The album is "just a bunch of grown men making a joke," Matthew Ramsey tells PEOPLE and explains why singing meows isn't as easy as it sounds

old dominion
Credit: John Balsom

Old Dominion's lead singer Matthew Ramsey has read the comments on his band's socials: "What the hell is this?," "What are y'all doing?" and even, "You've lost your minds!"

But then he pretty much expected that reaction after what Old Dominion did on Friday: release an entire remake of their latest, self-titled album, replacing every lyric (except one, which we will get to) with a single word.

And that word would be "meow."

What Ramsey, 42, didn't expect is that a lot more people have figured out, as he unequivocally confirms, that Old Dominion (Meow Mix) is "just a bunch of grown men making a joke."

So that's it. No hidden mystery. No temporary insanity. It really is just a joke. But let's face it: Does that even begin to scratch the surface? Just for starters, how did they even come up with this craziness?

Ramsey shares the whole story with PEOPLE, beginning simply by noting that the project sprang from the minds of five guys who spend a lot of time together out on the road. As he explains it, "Everyone has their own inside jokes."

He traces the genesis of this album to a moment when, during a band meeting, one member made a good point, and another replied in nonsensical affirmation, "Meow, meow." After that, the meows just took hold. Eventually, they started showing up at sound checks.

"I'd slip in a few meows here and there," Ramsey says.

And here's where it snowballed: "We just thought it was funny, and then some of our crew thought it was funny, and then the label's always asking us to do different versions of songs — acoustic, things like that. And we were like, 'Let's do a meow one,' and then it started with one song, and then we were like, 'Oh, let's do the whole album!' "

All five bandmates — Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung and Brad Tursi — participated in the recording project, and they kept it under wraps, booking studio time under "vocal rehearsals."

old dominion
Old Dominion's actual album cover
| Credit: John Balsom

As the lead, Ramsey, of course, took the lion's share (groaner pun intended) of the work. Predictably, the hardest part was trying not to crack up.

"The first song that we did was 'Never Be Sorry,' which is probably the most mind-numbing one of them all," Ramsey recalls. "It's a lot of just meowing on the same note. I could not get through it. The guys had to leave the room because they couldn't stop laughing, and if one person cracked, the rest of us would."

But Ramsey soldiered on, applying all his interpretative skills to a task that he realized required some seriousness. "It's not just a flippant meow," he says. "You have to match the emotion of the actual song, so it's like, you know, if a cat was going to listen to this, we want them to feel."

Indeed, the vocal nuances are impressive — the feline sigh that wraps "One Man Band"; the sexy, growling meow in "Midnight Mess Around"; the mellifluous meows on "Some People Do."

And then there is that one "ruff" that interrupts the river of meows flowing through "Smooth Sailing." A glance at the line in the original version quickly explains the outlier. Go ahead and guess which word Ramsey replaced it with: "They ain't got a dog in this fight."

"It was just kind of an in-the-moment thing," he recalls. "We can't meow over the dog."

Ramsey laughs as he recalls the day the band finally unveiled the project to label execs. "The blank stares that we got were worth it," he says. "One person, two people in the room were like, 'Okay, that's funny.' "

Despite the immediate perplexity, there was never any label discussion of keeping it an inside joke. "If we believe in it, they'll do it," Ramsey says. "I'm sure there was some internal talk about, 'What are they doing? They've lost their minds.' And then it developed into them supporting it almost too much. We're not trying to make a splash or anything. We just think it's funny, and that's the only reason that we did it."

In fact, the only sticking point was over the timing of the release. The mix was actually completed in January, but was considered too close to the original album's October 2019 debut.

"So we were like, okay, we'll sit on it for a little while," Ramsey says, "and then quarantine happened, and we were like, this is the perfect time to put it out."

Public reaction has confirmed that. Ramsey himself has been shocked to hear that people are avidly listening to the entire album. Animal welfare groups, he reports, have also been using it in posts to promote pet adoptions.

"I sit and read all the comments with just a big grin on my face," says Ramsey. "I didn't expect people to get as much joy out of it as they have, and that's been a blessing because I really expected to just kind of punk people and for people to just be so confused by it. The fact that it's actually bringing joy is so cool to watch. It's awesome."

old dominion
Old Dominion
| Credit: John Balsom

For the record, the group's preoccupation with meow is directed toward the animal sound, not the animal. Granted, nobody in the band hates cats, but all five members are actually allergic.

Ramsey is adamant there will be no menagerie of sequels: "It's a joke that works once." But, he says, once live concerts return, he expects that fans will be getting "a meow flipped into the show every now and then."

If anything, couldn't it save him if he forgets his lyrics?

That idea hadn't dawned on Ramsey, but he likes it. "I'm terrible at remembering the lyrics," he says. "Now I know if I'm lost, I can just start meowing. And people will probably get excited!"

Doubtless, they also won't have any trouble singing along.