Adam Levy of The Honeydogs interview
One of the biggest cliches in the music business is “best-kept secret.” But when it comes to the Minnesota-based band The Honeydogs, the cliché is true. For more than 15 years, the ‘dogs have built a loyal fan base across the upper Midwest, who were drawn initially to the band’s country rock efforts. Over time, the band has evolved into a melody-making rock machine, and began garnering serious critical acclaim with 2003’s epic 10,000 Years, a concept album about a test-tube kid who goes from criminal to possible savior, in the midst of wars, genocide and other horrific acts of man. If that doesn’t sound like the usual rock fare, it’s because chief songwriter and vocalist Adam Levy isn’t your songwriter du jour. He’s not afraid to sing about the dark side or bring together musical styles as disparate as bossa nova and funk, R&B and J.S. Bach. And he’s one of this generation’s great writer of melodies, following the footsteps of Elton John, Brian Wilson and, yes, Lennon & McCartney.
The Honeydogs’ latest release – the six-song EP Sunshine Committee – finds Levy and bandmates getting back to roots and having a ball doing it. It’s a collection of songs that’s sure to leave listeners wanting more, and that’s just how Levy likes it.
Classic Rock Music Blog spoke to Levy about his musical background, songwriting influences, Sunshine Committee and more.
Your music draws from a wide range of influences. Did you collect records growing up?
My parents didn’t really have a gigantic collection – they had a handful of records – but they got big airplay. Everything they had made a big impact on me. They had a copy of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass – “Tijuana Taxi” – and I can’t tell you how much that record has entered into my consciousness. It might not sound like it in my music, but chord changes, melody – that stuff was just in my blood. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, of course. There was a Charlie Parker record that we listened to constantly. We had a Bach fugue for the piano, record, that got played a lot. But they didn’t have like a lot of records – they just played those. And I listened to AM radio growing up, and I think the wonder of AM radio in the late 1960s and ’70s was the amazing diversity of musical styles that were in pop radio, at least for a long period of time. You’d get something that sounded kind of country, and something that was R&B, and something that was British Invasion-sounding – everything side by side – so it was like this cool soup of music that I grew up with. I really say AM radio, more than anything, as a kid, probably shaped my musical tastes.
And then I got introduced to KISS by a friend, and then I wanted to be a rock musician after that. Then another friend came over a couple months later – his father had died a couple years earlier – the most meaningful thing he got from his dad was his dad’s record collection, which was primarily ’60s records, everything from Frank Zappa to Hendrix, Beach Boys, Beatles and Stones. He brought over to my house the whole Beatles’ catalog – or at that time in 1977, all the major-type releases, Capitol and Apple releases. So we sat there one night – in an overnight – and we listened to virtually every record. I think if you listen to every Beatles’ song it takes like 10 hours – you could travel across the Atlantic Ocean and listen to the whole Beatles’ collection, or something. So we got pretty close; we stayed up into the twilight hours and listened to all of that music, and a lot of the songs I’d never heard before. I’d heard some of the hits on the radio as a kid, but it was the frickin’ clouds opened up. And after that, it was over. I went and got every Beatles’ record I could get. With every job that I had I started buying Rolling Stones’ records, and then it was The Who and Hendrix and Bob Dylan, and just went through the whole kind of pantheon of great singers/songwriters/rock musicians of the ’60s. And, of course, I discovered the punk rock stuff, and The Clash and Elvis Costello. I got into soul – Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. I went to college and just kept collecting, so I’ve got a pretty sizable record collection – great classical stuff, jazz and lots of rock stuff. I also inherited from my wife’s late grandfather, his country collection, which was a really big record collection of mostly ’60s country records. So, that’s my story in a nutshell as far as my musical upbringing.
After being exposed to all those types of music, if you were to teach a songwriting course, what records or artists would be required listening for your students?
I teach a songwriting class now, so I get to kind of tell them who I think, in my canon is at least, on the list of great songwriters. I’d say the absolute, you can’t really understand the history of songwriting – popular songwriting – without this group of songwriters would be Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – of course – Lennon/McCartney, Elvis Costello, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. There’s just so many.
Jimmy Webb is a guy who sort of hides in the shadow, but look at the songs he’s written.
