This week, Memphis power trio the Dirty Streets — singer/guitarist Justin Toland, bassist Thomas Storz, and drummer Andrew Denham — will release their third and so far best album, Blades of Grass, a polished collection recorded at Ardent Studios and released via Los Angeles indie label Alive Records (whose past releases include now-huge blues-rockers the Black Keys and north Mississippi blues stalwart T-Model Ford). Ahead of the band's local record-release show at the Hi-Tone, the Flyer spoke to Toland:
Flyer: A couple of big changes with this record are the new studio (Ardent) and label (Alive Records). Let's start with Ardent. How did you end up recording Blades of Grass there?
Justin Toland: The whole thing about doing it at Ardent was that we had worked with [engineer] Adam Hill on a thing that they did called "The Warm-Up." We had done that with him after the last record. It's a live thing they do in-studio, where they record it. He had engineered that and we were so happy with the way he recorded and mixed it that we definitely wanted to work with him in the future. But we didn't know if we would ever have the budget to do that. Then two years went by, and we were thinking about where we were going to record this record. The main thing was we wanted to record it live to tape, and we were having a hard time finding somewhere to do it for our budget.
And that's not how you recorded the first two albums?
No. They were done digitally. We tried to make it sound as analog as possible. But this time we actually wanted to record analog. I talked to Adam about mixing this record, and he said, "Just let me see if I can get you in here, and we can do the whole thing to tape." I didn't think it would be possible, but he worked out everything. A lot of people felt like they couldn't do it in the time we had allotted, which was seven or eight days. The whole record. Recording, mixing, tracking, overdubs. People didn't feel like they could do all that on tape in eight days, but he was completely confident that he could. And it ended up working perfectly.
You can definitely hear an evolution in the band, especially if you go back to the first album [Portraits of a Man]. How much is that the result of the band changing, and how much is it just getting more comfortable working in a studio setting after establishing yourself as a live band?
I think it's definitely both of those things. When we wrote all of the songs for that first record, they were written from a live standpoint. We were thinking, let's see how good these songs can sound live. They were all really long, because there were lots of parts where, live, you can really draw people's attention. But on this record and also on the last one [Movements], we moved in the direction of writing songs that we could play live in a certain way, but at the same time we were making songs for the sake of being songs. The other thing is, production-wise, we got better at recording and having ideas for overdubs.
You can hear more folk and soul elements filtering in on top of the straight blues-rock sound you had early on. It seems like that dynamic makes for a more listenable album.
Absolutely. That has to do with consciously making the decision to let some different influences get into the music more. I think when we first started out we were maybe afraid to let certain things come out. And live we were always trying to be exciting and loud. I think focusing more on the songs allowed us to move toward some of the other influences we had. But also, I think all of our tastes have expanded, as a band, since we started.
You've got Rick Steff playing on a couple of songs here. I assume that came out of touring with Lucero a couple of years ago?
It totally did. He had said something way back then about wanting to do something in the studio, but we didn't have time on the last record. On this one, I called him last minute, and he showed up and laid everything down faster than I've ever seen anybody. It was the most professional thing. In a few minutes, he made up all his parts. He's that good.
The first two records were local indie releases. This one is for Alive Records, out of Los Angeles, which is a pretty established label. How did that relationship come about?
We've gone on a few tours, and we've been touring the Southeast a lot since the last album came out. Last year, we ended up touring with Radio Moscow, a band that's on Alive Records. Through that and meeting Lee Bains, who's also on the label, around the same time, we were able to meet the owner of the label and he expressed interest in putting out the record.
After their local release this week, the Dirty Streets will head out on a 10-day Southeastern tour. They've got a six-week national tour, through the West and Midwest, scheduled for the fall.
The Dirty Streets with Heavy Eyes and Kill Baby Kill
The Hi-Tone, Friday, July 12th
10 p.m., $8