Mike Harmeier loves being on the road. In 2017, he and his band, Mike & the Moonpies, played over 180 shows. This year, they plan on pushing that number beyond 200. But it's only when this road warrior stops – usually at his mother- and father-in-law's 27-acre ranch outside Austin, Texas – that he really finds the peace of mind that he's looking for.
"There's a fishing hole down the road. I'll go sit there sometimes. Anything to capture that fleeting moment," says Harmeier, relaxing beneath an overhang attached to the one-room building on his wife's family's property where he does most of his songwriting. "There's that thing you get when you're cruising in your truck with the windows down and you listen to that certain right song. You just get that moment you're looking for that you haven't felt in five, maybe 10 years. That's when it happens, man."
On the Moonpies' latest LP, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, Harmeier chases his muse all the way back to his earliest days as a performer. Named for the bar in the Houston suburbs where Harmeier got his start playing a weekly residency at the age of 14, the album – the band's fifth, out today – channels the honky-tonk romanticism first nurtured when a young Harmeier came face-to-face with his country music heroes through his father's work with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
"I write a lot about my family for some reason. I don't see my family that much, I'm not really that connected to them, but I tend to write about them a lot. I might be trying to recapture some of that still," Harmeier says. When his parents divorced, Clint Black's brother, Brian, himself a musician, rented an extra room in Harmeier's father's house. "This guy was playing shows all the time and had a tour bus parked outside, and that was it for me. I was like, 'OK, this is what I'm fucking doing,'" he says, laughing.
The Moonpies' last studio album, 2015's Mockingbird, delved into his roots, taking its inspiration from his father and grandfather. He even owns a 1985 Chevy Silverado, similar to one that his father drove when he was growing up. But on Steak Night he wanted to shift the focus away from himself and onto the band dynamic, something he began working toward with Live at WinStar World Casino & Resort, which was released the year after Mockingbird.
"There are so many bootlegs of us playing live, but we're always drunk as shit and sound terrible," Harmeier says. Much as he cut his teeth playing cover songs for three to four hours a night, live music is in the Moonpies' DNA. They got their start over a decade ago playing a weekly dance night at Austin's Hole in the Wall, eventually upgrading to larger venues like White Horse and the legendary Broken Spoke. "I knew before [Live at WinStar] that I wanted to do something live sounding for the next studio record, so it was kind of a conditioning thing for the band to get used to hearing what they're doing off the cuff," he says.
The band reunited with producer Adam Odor for Steak Night, who had first manned the booth on the live album. For Harmeier, who met several of his bandmates through his production work when he first moved to Austin, it was the first time he hadn't been behind the controls himself. "This time I wanted to give it all away, just be a member of the band," he says. "It lets everyone in the band do what they're best at, and that way I can do what I'm best at, which is writing the fucking songs."
The results were a revelation. "I feel like we're a band now more than ever," he says. "The band sounds like what we were supposed to sound like this whole time." From the load-in rush of "Road Crew" that opens the album to the woozy boogie of "We're Gone" that closes it, Steak Night is a boot-scooting rave-up that crisscrosses the country music map, as much Bakerfield as it is New Braunfels. Cut in only five days at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley outside Austin, it hurtles through some of Harmeier's sharpest storytelling, including the Elvis-in-Vegas vamp "Beaches of Biloxi," which he says is his favorite that he's ever written.
None may be more representative than the title track, the most clearly autobiographical song on the album. "'Steak Night' is a song I think I've been trying to write for a really long time. A lot of songs over our records, there's a lot of lineage there, songs I was trying to write on [one] record but didn't get it till the next record," Harmeier says. "Sunday," from 2012's Hard Way, was another spin on the same concept. "'Steak Night' became the pinnacle in that regard. I don't have to write that song anymore."
There's a lived-in truth embedded in Steak Night's 10 songs, and not just because of Harmeier's past. It's the sound of a band that's spent years logging the hard miles, always a little out of step with a frat-friendly Texas country scene. The Moonpies managed to carve their own niche, even if it too has come with its own set of expectations. "It's kind of biting me in the ass now," Harmeier says wryly. "We created this monster of a country dance thing, but now we want to play rock clubs and want people up front. Especially in Austin, the dancers are very much attached to us."
Yet Harmeier knows there are far worse problems to have. After all, he and the Moonpies get to spend most their time on the road — and, when they get the occasional break, he knows where to go to write it all down. "There is something about the routine [of touring]. I like the whole idea of getting in a van and going to some different town. But the coolest thing about it to me has always been the random stories that happen on the road," Harmeier says. "I have this book of stories now that a lot of people don't have. I want to keep adding to it."