Thunder growls and a zigzag of lightning cracks the sky. Tires spitting gravel, a rain battered MGB pulls into a hotel parking lot. MC, an out-of-work private eye, fishes his last cigarette out of the pack before crumpling it while he eyes Siesta Sands, the seedy resort south of Atlantic City’s bustling boardwalk. The vacancy sign flashes on. This is the opening scene, detailed in story and song on Siesta Sands, the new concept album to be released on Sept. 24 by Lawn Friends, a nom de plume for Charlotte musicians Colby Dobbs and Mike Ramsey.
The album will be on the usual streaming platforms, but to get the full effect of its artistry, you have to sample the full package, and that is only available through Lawn Friends’ Facebook page or through direct email at email@example.com.
Collaborating with over 20 local musicians and a handful of national recording artists, Dobbs and Ramsey have fashioned a film noir-styled project with 11 layered, impeccably produced songs that mix Sam Spade with Steely Dan, along with brief between-the-tunes scenes reminiscent of old-time radio, and an illustrated booklet containing a libretto that lays out dialog, lyrics and hard-boiled action.
The impressive package also contains a swag bag of sorts containing souvenirs including a “Do not disturb” doorknob sign, a slot machine token, a postcard and more evoking the fictitious hotel where the story and songs are set. It proves that in an age of CGI, virtual reality and high-end video games, there’s nothing more immersive than a good story or great album.
The evocative, twisting and sometimes surreal plot, set in 1980, goes like this: World-weary P.I. MC checks into the past-its-prime seaside hideaway Siesta Sands. He meets hotel maid Peaches and a nascent romantic chemistry ignites between the pair. Unknown to MC, Peaches has had a love child with penthouse-dwelling hotel bigshot Albert.
MC also meets Louie, who incessantly flips a coin like the stereotypical Prohibition-era gangster played by George Raft in the 1932 crime film Scarface. Louie is dealing with fugazi (fake) slot machine tokens. He’s a little too loose-lipped about the enterprise though, and later that evening he takes a swan dive off the hotel roof. Meanwhile, Peaches and MC acknowledge their mutual attraction and begin to cautiously trust each other. The only question is, can they afford to trust?
Oh, and did we mention that this is only the first act of what will be a multi-installment story?
The big combo
“This was never going to be as big as it became,” Dobbs says.
Before Siesta Sands emerged as part noir musical, part yacht-rock opera, it was a pair of songs Ramsey wrote and ran past his friend Dobbs.
“It was, ‘Put some keyboards on these tunes and send them back to me,’” Dobbs remembers.
Sharing music for feedback wasn’t unusual for Dobbs and Ramsey. The pair, now in their mid-30s, grew up down the street from each other and have been friends ever since they attended Parkwood Middle School together. They started collaborating musically in their 20s, playing together in a number of bands. One group called The Delta Progression scored a pair of big gigs — one at Amos’ Southend and the other at the late lamented Double Door Inn.
In time, the two friends established solid musical reputations in the Queen City. Dobbs is an accomplished and flexible keyboardist and extraordinary vocalist who fronts the eclectic Colby Dobbs Band. He’s been a full-time musician since 2013. Ramsey is a singer-songwriter who released a pair of Americana-tinged EPs before arranging his tunes to play with a five-piece orchestral ensemble called simply The 5 Ensemble. The only downside to Ramsey’s ensemble is that many members were originally drawn from UNC Charlotte’s music program, and they’ve since gone on to teach and pursue other musical avenues across the country. Likewise, Dobbs’ band, formed in 2010, now has members spread out all across the U.S., Dallas-based bassist and former Fox 46 reporter David Sentendrey being one of them.
Though Dobbs is prepping a new release by his band and Ramsey played with the ensemble at Visulite Theatre in July, both were ready for a detour from their main projects. It took one more event to catalyze the collaboration.
“[Siesta Sands] wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for COVID,” Dobbs offers.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, nobody in the music field was touring, he says. Everybody was doing everything remotely, and that made everyone equally accessible. But before Doobs and Ramsey could approach anyone to contribute to their noir musical, they had to figure out just what their character-driven concept was.
Ramsey remembered reading a book in elementary school called Sideways Stories From Wayside High. The 1978 short story cycle is about a school that has 30 floors, with each chapter taking place on a different floor. He pitched Dobbs on the idea of developing a cast of characters and throwing them together in a condo. Ramsey then played one of the songs he sent to Dobbs for a friend.
“My buddy listened to the song and said, ‘You need to read some Raymond Chandler.’ So I went and got The Big Sleep and the last book [Chandler wrote] before he died, Playback,” Ramsey recalls.
