Johnny Lloyd Rollins has been really into survivalist books lately. The singer-guitarist, who lives and teaches music lessons in the suburban sprawl of McKinney, worked for the Boy Scouts for eight years, which makes the back-to-nature part a likely interest. But he lowers his voice and leans in amid the chatter in the mixing room of Tomcast Studios to explain the imaginary place this album comes from -- this album he's planning to record in three days of studio time.
"It’s all about abandoning modern life, going up into the mountains ... it’s a mountain album. It’s country, mixed with New Orleans, mixed with bluegrass. It’s about getting into the country and moving away from society. That’s what this record is about.”
Another cellphone rings. This time it belongs to Tomcast Studios co-owner Tom Bridwell.
"Hey dude, I'm in a session myself, man. I'll call you back."
For Rollins, Dallas musician Chris Holt, and two friends Rollins flew in from both coasts, drummer Tony Cicero of the L.A. area and bassist Eric Swanson of Brooklyn, Tomcast Studios is a cave from which none can emerge until their contributions to the tracks on Rollins' latest are in the can -- er, file. Well, that's not really true. The guys will have to leave when studio time (read: money) runs out, or pop into the adjacent living room to watch the Cowboys game, or make the two-minute drive to the Jake's Hamburgers on Skillman for sustenance. Then, Rollins will get the songs online as soon as possible to help rebuild his fan base, which he says thinned out after he spent time away playing industry showcases in Los Angeles and England without releasing any new music.
"Slowly over time, it's progressed to this: How can I simplify things? How can I get them done easier and faster?" Johnny says. "We live in a culture of Tumblrs and Twitters and Facebook, where people wanna see your stuff now. They don't care how polished it is."
Holt, who plays guitar with Salim Nourallah's band and who has almost as many Dallas Observer Music Awards as groups to sit in with, just wrapped a record at Tomcast with his band The Slack. He says he and the guys spent a few days a month over the course of a year on the album, jamming timeslots in where they'd fit at the sought-after in-home studio off Northwest Highway. That release will come out in January on Idol Records. Rollins isn't sure when his will drop -- maybe summer, maybe spring -- or if a label will pick it up.
The banjo, horns, and lack of electric guitar on some of these new tracks are a definite departure from what his admirers in Dallas who called Rollins things like "a slick '50s Texas rock 'n' roller that would have been perfect on Sun Records" (Quick's Ayo) will expect. A jangly ragtime piano intro for a song called "Simply Neurotic" Holt improvised, muttering about "bad technique" as he bulleted through the take, is one of the treats offered by the experiment. Becky Middleton popped in to record back-up vocals on that song, and there's an appearance by Eric Neal of The Slack on fiddle among the guest spots.
"I really set out to achieve something in the way that musicians used to make records in the old days, which meant recording it in less than a week," Rollins wrote later. "I would read about how all these musicians would get booked for sessions with Dylan or whomever, and nobody had heard the songs yet! They would just learn them right then and there in the studio, and then lay down some juicy takes. Which is exactly what happened on this record. I was really lucky to get everyone I wanted to come in and help with this. It went better than expected."
Rollins sent us an an update after the three days of studio time were up. Turns out all the instrument tracks had indeed been recorded, but Rollins needed a little more time. "I spend an extra day pre-mixing when I realized I completely ran out of money to finish the record. I really was concerned, almost to the point of asking God, 'How am I going to finish this?'"
Apparently, a driver made an illegal left turn in front of Rollins soon after his cosmic plea, obliterating his 15-year-old Ford Ranger and warranting her insurance to pay $5,000 for the damages, which Rollins writes is three times the value of his vehicle.
So he'll schedule a return to the mountain to finish his vocals. And fortunately, for him, the trek down back to society isn't too far.
Johnny Lloyd Rollins performs at City Tavern on December 12.