Nobody makes a record thinking that it won’t be heard, even if they don’t imagine getting “big.” As Explorer Tapes, Dallas natives Max Townsley and Drew Erickson made music that’s a little bit bedroom indie and a little bit kaleidoscopic pop, their catchy and off-kilter tunes hearkening back to that late sixties/early seventies sweet spot when you could be an underground eccentric and a would-be mainstream hitmaker at the same time. Several tracks on the band’s eponymous debut, Explorer Tapes, imagine this explicitly: “If I could just get on the raaadio / I could make you see / What you mean to me,” Townsley falsettos on a song called—yes, you guessed it—“Radio.” Another cut on the album, “A Good Friend Is Hard To Find,” hopes to reach across the ether to its subject. “If you’re out there / Somewhere listening to my song,” it begins.
Instead of becoming instantly popular, the album had a very different path. Not only did it not get heard, it didn’t even get released for six years. It’s the oldest story in the world: Band meets record company. Band loses record company.
Friends and collaborators since they were teenagers, Townsley and Erickson had moved to Los Angeles in 2013, eventually signing a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell as well as a record deal with Warner Bros. They began working on what became Explorer Tapes, a process that included outside songwriters, top-notch session guys, and a big-deal producer in Mike Elizondo (who’s worked with the likes of Dr. Dre, Eminem, Fiona Apple, and Maroon 5). By the fall of 2015 they were out on tour with Denton’s Neon Indian, Instagramming from the road, and getting ready to promote the record.
And then: nothing. Changes at Warner left the band without some key supporters, and the record fell off the label’s schedule. Explorer Tapes was all but dead, the band dissolved, and the two friends moved on to other things, together and apart. “For the longest time, I never thought it would come out,” says Townsley.
But six years later, the happy ending: band gets record company back. Or at least, close enough. Last year, the history-minded indie label Omnivore Recordings, which often specializes in reissues, outtakes, and forgotten classics, licensed Explorer Tapes from Warner Records (as the company’s been called since 2019), and in August, the album finally came into the world. A bright, groovy collection of multilayered songs rooted equally in indie rock, piano-driven power-pop, orchestral movie-soundtrack inspiration, and L.A. studio wizardry, it’s a record that sounds like it could have been made in pretty much any decade since the sixties. If you did hear it coming out of your car stereo speaker, you could imagine it playing back-to-back with Todd Rundgren, Hall and Oates, or Phoenix. It’s an L.A. record, but also very much a Dallas/Denton-sounding record, with the same sort of pop shine and sonic ambition as the Nourallah Brothers, Tripping Daisy, and Midlake (a band that Townsley actually played in for one album). It joins the likes of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, Prince’s The Black Album, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the “lost” album hall of semi-fame, however modestly.
Much of the credit for the album’s resurrection goes to Elizondo, who still had a relationship with Warner (he produced and played bass on Gary Clark Jr.’s most recent album, This Land). “I just remember always thinking very fondly of this record, even as the years went by,” the producer says. He’d passed a track from it, “Texas Time,” along to Keith Urban, who covered the cheerful tribute to the Lone Star State’s “whiskey, women, and wine” on his 2018 album Graffiti U. Two years later, as the music business ground to something of a halt (along with everything else) during the coronavirus pandemic, Elizondo reached out to the label, wondering if Warner might be willing to give up or sell its rights.
Instead, one person at the company flipped over Explorer Tapes all over again: David Ponak, the senior director of licensing at Rhino Entertainment, which is owned by Warner and handles many of its catalog releases. When Ponak heard Explorer Tapes, he could not believe how good it was, and felt certain Omnivore, which seemed especially well suited to release the project, would love it just as much.
He was correct. “I just fell in love with the record,” says Omnivore co-owner Brad Rosenberger. “I think I got it on a Friday afternoon, and I literally played it seven times the entire weekend. I don’t even remember the last time I did that with a record. It just got under my skin.”
Townsley and Erickson first met and bonded over music while attending separate high schools: Townsley at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Dallas, and Erickson at Grapevine High (“the alma mater of Post Malone,” he notes). They were also both students and roommates at the Berklee College of Music in New England for a spell. But what became Explorer Tapes really began in Denton, where Townsley graduated from the University of North Texas (though not for music—he majored in English lit), and where the two of them shared a house on Normal Street (called, fittingly, “The Normal House”).
Then called the Colurs—a misspelling meant to avoid confusion with similarly named bands that just wound up being even more confusing—their songs and home recordings caught the attention of a music-business lifer named Steve Lindsey, whose credits range from Leonard Cohen to Bruno Mars. He signed the band, renamed Explorer Tapes, to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell, and then Warner Bros. Records snagged them, with Cameron Strang—who was then running both companies—and legendary Warner exec Lenny Waronker both excited for the project.
