I remembered reading an article on Roky Moon and BOLT in The Houstonist where they were asked about their plans to record, and they basically said there was no way they could afford to get in the studio. If you think about it, even at indie rates, producing, tracking, mixing, and mastering a full-length album still could cost you upwards of eight to ten thousand dollars.
So many people harp on bands who look for record deals, but the truth is a lot of times that’s the only way any of them would be able to afford to record music for you to listen to: by having their label foot the bill. That’s what’s great about what Workman and Wells are doing, they’re giving a talented roster of local and regional artists the resources needed to record and promote their material. So it’s kind of fortuitous that an appearance on an episode of Live from SugarHill would eventually lead Roky Moon and BOLT to being signed to ZenHill Records. Kudos.
Admittedly, my first reaction when I saw that Roky Moon was recording their album live (not to be confused with recording a live album) was “are they insane?” Now you had all these added pressures of having to play a 45-minute set perfectly, hitting all your chord changes and pedal effects, nailing every solo, maintaining your energy, and not flubbing your lyrics — all with the distractions of people you don’t even know watching you, strange reporters judging and photographing you, and Ross Wells occasionally breaking into a jig behind the camera, so caught up in the music he is. Not to mention that he ended up cutting himself and bleeding all over his equipment.
And yet, somehow, they pulled it off. I don’t know how much they had to rehearse, or if they just have a collective concentration of steel, but I’ve never seen anything like it. All of the distractions only seemed to add to the kinetic energy of their performance, until I felt that even I had become an intrinsic part of the album.
As they played, I felt more like I was watching a movie than watching a band. They invoked rock and roll, some nostalgia, and a little bit of musical theater. I was impressed by how seamlessly one song flowed to the other. It so often happens that most albums are just compilations of songs from the same artist, but an album can be so much more than that, and with American Honey, Roky Moon and BOLT created a singular experience interwoven around 11 songs.
Listening, I realized that Roky Moon and BOLT didn’t just write songs, they wrote an album. I left SugarHill that evening feeling exhausted and elated all at once. If American Honey is any indication of what the rest of ZenHill’s roster has to offer, then believe that there are great things in store.