Exploring the Psychedelic Under The Surface Of ‘Antlers In Velvet’ With Leon III’s Andy Stepanin

Leon The Third III is a band created by Andy Stepanin and Mason Brent as a project that could explore new musical directions with less Country and Bluegrass influence than another band they've been active in, Wrinkle Neck Mules. They released their full self-titled album in 2018, and in it you can hear the gears turning on that process of finding avenues that delve more deeply into Rock traditions but still have a strong element of Americana determining their sound.

With the recent release of their single "Fly Migrator" off their upcoming 2021 album Antlers in Velvet, they've foreshadowed quite a lot of the surprising developments you'll find on the new album. With elements of Psychedelia that lurk just under the surface, a composed, careful approach to song construction takes over, willfully avoiding the constraints of the ordinary, marketable single. "Fly Migrator" is nine minutes long and is the first track on the very song-driven and emotionally arc-driven album. Andy Stepanin spoke with Tower's PULSE! about these choices on the single and the album, and how they shape the identity and creative direction of Leon III.

Hannah Means-Shannon: When did you finish up work on “Fly Migrator” and the other songs that will be released on Antlers in Velvet?

Andy Stepanin: We finished recording those in March of 2019, so over a year ago. But we didn’t totally finish until sometime last Fall or a little after. In some ways, it seems old to me!

HMS: You must be relieved, then, that it got locked in before the world went crazy.

AS: It’s always agonizing to have an album that’s waiting to go out to the world, but yes, it’s a relief.

HMS: I want to ask you about the cover of your self-titled album from 2018, with the giant, hovering stone object over a cityscape. Are you and Mason a fan of sci-fi B movies? What was the origin of that?

AS: A good friend of mine who has done design work for another band that I was in designed that. It was based on a Rene Magritte work, the French surrealist. If you look at Rene Magritte you’ll see some similar work, thematically, and this was a variation on that. It’s funny, the interpretations of it are very different. The stone is actually be held from going upward! As opposed to being held from crashing downwards towards its owners.

I don’t know if I could tell you why it was appropriate. It seemed to work. Both musically, and as a person, I’ve been moving farther and farther into the abstract in my songwriting. It seemed like a good idea to tell people that, and signal that we were not in our former band era with Wrinkle Neck Mules. I still like it, and I think that’s a good indicator. It’s held up for me.

HMS: I think it’s a very good indicator. When we see images like that on album artwork, we think alternate Rock or Pop, maybe even synth stuff. You and Mason have also been doing this thing with the blue jumpsuits in press photos, which is kind of ambiguous, and ambiguity can be good. Any thoughts on that?

AS: A phrase that I use for the music that we’re making is “an oblique form of psychedelia”. It’s not really overt. Some music that people consider psychedelic is very overt. Right now it has a lot of fuzz and vocal effects. We’re taking it into an area that’s more just under the surface. The album art and press photos are indicative of that and it’s intentional. The artwork for the upcoming album is hardly oblique. [Laughs] It’s very psychedelic in the traditional sense. It’s one step further into that realm.

HMS: As far as I can tell, so is your music. From what I’ve heard so far, it’s a big step forward for you into that, and wow! It really is a progression into some point between Classic Rock and Psych Rock where you’re being more conceptual. It reminded me of early Pink Floyd and the point where Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship. The Bluegrass and Country elements are there, but to a much lesser degree than other albums.

AS: I think that’s a very astute observation. I come, as a person and as a song writer, from a Country place. My own initial output as a musician was very colored by Country. I’m from Virginia, so the Bluegrass singing tradition is there. The timbre of my voice has a Country connotation to it. It’s almost impossible, no matter what I’m doing for me to completely eliminate that from my songs. Whether in my voice or in the structure of the songs.

This album is the farthest away from that. Some of it is in the songs themselves because I’m exploring composition a lot. With the players that came in for the sessions, some of whom are friends, no one really came in with a Country mentality. I never felt that in the sessions. Even Paul Niehaus, who played Pedal Steel on some of the bands, plays for Calexico. It’s more atmospheric Steel than Country Steel. I love it. I want to continue to push that boundary.

It’s still song-based, though, and the underlying bedrock is the song. We’re not just jamming. And in that sense, it reminds me at times of something like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which in my mind has oblique psychedelia. People don’t think of it as a psychedelic album, but there’s so much under the surface. At times, it comes from that sort of place.

HMS: I would agree that the songs have a lot of unity. What inspired you to be so much more of a composer on this album, though?

AS: Confidence, I think. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I was one of the songwriters and one of the singers in a band before. I was a role player in that band. Then Mason and I went off and did Leon III, and I was very unsure of myself and what Leon III was, even. It took one album of making the music, doing the sessions, seeing what was possible, and understanding myself a little bit better. I was able to get a lot of understanding of myself and Mason and what we could do. Mark Nevers helped me a lot with that. He’s Produced some cool music, sort of in the realm of what we’re talking about. We’ve developed a nice working relationship and he’s given me the confidence to keep pushing. I’m a slow learner, so it’s been developmental!

HMS: It’s great to branch out. “Fly Migrator” is your first single to be released. It makes sense to release that first, as the intro to the album, but it also is quite a long track with an instrumental lead-in. What do you think that people will get from this single that foreshadows the rest of the album for them?

AS: I couldn’t envision any other song, necessarily, as a tone-setter for the album. In some sense, I wanted to be disruptive and think of this song as a real adventure that would make them wonder what the rest of the ride would be like. It is a foreshadowing of what else is on the album, and how it moves through different cycles from instrumentals to Rock moments. Mason is bringing a Rock ‘n Roll heart to it.

