Last week I sat down with Honeybucket, a Cleveland band that I have been impressed by for a couple of years. At first, it was because they reminded me of my previous home in Scranton and my previous favorite hometown bluegrass band--The Coal Town Rounders. Eventually, I got around to seeing them play live and was impressed all over again. These gentlemen play a great show, they write excellent songs, they arrange excellent covers. Their sound is unique and essentially very Cleveland.
They have a new album (and a video) coming out in a few short weeks on August 8th and will be doing a big, fun show at Music Box Supper Club to send it off into the world. They wanted to talk about it and I wanted to hear about it. I relaxed with a drink on the side porch of Brendan O’Malley’s beautiful Cleveland home. We were surrounded by rabbits and cats, lilies and grapevines. The neighbourhood was quiet and idyllic. Honeybucket is comprised of Brendan O’Malley–mandolin player, Adam Reifsnyder on guitar, and Abie Stefanchik brings the upright bass. We talked for a long time. Way too long. These gentlemen are a lot of fun and I could have listened to them banter and reminisce all night. I had to cut this interview down a lot to get it to a “reasonable” size (I know. It’s still pretty long.) I am also publishing the full length interview here if you would like to see the un-cut transcript. It includes more information about the history of the band, lots of banter-y jokes, and a handful of fun, Cleveland-related questions. I consider it a must-read, or at least skim it.
Me: Tell me a bit about your musical roots. What was the first instrument you learned to play?
Abie: I started on piano. When my brother and I were really little we had a piano in the house and no one in my family played the piano. My dad would tell a story, just make up a story and my brother and I would sit at the piano and he would be talking like, “AND THEN THE GIANT STARTED STOMPING THROUGH THE VILLAGE.” and we would start hammering down on the low keys. That’s the giant stomping. And then he would say, “AND THEN THE HERO CAME RUNNING OUT OF HIS HUT!” and we would try to play the hero–say, in the mid range. And it was just noise, it was just nonsense but it was my first instrument. My first experience playing music.
Me: I think that’s really neat because from the very beginning it was connected with feeling and emotions.
Abie: Yeah, and a story too. Telling a story is always fun with music. And then that was the instrument that I first took lessons on. But now I play the upright bass that’s what I eventually transitioned to in the sixth grade. That’s what I picked. In the fifth grade, the highschoolers came around and they all demonstrated all of the instruments and the trombone player played the theme from Star Wars which–I was this close to being a trombone player because of that. I was like that’s the best and I want to do that because it sounded just like Star Wars. But the bass player who demonstrated–his name was Mac and he was the coolest person I had ever seen in my life–and I still kind of feel that. Mac was just awesome. I got to actually meet him later, he was a counsellor at camp that I went to and he was still just as cool!
Brendan: Mac is a cool name. Only cool dudes are named Mac.
Abie: But that’s why I play the bass. I was in awe. I was like–I want to be just like him so I need to play the bass.
Me: What about you, Adam? How did you start off?
Adam: My parents both had a plan they wanted me and my brother to try an instrument for two years at some point before middle school or something like that. See how we liked it. Actually, some people came and played a bunch of stringed instruments for my fourth grade class in middle school and I–for some reason–I really latched onto the violin. I took that up. But I think that I never really latched onto the classical style of music. It didn’t really speak to me. Eventually I ended up taking guitar like midway through high school but violin I stuck with through the end and I can still play. So that was my first experience with it.
Me: And you still play violin now?
Adam: I can. I don’t play it in the band. It’s been a while. I’m a little rusty but I know what I’m doing a little bit. I actually wish I–I kinda want to get back into it so I can fiddle. I never really tried fiddling. It was always Suzuki method and doing more of the classical stuff. I think I really would enjoy fiddling.
Brendan: So, when I was like in the seventh grade I was like, ”How can I get girls to like me?” (Everyone laughs) Aaaaaand the guitar was the path of least resistance. I didn’t have to fight anybody or do anything like super macho. I didn’t have to be a quarterback to play guitar. That’s it.
