Dustin Blocker (Exit 380) Tracking "La Rosa Carlina", Photo by James Villa

Built for Vinyl: Exit 380’s New Album Ruins Digital Music for Me

Exit 380’s New Album, Photomaps, Available Exclusively on Vinyl
– Words by Jordan Buford // Photos by Brooke Adams, James Villa and Ronnie Jackson –

Limited Edition Vinyl Record, "Photomaps" by Exit 380 | Hand Drawn Records, Photo by Brooke Adams 2014
It was right at noon when I pulled up in front of a house somewhere in the city of Murphy, Texas. Upon stepping out of my car, I noticed a sign in the front yard. “Yard of the Month” it read. Now, I’m no expert on judging lawns, however the grass was lush and healthy looking, and it had been kept quite trim, looking deserving of the honor.

I knocked on the door, and from inside heard the unmistakable voice of Dustin Blocker — lead singer and founding member of the long-running North Texas band by the name of Exit 380.

“Jack, do you want to get the door for Jordan?” I heard him ask. Seconds later the door swung open, and a wide-eyed three-year-old was grinning up at me. I said hey to Blocker, and was introduced to his baby daughter and wife before congratulating them on the yard of the month honor, something he was quick to dismiss.

“We’ve only been back about an hour…” he told me (they had been on a family vacation), mentioning that not long before I arrived someone had knocked on their door, asking if they had noticed the sign. “I’m surprised we even won.” He later remarked, clearly thinking their lawn wasn’t its best.

I had made the short drive to Murphy because just a couple days earlier Blocker had extended an invitation to me, offering me an exclusive listen of Exit 380’s latest album: Photomaps. Of course, in today’s world, most advanced listens come in the form of having the files of the songs emailed to you, or perhaps getting a CD mailed to you. That wouldn’t have worked for Photomaps, though.

Limited Edition Vinyl Record, "Photomaps" by Exit 380 | Hand Drawn Records
The group has gone a different route with it; and as of right now, only five test pressings of vinyl exist (one for each member of the band). Hence why I was here in the first place: because in conjunction with releasing an album on a different format for them, Blocker also wanted to get some press buzzing in ways that were atypical from the standard album review and such.

We retreated upstairs to a home theater room, complete with stereo system as well as a projector and screen for movie watching (a vintage looking Jaws poster hung in a corner, something that my eye gravitated to instantly).

Long before the needle ever touched Photomaps, we simply discussed the advantages to vinyl over CD’s and digital music.

Dustin Blocker has long been an audiophile, but that fascination reached new levels when they decided to produce the new record on vinyl, and he admitted he had done extensive research into it all. Admittedly, despite owning a record player and possessing a small record collection, I’m not an avid listener of it, and he happily filled me in on what “180 gram” means as well as other tidbits of info, including the basics; like how digital files are more compressed, and therefore lose quality.

“…I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten a CD and put it in, in the car, and I’m adjusting the bass and everything thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound right?’” he told me, saying the difference between listening to what’s recorded in the studio is completely different from the finished product, after mixing and mastering.

So, to help me get a base point of what vinyl can sound like, we listened to a minute or so of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”. I’ve listened to that track countless times and know it by heart, but I have never heard the song sound so pure, and the bass lines could actually be heard. “It’s almost like seeing him live, isn’t it?” Blocker asked, and I have to say, it was. It even brought back memories of seeing him in Dallas just a few months back.

Now it was time for the main course, and Photomaps began to spin. “I’ll try to be quite, now.” Blocker said to me in a hushed voice, saying he didn’t want to interrupt the listening experience. He himself admits he can be longwinded, and I encouraged him to add anything he wanted about these songs. After all, I have a curious mind. Aside from that, you could tell he was bursting at the seams with excitement over sharing this new music with someone.

“This song’s about a drunk.” He informed me shortly after “Laid Up In the Road” started, saying it was about a drunk who felt more at home, as the song says, laid up in the road, verses being around other people. He also threw in that it was just some story that popped into his head one day. “…And it’s gone now.” He finished. Apparently, it was just a story that had to be poured out on paper, and then that need was fulfilled. That’s one thing I like about the band, too: Not every song is based off personal experience, and the purpose of some songs is just to tell a story. It’s a novel idea, right?