Right, I know. He wrote a great book on songwriting, which has sort of become canonized – by folks that teach songwriting classes – because it’s so amazing. I just feel like the guy – whether or not you like or agree with his sort of formulaic description of how songwriting is done – but the way he talks about music, he’s just so passionate about it. And, yeah, he’s written some brilliant, beautiful pieces of music.
It’s one thing to be influenced by The Beatles – you can listen to Beatles’ records over and over again – but it’s another to actually write memorable melodies. How do you continually come up them?
I think that melody is probably the most important thing for me. I guess, in some ways, I consider myself sort of an evolved lyricist. I think at one point I just wrote things that were really simple that just meant something to me that I knew would communicate with people, just because they were so basic. Over time, I think there’s become a greater degree of subtlety in how I write lyrics. But I think the thing I probably feel the strongest about, or put the most work into, is crafting – I hate that word – just creating melodies, singing melodies that are memorable. Things I like that feel good coming out of your body, you know? There are some melodies that just – there’s a kind of harmonic convergence between the sentiment that you’re singing and the chords that you’re playing and the melody, and it’s just like, almost transcendental. I wouldn’t say that about every song I’ve wrote, but there’s like a few songs where there’s this feeling that you have like, “How the hell did that happen? It wasn’t me.” It’s sort of like you’re channeling. A lot of times there is kind of like a trance state that I get into, and I’m sure that other songwriters do, too, where you lose touch with time when you’re coming up with melodic ideas – at least I do. Sometimes it takes a while to find them, but then you just get into this trance state, and it’s like, “Wow!” Time and space and everything else disappears, and nobody can disturb you; nobody can get your attention – you’re just so in the moment.
I would assume that you were in the trance when writing “Last War Lullaby”? I think that song has some of your strongest melodies and musical ideas. It has a starkness but yet a beauty about it.
That certainly wasn’t a song that I wrote in one sitting, but I’d say that’s a song that I spent a lot of time in the conceptual stage, thinking, “How can you create a sonic landscape for war when you’ve never experienced it? How can you create something that’s compelling and at once beautiful, but also telling a pretty dark tale about human behavior? How do you do that without romanticizing it or something?” So, yeah, that’s a song I feel very proud of, how it turned it. That was one of those songs where the band just couldn’t even imagine – when I tried to play it on guitar for them – they’re like, “I don’t get it. What is this beast?” And so, as you can probably imagine, recording it was painstaking, but I think the results turned out good. It was one of those songs that was in my head, you know? It didn’t matter that I couldn’t really do it, physically, myself. I heard this going on, so…
Do you have a go-to guitar or a place to escape when you’re struggling with a musical idea?
I don’t have one particular spot. I do have a backyard now with an amazing garden. The gentleman who is renting me his place, he’s a professional urban landscaper, and so now I’ve got this almost Asian garden in the middle of the city. It just feels like I’m in some other place – that really gets me out of my head in a way that just sitting… because most of the time when I’m writing music, I can do it anywhere. I could be sitting on my bed; I could be sitting at the kitchen table, which is usually the most comfortable place to do it – or the couch, or whatever. I never thought about this really, but I think there’s different stages of the songwriting process when I tend to go to certain places to work on something. I’m not gonna sit on the couch and work on lyrics. I’m gonna sit on the couch and sort of lay back and come up with chord ideas and melodies. When I really want to start writing words down, I gotta get into that, sort of, getting-the-work-done position – in a chair, where you’ve got a pen in hand. I tried to write with computers – I’ll usually handwrite stuff and then I’ll go and write on the computer when it starts coming together, but I haven’t been able to compose well on a computer. So I’m pretty old school in that regard.
Your music has a lot of major 7th chords, going back to Seen A Ghost, I suppose. You obviously like that sound?
Yeah. I think probably the first song where I discovered that type of chord was “Your Blue Door,” from the second record, and I think I use it once on the very first record. But I realized the beauty of it – I didn’t really understand where I was getting it from, but then I started listening to a lot of Burt Bacharach and realized that’s kind of the beauty of his music – that really uplifting, kind of jazz palette-y sound.
You’ve often said that music is something you can’t stop doing. Pete Seeger recently released an album at 89 years of age. Can you imagine such musical longevity for yourself?
