Madison’s The Mascot Theory unleashes its rock side with new music

Band calls upcoming album (that's being teased with an EP out next month) "a love letter to the dorm room-shaking music that shaped our musical tastes."
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Photo by John Urban
The Mascot Theory

There’s nothing hypothetical about the desire to rock out. Next month, Madison-based The Mascot Theory will release Big Blue EP, a six-song sample of a new full-length album (Every Sign of Life) coming out sometime next year. For the Americana-leaning band, embracing rock and roll on these new tunes is wholly intentional.

“We wanted to make a solid and memorable rock-and-roll album,” says singer/songwriter Erik Kjelland during a recent email interview. “Overall, the full album is a bit of a love letter to the dorm room-shaking music that shaped our musical tastes over the years.”

The band recorded the new music at Sonic Ranch Studios near El Paso, Texas, with the help of veteran producer Terry Manning, who has worked with artists including Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and Lenny Kravitz.

“We were thrilled to be able to record this collection of songs with a guy like Manning who has helped shape and produce some of the best rock-and-roll albums of all time,” says Kjelland.

For his part, Manning called the experience a “blast from the past” getting to work with a group that could “all play well, all sing well, and had such excellent original songs.” It reminded him of his experiences working with rock legends.

The opportunity was made possible by new manager Chuck Toler, who has worked with the likes of Cheap Trick and Mudvayne. Toler has provided further inspiration for the band.

For the past decade, The Mascot Theory has been a popular staple in Madison’s music scene. The band won a 2017 WAMI award from the Wisconsin Area Music Industry for best male vocalist (Erik Kjelland) and a nomination for best Americana/folk artist. The group also has more than 20 MAMA awards from the Madison Area Music Association, including back-to-back 2016 and 2017 Artist of the Year awards. The musicians have shared the stage with bands such as The BoDeans, America, Don McLean, Vance Joy, Frank Turner and Guster.

Despite their success, they’re always looking for ways to grow. When things screeched to a halt in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic, the group used the downtime to recalibrate. It gave them an opportunity to reflect and refocus on their path ahead.

“The pandemic definitely forced us to rethink and refocus what we wanted to do musically moving forward,” says Kjelland. “I feel we’ve accomplished a lot over the years in the Wisconsin area, but we’ve still got a bucket list of things left to do. And, of course, I’ve always got a steady stream of new songs in my gut, ready to bust out!”

The new addition of lead guitarist Cory Swadley to the group, which also features Nick Fry on bass guitar and Paul Metz on drums, also brought a new breath of energy to The Mascot Theory’s sound.

Madison Magazine recently caught up with Kjelland to talk about the band’s new music and growing ambition.

It’s been a pretty big year for the band. That includes teaming up with a new manager, Chuck Toler, who has worked with some big names in music. How did that come about and what’s it like working with him? How has he helped provide focus and direction for the band?
2022 has certainly been quite the year for The Mascot Theory! Our manager Chuck Toler discovered us while scouting folk rock-leaning bands for a Bobby Fuller project with producer Terry Manning. We didn’t quite fit that project, both Toler and Manning took a liking to our music and in January 2022 we officially signed with Toler as our manager. Up to that date, I had pretty much managed the band and was excited about the prospect of expanding our team to work with someone who had such a great appreciation for music and the history of music, someone who could help us elevate our band to a new level, reaching a wider audience through his pedigree, connections and drive.

What was it like working with Terry?
Working with a top-notch producer/engineer like Terry Manning was certainly a dream come true for the band. I admit I was a bit nervous about meeting and working with him given his massive success over the years, but all of that uneasiness disappeared the minute he picked us up from the El Paso airport, and we could tell that this industry giant was indeed a human being like us! Hard-working, humble and an ultra-professional attitude with a friendly demeanor that fits perfectly with the way our band operates.

The band recorded the new music with Terry at Sonic Ranch Studios near El Paso, Texas. What drew you to wanting to record there? What was it like recording out of state (for the first time)? What were some examples of how the studio impacted the sound?
I really wanted The Mascot Theory to record an album in one single location during one continuous session, with all of us together and locked into a single vibe. We certainly found exactly what we were looking for at Sonic Ranch Studios, which also happened to be Manning’s preferred studio of choice with close proximity to his home in El Paso. The entire Sonic Ranch complex was a comfortable and secluded environment, surrounded by sprawling pecan trees with a spectacular view of a Mexican mountain range on the horizon.

The specific studio we called home for our session was Big Blue, a massive studio building with top-of-the-line gear and equipment at our fingertips. By Manning’s suggestion, this enormous space allowed the band to basically play and record live without headphones for most of the session, a comfort level we had not had in past recording sessions. Manning later commented that our session was one of the most productive sessions he has ever been a part of, which I accredit to the welcoming studio environment, a well-rehearsed band, and Manning’s knowledge and skills in front of and behind the Neve 4048 console mixing board.