Originally, the plan for Photomaps was to have a whole album that showed off their country style with a Spanish flare incorporated into it. However, I was informed beforehand things evolved. They wrote some songs that mix together old school Exit 380 rock (i.e. 2006’s Last Monday and even the records that predate that) with their new school rock (like some of the cuts from The Life and Death… album, etc.) Songs like that are found on side A, a side that was as hard-hitting as Blocker promised.

Aaron Borden (Exit 380) - "Photomaps" Recording Sessions at Big Acre Sound, Photo by Ronnie Jackson
“Aaron wrote this one.” he quickly pointed over the opening riffs of “Love Somebody, Cold”; and later made the pretty accurate comparison between its sound and that of some of Faces’ music, back when Rod Stewart was with the band. It wouldn’t be an Exit 380 record if guitarist Aaron Borden didn’t have some song contributions to it, and it’s every bit as good as the stuff he’s written in the past. Perhaps even better.

As he did throughout the 34-minute duration of the record, Blocker was doing air drums, air guitar, air bass and even air keys. In a recent email the band sent out, he mentioned listening to Photomaps had became a daily ritual, and he obviously knows these songs by heart at this point. He grew even more excited now, and informed me the real rock stuff was just about to start, saying from here on out it would be hard and loud tracks, hitting like, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

That was no exaggeration, and “Lonely Days” has to be one of the best Exit 380 songs I’ve heard. Following it was “Hearts In the Sand”, a track that Blocker stated was one of the first they wrote when beginning the writing process. It was one of the first he told his band mates he wanted to try a Spanish sound on, a style that is heard subtly, but definitely there. It’s also found in the lyrics, lyrics that also tell a story of reminiscing about “the good old days”. He wasted no time in letting me know that it’s not about longing for them, though. Rather, it’s about how you can’t move forward if you’re constantly looking backwards.

It’s also worth pointing out that Blocker was beaming when his synth solo came up, saying he just couldn’t resist adding it into the track. I have to say, it sounds utterly amazing, too.

The first side concluded with a track titled “Take It Like a Man”, which affirmed that Exit 380 has never written anything as intense and ballsy as that first batch of songs are.

It didn’t take long to flip the record over to the other side, but that time was used to chat about the music thus far; and then we sat back on the couch.

“You’ll probably remember this one.” Blocker told me. Indeed, “A Song About Us” has become one of the bands most recognizable tracks, and after first appearing on the first Hand Drawn Records compilation record (a label that was co-founded by Dustin Blocker), it has finally found its way onto an actual Exit 380 album. Salim Nourallah was shouted-out for producing the track, one of only two that was not recorded at Big Acre Sound with Andrew Tinker (who also tracked the majority of the keys for Photomaps).

Andrew Tinker (producer) with Jeremy Hutchison and Aaron Borden (Exit 380) at Big Acre Sound, Photo by Ronnie Jackson
He was also eager to show off the recorded version of “The Love Sleeps” (a live version was featured on the HDR Compilation Volume 3); and made sure I was aware that most of the instruments on it do the same thing throughout, while the bass is the only one that actually plays different lines in it. It’s simply in some respects, yet incredibly catchy.

The final original song was “La Rosa Carlina”, another story one, and Blocker got in depth with it, saying that more or less the guitarist in the fictitious band is infatuated by Carlina. “She dances like a woman half her size…” Blocker spoke, jumping ahead to the chorus, a line I’ve heard, but have never really paid attention to in the past. “… ‘Cause she’s bigger…” he said of the subject of the song, who is also extremely light on her feet, and that grace is what makes her a true beauty. They even had a fiddle player come in for that one, and while it’s quite soft, it’s still very noticeable (well, at least when listening over a superb home entertainment system.)

“Let’s see if you can tell a difference.” Remarked Blocker as the record came to a close with their first ever cover, “Pancho and Lefty”. The song had been released a mere two days prior, and already I had listened to it dozens of times, but this was like experiencing it for the first. The keys, the mandolin (which is in full effect for all four of these final songs), the harmonica, just everything works so fluidly with one another. It’s quite remarkable.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/157166733″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /] “Pancho and Lefty” by Exit 380

It neared the end, and Blocker said they wanted to finish strong. The intro to the Townes Van Zandt classic had been lifted from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version, and said intro is reused at the end, but is pushed to new heights.

Thus ended this sneak peak I was fortunate enough to get; and Blocker continued to elaborate about the record.

