By Eric Schlittler
With the Arts on the Square event happening in just a few days, our Interview Swap series continues on the Highway 81 Revisited stage. The subject of today’s interview is Mike Williams, who took some time to talk about Scranton and his new group Heavy Blonde. They will grace the Highway 81 stage at the Arts on the Square event on this Saturday, July 26.
H81R: Can you tell me a little about how Heavy Blonde got together?
MW: I started getting together with my brother Roy (Williams) and Setty (Hopkins) really early on in the process. Pretty much as soon as I had the rough blueprint for the songs the three of us got together and began to shape them. Usually, I’d have the basic chords, most of the lyrics and some vague concepts for horn/string arrangements in mind. I felt like it was important to have a clear direction and structure by the time I brought the songs to the other guys. I wasn’t completely married to my ideas because I really wanted those guys to have free reign in shaping what the final song sounded like. I think it’s important for me not to feel like I have total ownership over a song. I love the idea that every drum part, and bass line was made up by someone other than me and took each song in a direction of its own. We worked most of the songs out by just playing them over and over again as a three-piece band for a few months. The goal was to make a record.
Once we felt like we had enough material put together we spent a weekend at Miner Street Studio in Philadelphia laying down the basic tracks with me on guitar, Roy on bass and Setty on drums. The foundation of each song is the three of us live, which really helped to keep the energy up. After that, we layered overdubs here in Scranton with the help of a bunch of our friends and former band members, whose contributions finalized the shape of the record. J.P. Biondo of Cabinet added some mandolin and vocals, and former And The Moneynotes bandmates Pat Finnerty and Brian Craig played electric guitar and percussion respectively. The addition of Nick Driscoll’s performances took the rough arrangements of the early practices and elevated them with incredible results. All of the songs were produced, recorded and mixed by Nick Krill (Spinto Band, Teen Men, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah). He pushed everyone to get their best possible performance so that in the end we got recordings that were exciting and energetic, without getting too precious. The recording took place over the course of a couple of weeks, keeping the songs sounding fresh to all of us.
As far as the live lineup is concerned, we’re really trying to involve as many of the people who helped us with the recordings as possible. It is kind of a rotating cast of musicians with me, Setty and Roy at the core.
H81R: Are there any big differences between the approach with this group and ones that you have been part of in the past?
MW: The biggest difference for me is not working in a band with two songwriters. From 2007 to 2010 I did a lot of collaborating and writing for And The Moneynotes with Mike Quinn. We really made an effort to sit down and piece songs together from scratch. Not always, but often we’d collaborate on everything from the basic structure of the song to the lyrics. That dynamic kind of allowed me to introduce parts of songs and pieces of melodies to Mike and really iron them out before we brought each song to the rest of the band.
With this band’s dynamic, I have great musicians to put songs together with, but the initial idea needs to be cohesive and relatively complete, and it needs to come from me. I need to make sure the overall structure is in place before I bring each song to the band. Other than that it’s not a whole lot different. I’m still collaborating with a lot of the same people I always have. I just have to be a little more prepared before I meet up with them.
H81R: Do you feel this area has an influence on your music either directly or indirectly?
MW: Absolutely. I don’t think you can live somewhere and not be influenced by it. I don’t intentionally write about anything local in particular, but I feel like it’s unavoidable a lot of the time. Songs always have a connection to a real location and real characters when I write them. It’s always distorted reality, but whenever a scene is playing out in my head as I write a song it’s always taking place in a setting I’m familiar with and is made up of bits and pieces of situations and people that are real to me. It’s like the idea that you can’t draw a completely original monster. No matter how hard you try you just put images of animals you know together and create a composite animal that you call a monster.
H81R: What are some of Heavy Blonde’s biggest musical influences? What are some favorite albums that the band has in common?
MW: I think a lot of what I like about this collaboration is that we all sort of come from a different place musically and meet in the middle. There are a few bands we all love like The Kinks and The Beatles, but I think our extremes in taste really give us our strength as a band. The songs we put together have a lot going on and sort of require us to be a different band depending on which song, or part of a song we’re playing. We need to be a rock band one minute and then shift gears into something more classical, or arranged the next. I don’t know if a band with a really unified background can do that, so I sort of embrace the different attitudes. As long as everyone’s willing to bend to whatever the band needs to be at any given moment and play to everyone else’s strengths I think variety is a great thing.
H81R: How do you think events like this benefit the local community and music scene?
MW: I think we all get something out of it. It’s good to have a showcase for your music. A lot of music seems to wind up in a niche. I think a lot of people who may like your music never hear you because they don’t go to the kind of bar you play in, or know the kind of person who generally listens to your band. Stuff like this gets your music out in front of everyone. It works for the listener too. If they like what they hear then they benefit too. I think it’s a great thing for everyone.
H81R: What does the future hold for Heavy Blonde?
MW: Well, we just wrapped up an album. It’ll be mastered in July and we’ll be releasing it in the next few months. We also just made a video for one of the songs from the new album and are planning some more, so you can expect all that stuff pretty soon. Aside from that, we’ve got a bunch of shows in the works through the end of summer and fall. We’re still ironing out dates, but we’ll be announcing all of it in the next couple of months.