The two musicians were not necessarily expecting what came next. Before Explorer Tapes could head to the studio, Lindsey sent the duo to what everyone involved describes as his “songwriting boot camp.” Townsley and Erickson would learn from and collaborate with old music hands, figuring out what makes a song work both creatively and commercially. “It’s like we were being blackmailed to go to songwriting graduate school or something,” Erickson jokes.
They crossed paths with Billy Steinberg (who wrote Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”) and Jeff Barry (the cowriter, with Ellie Greenwich, of countless hits), and eventually had collaborative sessions with several other writers: David Baerwald (Sheryl Crow), Dillon O’Brian (Bonnie Raitt, Amy Grant, Shakira), and Lindsey himself. Nine of the record’s fourteen songs (two of which are technically bonus tracks) were cowrites; two of them are credited to five people (Townsley, Erickson, Baerwald, O’Brian, and Lindsey).
“It was a totally brand-new way of life, doing lots of different songwriting sessions with people we’d never met, who were trying to write hit songs for us,” says Townsley. “It was a good learning experience, particularly when it came to the crafting of lyrics: how to tell a story, how every little detail matters.”
But at the same time, “we just wanted to make whatever we wanted,” says Erickson. “And so it was kind of annoying at the time.”
Lindsey was also Explorer Tapes’ connection to Elizondo, who remembers being told the duo was “the next generation’s Fagen and Becker.” “That automatically caught my attention because Steve wouldn’t give out that compliment lightly,” Elizondo says. “I don’t think that their music sounds like Steely Dan, I think it was more just the attention to detail. The level of musicianship. And they aren’t cookie-cutter.”
Elizondo played bass on the record himself, and brought in drummer Aaron Sterling (a Garland native and well-traveled session ace who is also in John Mayer’s live band) and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., a member of Beck’s band who remains best known for cofounding the similarly quirky-but-people-pleasing pop band Jellyfish (which has also done a record with Omnivore).
Townsley and Erickson say they’re not especially into Steely Dan, but they’ll take the compliment, and the comparison actually makes sense on the jazz-and-R&B-tinged “Change Looks Good on You,” from its morning-after lyrics to its Jeff “Skunk” Baxter–style guitar solo. Another song, “Washed Away,” feels explicitly Beach Boys–influenced, particularly in its elaborately tracked vocals, while the piano ballad “Kids These Days” was timeless the minute it got written—if it was a rebuke to the things older generations said about millennials in 2015, it could just as easily be about Gen Z now.
Both “A Good Friend Is Hard to Find” and “Texas Time” have a lilting country feel; Keith Urban liked the groove and twang of the latter song so much that he used most of the original backing tracks on his cover version. Alas, it did not become a single, so the royalties are nothing to retire on, but Erickson still gets a huge kick out of the fact that there are multiple YouTube videos of ladies line-dancing to “Texas Time.”
Then and now, Townsley and Erickson have mixed feelings about Explorer Tapes. “I don’t think I’ve ever listened to anything I made and was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’” Erickson says. But they also can’t separate their feelings about the record from the circumstances of its making. “At some point we sort of lost the train of our original goal artistically,” says Townsley. Erickson echoes that: “It turned into something different . . . It turned into its own thing.”
Looking back, it’s hard to know what the commercial path for Explorer Tapes might have been in 2015. It could have bombed. It could have been huge and then turned into something that the duo wouldn’t have been able to live up to, either commercially or because they would’ve felt a lot of pressure to make another album that sounded exactly like it. If nothing else, there are songs on the record that could have easily given Explorer Tapes the mixed blessing of one- or two-hit wonder status, a la Deep Blue Something, Fastball, or New Radicals. They also might have parlayed that status into careers as songwriters for hire themselves, a role that indie-leaning artists don’t always shy away from these days.
Instead, Townsley settled back in Denton, while Erickson remained in California, where his resume as a studio and touring musician, as well as an orchestral arranger, now includes Weyes Blood, Jonathan Wilson, Roger Waters, and Texas actor/musician Caleb Landry Jones. The two friends also continue to collaborate, including as members of Neon Indian; on a musical about Michael Jackson (For the Love of a Glove) that opened in Los Angeles before COVID-19; and with Townsley’s wife, Danae Elizabeth Townsley, in her band Kind Creatures.
Because of the pandemic, the duo can’t tour or have a big album-release party. But at least now people will hear the record. And while a hit song is unlikely, the band could still end up with a cult following or, as Elizondo notes, get discovered via another cover, placement on a TV or movie soundtrack, or (hey, who knows) a viral TikTok clip. Even the moment Townsley imagined in “Radio” could still happen in the age of streaming, just in a very different way. “Yeah right,” he says, mock singing the line: “If I could just get on the Spotify.”