Aside from Borden, Jon “The Hutch” Hutchison, Jeremy Hutchison and Bobby “Shoes” Tucker were receiving constant praise. For example, like when he mentioned how tight The Hutch and Bob were (they’re the rhythm section), and he also pointed out that for the first time ever for them, there is no instrument competing against one another. If there’s a solo of any sort, than that’s the only instrument in the spotlight. Even just normally, they all work off one another, never fighting for control. It’s that simple, and it has made for an even stronger Exit 380.

Aaron Borden, Jeremy Hutchison, Jon Hutchison (Exit 380) Tracking "La Rosa Carlina", Photo by James Villa
“I wish I could invite everyone over here to listen to this.” Blocker had said earlier, almost speaking his thoughts aloud, and you could tell he genuinely wished that were possible. Going back to why I was invited over here, he had told me he wanted everyone to listen to Photomaps on vinyl first, seeming afraid their labor of love would be tarnished if people sampled the digital versions first.

Aside from that, the experience he and the rest of the band hope to give with Photomaps is an honest to god listening experience.

In another email blast to fans from awhile back, Blocker mentioned how caught up everyone is in the constant grind, and music has becoming nothing more than background noise. That’s why they chose to make this newest album available only on vinyl (though it will be for sale digitally, and CD’s will accompany the record but will not be sold individually): to actually make people sit down and listen to it.

I confess, I’m just as guilty as everyone else. Music is something I listening to in the car. It’s something I listen to when I’m on the computer. It’s something I listen to when I’m working out. The one constant between all those is that music is never the primary focus. Instead, it’s paying attention to the road, or browsing websites or writing reviews, or running/lifting weights, etc.

Honestly, I don’t know when the last time was I sit down in a room with absolutely no distractions and listened to a record. I’m not sure if I ever have before this warm Saturday afternoon in July. It was really a refreshing experience, though, paying attention to every little nuance (of which there are many on this release).

My time at the Blocker household ended in the garage (where some of the Exit 380 merchandise was kept), where Dustin filled me in on some more details about vinyl, including four questions he researched to find the answers to. Those were: If a band you like releases a CD would you buy it?; Would you buy a digital album of it?; Would you buy it on vinyl?; Do you own a record player?

The most common answers for each question were no; yes; yes and no.

I was fascinated and a little perplexed by that. At twenty-five, I realize I should have completely embraced the digital age of music, yet I prefer to buy a CD. Some may look at the booklets that come with them as being something else to have to keep up with, or even the case itself takes up space, but me, I love looking at the artwork. If lyrics are included, I read over them until l I have them memorized and can sing along to the song, something you can’t get with anything off iTunes. In fact, I seldom even use that as an outlet to purchase music. The fact that fans would buy a record without even having means to play it sounded strange to me, too, as that simplifies it to being just something to look at. But hey, I guess that’s the world we live in now, a world where collecting anything nostalgic is hip.

We discussed this that and the other for several minutes, and then his wife stepped out there. She was about to get in the pool with their kids. Blocker graciously thanked me again for taking time to sample the record, something I had been all too eager to do.

“I’m going to go spend some time with the lady in the bikini now.” He remarked, chuckling a bit.

Exit 380 - Photo by James Villa
There’s no denying that Photomaps has become a huge part of Dustin Blocker’s life. I get the feeling that he eats, sleeps and breathes this record, and will continue to do so until the vinyl release show at the House of Blues on August 8th. However, he hasn’t let it completely consume him. Sure, it may be the greatest achievement in Exit 380’s history; but family still comes first. As it should.

The car was sweltering from sitting out in the sun; and I popped in the supplement CD (the one that will accompany the vinyl records) I had been given, figuring it would be a good way to help my drive home pass more quickly. It was incredible, but nowhere near as phenomenal as what I had been listening to just a half hour before.

The quality wasn’t nearly as pristine. The bass lines, which had been so thunderous, were now barely heard, while the keys and synth (when used) weren’t quite as bold. Something else interesting, as loud as it was blasting in the house, the frequencies weren’t bad on the ears, something I noticed right as Blocker pointed it out to me. But here in the car, after cranking the volume up enough, it was a little painful on my ears.

Thanks for ruining digital music for me, Blocker. Also, thanks for showing me a better medium to consume music on.

"Photomaps" by Exit 380 | Limited Edition 12" Vinyl Package (LP + CD + Digital Download)

BUY: “Photomaps” by Exit 380 | Limited Edition 12″ Vinyl Package (LP + CD + Digital Download)

James Villa