Though you wouldn’t exactly call their music bluegrass, the guys in the local “newgrass” outfit Honeybucket managed to get a gig playing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival earlier this summer. Now, how the hell did that happen?
“They had this selection process where they don’t screen the bands and we just got in — it was kind of funny,” says singer-guitarist Adam Reifsnyder one afternoon as he and mandolin player and singer Brendan O'Malley sit in the Scene offices. “We got into it, so we said, ‘Screw it, let’s make a vacation out of it.’”
As it turned out, the competition itself came across as a much more traditional affair, and Honeybucket’s mix of pop and bluegrass didn’t result in any awards for our hometown heroes.
“The other bands fit a traditional model, but we think that’s why we didn’t progress,” says Reifsnyder. “We were a little out of the box. We got a great crowd reaction and played the rest of the weekend on the streets of Telluride. The audience was looking for a variety of music, but the bands that are on the fest included acts like Lake Street Dive, which isn’t even bluegrass.”
They also played in O’Malley’s aunt’s backyard and wound up with an evening gig at a restaurant after playing an impromptu show in front of the place.
Whether or not you’re a hardcore bluegrass fan, Honeybucket’s music is incredibly accessible. Since coming together on Halloween night four years ago, the band has quickly become a presence on the local scene. It celebrates the release of its new EP, Stompin’ Grounds, and an accompanying music video for the single with a show at Music Box on Aug. 8.
According to Reifsnyder, it was simply a “coincidence” that the group initially formed. He and O’Malley had been doing coffeehouse gigs and they wanted to write music that had a “bluegrass-y feel.” They also wanted to add another singer to the mix, so they recruited bassist Abie Klein-Stefanchik.
“It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever been in,” says O’Malley.
“We knew we had something good,” says Reifsnyder when asked about that first rehearsal. “We played our first shows a couple of week’s later at Brendan’s uncle’s house along with Dolfish, who’s on the bill with us for the upcoming CD release. After that show, which was mid-November, we had such a good reaction from people there, it felt so good to us. I remember grabbing a beer after we were done playing and going, ‘This is really good. This is something we should hang onto.’”
Prior to forming Honeybucket, members played in bands that have played different styles of music. That's why they prefer to think of their music as "newgrass" rather than traditional bluegrass. All three of the band members have more of a pop rock background and write “poppy bluegrass traditional rock songs.”
The band launched a $3000 (and raised $4000) Kickstarter campaign in 2013 and raised the money to record its debut, which it recorded locally at Dangerhouse. Songs such as the uptempo, vigorous "Ohio" feature terrific pop vocal harmonies.
“That was great,” says Reifsnyder of the recording experience for the band’s debut. “We took some songs that had been with us since that first Halloween night, including ‘Ohio,’ which become our first official single. It helped us solidify some of the songs we had been playing and figure out what our sound was. It was a great learning process. We came out with a good product and still get a good reaction from it.”
Right around that time, the band worked up a cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness.” The band half-drunkenly played the song for the first time at a party for its 2013 video release. It's become a fan favorite.
“I heard it at my old job on a Pandora station,” Reifsnyder says. “It has that slow half-time beat. I wanted to speed it up. I heard it five or six times and had that same thought every time. I figured out an arrangement and took it to the guys and we fleshed out the vocals. It felt like a Honeybucket song. It didn’t feel like Kid Cudi. But when people know it’s a Kid Cudi song and we play it, you can see everyone’s face light up. It’s his same lyrics and melody.”
“It translates so well to a bluegrass song,” says O’Malley.
The guys do covers of songs by Hendrix and Guns N Roses too.
“It’s important to not be too gimmicky with the covers,” says Reifsnyder. “It has to be a good song.”
“Kid Cudi is a Cleveland guy so we assumed ownership of his song,” says O’Malley. “It’s like we’re all in this together. It’s a unifying thing.”
The video for the tune was shot on location at Spice Kitchen+Bar’s Spice Acres Farm in Brecksville, Market Garden Brewery and the Cleveland Hostel rooftop in Ohio City.
“It has that work hard, play hard vibe that the song really embodies,” says Adam. “It feels like it’s a little warmer and more of an inspiration. It’s about enjoying our love for the city so we end with a shot from the rooftop of the Hostel with the city in the background. It’s an ode to Cleveland, both the song and the video.”
For the new EP, Reifsnyder and O’Malley say they “learned a ton.” They recorded all the instruments and then all the vocals at another time. They split the recording sessions into instruments and vocals but tried to retain the energy of the live show.
“We got about half way through the process and realized we were looking for amore of a pop production,” says Reifsnyder about the sessions for the first album.
This time, they did the same thing but isolated more and got more control over the sound so that the quality is “crisper.”
“It has a cool mix of a modern recording style as well as an homage to eight-track recording,” says Reifsnyder.
With the exception of the ballad “I Am Blind,” a beautiful ballad about death that features hushed vocals and gentle guitar riffs, the band has been playing the songs live.
“That song and ‘Back Porch’ both have elements that Brendan was messing around with in 2011 and 2012," says Reifsnyder. "They were demos that we had recorded, and we pulled them out and dug them up and finished them.”
“We have boxes of unfinished songs,” says O’Malley. “They were half finished songs and now we’ve been playing them a lot.”
The band’s built up a good local following and Reifsnyder and O’Malley hope that can expand with the release of the new disc.
“It was always our goal to be well-known in Cleveland,” says Reifsnyder. “We have other jobs and Honeybucket started out as a hobby but became a lot more than that. We enjoy playing in the city and have people recognize us and be excited to hear us. The payoff is having people really care about the music you’re making. We want to get out a little bit more in Ohio and play some festivals and stuff. In the immediate future, we just want to get out music out there.”
The band has a consumer friendly pay-what-you-can policy.
“This one we didn’t do as a Kickstarter,” says O’Malley. “We like to get our music to the fans. We invested our own money for this one. If people don’t have any money, we’ll take a buck. It’s our gift back to the fans. It’s just important that people can hear it and get some enjoyment out of it.”
Honeybucket, The Whiskey Girls, Dolfish, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 8, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, musicboxcle.com.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]