Abie: Don’t sell yourself short, though–because your folks…
Brendan: Yeah, my folks both play. My parents met in an Irish folk band back in the eighties called the Bog Trotters. My parents didn’t really push me into music at all but I definitely had to take piano lessons. I didn’t want to do that anymore so I didn’t play anything for a while then I…I mean there are instruments lying all over my house.
Abie: There’s like every instrument. At least string and percussion in there.
Brendan: They really didn’t have to…like–I didn’t have a choice. I had to learn something.
Abie: It was kind of similar with me. I mean, neither of my parents were trained musicians but both of my folks sang all of the time. They sang a lot. I think it’s the same for you. When you’re just around it, especially from a really early age, it becomes kind of a part of you. There’s people who, even if they’re not musicians, they talk about growing up and their folks sang or they played music. I feel like they have a deeper appreciation for it. It’s just there and it makes it a lot easier.
Me: How did you all meet each other?
Abie: Brendan was actually really good friends with my younger brother for a while. He actually taught my brother how to play drums which is pretty cool. And then we(…)played a little bit of music together in school but it wasn’t until after we graduated from high school and ended up back in Cleveland (…)and we ended up playing seriously in a band together. This was maybe eight years ago? nine years ago? That’s kind of my history with Brendan.
Brendan: The story with Adam is I was bartending at a place that’s no longer there but I was bartending and he came in with his fiance and friends and we just kind of struck up a conversation right there at the bar and just started talking about music and it was just completely random. We met up and started writing music together. Then we were a duo for a while(…) and then we brought in Abie.
Adam: Yeah, Brendan and I would do sort of two acoustic guitars and singing and just play every three or four months at coffee shops. It was good and we recorded a few things in my apartment but he actually found a mandolin what under your…
Brendan: Oh, yeah! I’d played guitar for many years and my dad had a mandolin under his bed…
Adam: We’d already been talking about bringing in another singer. It was really important to us, because we both sing and we love to make harmony as a big part of the music. It was really important that if we brought someone else in that they needed to be able to sing and harmonize.
Abie: Yeah, I was still at school. I was in another outside of school band and I was playing in a professional jazz group and I was playing in a metal band actually which was out of character for me…
Brendan: No it was not! (…) Listen–Abie brings the thunder. It doesn’t matter if it’s jazz or bluegrass or metal.
Adam: I mean you beat on your bass at every show that’s a little bit of metal. The most metal we get, I guess. But yeah–we brought him in and then we had a rehearsal Halloween night of 2011 and we were like–this really works.
Abie: And Brendan, you’d been playing mandolin for what like a week, two weeks?
Brendan: Yeah. I was still playing some electric guitar and we were not sure what form…we were still in like gas form. We weren’t yet solid matter. We didn’t know what we were but then it just congealed and I started playing mandolin more and we started writing more. We all started listening to more roots music and bluegrass music. We were like,”This is a cool current that we can hop onto and have our own spin on it.”
Me: Ok. Let’s talk about the album. Does it have a name? Can I know the name?
Adam: Yeah! It’s called Stompin’ Grounds. With an N’.
Brendan: One of the features of this album is our Kid Cudi cover which we shot a music video for.
Me: And you’re releasing that at the same time as the album?
Brendan: Yeah, on August 8th at the Music Box we’re going to project the video for people to see.
Adam: It’s not going to be online before that. We’ll probably put it up soon after. We have a teaser trailer up now. It’s like thirty seconds long and it looks awesome!
Me: And this is your first album together?
Brendan: No, this is our second. We did it with the same studio as the first one–Danger House is on Washington right over in Cleveland Heights. It’s headed by Dave Douglass who was the drummer in a band called Relient K…He’s a great engineer and we had a rapport built up with him from the last album which is on itunes and spotify and all that stuff. So we went back to do another… We each have songs that we’ve written on the album. And the same method of recording.
