The rise in Americana music over the past two decades paired with select cultural moments such as the seminal Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? has resulted in quite a renaissance for traditional American music. From old-time to blues to bluegrass to second line, the styles and genres that were crafted by generations of Americans are blossoming into new and exciting forms.
One band that exemplifies this is The California Honeydrops, an overwhelmingly energetic and versatile group that originated as a busking act in Oakland, California. In the 13 years since their formation, the band has released a plethora of records that reimagine older styles for modern audiences. On June 26, the band released a new EP Just One More, And Then Some via Tubtone Records. Taking a step in a new sonic direction, the band opted out of the typical studio experience and instead recorded the EP almost entirely live in a living room. This method not only allowed the band to be more comfortable creatively, but it also allowed for the songs to more accurately convey the energy of a California Honeydrops show.
Last week, American Songwriter caught up with one of the band’s co-founders, Lech Wierzynski, to discuss the new EP as well as The California Honeydrops’ role in the current musical landscape. Wierzynski has a certain charm and lightness to him — while he chuckles often when he speaks, his intense love and passion for music shines bright as day in every word he says.
This EP is a step into a more live-sounding direction — what inspired that?
We had just come off making a double album that’s very much a studio record. I think that because we’re such a live band, we struggle a little bit in the studio to find our happy place. We wanted to make a record that was fun for us to make and didn’t require any extra studio time. The whole session was based on that concept of doing everything live, playing in a room that sounded good and taking the takes that we got — not obsessing over anything, just getting something that’s fun.
In that regard, do you feel that this record captures the organic chemistry of the band in a way that the other records didn’t?
I think in a sense, yeah. There are those big things you can’t fix because of the way we recorded it. All the instruments are in that vocal mic and we made some mistakes, but that’s okay — it’s a learning process. We were a little bit new to this whole thing of being miced. We’re super happy with it though. It’s amazing that we were able to do it, we were ready to do it and we did it — no regrets, you gotta let that stuff out. As an artist, you always look back like ‘oh shit, I could’ve played this better’ or ‘oh now we have a better arrangement for it.’ But, you just gotta let all of that go. These days, you can jump down a rabbit hole on a computer and make this perfect music that’s kind devoid of any spirit — we avoided that.
So, do you think that this new, more organic style of recording is how y’all are going to make records from now on?
I think we’re going to use this method as much as possible. It’s just more fun. We would all get kinda depressed in the studio. It got to the point where nobody wanted to go, nobody was excited about recording. We knew it was going to be this process that’s too difficult for us as human beings. The kind of people we are… we just don’t enjoy it. With this record we were like ‘let’s just do it at a friend’s house with a decent sounding room,’ so that we weren’t paying for studio time. We brought in all the recording gear that we share between all of us. So, there was no money pressure and we got to just play music in a way that’s fun for us.
There weren’t quite enough people there for it to really be considered a ‘houseparty,’ but it did feel like a party. Us boys were there, occasionally Johnny’s parents or our friends were there. It was just playing music with the boys in the house and having fun.
How do you approach arranging and performing this older style of music for modern audiences?
We love a lot of different styles of old music. The first three songs on this EP are kinda that ‘40s and ‘50s vibe — early R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Then the last song on it is more of that ‘60s vibe. In general, the band usually — and our previous records demonstrate this — draws from a huge variety of styles and eras. This one is kinda tighter than most in terms of styles covered, it’s a little bit more retro than the rest of our stuff. But, we’re just trying to breathe a little bit of new life into this. We love old music and we want to respect it and play right, do it justice. At the same time, we’re not interested in making museum pieces — it’s gotta be fun, it’s gotta have that life, that primal energy to it.
One of our favorite styles of music is contemporary second line music from New Orleans — that kinda exemplifies the energy we’re going for. It’s music that, in a sense, is sorta traditional but has evolved over time. A lot of second line music today doesn’t sound anything like second line music from the ‘60s. Ultimately, we’re still trying to get people out, get them to dance — the music has to have that energy. That’s what makes an audience feel something, feel that true joy. Music’s gotta get you up and feeling good, it’s gotta make you move.
