The Nightowls Take On ‘Fame’

The Nightowls frontman Ryan Harkrider chats with Pollstar about Fame Sessions, the 10-piece soul band’s love-letter to FAME Studios. The album was recorded at FAME, with select tracks written in the studio and on the group’s pilgrimage from Austin to Muscle Shoals, Ala.  

Fame Sessions, which was released earlier this month on Super Sonic Sounds, is the follow-up to 2014’s debut, Good As Gold. But Harkrider notes that in some ways the new LP is the group’s first as a band, thanks to the lineup recently firming up, as well as the writing and recording process being more of a collaborative effort.

The band features Harkrider on lead vocals; Amos Traystman on guitar; Rob Alton on bass; Ben Petree on drums; Oscar Interiano on keyboards, Michael Rey, Joseph Serrato and Javier Stuppard on horns; and Ellie Harkrider and Tara Williamson on background vocals.

FAME Studios earned its spot in music history and on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage thanks to recording sessions from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Percy Sledge, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers.  

In addition to recording at the famed Muscle Shoals studio, The Nightowls also got the chance to work with David Hood and Spooner Oldham – members of FAME Studios’ rhythm section known as The Swampers – as well as background vocalists The Shoal Sisters and Muscle Shoals session guitarist Will McFarlane.

The track order of Fame Sessions reflects the musical history of the studio, with The Nightowls putting its own spin on styles ranging from Motown pop to Southern rock.

The Nightowls is on the road supporting the LP with its first U.S. tour. You’ll want to check out the band’s live show, which Harkrider calls “a spectacle.”

Photo: Courtesy Shore Fire Media

The Nightowls formed in Austin but the members are from all over the U.S. How long have you called Austin home?

I’m born and raised. Thirty years. I’m a second-generation Austinite and I’ve never left. … I’ve never really seen any reason to leave, honestly, especially with the music scene here and everybody’s so supportive of the music and all of the musicians. It’s been a good place to call home.

When did The Nightowls form? And has the lineup been pretty consistent?

The band formed in the fall of 2011. And there has been a core group of people that have been there since the beginning, myself included, our bass player, our guitar player, one of our vocalists. In the early years we had a number of folks come in; however over the last 12-16 months we really solidified the personnel and the lineup of the band. … We’ve got a bunch of folks kind of in the family that come and go but the 10-piece lineup really hasn’t changed in the last 16 months.

Prior to The Nightowls, had you been performing with other groups?

Sure. … I mean everybody came to Austin to play music. We’ve got people who went to Berklee [College of Music], people who went to North Texas to study music and then [they] all came here to basically start their careers in music. And so before the band The Nightowls everybody was playing in different projects. … A lot of us kind of cut our teeth playing soul music in other projects here in town and then kind of found each other through this tight knit Austin music community. I have a few solo records out. We’ve got guys that have played Southern rock … played in indie rock bands. My solo stuff tends to be kind of this Americana/folk music. There’s a lot of different influences … this big melting pot of musicians coming in to form this band.

Your new album, Fame Sessions, is the follow-up to your debut, Good As Gold. What’s something that you learned from the experience releasing the first album, maybe a lesson you were able to apply to the process of writing and recording the band’s sophomore release?

The personnel for the band solidified about 12-16 months ago and 12-16 months ago we were in the studio recording Fame Sessions. Because the lineup was set, we really got to dig in and collectively write and arrange and co-write all the songs on this album. Which, for Good As Gold, it was definitely a different process. … There’s so much talent within the band and being able to all collaborate and communicate, it really became a collective effort, which is a really beautiful thing. I think that Fame Sessions is, for a lot of reasons … much more of a solid statement.

It must have really drawn the band members closer together to be able to collaborate.

Absolutely. And even the process was very intentional, including the process of us actually recording. We got in a van and drove to Muscle Shoals together. We booked FAME Studios. We not only went to one of the meccas of Southern soul music, and our genre in particular, but we then got to collaborate with the guys that played on the classic records that we love – Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett. We got to kind of isolate ourselves in this city and in this studio and in this very creative environment. … We kind of feel in some ways it’s our first record as a band. We spent a couple days in Muscle Shoals on the lake. We had a house on the lake that [was] basically a writing retreat. We wrote a lot of the album on the way to the studio, in the van [and] at the studio. We wanted to be inspired by the elements and by the history of the studio. … It comes through in all of the songs and the sounds and the arrangements.

Photo: Courtesy Shore Fire Media

Was that the plan going into it – that you would leave room on the record for some of the songs to be written on the road or once you got to the studio?  

It was very intentional to leave some things open-ended because the whole goal of it was to make a pilgrimage to this studio and to be inspired by the smell of the studio and to be inspired by, really, a studio that hasn’t changed in 50 years. [It] still looks exactly the same as it did when Little Richard was there. And so we wanted to make sure, as terrifying as it is for a big band like us to go with some question marks, we thought it was important to go and allow ourselves to be inspired by that history and by the space and allow those things to seep into the music and into the lyrics and into the choices we made, arrangement-wise.

Did your experience live up to the expectations that you had?

Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, the space – you feel like you’re walking into a time capsule because it hasn’t changed a whole lot. They’ve got, obviously, all modern recording tools now. They’ve upgraded everything. But the walls are the same.

For us it did because of the choices and the freedom that we allowed ourselves, because we left space to be inspired. I think that allowed everything. You know, we didn’t go in there and just make a record that we wrote at home. We made a record that was written on the spot and inspired by all these things. And bringing in Spooner Oldham and David Hood and The Shoals Sisters and Will McHarden and all these legendary, local fabulous musicians that played on all those records. That absolutely contributed to all of that because they are living, breathing people. In between takes we get to talk with Spooner and he’s telling us how Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” was cut … about how after they recorded the song, the reel-to-reel tape came off and basically got spliced into a bunch of different pieces and Tom Dowd, the engineer, basically had to sit there in the studio and cut this tape and paste it back together for hours and it became the version of “Mustang Sally” that we all know now. As he’s telling us these stories, we’re sitting right next to the guy that played on it and right in the studio where it was cut. It’s very surreal, for sure.

The Nightowls crafted the album to flow to reflect the history of the recording studio. Was this an idea that the band had from the get-go or was this something you guys decided on while you were putting together the order of the tracks?

Well, it was an intentional move. We all knew all the [FAME Studios] music already but, in the months prior to us going down there, we really dug into the history of the studio and all of the music, a lot of the B-side stuff, music that had been recorded and tracked there, the Gregg Allman stuff.

If you were to listen to some of the lyrics, there’s a lot of lyrical references to songs [recorded at FAME Studios]. Just trying to make these subtle references. … We wanted to encapsulate a lot of the different styles that came out of that, from soul pop to … the Wilson Pickett groove in [The Nightowls’] “Get Up!” to the Duane Allman almost Southern rock that you hear towards the end of our album.  

Photo: Courtesy Shore Fire Media

Do you have any tracks that you would personally name as favorites?

“Get Up!” is probably my favorite song to play live because on the record there’s a bridge, there’s a break-down section, where there’s kind of a call and response between the lead vocals and the background vocals. And live it really has become kind of the anthem of our shows. It becomes this really powerful moment where everybody in the crowd gets on their feet and dances and participates. It’s a really powerful moment. So I love that song because of that.

The other song that I love is “Highline,” mainly because it’s kind of the dark horse of the album. It started as a completely different song when it was presented to the band. I do a lot of the main songwriting and then it gets pitched to the band and the band usually arranges it together. I had written a completely different song and pitched it to the band and it got tossed out the window completely. It was in our rehearsal and so we were just sitting there with basically nothing to do and so “Highline” was written on the spot, in the moment. So it’s special because of that. … We really worked on that one probably the most and in the end there’s no horns on it. There’s actually not even any background vocals on it. So it’s kind of this unique song for us, kind of this dark horse. We relied on the lead vocal a lot more [and] the sweeping slide guitar of Will McFarlane to kind of carry the song. A lot of the textures are very different from your straight-up 10-piece band playing dance music. It’s much more of a darker, kind of a cohesive song. We’re really proud of that.

What else can you tell us about your live show? Why should someone come out to a Nightowls gig?

So, we really try to model ourselves after the classic soul, Motown performances, Sam & Dave, The Four Tops. … The band dances, there’s dance moves, there’s the classic Temptations arm gestures. It’s a spectacle. I think there’s something for everybody. Musicians are going to come to the show and they’re going to love the show because the rhythm section is tight; the band is great. Dancers are going to love to come to the show because you can literally dance all night. And people that just want to listen to music are going to enjoy it as well because the songs are good, the band is playing them well, the vocalists are all good. … At the end of the day, what we try to do is get everybody together and create something that brings everybody together. And it’s a very special thing. It’s very powerful. It’s a very striking live show.

At the end of the day, it’s a big band on stage. We all love what we’re doing. We’re going to have a good time and I think that is infectious.

Photo: Courtesy Shore Fire Media

Upcoming dates for The Nightowls:

Sept. 18 – Rehoboth Beach, Del., Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats   
Sept. 19 – Brooklyn, N.Y., The Shop Brooklyn          
Sept. 20 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton Live      
Sept. 21 – Raleigh, N.C., The Pour House Music Hall          
Sept. 22 – Nashville, Tenn., The 5 Spot          
Sept. 23 – Nashville, Tenn., The Basement East        
Sept. 24 – Memphis, Tenn., 1884 Lounge      
Sept. 25 – Dallas, Texas, The Foundry Bar   
Sept. 26 – Bryan, Texas, Downtown Bryan (Texas Reds Steak & Grape Festival)
Oct. 2 – Bryan, Texas, Grand Stafford Theater         
Oct. 9 – Austin, Texas, Zilker Park (Austin City Limits Music Festival)        
Nov. 5 – Roswell, N.M., The Liberty  
Nov. 7 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Mint          
Nov. 8 – Mill Valley, Calif., Sweetwater Music Hall  
Nov. 9 – San Diego, Calif., Soda Bar            
Nov. 12 – Lubbock, Texas, Blue Light Live Lubbock
Nov. 13 – Houston, Texas, The Continental Club

For more information please visit and follow the band on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.