Chandler’s hard-boiled poetry, his mean-streets musicality, appealed to Ramsey, who grew up a big fan of the black-and-white 1940s Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes programmers cranked out by 20th Century Fox’s and Universal Studios’ B movie units. (A film noir aficionado, Ramsey raves about the oppressive darkness of his latest discovery, Director Edgar Ulmer’s zero-budget 1945 masterpiece Detour.)
Inspired by Ramsey’s embrace of noir, Dobbs wrote a raft of material for the album in a week and a half. His contributions include the album’s title track, which kicks off the collection with Dobbs’ plaintive dissonant piano and his torchy R&B-flavored vocals. (Throughout the album, Dobbs’ soulful vocals boast an astounding upper range pitched midway between Robert Plant and Rush’s Geddy Lee — but without Lee’s caterwauling falsetto.)
“Mike sees all the dark stuff in the story and I see all the funny stuff,” Dobbs says. “Everything I was writing; I was just being as silly as I wanted to be.”
Dobbs’ wicked humor leaps to the forefront in the soaring gospel-inflected “The Lobby” where his spiraling, crooning vocals make the promise of kamikaze shots by the pool and a continental breakfast sound like an evangelical altar call.
Early in the project’s gestation, Ramsey decided to have a hard-boiled tough guy narrator, an approximation of Chandler’s first-person point of view that filtered unsavory events through the eyes of his detective, Philip Marlowe. For the voice of Siesta Sands’ P.I. MC, Ramsey recruited Brendan Carter, an actor buddy from his college days at UNC Wilmington. Once Dobbs and Ramsey heard the voice of MC, they decided to bring in other voice actors to portray characters like Peaches, Albert and Louie. To make it clear that some songs are sung from specific character’s points of view, Dobbs and Ramsey opted to develop a libretto and booklet that tells the listener which character is singing each tune.
“You put the character’s name right in front of the song to say this is clearly from their perspective,” says Ramsey, who prefers to refer to the project as a narrative album.
Any number can play
To finance the project, the Lawn Friends launched a Patreon and started putting out songs monthly.
“We needed deadlines because we’d end up playing video games and not doing it,” Ramsey says.
Dobbs was grateful for the deadline because it sharpened his focus. “I’m a perfectionist in terms of things being produced a certain way,” he says. “It took a long time.”
Once he got a new track at his home studio, Dobbs would work with it for a week to get it where he wanted it. Lawn Friends then released each song between the first and third of the month, after which they would start on the next tune.
“We were normally sending the mastering engineer stuff on the night of the 30th,” Dobbs says. The songs then went out to Patreon subscribers with a mailer each month. In each mailer, there was be a Siesta Sands tchotchke – the slot machine token much like the coin flipped by Louie, the card left by the maid service signed by Peaches or the keychain for Room 305, where Albert’s thugs take MC to rough him up.
Ramsey points out that, in the new album, they’re putting out some songs they’ve had in their quiver for a year. The saving grace of their working method is that it prompted the project to be more like a musical and less like a band.
“If we had 11 songs and went into the studio and did it, it would’ve come out very different,” Ramsey says. “This allowed us to get very different people [on the project].”Dobbs says making a record in a studio with the same set of players tends to make things sound the same. Once you mic a drum set, all the mics are going to be the same for the duration of the recording session. Producers will then use that same template on a lot of different things, so recording can go faster.
“Whereas with [Siesta Sands], every source was different,” he says.
Each song was started from scratch with a different collaborator, each one recorded in their own home studio.
Lawn Friends’ plan of attack formulated slowly. Initially, when they recorded one of the first songs, the title track “Siesta Sands”, Dobbs called on Charlotte drummer Donnie Marshall, because Marshall had just gotten his home studio up and running and he wanted to test the studio’s capabilities.
Ramsey says the song was like a practice project for Marshall. From there it snowballed. Dobbs and Ramsey recruited Charlotte bassist Anna Stadlman to play on the song. The ranks of local players on the album swelled to include horn player and arranger Brad Wilcox, guitarist Joe Lindsey, violinist Emanuel Winter and drummers Curtis Wingfield, Jim Brock and Al Sergel IV.
The very first song recorded for the project is not even on Siesta Sands: Act One. Instead, the song, entitled “Last Stop for Peaches,” is slated to appear on the follow-up to Lawn Friends’ saga — the second act. Listening to the demo he cut for “Last Stop for Peaches”, Ramsey was struck by how much it reminded him of the now-dormant Charlotte jazz rock trio Green Light, comprised of bassist Dustin Hofsess, drummer Adam Snow and guitarist Kevin Gill.
