Mike Dunn & the Kings of New England
with Andy Matchett & the Minks,
Darling Cavaliers, Louis DeFabrizio
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20
Back Booth, 407-999-2570
Nobody ever said signing a record deal comes without pitfalls.
"I bought a $300 scooter yesterday and busted my hand. First day," laughs Mike Dunn, frontman for the locally based rock group Mike Dunn & the Kings of New England. Dunn's bandaged wrist and limp handshake confirm that the one luxury he afforded himself upon completion of the band's new album, Sundowner, has indeed left him damaged. "I'm telling people it was a bus full of nuns, or a zombie attack."
The record deal came about in much the same manner as the formation of the group, whose name derives from New England Avenue in Winter Park, where Dunn lived for a time in a "Melrose Place-style apartment, which comes with the Melrose Place drama," he remembers.
For the group's debut EP, 2007's The Edge of America, Dunn simply toted a handful of songs he'd written to Atlanta, recruited a band from there — including guitarist C.J. Mask, who remains with the band today — and laid the songs down.
"It was like a reverse engineering process," says Dunn. "C.J. was a guy I met a week before, so we practiced twice, and `local drummer` Jeff `Irizarry` was playing with Louis `DeFabrizio` in `Gasoline Heart`, so it was kind of this borrowed band. Lou was begging me to call it Mike Dunn. I said, ‘It sounds like a band. It needs to be a band.'"
America, with its big, natural hooks and rootsy yet polished feel, garnered the band heavy interest from major labels. "All those people `who showed interest` got fired a year later, so we're like, ‘What are we gonna do?'" says Dunn. Just as he had done on the EP, Dunn (with Mask, bassist Jacob Kaplan, Irizarry — in a role now filled by drummer Jon Kraft — and acclaimed Vagrant Records multi-instrumentalist John Ralston) simply began recording songs. Halfway through the album, they were approached by Chad Pearson, a music-biz veteran, who signed them to P Is for Panda, a division of the vaunted ska and punk label Hopeless Records.
"It was a lot more organic than I hoped it would be," laughs Dunn. "I really wanted to run downtown like, ‘My song's on the radio!' I think everybody saw That Thing You Do and were like, ‘I want that moment.' But that doesn't exist anymore."
"We went to Five Guys and got hamburgers," deadpans Kaplan.
"So we had this crossroads of ‘Are we gonna scrap `the first half of the album` and do something new or push through?" says Dunn. "I said, ‘Let's just do it.'"
The result, Sundowner, released through Hopeless in early October, is a marvel of foot-stomping narratives that set a specific mood and, most importantly, sense of place. True to the group's Winter Park-shouting name, the album follows the proud tradition of singer-songwriters like Springsteen and Tom Petty, whose songs are so evocative of the places they came from. Songs like the romantic midtempo tracks "Princeton" and "Sunshine State" paint a vivid picture of someone who is actually content with his surroundings, or at least finds inspiration within them.
"I've had these months of ‘I need to get out of here,' but I think it's more just a change of scenery than a change of your mindset," says Dunn. "For the time being, I decided to change my mindset and be happy with what I have in Orlando."
Dunn points to the song "Jealous Head," an organ-assisted ballad to the city, confessing his occasional wanderlust as if to a lover: "Nothing around here ever changes but the haircuts and the last names," Dunn sings. "So lie to me, sweet, if there's someone in your bed. The only thing that needs to change is me."
The track, like so many others on Sundowner, understands pop melody expertly and employs it to grand use, building to a climax seemingly as large as the studio could hold. It's a quality Dunn can't seem to escape: that inherently radio-friendly structure aided by his voice, which seems too silky to walk alongside other modern Americana acts. Dunn says that his budget was nearly the same on this album as his first EP, and of course he can't help the tone of his vocals, so the polish that so attracts hungry label execs but sometimes frustrates listeners who crave a slightly more raw, DIY sound is somewhat inescapable.
"It's much more the musician that's playing `the song` than what microphone you use," says Dunn. "We can't be an indie band if we try. You can only call us an indie band because we don't make any money. We write singable songs. We're not cool enough for the hipster crowd — I mean, we hang with them, but we're not gonna be the hipster band. And we're not the flat-ironed-hair radio band or the twee-pop, either. If I just wanted my friends to think I was cool, I'd have an experimental band. I'd have a ton of pedals and a glittery suit, just to be weird. It is braver to be normal."
It doesn't get more straightforward than Bruce Springsteen, and the Boss' presence bookends Sundowner. Both the opener, "Promised Land," and the titular closer (the album's best tune) feature driving, storytelling epics punctuated by a whimsical xylophone and cinematic background vocals.
"I think ‘Born to Run' is the perfect song. There's nothing I don't like about it. It's musical, it's hooky, it's raw but polished, and it tells a story. These are things I want to do with my songs. And I love how instruments have a voice and a story of their own. It kind of has that ‘I need to go somewhere' feeling for both of them."firstname.lastname@example.org