What impact did Madison have on this new music?
All of our pre-production for the new album, including demos, recordings and rehearsals, was done in Madison, scattered throughout many locations including Clutch Sound Studio, Paradigm Productions, as well as our individual home studios. We are very proud to be a band based out of Madison, and a part of the impressive Wisconsin music scene.

The band’s first releasing an EP, Big Blue EP, which is a preview of the full length that will be out sometime next year. Why?
We are currently formulating a plan to release the full album in 2023, but we really wanted to start sharing some of this new music with our fans. So, we decided to start dropping monthly single releases on all the digital platforms. And we took a sample of six songs from the Texas session and made up a limited-edition run of CDs available only at our live shows under the album name Big Blue EP in a nod to our Sonic Ranch studio.

Sonically, the band has been in the Americana realm, but the new music leans more rock and roll. What lured you to go in that direction? How did the addition of Cory Swadley on guitar impact that decision to shift the sound?
I’m glad that you noticed our gentle genre shift over to good old rock-and-roll music! Throughout band rehearsals and the early demo process, we would reference classic rock bands and sounds, another reason why we felt Manning was the ideal producer for this new collection of songs. Our live show has always rocked a bit more than our albums, and we wanted to capture this energy on our recordings. Bass player Nick Fry and I both decided to switch to electric instruments over the past year to help elevate the energy level a bit.

And the addition of Cory Swadley, a long-time friend of the band who happens to be one of Wisconsin’s most talented guitarists, has been an absolutely perfect fit in our band, a homerun for us both musically and socially. After Manning laid down piano and organ tracks on a few of our songs in Texas we knew that we wanted to add a utility member to the band, so we brought multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Brandon Jenson in on keys and guitar to help us fill in our live stage sound. And, of course, our drummer Paul Metz has always had an unparalleled backbeat to his style, but with the added energy in our music, he is able to lean into his early punk rock background a bit more!

The album features 13 new songs and two classic live songs. How do you think you’ve grown as a songwriter?
As the songwriter for the band, I tend to be fairly proficient with new material, and I feel very blessed to have such an amazing group of musicians who are willing to try out any song I bring to the group, no matter how different it might feel from previous songs and styles. And that confidence drives me to keep pushing us further to new experiences.

Why did you want to revisit the two classic songs?
We have a pretty deep staple of “legacy” songs from our back catalog that we feel encouraged to re-record with this latest lineup of the band. We were thrilled with how the new versions of “When I Drift Away (2022)” and “Best Is Yet To Come (2022)” turned out, and we hope to use the same treatment with some of our other older songs on future recording projects.

What was the biggest challenge writing and recording the album? Biggest surprise?
The biggest challenge we faced during the recording of the album was bass player Nick Fry battling a kidney stone during the session! He was uncomfortable and ill for most of the trip, but it certainly didn’t hold him back from laying down some massive low end on the songs. The biggest surprise and delight were the communal meals and conversations with other bands working at the Sonic Ranch complex, including laughs and stories shared with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes who was producing a band in a studio next to ours. He was even kind enough to permanently lend me some harmonicas for our session!

What’s the title for the EP and album and any story behind it?
We named the Big Blue EP after the specific studio building on the Sonic Ranch Studios complex where we recorded the new songs. The tentative name for our upcoming full-length album is Every Sign Of Life, which is a lyric from a song on the album called “Andromeda” that I wrote while in quarantine during the pandemic, about searching for purpose and connection in desperation and isolation.

So far, the band’s released two singles, “Fast Car Getaway” and “When I Drift Away.” What was your inspiration for those songs?
“When I Drift Away” has been a signature song for us over the years, and we wanted to re-record it with a bit more of the rock-and-roll flavor that it now possesses at live shows. At its core, it’s a song about having someone or something to keep things grounded when life gets crazy.

“Fast Car Getaway” is a song about legacy, the idea of movin’ on, and the acceptance of the unknown. Sort of a plea to enjoy what you have, what you do and who you love.

Our third single called “The Wrong Side” will be released on Nov. 4 and has such an amazing groove to it, I can’t wait for people to wrap their ears around that song!

Any big plans for 2023? What are your goals for the band?
In addition to releasing the full-length album in 2023, we plan to get out on the road a bit more and expand our live show bubble past Wisconsin borders. And we’ve always got more new songs in the queue. In fact, we have enough new material to record another album already, so hopefully, we’ll have a chance to start tracking those songs sometime in 2023.

Our goal is to reach a larger, more national audience with this new album which has filled us with pride and confidence, while also helping to shine a light on the Wisconsin music scene as a whole. The post-pandemic music industry landscape is filled with uncertainty, but we truly feel ready to navigate our way through the unknown waters, thanks to our expanding team via Toler’s management and a killer Terry Manning-produced collection of songs!

Joshua M. Miller is a freelance writer for Madison Magazine.

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