“I said if it sounds like Green Light, let’s just get all the guys,” Ramsey says.
Hofsess and Snow played on the song. Hofsess’ contribution is a fretless bass track that went beyond anything Ramsey could imagine.
“We used a lot of [players] on the project just to hear things we wanted to hear,” he says.
Since the song has a jazz pop feel inspired partly by Steely Dan alumnus Donald Fagen’s 1982 debut album The Nightfly, Dobbs and Ramsey recruited frequent Steely Dan trumpeter Michael Leonhart to play on it.
“We knew good trumpet players, but we also knew [Leonhart] would get it,” Ramsey says. He notes that quite a few nationally-known players didn’t answer their email invitations to play on their project, but just as many did. The Lawn Friends’ strategy became inviting collaborators to became the curators of their respective songs, often playing whatever they felt would work, rather than just being a hired gun on the tune.
On the swaggering jazz-pop extravaganza “Come Inside, Por Favor,” Dobbs’ impassioned R&B-imbued vocals wind around his brightly gleaming synthesizers. Since the song has such a 1980s big-pop sound, Dobbs and Ramsey joked that it would be great to get Shannon Forrest, touring drummer with Toto from 2014-19, on it. They emailed him, and Forrest happily supplied the big crashing drums.
The partners also sent drummer Al Sergel IV the jaunty, finger-popping “Lawn Friends,” which introduces a playful element to Siesta Sands with a group of bored neglected kids turned amateur sleuths who incidentally share their name with the moniker Dobbs and Ramsey chose for the album. Sergel sent back 30 tracks, only eight of which were straight drums. The rest of the tracks were experimental sounds — recordings of a kid’s toy and hammering on a cardboard box.
On a recommendation, Lawn Friends also reached out to Mioune, a French vocalist who had sung for Disney projects, to provide heartfelt backing vocals for the cinematic and agitated track “The Quiet,” a tune where the sleepless and haunted MC begins to formulate his desire for redemption.
“We would not tell guys what to play unless it was specifically written down,” Dobbs says. “It was just, ‘Here’s the tune, play what you hear.’”
“We said ‘We have one tune for you. We love what you do. Put your energy in that,’” Ramsey says.
Show biz kids
Dobbs and Ramsey each included their own alter egos on the album, parts of a group of kids running amok in the hotel. Circling back thematically to Sideways Stories From Wayside High, the kids introduce a refreshingly incongruous element of kid literature to the album and libretto.
They also mirror Dobbs’ and Ramsey’s playful approach to the material. Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, the Lawn Friends characters discover a sliding painting that leads to a secret passage, as well as Louie’s body. The inspiration for the inquisitive kids is drawn from real life, in this case vacationing swingers.
“We have an acquaintance who went to a hotel with another family, and they engaged in adult activities,” Ramsey says. “I think the kids were just running wild. There was probably so much shit going on when I was a kid that my parents were involved in that I was just oblivious to.”
Dobbs says his brief in the song “Lawn Friends” was to depict kids just trying to have a good time.
“But the parents are probably having a better time,” Dobbs says with a chuckle.
With Act One of the pair’s noir saga primed to take on the world, Dobbs and Ramsey are already prepping for Act Two.
“When you stamp Act One on there, you’re telling people there’s going to be an Act Two,” Ramsey says. “I feel an obligation to make it good.”
Dobbs says they’ve already hashed out the bones of the Siesta Sands sequel. The pair mastered the album at Old Colony Mastering in North Scituate, Rhode Island, a facility owned and run by Scott Craggs. After the lengthy mastering session was complete, Dobbs and Ramsey drove to Providence, about 20 miles down the road, to get some much-needed food. The plan was also to get shit-faced to celebrate putting the project to bed.
“We ended up drinking a bit, but we also hashed out the whole second act,” Dobbs remembers. “In our drunkenness, we mapped out the whole thing. I’ve got it all in my phone.”
Dobbs’ blue-skies prognostication for the project would be a full stage presentation of Siesta Sands. Ramsey posits a back-up plan where he and Dobbs would play the songs while some actors would share the stage to push the dialog and plot along.
“We want to do more with it than just say, ‘Here are songs.,” Ramsey says.“Even though the songs are great.”
Already, Ramsey envisions a black stage where a neon “No Vacancy” sign flashes to “Vacancy” just as lightning streaks the sky and thunder rumbles. Then Dobbs would come out and sit at his piano.
“I would get goosebumps seeing that,” Ramsey says with an excitement that shows why noir will never die.