Toughen Up, Leroy From The North’s full-length debut, is a soundtrack for road trips with the radio cranked high, the FM dial caught somewhere between the country and classic rock stations, the sounds from both channels bleeding together into some new frequency. It’s a sound rooted in California cool and old-school southern stomp, like a velour tracksuit with a cowboy hat. Some people call it Americana. Others call it country-rock. Leroy From The North just call it music.
Eli Wulfmeier — the band’s frontman, guitarist, and chief songwriter — grew up in Michigan, raised on the sounds of 1970s rock bands like Humble Pie and Free. By his high school years, he was gigging multiple nights a week in Detroit’s underage clubs. Onstage, he was a whiz kid with a Les Paul, developing a style that emphasized melody rather than over-the-top virtuosity. Offstage, he was an enthusiastic fan of artists like Joe Walsh, whose songs found room not only for fiery guitar playing, but a genuine sense of humor, too. A similar combination would later find its way onto Toughen Up‘s nine tracks.
Moving to California during his 20s, Wulfmeier began collaborating with artists as a co-writer and go-to lead guitarist. He joined the hard rock band Dorothy and contributed to the group’s long line of hits, including the Top 10 singles “Flawless” and “Rest in Peace.” He toured with Americana artists like Shelby Lynne and Sam Morrow. He played guitar for Nikki Lane. Throughout it all, he continued to write his own songs, whipping them into shape with a small group of road warriors whenever the guys found themselves back home between tours.
At first, Leroy From The North was a non-committal project with a loose roster. Gradually, the group tightened itself into power trio featuring Wulfmeier, drummer Jason Ganberg, and bassist Adam Arcos. With their lineup now intact, Leroy From The North released an EP in 2019 and hit the road, opening for country acts like Midland one minute and alt-rock mainstays like Our Lady Peace the next. Their music explored the middle ground between those genres, and audiences on both sides of the country/rock divide ate it up. By the time the band headed into the studio with Grammy-winning producer Eric Corne, they’d fine-tuned their hybrid of West Coast country-rock and greasy southern rock, gluing that mix together with clever songwriting and tight, road-worn chops.
Toughen Up is a snapshot of a three-piece band on the rise. Overdubs are kept to a minimum. Studio trickery is virtually non-existent. What you hear is the honest chemistry of three musicians who’ve spent years sharpening their craft onstage, in the writing room, and in the recording studio, where Toughen Up was largely recorded in a series of live takes. The album’s opening track, “Youngblood,” combines humor and hellraising in equal doses, with Wulfmeier singing about a doomed relationship over harmonized guitars and anthemic hooks. “Homemade Crosses” is a built-for-speed southern rocker about a young man being shipped off to war, while the tongue-in-cheek “Top 10” takes a jab at the cliches of the modern-day music industry. None of the tracks take themselves too seriously but Toughen Up is a seriously good time.
On an album filled with groove, grit, and guitar, it’s Eli Wulfmeier’s songwriting that elevates and electrifies Toughen Up. He isn’t just the band’s guitar-playing singer. He’s a genuine storyteller, too, conjuring up a world of pawn shop customers, flophouses, clueless radio executives, and blue-collar workmen at the end of their ropes. Rooted in melody and muscle, Toughen Up finds Wulfmeier making the jump from hotshot sideman to celebrated front man.