One-Man Band Series, #11: Honkeyfinger
photo by: Andy Hall (originally appeared in Blues in London)
When it comes to today’s one-man bands you won’t find anyone else out there quite like London’s Honkeyfinger, who has made it his business to further bend and twist the already curved-line formula of underground music…certainly more than most have dared to in recent years. With his signature sound of filthy as hell blues and hard as nails primitive rock’n’roll played on fuzz-driven lap steel, a partial drum kit, frantic harmonica, and slightly distorted vocals, this Doctor Frankenstein one-man band has given life to a musical patchwork monster of sorts. It’s an altogether experimental sound, Honkeyfinger’s music, gritty and frenzied, dirty and electric, primal and pounding and unhinged, as if he has bottleneck slide implements and picks for fingers, kick drums for feet, and a megaphone for a mouth. That is to say, he is his music. They are one and the same. All of his appendages work arduously, simultaneously, to make it what it is.
Honkeyfinger, otherwise known as Johnny Halifax, hasn’t any gimmicks in place to sell his music to the masses like so many other bands and singer/songwriters do. Instead, it all rests on his skill and creativity, his innovative sound of heavy slide and twang grooves, raw howling riffs, lunatic harmonica bits, and throat-searing vocal delivery, all tied into his standard-shattering compositional efforts. He doesn’t use props. He doesn’t wear any masks. Nor does he sport any type of getup aside from what he has on for his usual day-to-day comings and goings. With t-shirt and jeans, with dark shoulder-length hair falling from the sides of his battered trucker cap, and with an impossibly long beard that flows down to his chest in all of its full pubic glory…the sort of beard that is typically associated with poets, philosophers, hillbilly madmen, biker gangs, lumberjacks, wizards, and ZZ Top…he has opted to carry forth his music as himself rather than an oddball character designed to catch people’s attention. And if his music doesn’t catch your attention, I dare say that not much of anything in this world will.
As thick as the muddy sludge at the bottom of the Mississippi River, as fierce as an alley-dwelling mongrel guarding a scrap of meat, as distorted as a feedback-spitting bullhorn with a blown speaker, as percussive as a circle of tribesmen beating homemade tom-toms at a jungle ceremony, as bluesy as the Depression era Delta greats, as rockin’ as Sabbath, as full of layered grooves as a Beastie Boys album, and as powerful as a Hemi growling under a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner’s hood, Honkeyfinger has invented a signature sound that obscure music enthusiasts, record nerds and the underground music set will undoubtedly be listening to and talking about for years to come.
“Invocation of the Demon Other,” Honkeyfinger’s first full-length release, hit the streets sometime in 2008. It was one of the first releases on Hoarse Records, a rather small London-based label rumored to have been birthed exclusively to put out recordings by one-man bands. Before releasing the “Invocation of the Demon Other” album, Hoarse Records put out a few Honkeyfinger singles on 7″ vinyl, in addition to releases by other artists such as D-66 and Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave. “Invocation of the Demon Other,” however, consists of fifteen of Honkeyfinger’s best songs up to that point. My personal favorites on the album are “Honk n’ Skronkin,” “Got This Rage,” “Margarine Man, pt 1,” “True Believers,” “Burning Skull Blues,” and “Running on Empty.” Each of the songs deserves its own level of appreciation, though, as each song exists on a scale of artistic evolution — one man’s journey from the embryonic stages of his endeavor to its infancy, all the way to its maturity.
Having played numerous shows since striking out on his own, Honkeyfinger has performed at the very important and amazing Deep Blues Festival in the United States, The Blues Rules Fest in Switzerland, the Offset Festival in a forested area outside of London, and the Bari Jazz Festival in Italy, just to name a few. Not only that, but he has shared the stage with loads of notable artists in today’s obscure and underground music sets. And he will no doubt continue to follow that path for as long as he can.
Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Honkeyfinger. Included here for you are the contents of that interview in their entirety.
Over the years it has become customary in my interviews to begin in an introductory fashion, so as to give my readers a better understanding of the artist whose life and music I am covering. Having conveyed that, I would like to ask: Who is Honkeyfinger, not just as a musician and singer/songwriter but an individual, as a human being of this crazy world in which we live?
Raging spirit caged within this mortal skin. Busting at the seams of skin and bone. A 21st Century primitive making desperate sounds for desperate times, my friends.
Your sound is unlike that of any other band or singer/songwriter I’ve ever heard, including one-man bands. What inspired you to pick up the lap steel and make a distorted bottleneck blues-punk sound on it, while simultaneously pounding a kick drum and working the hi-hat…oh, and playing those wild harmonica bits?
You find your weapon of choice usually by chance – you know it’s the one when you can conjure the rawest, most fluid, spine-shaking sounds through the thing like it’s an anchor to the depths of your soul. I’d honked harp since I was a boy desperate to do what Brian Jones was doing on “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” — but it wasn’t until I found a beat-up 1940s Selmer lap steel resembling a piece of driftwood, hotwired it through my fuzz-driven bass amp stack, that I got Thee Sound. With a bit of stamping and clanking, it all made sense.
What made you want to go the one-man band route?
The frustration of being in a band mainly. I made a demo of this embryonic sound, with every intention of taking it to the rest of my band at the time, but realized there was actually nothing for them to play on it, as I’d sonically given it the lot and made the thickest, fuzziest, swampiest racket I’d ever hoped to make! Soon after that I called it Honkeyfinger after a film on camping and decided to do something with it.