That philosophy reminds me of the modern Americana scene — while there are aesthetic differences, do you feel a kinship to that scene since y’all are both preserving an American music tradition?
Yeah. I think at times we’ve had a tenuous relationship with the Americana thing. We’re not exactly in the genre that people consider ‘Americana’ — that world is more geared towards country music and… well, whiter styles of music, historically. Stuff like country and old-time — which are amazing styles of music that I love — are definitely most of what gets included in Americana. At the same time, I feel that there’s nothing more Americana than second line music — it’s a traditional American art form that’s an absolute treasure. It still has a really strong tradition and place in communities, especially somewhere like New Orleans. There’s no treasure more worthy of preservation than that — although New Orleans is doing a pretty good job of preserving it, they don’t need anybody’s help.
But, R&B and the blues have always kinda been in their own scenes. Soul music has had it’s revival. I guess Americana often doesn’t include us, but I very much feel that these old styles of music still have a lot to offer to us as modern people — more so than ever, actually. There’s a spontaneity, a certain fire in that old music that was almost necessary in order to energize the audience, and that’s something missing from a lot of modern stuff. What we do is… well, important. That’s why I do it. I think it’s worth doing. I haven’t always felt totally welcome in the Americana world in a small way, but at the same time, other people and bands have always welcomed us. Bonnie Raitt took us out on tour and she’s considered an Americana artist for sure. She gave us such a helping hand and welcomed us into her family. It’s just hard to say. Who are the gatekeepers anyways?
In a sense, this pandemic has made our society appreciate music in a more conscious way — do you feel that audiences are able to connect with that older tradition of enjoying music now that we realize how much we take it for granted in our modern world?
I think people are valuing live music more. They miss it, they’re like ‘oh wow, I want to see a band.’ There’s no substitute to being in a room full of people, riding that energy. You can’t really do that online. Especially when you’re a band like us where it’s not about performing a show perfectly. We don’t have a choreographed or perfect show — we stretch out and if the audience is with us we’ll start getting them to do dance moves or sing along or something. If they start singing, I might pick up on that and incorporate it into our music on stage, so for us, it’s very much an interactive experience. That’s been impossible to do in livestreams, unfortunately.
But, for us, it’s been kinda like a relief. We just to get play out to livestream, we don’t have a crazy-hyped up crowd. We’ve been laying back and communicating to one another as a band. Traditionally, for us, performing is more about communicating with the audience and the room. Now that we’re livestreaming and there is no audience, we’re chilling with each other and really tuning in to what we’re playing.
But, it really has made people realize how much we need live music. There’s a plus in that for sure.
Has being able to listen to each other in a more concentrated way spurred creative growth?
Absolutely. I’m actually thankful for that. It’s hard when you just perform night after night and you don’t rehearse. We didn’t rehearse a ton. So, this is giving us a chance to work up new ideas. You gotta work something up for a while and really get comfortable with it together without a crowd before you can really stick to the game plan and execute it in front of a crowd. This has given us an opportunity to do that. As a band that’s pretty much on the road all the time, we just kinda go with what’s working that night.
David Crosby described y’all as “one of the best groups I’ve ever heard” — how did it feel to get that endorsement?
Oh man, that was awesome. After he tweeted that we got in touch with him, he came to our show. He just hung out with us for a while, chilled backstage. We talked about stuff and cracked a bunch of jokes. It was just cool and inspirational to see someone who’s 78 years old and just loves music, still comes out to see music and is still excited about music. You see a lot of musicians younger than him who are kinda just in the business and it doesn’t even seem like they like music anymore. But, Crosby’s just a guy who loves music and came out to see us. It was awesome. It was inspirational on so many different levels.
Watch the lyric video for the California Honeydrops’ song “Pocket Chicken” below: