The California Honeydrops make jammy soul flavored with street corner R&B and of-the-moment enthusiasm. Formed in Oakland, California, and cruising into its fifteenth year, the outfit has evolved from a tub bass jug band thrilling subway departees to festival darlings to stalwart purveyors of a potent style of good times and hip vibes.
The group’s latest offering Soft Spot follows 2018’s Call It Home Vol. 1 & 2, a run of pre-pandemic live recordings (Remember When: Vol. 3 and Honeydrops Live 2019), and a quarantined collection of covers (Covers From The Cave). With songs born in the uncertainty and emotion of an extraordinary era, the Honeydrops– vocalist/guitarist/trumpeter Lech Wierzynski, drummer Ben Malament, bassist Beau Bradbury, keyboardist Lorenzo Loera, and reed multi-instrumentalist Johnny Bones– craft a sweetly compelling array of classic cut soul music that’s evocative yet of its hour and begging for shook tail feathers.
Calling from his home on the bright side of the Bay during a welcome but fleeting tour break, California Honeydrops founding frontman Lech Wiernynski shares details behind the sound and songs of Soft Spot.
AI- I know you were born in Poland and you spent a few years there at various stages, but you grew up in Chicago?
LW- Yeah, I grew up in Chicago, and then later in the DC suburbs.
What got you into vintage music? Chicago’s a great town for whatever style starts your engine– blues, soul, rock n’ roll, alternative, folk– and it always has been. But where did the love come from?
I think my dad. I had an older dad and him being also from Poland, everything there is like thirty years behind, you know? Especially it was during the old days in the communist era. He was into really old music. He was into music from the ’30s– Louie Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, all the New Orleans jazz. And then he was into some of the crooner singers like Nat King Cole and Dean Martin. My mom was a lot younger than my dad and she was more into ’60s music, so that’s how we got into all the oldies. Over time, I filled in the gaps with different things that I discovered along the way.
You studied ethnomusicology, right? I’m assuming, not knowing a whole lot about the subject myself, that would have allowed you to really dig into the machinations of early music, particularly how it was based as far as like region and ethnicity.
That was kind of a part of my projects. I did most of my studying on all of the old American music. I did projects on the music of the Mississippi Delta, I did a project on the music of New Orleans… If you’re attracted to the old music, it just starts poppin’ up everywhere! I remember my friends were big Dead Heads when I was in high school, and they had Jerry Garcia playing old songs with David Grisman. You’d hear one of the songs, I’d be like, “What song is that?” And I’d look it up on the internet! “Oh! That’s by Mississippi John Hurt!” And then you look him up and you get his CD and then you’re like, “Oh, look, there’s a whole other world of music!”
When you like those old songs and you’re attracted to that, it pops up everywhere. Everywhere you look people are taking from the old music– and if you’re curious, you just start lookin’ shit up (laughs)! “Oooh, I gotta find that! I gotta find a CD by that guy who wrote this song!” It just goes and goes like that. Me and my friends– especially at that time when I was in school– were pokin’ around like old music detectives (laughs) tryin’ to find new things that we’d never heard!
That eventually led you to where you are now in Oakland. You and Ben Malament started buskin’ on the street? I’ve never been to Oakland and busked, but I have been to San Francisco and tried to play out on the street and they’ll run you off if you don’t have your cabaret card (laughs)!
Yeah, in certain places they will!
Tell me how bringing that kind of music onto a street corner in the 21st Century led to becoming the California Honeydrops and bringing the music forward.
It was just fun! We played a bunch of old Mississippi Sheiks tunes on the street (laughs)! That’s pretty fun! We’d do a mix of things, but I remember that in particular– that was a project that me and one of the members of the group had. And people respond to it! Good music is good music, that’s what I’ve always thought. People like good music, so it doesn’t matter what you play.
