You may not have heard of Andy Stepanian, or his brainchild Leon III. To be fair, I hadn’t either until about three weeks ago when his publicist sent an email to my editor with a yet-to-be released, nearly ten-minute track called “Fly Migrator”. Now, we here at Live For Live Music receive a vast amount of emails everyday with tracks to check out and albums to listen to. It would be impossible to listen to every one, and it’s all the more unlikely that you’ll take the time when you’ve never heard of the act being pitched.

Due to a well-placed tip (thanks, Emily), our team decided to dive into this new track from this band we’d never heard, and our excitement effectively derailed an entire morning’s worth of productivity. What is Leon III? Who are these people? How have I never heard of them? Why can’t I stop listening to this song?

After a few back-and-forth emails, some digging through known information, and prowling around on Soundcloud, my interest was fully piqued. Here was an act that wasn’t on any of the message boards, didn’t have Facebook fan groups, wasn’t mentioned in the jam Twitterverse—don’t worry, this will eventually turn into a compliment. With little out there on Stepanian and Leon III, I decided that I wanted to get in on the ground floor of what I think could be one of the next names in improvisational music. If you’re this far already, then you’re also probably willing to take a chance and get to know Leon III. While you read, take that first step down the rabbit hole just like I did: hit “play” on “Fly Migrator”.

Leon III – “Fly Migrator”

Live For Live Music: For me specifically, [“Fly Migrator”] really had it all. So, can you tell me a bit about how that track came about, and how it fits into your sound as a whole?

Andy Stepanian: I’ve got a pretty long and crooked path in music, and I’m sort of moving in a particular direction at the moment—or back when this song was written, and even more now, probably—and it’s trying to expand the boundaries of songs and get beyond your three-to-five minute song. Really work some space into them, and be a little bit more free in the way that we approach things. So “Fly Migrator” was really a song that, as far as songs, didn’t have a tremendous amount of words. It had lyrical content, but not necessarily volume. But the song itself seemed to be best delivered in this sort of epic format. Even from the demo stage. When I demoed it, I think the demo that I did—which I sort of create them on my own—was seven minutes or something.

So we kind of identified it with the guys that played on the album. We knew that we were going to get pretty jammy on it, and that’s exactly how it went down. So it kind of almost is a song in three stages. I feel like there’s a beginning, and then there’s the lyrical middle, and then there’s an ending section that has a beat that comes in, a looped drum beat.

Yeah, it was a fun one to make. I think the take that is on the album is one that was done while we were still kind of learning the song. I think everybody was playing a little bit more adventurous than they would be if you were saying, “Okay, this is the take,” or “Let’s go for one.” So that probably gave it the spirit that it wanted.

Live For Live Music: In terms of that style of the no words—these long songs, this adventurous style—is that an approach that’s new to you?

Andy Stepanian:  No. I mean, I write long songs that tend to have big moments in them, but letting myself put a ten-minute song on an album is probably new to me, sure.

I think the longest one prior to that was six or so minutes, but as a listener, I’ve been drawn to that kind of music for a long time, and I listen to a lot of that type of music, and then I’ve sort of gotten more and more into that style of music over time, and migrated away from some of the more formulaic things that I used to be drawn to, I guess… to be very unclear.

Live For Live Music: Speaking of the unclear, speaking of those older, more formulaic things, what made you and Mason Brent decide to put Wrinkle Neck Mules, a band that enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success with that more traditional formula, up on a shelf and start anew with Leon III?

Andy Stepanian: Some of it is musical. So Wrinkle Neck Mules has a certain audience, and has a certain thing. I find that Wrinkle Neck Mules is a band, and it has five people in it, and there’s the same five people that have been in it for 15 years. That band sort of always takes a certain angle on the music. There’s a perimeter to it, but it was really an opportunity to go explore. Leon III was an opportunity to say, “Let’s crack out of the formula, and let’s go try to use some different paint colors on the canvas, and let’s take an opportunity to not be necessarily locked into a specific band, on any given recording project or any given tour.”

So, we can explore different sonic things, and if they work, we can take what works and apply it to the future. But, we don’t have to be married to anything necessarily. So that’s how it started. “Hey, let’s go do this thing,” and pushed it into a different area that Wrinkle Neck Mules has ever explored, and see where the songs can go, without sort of the confines of fan expectations, and the band, and those kind of things.

Live For Live Music: How has that change in dynamic affected you, as a musician, so far?

Andy Stepanian: I think a lot of confidence. So, when you play with the band for a long time, you kind of have your role and you know where you stand, and it becomes comfortable, I guess I’d say. So you’re comfortable in what the band does, and the style and how it works and all that. But sometimes, that comfort isn’t necessarily the best thing, in terms of growth. So going out and putting a lot on my own shoulders and on my own song’s shoulders, and then getting into the studio with some people that are true virtuoso types on their instruments, and kind of learning from them. … It’s been a growth thing, and then you start to see, “Oh, well that works,” and these songs are working and things are going well, so let’s do more. Let’s go one more step. Let’s take this one more step. So it kind of builds on itself. It takes time. I’m a slow learner.

Live For Live Music: Has it been daunting, kind of scary, to do that and put more on your shoulders, whereas with that band it was a set lineup and everybody kind of had this distribution, and now, it’s kind of more on you. Is that kind of scary at times?

Andy Stepanian: It was at first, but I’m feeling it. I feel like I’ve kind of broken through the scary part, and am starting to really be happy with what we’re turning out, in terms of songs, and super proud of the product that we’ve created, in terms of what these songs are. So that more and more starts feeding on itself, and you start saying, “Okay, well that worked. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep pushing.” So in that regard, I’m pretty happy.

Live For Live Music: So then, let’s talk about the new album, Antlers In Velvet, out in 2021. There are some new singles coming out next month. How does this new record expand on the first album from Leon III?

Andy Stepanian: So it’s a lot of what we just talked about. So the first album… [2018’s] Leon III, is this out-of-thin-air kind of thing that we made when we decided to do it. We have the songs. We’d done some demoing, but there was no real sound for Leon III. It was hard to know exactly what to expect, and we went in with Mark Nevers, who is a guy some people know just from his work with Body Prints or Silver Jews or Vic Chestnutt or whatever. And I didn’t really know. I was a little nervous. I was unsure of directionally where it was going to end up, and so I felt like I loved a lot of the songs—and still do—on the first album, but I felt hesitant personally about how it was going to go.

I think even the working relationship with Mason [Brent] and working relationship with Nevers, everyone would feel each other out and get to know each other. So I almost immediately knew I wanted to do another album with Mark, because I felt like, “Okay, now we’ve got this real comfort level,” and I think that will result in pushing the boundaries a little farther.

For this one, we decided to do kind of a lock-in type thing, where we all went to California and we lived and worked in the studio for a week, and we brought in some guys that are excellent musicians and their friends, or friends of friends, that they’re pros, and that sort of unlocked a little bit deeper and richer feel to the songs, in terms of let’s put one more different angle on these things.

So, yeah. I just feel like it’s a little bit deeper step. Definitely a lot of underlying psychedelia in the songs. There was in the first album too, but this is, again, another step forward.

Live For Live Music: You talked about bringing in all these immensely talented people. How did that A-team come together for the recording of the new album?

Andy Stepanian: Yeah, it was just Mark Nevers and myself working on it, and figuring out who might come. I mean, there was this guy Kai Welch, who is the kind of good friend who worked on the first album. He’s a touring member of Kacey Musgraves‘ band, but also kind of a wiz on a lot of different instruments. We kind of knew right away that we would bring Kai, and then Mark came to bring William Tyler, who is a very talented guitar player who Mark has worked with for a long time, from Lamb Chop and Silver Jews, and Williams’ solo stuff. I was a little hesitant about that, because Mason is really the guitar player, but we kind of decided that that’s part of what we’re trying to do here. Let’s just break out of our norms, and see what Williams can do, and William plays in a really unique style. It’s almost not guitar. Sometimes, it sounds like padded keyboards, or a little atmospheric and new age, which is cool.

Then there’s this drummer who, also, a lot of people know from his days with a band called Centro-Matic, but who’s a pretty recognized engineer and producer on his own right. This guy Matt Pence, who has a real unique drumming style, and who I’ve always loved. I knew Matt not a ton, but knew him a little bit from around the Texas music scene. Anyway, we got Matt Scott. That was the core, just us brainstorming anything. He might be unique. He might fit together well, but also bring different elements to the table.

Live For Live Music: You talked about it earlier, how part of the fun was not having the set lineup, but it seems like you got a good group of guys together. If you guys do make another album, are you going to stick with these people, or are you going to build it up from scratch again?

Andy Stepanian: I don’t know. We’re talking about that right now, and then got a bunch of songs now. This one was recorded way back in the spring of last year, and so I don’t know. It may be some of both. It might be a hybrid. I have no idea. It’ll probably be determined by who we work with. I’m likely to say we’re going to work with a producer again, and that might drive some of the decision-making.

Live For Live Music: I also realize this is probably a distant reality right now, but in terms of taking Leon III on the road—a lot of these guys already have other touring obligations. What would that look like, if you wanted to take this act on the road?

Andy Stepanian: Yeah, so it depends. We did a bunch of touring right up until January of this year, and the live lineup changes also. Sometimes it’s just because guys are busy, but we have a pretty good crew that are national guys, that are friends of ours, that jump in and play various roles. I have a good buddy from Houston who’s a bass player, who I think he’s played all of our shows with us, but it kind of depends on who answers the phone, and who wants to go at any given time.

Matt Pence, the drummer who is on the recording, has played with us some, but he is the full-time drummer for a guy named Paul Coffin, who’s kind of an up-and-comer in the Americana world.

I’m rambling, but it totally depends. So sometimes, we’ll bring a female who sings and plays piano. Sometimes, we’ll bring a pedal steel player. There was always the same core instruments, but often, we’ll have a fifth or sixth instrument that is different, or it’s a different person. Synth player or something like that.

Live For Live Music: It seems like that just contributes to the whole idea of this being a shifting thing that’s very open ended.

Andy Stepanian: Yeah, it does. I mean, there’s downsides to it too at times, just because you’re not always super familiar, and you’re always cramming in rehearsals, and we joke that by the end of each little tour, the band is awesome. And then, everybody disbands and goes back to their own music or doing their own. So there’s ups and downs to it. You get different angles on the music, but you’re always learning. You got to stay on your toes.

Live For Live Music: And then just one more question about the personnel. How did dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry get involved in this project?

Andy Stepanian: Through just pure effort. On our last album, we had Scientist—who’s also a dub legend—do a remix for a song, and I’m always kind of dreamy on stuff like that. So, I just reached out to Lee Perry, really just his email address [laughs], and I didn’t hear anything and I was bummed out, but it didn’t surprise me.

And then all of a sudden, I got a WhatsApp thing from his wife, and ended up starting a dialogue with her, and they were super open to it, and I was like, “Look, it’s not a reggae song, but I think that he could do some cool things with it,” and so he jumped in and did it. They rented a little studio, I think, in Jamaica, but I think a lot of times he was living in Switzerland. In one of the two places, I never could tell, but he just jumped in and did it. He’s in his eighties now, so I think he had an engineer help him with it, but it was kind of a dream come true.

Live For Live Music: And then switch gears a little bit. How does the Howler Brothers brand fit into your creative output?

Andy Stepanian: It’s just another thing. It’s something that I started with one of my Wrinkle Neck Mules bandmates, and at the time, it was kind of a means to an end. We were session musicians and scared, and so he’s a very talented graphic artist, and he was trying to pursue this thing, and I’m a sucker for a bad idea. So, I decided to jump on and help him, and it’s grown and grown over the years. So I’m able to do a lot of creative things. I write a lot of words for Howler, but then I also create a lot of video and content type things that are often funny or bizarre.

So it’s a way to sort of toggle in and out of music, and not have it be everything I’m thinking about every single day, but also have another creative realm that I can play in, and also make a living, which has been a blessing during the last six months in particular.

Keep a look out for new singles from Leon III over the next few months as we draw closer to the release of Antlers In Velvet in February 2021. Visit the group’s Facebook page to stay up-to-date.