On a typically desolate Monday night in Deep Ellum, John Pedigo of the The O's opens his trunk to reveal dozens of cardboard boxes filled with his group's new CD, Thunderdog. It's a big moment, not just for The O's but for Punch Five Records — the label he and bandmate Taylor Young own and operate. It's not a reach to say the trunk's contents are a physical representation of the label's birth. It is a proud moment for the two, as Pedigo rips open one of the rectangular boxes to look at the cover. "Damn," he says, handing a CD to Young. "Those are some good-looking dudes!"
Anyone who has seen The O's perform one of their trademark shows featuring off-the-cuff Smothers Brothers-style banter mixing smoothly with their brand of stomping roots-rock knows that such a self-deprecating response makes perfect sense. Certainly, the thousands of CDs represent the band and business' future. But it's just one more step for a band that has taken many already.
Inside the closed-on-Mondays AllGood Café on Main Street, Pedigo enjoys a glass of iced tea while Young sips coffee from a mug printed with the slogan "No More Birthdays, Only Parties." They work during the day delivering medical supplies and at the AllGood, respectively. The typically chatty friends are setting up for their first rehearsal of the year. Rehearsing new songs will always be a necessary, if unglamorous, step for the veteran band's continued progress.
Thunderdog was recorded at the famed Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, just along the Mexican border near El Paso, as well as at The Bubble in Austin — it was produced by Chris "Frenchie" Smith. It's the third album for The O's, but the first to be recorded away from their former label, Dallas-based Idol Records. According to Pedigo and Young, the split was a natural process. Their arrangement with Idol was to record two albums, and it was just time to get rolling with the vision they had developed for themselves.
"At this point," Young explains, "John and I have so many years of experience in dealing with this [the music industry], and I think we know most of the things that need to be done for a record label, and we definitely know what's best for our band. Now it's up to us. If we want to lose our money putting it behind things we think are good, then we'll do that and hope it all works out."
They have reason to hope for success, at least if the next steps are as positive as the recording experience was for the duo. The Sonic Ranch is well-known beyond the borders of this state. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs recently recorded their new album there, in fact.
"We decided to go out to Sonic Ranch at the recommendation of Frenchie, our producer," Pedigo says. "He'd done a lot of work out there and thought it would be great for us musically and philosophically. He was 100 percent right. It's a magical place that sits on the border surrounded by a million pecan trees. There are sweet ladies that make you food every day and more importantly, they make you the Sonic Ranch Red Sauce. We ate it by the gallon and put it on everything — burritos, tacos, pizza, you name it. We literally lived there for two weeks and worked at all hours of the day and night. We usually stopped around 2 a.m. because we had to catch CSI Miami. I'm not really sure why that kept happening."
A key ingredient to Young and Pedigo's country-folk recipe is more than a dash of kick drum. Thanks to mainstream acts such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers who also employ the stand-up technique, new fans might (inaccurately) accuse The O's of folk-y plagiarism. In fact, the band has used the en vogue percussion tool since their 2008 formation simply out of necessity.
"We wanted to keep the band to just the two of us," Pedigo says. "Taylor was already a drummer, so having him play a kick drum was an easy decision. Thankfully, it just didn't sound awful."
The album's title, Thunderdog, is also the name the duo gave to Young's 36-inch kick drum long ago. "We would always say that thing could 'Thunderdog' any crowd we played in front of," Pedigo says.
On Thunderdog, the propulsive nature of the kick drum is certainly present, but what really makes the record great is the way the duo, in keeping with the spirit of learning and progressing, expands its sonic textures while remaining very true to the banjo-driven style they've perfected. The album's exciting final track, "Kitty," a raucous tune with Young on lead vocals, represents the grandest sign of growth — and departure — when compared to their previous works.
For the first two minutes of the song, Young rhythmically spins an ominous yarn about a girl who can't put the pipe down before Pedigo blazes in with what initially sounds like The O's first ever electric guitar jam on record. As it turns out, the line, which maniacally muscles its way to the tune's conclusion, is just an old instrument taken to new places.
"That's just a banjo solo," Pedigo says, laughing. "It's my banjo through a fuzz pedal. Just like Thunderdog represents what we do with the bass drum, this is how I Thunderdog the banjo. I wouldn't have been able to try that two years ago, let alone actually put it on a record."
Thunderdog means many things to the O's. It defines the method they are using to achieve their version of success for the future. As it has always been, The O's are just doing what feels like the right thing to do in order to improve.
"Thunderdogging is a blazing of our own trail," Pedigo says without a hint of his usual sarcasm. "So, the deal behind naming our album that is creating our own path with the record, and with the new record label." Young takes a sip of his coffee and nods.
"There aren't any rules," he says. "So we're just Thunderdogging our own way through it all."