The street thing is fun because you’re surprising people, and it’s a great way to get your practice time in front of people and find out what works, what doesn’t work, how to capture the attention of a random crowd. That just became a part of what we did on stage– try to surprise people, try to make ’em dance, try to make ’em happy. Playing on the street can be very rewarding ’cause there’s no expectations– you’re takin’ people by surprise! You can see their faces light up if they’ve had a long day at work, and it’s kinda what we still do. We try to surprise people.
We don’t make a setlist, we try to keep the show as spontaneous as possible to this day. No matter how big the stage is, there’s no setlist. Ever. We play to the room, see who’s out there. Just like back in the day, we’d be lookin’ at who’s comin’ outta the train, right? What should we hit ’em with?
I’m glad you brought up the “no setlist”, a concept I’ve always admired. I asked Dan Baird about that one time and he said the first reason that he wanted to do it was because he wanted a band that was good enough to play on the fly and do whatever came to mind or whatever anybody called out. And then the second thing he said was that he liked keeping the rest of the band slightly off-kilter so that it was never quite the same thing.
Hey, that’s pretty much it right there! You keep yourself on your toes, you keep the band on their toes– everybody plays better! And nobody’s bored! Nobody can go through the motions, you know? It’s definitely a thing for me that if we start gettin’ kinda comfortable– even though we don’t make setlists, you can slide into a routine. You can be like, “Ahhh, this one works good here, let’s play this one here,” and then you start playin’ a similar setlist because you know what works. So if I start feelin’ us gettin’ a little comfortable, I’ll start throwin’ out songs we haven’t played in years just to get everybody to wake up a bit. If I feel like I’m goin’ through the motions, I’ll do that to myself. I’ll be like, “Let’s try somethin’ crazy right now that we’re gonna screw up in front of all these people!” But thing is, people like it! They don’t want you to go through the motions! They want you to be excited, they want you to be makin’ mistakes, everybody wants to be in on it in that moment, and that’s one of the ways you can do it.
The new album, Soft Spot… You’ve hardly been idle as a band even with the pandemic. But this marks the first new music, first full-length project since the Call It Home double album. Expectations? What are they for the album?
I love all the songs on the record. They’re all really fun– and I don’t have expectations. Honestly, expectation always ruins the fun! I try to keep the expectations low. I hope people dig it. If they don’t? Hey, we keep goin’! But people have already been diggin’ the new songs. The only thing that I’m expecting is that we do this tour that’s comin’ up right now (laughs)!
When and where did you record the album? Did you record this one at home again?
No, this one was recorded in Oakland at a studio called Survivor Sound. We recorded a week in December and then a week in January.
The sound itself is deceptively large– everything is so clean and so together. There’s so much goin’ on yet at the same time, it all feels very open and connected. It doesn’t feel stuffed through.
That’s good. This album, in terms of that, I actually tried to have less goin’ on a lot of those songs. We’ve always layered the songs extensively back in the day, so I tried to make the situation a little simpler. It’s big ol’ room in there and that’s why we recorded in the place.
I tried to make the songs feel spacious on purpose, so I’m glad that came through ’cause it was supposed to have a bigger feeling of space. I think havin’ that big room that we played in and havin’ big, simple parts– everybody’s got these simple parts that go together– and we tried to create a slightly simpler but bigger sound.
I like simple. Simplicity to me is the key to happiness and the album’s opener, “Honey and butter on toasted bread,” to me that’s happiness. And then when that is gone, that’s when heartbreak begins. Great song. Tell me about writing for this record– were these songs written while you were recording or did you have a batch left over from before? Or did some of this come out of the pandemic?