It’s for others to debate whether this is too much for people to handle, but I’m very much trying to encourage and locate a patient audience of listeners. The kind of people who have the patience to sit back and take in an album in its entirety. It’s that kind of ride. I realize that can run counter to where we are going culturally and where we are going as consumers, but I’m unwilling to go another way. Releasing a bunch of three-minute singles is not what I’m doing.

HMS: I usually ask people how they feel about those factors, so thanks for laying all that out for me. Weirdly, I think you may have met your moment. Because right now, everyone can listen to long tracks and full albums. In fact, people are definitely doing that based on the conversations I’ve been having with musicians and fans in the past few months.

It sounds like the tracks all closely relate to each other and really lead into and out of each other. Is the order of the tracks important to the movement of the album?

AS: Yes, definitely.

HMS: The second to last song, “Tigris”, really hits a big Rock crescendo, and the outro is more melodic, a little bit Country-sounding. That’s all very interesting for pacing. I saw it almost like a symphonic or operatic movement.

AS: That’s exactly right. “Tigris” ended up sounding like a Kraut Rock kind of thing. It’s also set up as a palette cleanser, an emotional moment, and then the album comes down to what I think is a very beautiful moment in the last song. I really like what “Tigris” does on the album. It’s very disruptive and and wakes you up to bring you down again.

HMS: It sets up an emotional arc that’s quite strong. Is there a narrative here?

AS: There’s theme. It’s not a concept album where I’d be telling the same story from different points of view. There’s theme and some of the theme is that what “Fly Migrator” and “Antlers in Velvet” tell in terms of their story. It’s about change and rebirth, I guess. Those two songs, in particular, are pretty heavy with that imagery.

HMS: I noticed at least a couple songs with watery elements. There’s a presence of the natural world. Were you inspired to talk about more cosmic or global things here?

AS: Yes, I think so. It’s metaphor. There are natural things in “Antlers in Velvet” like antlers, and crows, which are metaphors for other things. The song “Rumors of Water” is very much a metaphor for creativity in general.

HMS: Just to clarify, the term “antlers in velvet” refers to when antlers are first growing on a deer, and are still covered in a velvety material, right?

AS: Correct. It’s the spring of the year kind of phenomenon.

HMS: So that’s quite a hopeful song, then?

AS: It’s supposed to be. The listener needs to listen closely. There’s a little bit of lamenting about aging and things becoming old, but the antlers in velvet is supposed to be a cyclical promise of new life coming.

HMS: Is there a significance to the name “Fly Migrator” or is that meant to stay mysterious? 

AS: I think that’s open to your interpretation. There’s not a prior understanding of what that term might mean, except a bird whose notion is to move, but maybe has chosen not to, but needs to.

HMS: Very cool.

I saw that you played two of my favorite venues in January 2020, so I was bummed that I missed you, which are The Bowery Ballroom in New York City, and The World Café in Philadelphia. What sort of music were you playing for those sets?

AS: We played from the previous album, but we were also playing “Fly Migrator”. We were playing another one from this album, “This Whisper is Ours”. It seems so long ago! When people say that we played shows this year, it’s hardly conceivable to me.

We had such a nice night at the Bowery. We played with a band called Futurebirds. They are friends of ours, and it was their night, so the place was filled, and it was great to be a part of it. It was something like 15 degrees in Philadelphia, and we had a big night out beforehand, so things were a little more subdued.

HMS: Well, they have food there, and things can be a little more chill, in a good way. When playing “Fly Migrator”, what did you observe in terms of audience reaction? Did you play the full, long, song?

AS: We did. It becomes what it wants to become every night, sometimes shorter and sometime longer, depending on how inspired Mason was. We had a Pedal Steel player, also playing keyboards. “Migrator” has been very well received, I think because in a live show, the whole Rock element goes further in a live set than even on the album. It Rocked. And a Leon III set doesn’t necessarily Rock a lot of times.

HMS: Sounds like the perfect touring song. Is this the kind of album that if you were touring, you would try to play the entire thing during the course of the show?

AS: It depends on the personnel for the show. Part of the design of Leon III, after being in a band for so long, is for it to change and have different people on albums and live shows. I would love to do it in a big way. There’s a woman named Jordan Caress who sings all over both albums, and she’s phenomenal. I’d love to present the album in a way where I have Jordan or someone like her doing it. Maybe.

HMS: I think this album deserves some audio-visual, a light show. It could be done pretty big.

AS: We’re talking about, if touring isn’t going to happen, doing something like this in Nashville, where I have a lot of friends. We’d do a livestream, and film it, going big with AV and backup singers, horns and the whole bit. It would be really fun….and expensive.

HMS: Did you have any overlap with Tower Records?

AS: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and we had a Tower Records there. I would go there frequently. I can remember going to see an in-store by Wilco when their first album was on its way or had just come out. They were trying to figure out what Wilco was supposed to be, even. Their first album was even kind of Country. There were like six people there. In fact, I was in Tokyo last year, and I went to Tower there.

HMS: Amazing.

AS: I was bummed because I could have spent a day in there, really, but wasn’t able to.

HMS: That store is awesome.

AS: The one in Tokyo had a little two or three-foot-tall statue of James Brown, but it wasn’t for sale. Not that I could have gotten it home, anyway.

HMS: You would have had to have an extra seat on the plane for him.

Our Tower Records motto, you might remember, was “No Music, No Life”, also written “Know Music, Know Life”. Which of those do you prefer and how does it apply in your life?

AS: I think that I like the latter, “Know Music, Know Life”, but the one that applies to me, personally, is “No Music, No Life”. I’ve had the disease of music since I was a very young person, even before I played an instrument. I always prided myself in being the first person to know X, Y, or Z. Even now as I get older, I can’t imagine a life where I’m not creating music, no matter where it ends up. The “No Music, No Life”, is very appropriate to me.

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