Abie: I would say that this new one is a lot less stripped down. This new one…we’ve had these sort of demo recordings, we played a few shows, we had some really great songs. We just all felt that it was time to make something really clean, really professionally done. I think (in the beginning) we were all really enamored with this idea of this bluegrass style recording. We were still getting into this thing. We definitely had our sound and we were solid. Our songwriting was already there.
So for the first [album], we were all in one room and we did instrumental tracks all together. We all had a mic. Each instrument was mic-ed and they each had a line-in and there was a lot of bleed. The idea was to get a more organic sound. We actually recorded vocals the same way. The three of us would just stand in a room and we all had our microphones just trying to capture this live thing and it was because we’d had a lot of success with the energy from our live shows.
Adam: And we would have done all the instruments and all vocals in one take if we could but there was going to be too much bleed from the instruments. The only reason we separated into three and three was out of necessity really. Acoustic instruments and six mics would just be crazy.
Abie: But yeah, so we–uh–It was probably halfway through the recording process, maybe a little further along…We all kind of came to this realization that there were things that we wanted to do on our recording with these songs that we couldn’t do because of the way we were recording it. Because of the lack of isolation. …There’s only so much you can do when there’s bleed. It was us really realizing that we are not bluegrass. We have a bluegrass sound but we are this pop band and we needed to record more like a pop album and basically have a more produced sound. ….We love this first album we did. These six songs are awesome and they’re a lot of fun to still listen to but there’s also this feeling of ‘we could have done it better’. And so, when we went into this second album we had this knowledge. And again with Dave included–he had this experience with us to and we all had a much better idea of what we wanted to sound like and we did a lot more isolation, a lot more seperation of things.
Brendan: This album has train whistles on it. Which we are pretty excited about.
Abie: There’s one track that has–I think seventeen separate vocal tracks at one point. Layered. It sounds amazing.
Adam: Yeah. It’s something that we always had in mind when we wrote the song. It’s a song called “Back Porch” which we’ve actually been playing live for well over a year now. But we always had this bridge where there’s different vocal lines going over each other and it builds, and it adds more stuff, and brings back earlier melodies and stuff. And we’ve always had this in mind that we wanted to do this, and build it, and have a lot of tracks but we can’t do it live. We can do a version of it and it sounds great and it works really well but I think that on this recording it’s the way that we envisioned it when it was first written. It’s kind of cool for us to hear it realized.
Abie: This album has a mix of stuff that we’ve been playing for a long time and also some stuff that we haven’t been playing for very long at all.
Adam: One song we’ve never done live… The August 8th show will be our first time.
Brendan: And everything in between too. I mean we have a couple of these songs we’ve been doing…I mean, Abie’s track, “Whistles and Wheels” is like two years old. But it needed to be recorded. We had to have it.
Abie: I think I wrote that song pretty shortly after we recorded the first album. Almost immediately all of us were like–shit, if you’d done that two months earlier…
Adam: …There are a couple of songs that have pieces that have been with us since almost the time we started which is pretty cool. But they feel very much like us now. They’re very current.
Brendan: Do you want to talk about the music video for a little bit?
Me: Yeah! Sure!
Brendan: Well, I work at Spice (an excellent local farm to table restaurant with their own farm). And so–Spice Acres where they grow some of the food…–I asked them if we could come down there and we had this concept of… The song is “The Pursuit of Happiness” and Kid Cudi is kind of talking about being in pursuit of a party or–(to Abie and Adam) How would you describe the song? Without our take on it?
Adam: His take definitely surrounds the party more but there’s two videos for it. One of them is a party and the other one is him continuously waking up from a dream and like going through pieces of his day. He’s kind of partied to much and he’s waking up again.
Brendan: And he gets drunk and is like, “well, this party atmosphere is sort of me but it’s not really what I want. It’s got kind of this dark element to it. But when we did this cover, when we first arranged it, it worked so well as a bluegrass song. It still does.
Adam: It’s a Honeybucket song too. It felt very us.