Which artists in the history of music influenced you the most in developing your style?
Errrr. Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces, Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Captain Beefheart, MC5, Stooges, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Muddy, Jon Spencer, Royal Trux, Beastie Boys, Soldedad Brothers, PW Long, Mark Lanegan, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Motorhead, Orange Goblin, Nebula, Zen Guerilla…could go on forever.
A few months ago I saw Adam Clitheroe’s one-man band documentary “One Man in the Band.” To be perfectly frank, you were the artist that stuck out the most for me. Of course, Dennis Hopper Choppers and The Two Tears were great as well. What was it like working with Adam? And how do you feel about the finished version of the film?
I met Adam at my second ever show opening for Bob Log III. So I was just beginning the one-man band thing. It was not something I’d really road tested. I hadn’t started out thinking it would really survive long. What you see in that film is the infancy of Honkeyfinger. I’m pleased Adam caught me in a mood of optimism and enthusiasm. I think the film really touches on the darker side of one-man bands — the obsessiveness, the difficulty of relating to others creatively and personally. At that time I was just buzzing on having found a new and better way to rock harder. We’ve been to some fun film festivals off the back of it together. Adam’s become a good friend — we see each other fairly regularly. He’s seen most of my musical development as a one-man band and is always good for an honest opinion. He filmed the first Honkeyfinger three-piece band show for his DVD extras of the film, which should be out later in the year.
Keeping with the last question, how do you feel about the so-called one-man bands that employ synth, Casio keyboards, theremin, and various other electro music-making devices to create their spaced-out and noise infused sounds, as opposed to the guitar-wielding, drum kit pounding, singing lads and lasses of the scene? In other words, the mechanical side of it versus the more organic side?
Good luck to ’em all. I love diversity and ingenuity and folks stretching the boundaries of what’s possible. What you like and don’t like comes down to taste, but for me the mis-use and abuse of technology is an important creative element. But I don’t think using backing tracks or pre-programmed stuff fits into the one-man band or DIY ethic. For me it’s about stretching yourself beyond what you can physically manage…kind of the thrill of riding a runaway train. From the mistakes, the chaos, comes true pure live creativity. I think audiences tend to really identify with you at gigs if it feels like it’s all gonna fall apart at any given moment. I think we naturally root for the underdog. Having said that, I do like using loopers, have done more or less from the beginning of Honkeyfinger, though I’m pretty imprecise with them and never use anything pre-recorded, so it’s different every show. I’ve got crappy timing and it helps spice up the racket. I’m a total pedal perv, too. I’m getting really into freaking out the sounds of traditional string, wind and percussion instruments with digital effects. Doing that, you get weird sonic artifacts which add another layer of magic to the sound. I’m a sucker for a bit of lo-fi sonic alchemy. But if it becomes too slick through the technology it just gets boring. All lines in the sand.
What other musical projects, if any, have you been involved in?
Oh, plenty of bands. Main one of note was SchwaB, where I tried playing bass like John Entwistle for about four years until they got fed up with me. Fat Midget was a great live project which was really the prototype for Honkeyfinger, with lap steel and effects and industrial drum loops — “Idiot Industrial Country &Western” we called it — largely inspired by Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” and the more Country & WesternButtholes stuff. Serious fun. Serious racket. Recently I’ve been doing some more instrumental stuff. Kind of “Paris Texas” era Ry Cooder on heavy downers sound. I’ll probably expand this in the future, but haven’t given it a name yet.
Being that I am from the States, I haven’t had the pleasure of actually experiencing the European scene in person, though I do know that the one-man band community is rather large and doing well over there…or so it seems. What has been your experience with the scene in London and the surrounding areas, not just in the one-man band community but the music scene in general?
London’s a decent place to see bands, and probably the best place to see American bands outside of America. So that’s your research and development taken care of. But with playing out you run into the big city thing of fashion, cliques and scenes, which usually leads to an artistic bland-out. So it’s healthy to get out to the country when possible, as the audiences are more receptive and less jaded, or even vaguely bothered whether you’re part of the next big thing. I think Mainland Europe has a lot healthier music scene than the UK. Musicians are generally treated more as artists than commodities, so it follows they tend to be a lot more esoteric I think. Being in a one-man band means you can get out to a lot more places than a full band without having to be hugely successful.
How long have you been growing that kick-ass beard of yours?
It wouldn’t be Honkeyfinger without the beard. I think it came along when I stopped thinking of myself as a young man any longer, started letting go of conventional notions of what success is and started making plans to run for the hills. So I’ll let you figure out how long ago that was.
What’s next for Honkeyfinger?
I’m starting to record and write a new record. It works that way round for me, and consequently can take a good while. I like doing it all myself — control-freakery, yes, most certainly. This time round I think it’ll be a pretty collage-like studio process. I stayed pretty close to the one-man band live sound with the first album — I don’t see much point in doing that again — so this time I’ll be going nuts with the effects and overdubs, probably end up sounding like Pink Floyd or Hawkwind. HA! It might feature other players this time, some of the folks I’ve had join me on and off over the past year. I’d like to make a soundtrack album, too. So anyone out there making a Psychedelicdesertroadtriphorrormovie, I’m your man. I hope too that the prolonged one-man band performing will eventually begin to show some physical as well as mental mutations to my homosapien form. What’s the point if not to evolve?