UNTIL RECENTLY, just about every step of Futurebirds' recordings has been taken under the watchful eye of Drew Vandenberg, a guy whose production résumé includes Drive-By Truckers, Toro y Moi, Of Montreal, Deerhunter, and more. Vandenberg's a pro. But he's also a friend of the Futurebirds. "He gets in the mix and he just becomes part of the crew," says Carter King, who sings and plays guitar in the Athens, Georgia, psych-country band.
Translation: On past works, Futurebirds likely felt no hesitation about imposing their aesthetic will on the technical side of the recording process. It was a nice arrangement, but this time the band didn't want to make the same record again, so they decided to cede some control.
Enter Brian Paulson, another studio pro best known for his work on Slint's Spiderland and across the Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt family tree. The band brought Paulson in to mix its 2015 album, Hotel Parties, and, at least in part, to help steer Futurebirds in a cleaner, more concise direction.
"We'd met him once before and we're obviously huge fans of his work, but essentially he's a stranger," King says. "So in that sense it was a great leap in terms of giving up control or letting someone else have a say in the Futurebirds world."
Giving up control wasn't easy. ("Not even a little bit," King says.) But Paulson's work speaks for itself, and he's an easygoing guy. With a little give and take, he and the Futurebirds found common ground.
"We'd let him run with [the songs] for a while. We'd leave the room and then come back in a couple of hours and hear 'em as he heard 'em," King says. "It was a really cool experience because a lot of the songs, we'd come back and be like, 'Aww shit, we really didn't hear it this way. This sounds great!'"
Futurebirds' previous recordings, including 2013 breakthrough Baba Yaga, found the band's country-rock songs draped in reverb and other studio effects, doubling down on their naturally cosmic qualities. There's some of that on Hotel Parties, but for the most part, it sounds like Paulson turned the lush 'n' dreamy dial down, giving Futurebirds' tunes more space to shine. As a result, the songs feel sturdier, like My Morning Jacket with somewhere to be and no time to dillydally.
Thematically, Hotel Parties touches on the tough parts of being a Futurebird: life on the road, saying goodbye to loved ones, feeling disconnected from your home, and so on. They were written during a "dark time" for the band, King says, citing the departure of a drummer and some persistent label trouble.
It should be noted, however, that some of those songs are more than three years old. Things are better now.
"We were a bit jaded at the time. Now, we're like, 'Oh man, everyone's gonna think we hate touring and we hate playing in a band,'" King says. "Obviously, we love it because we're still doing it. You wouldn't do this if you didn't love it because it can be real tough. But we're still digging it. Our next record will be all margaritas and sunbeams."