A DECADE OF MAKING SWEET SOUNDS
After a decade of relentless touring, from street corners to bars and festivals, The California Honeydrops have forged a strong bond with their audiences. Drummer Ben Malament discusses the band’s achievements with Chris Familton, ahead of their return to Bluesfest in 2019.
This will be the third year in a row that The California Honeydrops have played Byron Bay Bluesfest. They’ve clearly forged a strong connection with Australian audiences as this year they’ll play three sets across the festival plus an appearance at The Gum Ball festival and their own headline shows in Sydney and Melbourne. “Australia honestly has a real excitement for music and we always get a great response,” enthuses Ben Malament. “We’re lucky to call Australia one of our fanbases and it’s obviously grown a lot over the last few years and to be able to get back to Byron Bay for a third time is pretty special.”
A decade ago in California, the band came together around songwriter, guitarist and trumpeter Lech Wierzynkski and drummer Malament. They started busking in an Oakland subway station and very quickly their holistic sound, which embraces a number of American musical forms such as soul, jazz and blues began to take shape. As Malament remembers, it was an instinctive coming together of playing styles that shaped the group.
“It came out of a natural thing, the kind of music that we like and appreciate. Most of it comes out from Lech, our lead singer and then it all ends up being a blend of music that we recognise in our gut. We don’t go for anything that is too far out of our comfort zone. We just want to make what we know really good. We don’t want to half-arse any of the music,” says Malament. “Sure we can play blues or R&B or second line, but we don’t really know how to play that stuff, we just want to do the best we can to honour it, do it justice for the audiences and make a living out of a kind of music that none of us were really born into, other than being born in America I guess. It’s just us trying to do it right.”
Malament mentions second lines, the informal and celebratory musical sections of New Orleans brass band parades that follow the offical groups leading the parade. For a band like The California Honeydrops, who are heavily influenced by the sounds of New Orleans, it must have been a daunting experience taking their music to the Big Easy for the first time.
“It was a beautiful reception,” marvels Malament. “It was awesome because the first time we went there we opened for Dr John at Tipitinas which was kind of crazy! We opened doing our own version of Champion Jack Dupree’s Junker’s Blues mixed with Professor Longhair’s Tipitina and we played that at Tipitinas before Dr John! People liked it and so we played some street parties there and we managed to capture the spirit of the music without bringing ego to it and it worked.”
With so many live shows in a wide variety of venues over the years, it takes a special talent to be able to convey the essence and soul of the band in different settings. It’s something that The California Honeydrops always work hard at to achieve. “We don’t make setlist and we always make sure we play to the room. That includes, volume, dynamics and the energy. That’s how we go about it. It’s hard for us to play an hour set and compact our music and the experience. We like to stretch out. We have to plan out the shorter sets to get the direction of it right but at our own shows we don’t plan anything and we can play for three hours at a time. Wherever we are we always try to read and feed off the audience,” explains Malament.
Looking ahead for the band, there is plenty of new material plus additional songs from their last double album Call It Home, that will be considered for a new album, plus they are set to release a new five-track live EP in the coming months. On a personal level, Malament is keen to get a bit more work/life balance, particularly as a father. “We’ve been a really hard working band for ten years and I’d like to balance it a bit more – but when people want to pay money to see you play and you’re doing the thing you love, it’s a hard thing to say no to. It’s a challenge but it’s beautiful thing.”