Honeydogs – When the Levys break
From a heap of tapes scattered across the passenger seat of the car one spring evening, an advance tape of the Honeydogs’ new album, Seen A Ghost, finally found its way into the tape deck during a short drive to a meeting. Only the first two cuts, “Rumor Has It” and “John Brown”, made it through the speakers, but for the entire two-hour meeting, the choruses of those two songs swirled on my brain. I buckled up and rewound the tape for the 10-minute drive home — but the pull of the music was just too strong. I bypassed my exit in favor of a 40-mile detour down I-94, compelled to hear the album all the way through. As I parked in front of my house and the final notes hung in the air, it was clear that things were about to change for the Honeydogs.
The third album in as many years for this Minneapolis foursome, Seen A Ghost represents a significant milestone in the Honeydogs’ career. For starters, the band has moved up from local label October Records to the new Mercury imprint Debris. After attracting the attention of Debris at the 1996 South by Southwest Music Festival, they signed a deal last September. The luxury of additional time and money for recording, as well as access to industry heavyweights Nick DiDia (who mixed the record) and Al Kooper (who plays Hammond organ on it), has certainly left its mark on the music. But for a band that, in spite of a huge local following, has been perceived by many as the Minneapolis scene’s best-kept secret in recent years, the added muscle in distribution and promotion should prove to be the most significant benefit of the new record deal.
The second reason Seen A Ghost marks a turning point can be attributed to the band itself. The core lineup of guitarist Adam Levy, drummer Noah Levy (Adam’s brother) and bassist Trent Norton has remained intact since the first album; guitarist Tommy Borscheid was added shortly after the band’s 1995 self-titled debut was recorded. The stability of the band, combined with near constant touring, has helped the Honeydogs refine and tighten their sound. The improvement between the first album and 1996’s Everything, I Bet You was substantial — but Seen A Ghost has reached an entirely different level, in part because the Honeydogs have clearly found their musical identity. And, perhaps more than anything else, because the quality of Adam Levy’s singing has caught up to his talent as a songwriter.
There’s no easy label for the Honeydogs’ music. To paint them with even the broadest stroke requires the inclusion of pop, rock and country. Their music is an excursion through engaging hooks and harmonies, wit, self-deprecating humor, aggression, disturbing observations, poignant storytelling, an occasional slice of psychedelia, some countrified gems and a heapin’ helpin’ of flat-out rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever you call it, it works.
It’s late June, and the Honeydogs are back in Minneapolis to headline a show at the Cabooze, a one-night pit stop amidst a tour of the Midwest. It’s late afternoon and I take a seat at the empty bar while the band sets up for a soundcheck. As they run through a half-dozen songs from the new record, I’m left with two lingering impressions.
The first is amazement at how good the songs sound in their stripped-down form. Having spent several weeks with the new record, I half expected to miss the fuller arrangements of the recording, but don’t. The Honeydogs have taken advantage of the extra time and money in the studio to enhance their music, but they’ve avoided overindulging at the expense of the songs, and still managed to capture the energy and immediacy of their live shows.
The second is that this is clearly a band, not a singer-songwriter and his sidemen. Adam Levy exudes none of the ego, attitude, posing or posturing one might expect from the lead singer of a band on the rise. He is not possessive or protective of the songs he’s written. There’s no evidence that his existence might be some sort of tortured martyrdom or that he depends on hostility to fuel his creativity. There seems to be little concern over who gets the credit or the limelight.
Since the beginning, the Honeydogs’ approach has been to be serious about their music, yet without ever taking themselves too seriously. There’s nothing to indicate the new record deal has changed that. With nearly six months between the album’s completion and its release on Aug. 26, there was a big chunk of time when the band was just sort of dangling. “It’s weird when people ask how we’re doing on the label, because at this point the record’s not out,” Adam acknowledged during an interview in June. “All I know is that we made the record and everything’s great now — but talk to us again in a couple of months.”
And at least for now, the band is suspending judgment and keeping their expectations in check. “Realistically? I just hope that this will give us the opportunity to keep making records,” Adam says. “I know it happens, but I’d hate it if the record comes out, fails, we’re done and then we have to start over. We’d do it, but it’s just not a place we’d like to be in.” Noah adds, “So far, the whole major-label thing is pretty abstract and it gets more so, the closer we get to it. There’s just a lot of mystery there.”
As far as Adam Haft, director of A&R for Debris, is concerned, there’s no mystery at all. “I know it’s my job to be excited about these guys, so I guess you’ll take this with a grain of salt, but Adam Levy is a brilliant songwriter and the band has a really fresh, accessible sound,” Haft says. “I’ve sent the record to some of the most cynical, jaded people in the industry, and even they like what they hear. The Honeydogs are great guys and they’ve worked their asses off to get where they are. We just want to do whatever we can to get them heard and we know the music will stand on its own.”
Grain of salt or not, there’s little doubt that the label is behind them. As for their expectations for the record, Haft agrees that “there’s just no way of knowing what’s going to happen until the record comes out; it’s a pretty inexact science. I will say though, that we’re taking a long-term approach with both the band and the record. We’re in it for the long haul and we have no interest in trying to create ‘the next big thing’.”