It’s a dream scenario for any band trying to get off the ground: You cut some demos, pass them around and wind up working with a respected producer who digs your sound. That’s what happened to Holy Roller Baby, a rock band made up of Austin and Dallas musicians. There was one catch: The producer was nearly 5,000 miles away.
Ian Davenport, a producer known for his work with Band of Skulls and Radiohead drummer Philip Selway, came across a demo from Holy Roller Baby frontman Jared Mullins and invited the band to record at his studio in Oxfordshire, England. Davenport’s Courtyard Recording Studio has been home to records from Radiohead (including their debut Pablo Honey), Supergrass, Stereophonics and more. The nascent group was thrilled to hear from a big name like Davenport, and even more thrilled by the price tag.
“It was cheaper to record at Radiohead’s studio than in Texas,” Mullins says. “Ian doesn’t just work with groups who can afford it; he works with people he believes in, and is willing to take a cut in pay to do it.”
The recording package included room and board, so in early 2017, Mullins and his bandmates hunkered down in an Oxfordshire cottage for two weeks and began tracking their debut album. According to Mullins, the band was all business.
“We weren’t terrorizing the locals with alcohol-fueled rehearsals,” he laughs while speaking over the phone. “We went there knowing what we had to do.”
Holy Roller Baby is an amalgam of Texas musicians, with Mullins on vocals and lead guitar, Nick Snyder from The Roomsounds backing him on guitar and wielding slide guitar, Patrick Smith on bass and Luke Callaway on drums. Mario Valdez, now with Charley Crockett, was the band’s drummer on the debut record. The trek to Oxfordshire was the first time overseas for many of the bandmates.
“Having some hairy Texans hanging out in a sleepy village in the English countryside was fun in itself,” Davenport says. “The village noticed them, for sure.”
Davenport took notice of Holy Roller Baby in 2016, when Mullins sent him some links to previous releases.
“I liked what I heard in content, but was not massively taken with how it had been delivered,” Mullins says. “But that was enough to pique my interest and start a conversation.”
Davenport asked for more material, and the frontman passed along some demos he had produced at home.
“The record before seemed very modern rock, but there was a streak of soul in the newer songs that really appealed to me,” Davenport says.
The producer wanted to draw out those traces in order to craft a soulful rock album. The band was elated.
“We had previously talked to another producer that just didn’t get our sound and wanted to go in a completely different direction,” bassist Smith says. “But Ian got us.”
Smith calls Davenport’s style “unconventional.” Davenport calls his approach with the band “old school.”
“I’d never worked with a producer who didn’t use clicks to keep time,” Smith says. “But we didn’t need them. Mario is such a machine, that we could take any part of the recording, and it’d be in perfect time.”
Over 13 days, the band tracked 12 songs to create an album that Davenport calls “Allman Brothers meets Queens of the Stone Age in a Louisiana swamp.” Selway dropped by to lend the band some congas, and they borrowed a bundle of equipment from the studio’s other celebrated tenants.
“There were no dramas,” Davenport says. “We’d have a little hour or so in the control room every night after finishing recording. Just hanging out, having a beer, talking hot sauce and exchanging favorite tunes and recordings.”
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The English producer learned about BB King, while the Texans learned about English pop and post-rock band Talk Talk. Outside of the studio, the band roamed Oxfordshire, the eclectic home that was George Orwell’s final resting place, a home once owned by Tim Burton and a nearly 1,000-year-old church.
“I don’t mean this to sound romantic, but I loved taking long walks with the guys,” Mullins says. “You’ll never see more stars than you’ll see in Oxfordshire.”
The band headed back across the Atlantic after wrapping up a day early, but Holy Roller Baby has plans for a return trip. Mullins calls Davenport a mentor, and he thinks the band will be back at Courtyard Studio before the end of the year. The band will release the first single from the album Ravings At Your Window with a party at Twilite Lounge on June 14. Despite the famed setting, Mullins cautions anyone who thinks the band’s debut album will sound anything like Radiohead.
“They don’t really do solos, and this has lots of solos. Radiohead probably wouldn’t be our biggest fans,” Mullins says. “But hey, we’re proud of the album.”