One recent Saturday afternoon, a group of North Texas musicians huddled over a small makeshift assembly line in a friend’s garage in Denton. The product being assembled was a limited-edition vinyl-and-CD package of Photomaps, the sixth and latest album by alt-roots rockers Exit 380. The band members were there, of course –– singer-keyboardist Dustin Blocker, guitarists Aaron Borden and Jeremy Hutchison, bassist Jon Hutchison, and drummer Bobby Tucker –– along with a couple of friends, Denton musicians Andrew Tinker and Jessie Frye. Tinker, as producer of Photomaps, is largely responsible for the long-player’s lush but mature and serene sound.
Everyone was “sweatshopping it,” as Blocker joked, putting 300 album packages together and stamping each with a specially designed signature impression that has since been tossed. The copies that weren’t preordered will be sold (and signed, if the buyer wishes) at Exit 380’s album release party Friday at House of Blues. Now that the band has been around in various incarnations since 1999, original co-frontmen and current main songwriters Blocker and Borden wanted to make a big deal over the release of what they consider their strongest batch of tunes yet.
“We hadn’t done any vinyl releases before,” said Blocker, 35. “Once you pay for printing [vinyl LPs], the cost of adding CDs and MP3s to it is negligible, so we decided to throw them all together. It’s our way of controlling the quality of the listening experience, I guess. Most people aren’t audiophiles, but we wanted them to be able to really hear the instruments the way we heard them in the studio.”
Most of the songs on Photomaps were recorded at Tinker’s spacious Big Acre studio in Copper Canyon, just outside Denton. As a songwriter, Blocker was feeling ambitious after 2012’s Townies generated so much strong buzz, and he wanted to make a concept album. Each song on Spaniards was going to be about a different character or place in a small Mexican town. The band worked with Salim Nourallah and a couple of other producers in the early stages of recording, but eventually Tinker (a labelmate of Exit 380’s on Hand Drawn Records, an imprint that Blocker co-owns) stepped in to make the record (and play some piano on it). Blocker and Borden quickly realized that the Spaniards concept was too restrictive –– while Blocker’s lyrics may have tied everything together originally, the music was heading off in all directions, from meditative rootsy folk to hard-charging, grunge-inspired guitar rock. So the guys renamed the LP Photomaps and let the music take them where it would.
That still includes some flamenco-flavored acoustic guitar courtesy of Jeremy Hutchison, but the characters Blocker was writing about –– an alcoholic in “Laid Up in the Road,” a dancer in “La Rosa Carlina” –– were no longer bound by one small town. Exit 380 also recorded its first cover, the outlaw country classic and character portrait “Pancho and Lefty” by Fort Worth legend Townes Van Zandt. Blocker said that as a producer, Tinker turned out to be invaluable in ways no one had suspected.
“He really took charge of the project and made it his own,” Blocker said. “He has this way of acting like he’s a member of the band, but he doesn’t care about any of the politics of that. He’s only interested in quality. He re-recorded some of the piano parts I played, and I was like, ‘Great, that sounds awesome.’ ”
The guys all tucked their egos into their back pockets during the recording process. The members put on their “big- boy pants,” Blocker said with a laugh, and took advantage of their time at Big Acre to perfect the sound of each song, unafraid to speak up when someone’s instrumental or vocal line sounded weak or out of place. The final results show a surprising creative harmony that has the veteran band looking forward to writing and recording more music together. For shows, the guys have decided to ditch a good 80 percent of their older material. Before they say farewell to those sounds of yesterday, though, Exit 380 will have a surprise for fans at House of Blues.
“We’re going to tell the audience, ‘We want to shove the brand-new songs down your throat for selfish reasons,’ but after that, we’ll open up the show and take requests,” he said. “That’s the trick with any project that’s lived a long time [like Exit 380]. Some folks want to hear the new record, and other people don’t care and want to hear the older, familiar stuff. Pleasing everybody is hard, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Exit 380 w/Jessie Frye, Andrew Tinker
9pm Fri at House of Blues, 2200 N Lamar St, Dallas. $12. 214-978-2583.