Brendan: And it brightens up the mood of the song. All of a sudden our version of “Pursuit of Happiness”, while it has all of the same lyrics. We didn’t change any of the lyrics.
Adam: We just moved them around.
Brendan: It sort of takes on this–for me, when we put out the idea of a video I sort of immediately saw like a vocational aspect to the video. Like a workin’ man sort of thang happening. It’s like working hard and then we’re going to go play hard. Which I think is like sort of what Cleveland is sort of built on.
Brendan: Yeah, it’d blue collar but we’re still getting trashed. We’re a beer town. So that was what I wanted to do. The concept kind of got distilled down and we’re like alright, let’s shoot a video, shoot on the farm as farmers and then we’ll show us running around in Ohio City with our friends and at Market Garden and that’s–that was the concept behind it.
Adam: I think too we–the idea of capturing a little bit of this essence of the original video and trying to give like a little goose of hiphop into the video. We did a lot of slow motion.
Abie:A LOT of slow motion.
Adam: It just adds. It makes it funny.
Abie: We did an open call on facebook for our second filming session. The first one was at the Spice Acres farm. It was just the three of us.
Adam: And chickens and pigs.
Abie: And chickens and pigs. And they feature prominently as well.
Brendan: Yeah, they’re the stars.
Abie: That actually was a really fun day of filming. There’s a great shot of Brendan just holding the chicken near his face. (Brendan laughs) Like– “Here it is! What do I do with this now?” So our second day of filming was at two locations. It was at Market Garden Brewery and Sam McNaulty was just really great and let us use his space to shoot this video. So there and at the Cleveland Hostel they have an amazing rooftop patio which is probably the best view of downtown in the whole city. At night it’s just amazing. You see that and you see the Westside Market tower. So we got to use a lot of Cleveland establishments and some really iconic looking footage. And like I said, we had this open call so it was family, friends, and fans who came out and they were the stars.
Me: Last question–Your epic movie just ended and you’re riding off into the sunset–what song is playing?
Adam: We’re in the movie?
Me: Yeah. You’re the one on the horse or the brontosaurus or whatever you’re riding.
Brendan: Uhhh, “White Unicorn” by Wolf Mother. Because I’ll be riding a white unicorn.
Adam: When you said “brontosaurus” it immediately triggered memories of “Peewee’s Big Adventure” in the bar where he’s testing tequila with all the bikers around him so I’m gonna go with “Tequila”. I don’t know who does that.
Brendan: That’s your closing?
Abie:That’s your closing?
Brendan: Wow. That’s really ending on a high note.
Me: What are you riding.
Adam: I’m riding a brontosaurus. You planted the seed and I grew it.
Abie: This is a hard question. It’s–
Brendan: First of all, what are you riding?
Abie: I don’t know that I’m riding anything. I think I might be walking.
Brendan: Well, do you want a mythical creature? What do you want to ride, dude. You could ride a mythical creature.
Abie: What? Like a stegosaurus bike?
Adam: Stegosaurus bike? What’s a stegosaurus bike?
Abie: It’s like kind of alive but it’s got pedals.
Brendan: It’s a stegosaurus amputee who has wheels instead of–
Abie: It’s like an android! Like a cyborg stegosaurus!
Adam: This thing keeps getting crazier and crazier…
Abie: It’s only got motors for its face and tail. Its legs are wheels.
Brendan: Cool. Yeah. That makes perfect sense.
Abie: I’m more interested in this creature I made up than the song!
Adam: What’s the music?
Abie: It’s gotta be like…”Frankenstein” by–what is it–Johnny Winter? Is that who it is? Dundundun dun dun dundun daaaah dundundun dundun rrrrrr. That’s it. That’s the one. Riding my mechanical, half alive, half robotic stegosaurus to “Frankenstein”. I don’t even think I won. I probably lost actually in this movie. It’s not that triumphant.
Check out Honeybucket. Love them. Buy their music. Read (or skim) the full interview here. If you’re local come out to Music Box on August 8th to hear the new songs, see the video for the first time, and enjoy a fantastic evening.