I do. I don’t know what it’s going to look like or sound like, but I’ve been doing it long enough now where I can’t imagine saying, “OK. I wrote my best song. Now I’m done.” There are people who dial it in at a certain point – their accomplishments have been so great that it’s all downhill for them. It doesn’t matter. They’ve had the accolades and the money – they’ve had this incredible life experience – so the drive to better what they’ve done and their art form isn’t so primal. I feel like I haven’t written my best song yet – I don’t always think, “OK. Now I’m gonna sit down and write my best song,” but I always know that I can do better. People have their favorite records, but I feel confident in saying that we’ve kind of pushed ourselves with each record to do something a little differently. Whether it’s constructing a melody or the way the phrasing happens or how I use my voice – whatever. That’s the exciting thing to me, to keep the ball moving.
Is there one Honeydogs’ song you feel best articulates your songwriting philosophy?
They’re all my babies, and some of them I like maybe a little bit more than others. But I guess, you asked about “Last War Lullaby,” that’s a song that seems to encapsulate a lot of different facets of what I like to do.
Tell me about recording Sunshine Committee at IPR (Institute of Production and Recording). You brought some of the students in to see how the recording process works and to help, too.
I was given the opportunity to teach a class in audio production – they call it the Capstone class, which is like a senior thesis. Students come in, and they get a real recording environment where they get to be a part of something. The instructors who get to do the class, get to pick whatever they want to do. They told me, “Do whatever you want. Record a Honeydogs’ record.” And I said, “You’re kidding me? You’re paying me to do this?” It’s like, is this a job or a heist? There were a lot of questions that the band had, because I was in the instructing position there was a sense that… I hadn’t really directed traffic with The Honeydogs in the past. I think I had from a musical and arrangement level, but not like mic-ing and all that kind of stuff, so it really kind of put me in the helm. The good thing was – there were a lot of things I didn’t really understand – I had a good engineer helping me in the classes I was teaching. The students were cream of the crop. Most importantly, was Peter Anderson, the drummer, has become a pretty amazing engineer and, I would say, producer. His ears are fantastic. He’s a great musician. And he’s just worked in some really high-pressure situations and knows now how to do things. I’d say Peter, in a lot of ways, taught the class as much as I did.
The class was on Friday, so we would do like a six-hour session. It always took like two hours to set up, and then you’d try a track for a few hours. Oftentimes, I didn’t even know what we were going to record when we got to school that day. A lot of these songs I was just finishing writing, so I just thought, “What the hell. The band has always operated best when they didn’t have a lot of time to digest material.” And it’s because they’re really good; everyone has really good first instincts – it’s infinitely more interesting to me to listen back to a record a few years later where you remember you actually shaped this whole thing in the studio. It wasn’t like a prefabricated thing that you beat into submission and then basically recorded this stiff thing. It’s like the studio allowed it to unfold and things that nobody thought possible happened, by accident.
There’s a lot going on in these songs, and you really got the mix and balance between the instruments right. And the vocals sound live, to the point where your breathing can be heard in spots. Did you notice that playing the record back?
Yeah. I think we spent a lot of time finding the right microphones, and as you become more comfortable with your vocal – there wasn’t a huge amount of comping going on in vocals. There were just times when I would do a take and it was on the right microphone, and we would just keep as much intact as we could.
As far as the overall mix, that’s all John Fields. He was so good and so quick with this stuff. I think he labored over a few of them, but he’s just gotten so good over time – his instincts are so great – plus, he understands me as a songwriter, and he understands what makes my voice sound good. Even if we had great microphones – a lot of times we had the rough mixes – I was like, “Geez, this just isn’t working,” and we’d give it to Fields. It would come back, and it was like a beauty makeover or something – you wouldn’t recognize it. It was just little, tiny things that he does that are so aurally significant.
You said the guys in the band didn’t have a lot of time to assimilate the songs before they were recorded. How much leeway do you give them to come up with their own parts and run with them?