Almost all of these songs came out of the pandemic. That one in particular, “Honey and Butter”, that was a song I wrote for my grandma’s hundredth birthday. I was bummin’ pretty hard because I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to make it to Poland to see her for her birthday. It’s like a bittersweet song, I would say because I wasn’t able to go back. Luckily, she’s about to turn a hundred and two (laughs)! She just keeps on tickin’! But it was one of those sad moments during the pandemic. I was like, “Man, I can’t see my family, we got this big occasion…” I grew up with my grandma in the house, so she’s kinda like my mom. It was a big deal. A bunch of those songs were total pandemic songs– “Lil Bit Of Love”, “The Unicorn”…
“The Unicorn”, let’s talk about that. Legitimately yesterday morning, my boss and I were talkin’ about instrumentals and we had the conversation that you don’t hear instrumentals on the radio when once upon a time they were a staple of almost every genre that got played on the radio. I wanna bring that back. How do you feel instrumentals fit into the California Honeydrops repertoire?
We actually play a lot o’ instrumentals. We haven’t recorded very many of ’em– but we play ’em all the time. They’re just fun! And people love instrumentals! It just gives you a break from the words. Words are cool but they’re also a distraction sometimes. There’s a certain mental place that you get in without words. “The Unicorn” actually has words, we just didn’t do ’em! We just played it as an instrumental, so there you go (laughs)!
You said “Lil Bit Of Love”— I love the guitar tone on that song. Who’s got the honors on that track?
What is that vintage archtop that you play?
The Silvertone, yeah! That thing is great! I love that guitar!
Is that the one you’re playin’ on that song?
I don’t know? That might be a different one? I have a little Fender Jaguar clone of some kind that my friend made. I like playing these weird funky guitars! But that archtop is on most of the records. It’s just got a big beautiful sound– probably the best-sounding guitar I have– but it won’t stay in tune, so it’s hard to use on stage (laughs)! I have to tune it in the middle of a song!
“Tumblin'”, I got a strong Sam Cooke vibe off of that song, that smooth vocal. I was wonderin’ what you were doin’ to keep your voice strong during the pandemic. I know you were doin’ streaming shows and that you guys stayed as busy as you could be, but did you have a concern?
I actually did and when shows came back, I completely lost my voice. In early 2021, when shows came back in earnest, my voice was goin’ so fast. Luckily, now it’s back and now I can sing again for three hours and then do it again the next day! But it got pretty bad. I was singin’ a lot, but it’s just very different not singin’ in front of people on a mic on a stage with a loud band behind you. That’s just a different level of workout than singing at home and singing into a mic for recording. It’s a different thing. It’s definitely been an adjustment to get back, but I sang a lot and I learned a lotta new things.
I feel like for singing, the pandemic was cool because when you’re trying to learn, it’s hard to learn and incorporate new things immediately onstage, right? If you’re tryin’ to learn a new style or you’re tryin’ to learn some new tricks, you have to master ’em a little bit before you bring ’em to stage. If you’re performing constantly, you don’t really have that opportunity to do that. You fall back on what you got rather than try too much new shit that you don’t know how to do yet. So the pandemic gave me an opportunity to hone some new skills. I feel like a new man after that in terms of singin’!
“Sneakin’ Into Heaven”, one of the hippest tracks on Soft Spot. It’s funky, it’s catchy– maybe one of the catchiest things you’ve ever recorded. It evokes Ike & Tina, James Brown, and I don’t know what the intentions of the song were, but one of my favorite things about older, vintage music is the way that songwriters and artists had to come up with clever ways to talk about makin’ love. Today, people just say it– they just come right out and say it and nobody bats an eye. But once upon a time, you had to be oddly articulate to say something different. I don’t know if that’s what you were goin’ for but that’s what I got!
Absolutely! That’s what that song is about! You’re right though! That’s one of the things I love about music too is that you gotta get creative in different ways of saying the same things. And it’s better not to say it directly! It’s more poetic, it’s more seductive– but it also opens up that you could be talkin’ about a number of different things, right? When you make the lyrics of a song more metaphorical, it can fit into a lotta different situations, not just makin’ love. I think that’s one o’ the things that really captivates me about the old music. Once you make a metaphor, you can plug a lotta different things into it.