Minneapolis-based Americana rock duo LowRay, featuring singer/guitarist Daniel Fowlds (Pill Hill) and drummer James Irving (22-20s), released their debut LP, Friends and The Fakers, on Friday, November 9, 2018. Mixed by Grammy-Award-winning engineer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco, The Rolling Stones) and Ian Davenport (Supergrass, 22-20s), Friends and The Fakers was recorded at The Terrarium in Northeast Minneapolis. Jacques Wait (The Twilight Hours) engineered, co-produced and played guitar on the record, which also features Twin Cities A-list musicians Jeff Victor (The Honeydogs) on keyboards, Ian Allison (Eric Hutchinson, Jeremy Messersmith) on bass, and Blair Krivanek (Sonny Knight and the Lakers) on guitar.
With such tremendous talent in the mix, Friends and The Fakers is a polished and professional affair, yet it maintains an inspired and unfussed-over vibe, befitting of the laid-back and genial personalities of the bands’ core members, Fowlds and Irving. Though the duo’s partnership is only a few years old, LowRay’s sound is self-assured and well-worn, and it exudes a timeless quality that refuses to adhere to any one style or trend.
“I’d say we’re a rock band in the same vein that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or the Rolling Stones are rock bands,” Fowlds says, who also cites David Bowie, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan as influences. “They’d mix it up with songs that had, say, a country feel, then follow it up with some R&B or soul. I have a pretty wide set of influences—blues, jazz, power pop—I want to incorporate all these different elements.”
Born and raised in Northeast Minneapolis, Fowlds took to guitar at an early age and excelled, winning honors at a number of regional soloing competitions before going on to teach a variety of courses at Music Tech (the pre-curser to McNally Smith College of Music). His early hard and pop rock projects featured key players from the fertile late 80s and early 90s Twin Cities music scene—including Dave Pinsky, owner/operator of Gark Studios (Trip Shakespeare, Gear Daddies). In the late ‘90s, Fowlds shifted focus to hone his songwriting chops, and he began to cultivate what would become a strong and confident singing voice.
Growing up in England’s East Midlands, Irving was still a teenager when he landed a coveted drumming gig with the 22-20s, one of the UK’s most-hyped bands of the early 2000s. Following an intense label bidding war, the scintillating blues-rock outfit signed to revered indie Heavenly Records and lived on road for several years, supporting the likes of Oasis, Black Crowes, Kings of Leon and Supergrass. Breakthrough success eluded the 22-20s throughout their decade-long career, however, and following a 2012 tour of Japan, Irving took up permanent residence in Minneapolis with his soon-to- be wife, a native of the area.
At this time, Fowlds was launching a new project called Pill Hill. A mutual acquaintance suggested that Irving—who also possessed a passion and aptitude for music production—mix Pill Hill’s debut record. The self-titled release featured “Come to Me,” a standout track recorded by Irving that would go on to be heard by millions after it was featured in a long-running radio spot. When Pill Hill disbanded in 2015, Fowlds approached Irving about playing drums on some fresh material he’d been writing. Thus, a new band was born, christened LowRay, after Irving and Fowlds’ middle names (Lawrence and Ray, respectively). “Besides being a great drummer, one of the things I value about James is he has a producer’s mind,” Fowlds explains. “He’s always thinking about the big picture and what’s best for the song, whether it’s his drum part or a vocal harmony or some other piece of instrumentation. Oftentimes I’ll say, ‘good enough,’ and he’ll be the one to say, “no, let’s make it better.’”
LowRay’s debut, Columbia, was released in 2017. Also recorded at the Terrarium with Wait at the controls and Allison on bass, the six-song EP featured Tommy Barbarella (Prince and the New Power Generation) on organ and piano and Joe Savage (A Prairie Home Companion) on pedal steel. From the dreamy jangle pop of the title track, to the driving and hook-laden “Self-Medicating,” to the twang- drenched melancholy of “Take Back the Words,” and the full-on riff rock of “Come Apart,” Columbia proved a dynamic and critically-acclaimed first offering.
Live shows around the Upper Midwest followed—including support dates with the likes of Matthew Sweet and Garland Jeffreys. LowRay shuffles personnel occasionally for live gigs, though Allison plays bass and Wait plays second guitar when schedules allow. Irving says incorporating personalities outside of LowRay’s brain trust is highly beneficial to their creative process. “People come in and add their own flavor,” he says. “Blair [Krivanek] filled in on guitar with us at a show and his playing was so different than Jacques or Dan’s. It worked particularly well on a handful of new songs. I was like, ‘I want that on the album.’”
All songs are penned by Fowlds, who takes a storyteller’s approach to lyric writing, though more often than not his material stems from personal experience. Case in point: the incendiary lead single and title cut from Friends and The Fakers, which recalls _Damn the Torpedoes_-era Tom Petty—both stylistically and in its cautionary message, which deftly blends heat-of-the-moment angst with detached wisdom. “It’s about being treated like shit by someone you thought was your friend,” Fowlds explains. “But the point of it is, you made the choice to waste a bunch of your time with that kind of person. You have to learn from that experience and make better decisions moving forward.”
While all 10 songs on Friends and The Fakers fall under the banner of rock ‘n’ roll, the mood and feel of each track is unique, from the skiffle shuffle of “Western Song,” to the tender ballad-meets-Beatles vibe of “I’m Sorry,” to the retro soul swing of “Let Me Be.” “Waiting” sounds like it would be right at home on classic FM radio, with Fowlds’ harmonized guitar leads and urgent vocals sizzling off the speakers. Backed by Irving’s head-bopping beat and a soaring chorus melody, the new wave-inspired “8-Track Tapes” promises to be a crowd-pleaser. Conversely, the haunting “Palisade” patiently simmers in pensive fashion before boiling over in tortured release.
Having enhanced LowRay’s goosebump-inducing songcraft with a lush and diverse sonic palette (Victor’s keyboards are an particularly prominent contribution), Fowlds flew to L.A to enlist the help of Grammy Award-winning engineer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco, The Rolling Stones) for the final mix of Friends and The Fakers. “It was an amazing experience,” Fowlds says. “Watching a master craftsman doing three mixes a day, working the faders on an old Neve console, telling stories of all these legendary artists he’d worked with over his career.” Irving also reached out to his fellow countryman and former studio colleague Ian Davenport (Band of Skulls, Supergrass, 22-20s) to mix a pair of tracks. Once completed, the record was mastered for vinyl in Nashville by Grammy-Award-winner and industry legend Richard Dodd (Tom Petty, Wilco, Johnny Cash).
Plans to support Friends and The Fakers, include a Minneapolis release show at The Hook and Ladder on Saturday, November 10. Midwest tour dates are currently in the works, as well as potential gigs in Irving’s native UK. But for now, the members of LowRay are simply happy to have an excellent record in the bag. “We just tried to put together an album that we like,” Fowlds says, “and it exceeded my expectations. I hope it finds the right audience. It’s cool when you can create something that moves people, you know?”