On this one, a lot. I did demo all these songs out, and that’s how I write now. I don’t like to just play them on acoustic guitar. There will still be some songs that I don’t have everything fleshed out, but I like to sit down and write the song and have some sort of drum thing going, and bass, just to give me more of a sense of the completeness. Sometimes they’ll take my ideas, and sometimes they’ll re-fashion them into something completely different. Frankly, the ones where my mark was least noticeable in performance were the best ones. And I really think this record, more than – in Amygdala, I thought it started really happening – but now, I love what other people are doing, without having to direct traffic and all, you know. That’s the fun thing, and part of that I would argue has to do with the fact that most of us are in a cover band – just a sort of “bowling night, fun band” that’s turned into a bit of a cash cow called Hookers And Blow. In that band we get to play, I would say, a lot of the blueprint songs that have influenced me as a songwriter, and just the great soul music. And everybody’s gotta learn some pretty intense stuff on these songs, you know? They’re harmonically complex; they’re songs that a lot of other people wouldn’t try to cover, and that’s sort of why Hookers And Blow is so fun: We just take some of the masterpieces… it makes everybody have to be pretty darn good – to hear the subtleties of these parts. We don’t replicate them like a museum or anything; we certainly do our own thing with them, but we try to keep the original model intact.
The song “Stash” has a lot of different grooves going on. That one sounds like it would be tough to get right. Some great drumming, too.
Yes. That was one, as I recall, Trent [Norton], our bass player couldn’t make it to the recording, and [keyboardist] Peter Sands couldn’t make it. So, we just sort of rocked, me and Peter Anderson – guitar and drums. It’s got a kind of bluesy, old rock, ’60s feel. And we just laid it down, just the two of us. Then all the other stuff kind of got stuck on top of it – the horns, the clavinet. It sort of feels like a cross between Sly & The Family Stone and Rubber Soul, or something.
Continuing with influences, the title track reminds me of Exile On Main St.-era Stones meets Big Star.
Wow! That’s great. Those are two bands that were huge influences on me. That song, though, was a different animal when I brought it in. I just played acoustic guitar. There wasn’t any of the electric guitar stuff on it; there wasn’t any idea of horns being on it. That one – just because of the sort of jam we did on it – I think it was just me, Trent and Peter Anderson, on drums. At its most basic form, it almost sounded like a late Velvet Underground song – that was sort of the direction we were gonna go. But then you add in a few electric guitars and horns, and before you know it, it’s like this soul/rock tune that, yeah, it could have been an outtake from that era of The Rolling Stones or The Faces, or something.
“Fiber Optic Paramour” has a very strange effect, like a haunted choir, going on at the beginning. Was that some sort of keyboard wizardry?
It is. That’s a Chamberlain, a real one, which was an old, ’60s, one of the early sampling devices. That would be the choral voices. In fact, I think we layered like men’s choral, female choral and maybe even a children’s choral voice thing. I just wanted that chorus to open up, like the skies were opening up, just trying to convey that lyric.
“Balaclava” has what I call an Adam Levy-ism, where you often accent the last word in a line. I don’t really hear that from other singers. Is that something you consciously do?
Wow. Yeah, I guess there’s almost a slight dipping of the note on there. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it.
The first guitar solo on “Levers, Pulleys & Pumps” sounds like a charging elephant. What’s the story behind that?
[laughs] That’s an apt description. It was kind of an elephant charging around. That was Brian Halverson plugged into an organ speaker called a Leslie, which is where that Doppler-rotating speaker that – I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like a helicopter taking off.
It’s sounds like something Adrian Belew would do.
My only complaint about Sunshine Committee is that we just get six songs, and they’re six of the best songs the band has done. It’s got a great vibe to it.
Well thank you. That’s nice to hear. I think we – there’s a lot of other material right now, and the thought was… we approached this from two different directions. One was, if we make this really big record with all of these different sounds and angles, it might just be too much. Sometimes things get lost in that environment. One thing that’s unified the last couple records with The Honeydogs was just stylistically – I like to try on different hats and go to different places, and sometimes you lose people from that. It’s never deterred me from doing it, but I just thought, “What if we did this batch of tunes that just seem to be a bit more cohesive at some level?” And those six songs all sort of work together. These other ones that I’ve got are kind of in another realm.
Thematically or musically?
I think musically. I think they’re a little different structurally, and I just wasn’t ready to flesh them out yet. It seemed easier to take songs that I brought to the band and everybody came up with really cool parts easily. There wasn’t, really, a huge amount of labor that went into these songs. They’re kind of economical in a lot of ways – there are a few little curve balls that we throw in there – but it just feels like our straightforward rock. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just like embarking on something that’s a little more ambitious. I just wanted to give it enough sensitivity, and so I thought, Well, this will be a fun, little tease – do a short LP, and then we’ll hit them over the head with something different later.”