Up Close & Personal
Some people just can’t stay away from the music. Mike Williams was a founding member of And The Moneynotes nearly a decade ago and played with the band through their rise and ultimate amicable split. Initially satisfied with the band’s run, it could have been the end of the story for Williams, but music has a way of making people antsy. After a short hiatus from playing, the seeds of creativity took hold once again. Mike Williams’ new band, Heavy Blonde, began as a studio project out of sessions with his brother, Roy. They assembled and arranged material with the intent of recording, tapping the large pool of talented contacts developed over the years. Although there isn’t an immediate plan to release an album or collection, Williams says he’s ready to work on a live lineup and take Heavy Blonde on the road. You can catch the band’s debut show this Friday night at The Bog in Scranton. Meet Mike Williams …
Let’s start with some history — And The Moneynotes.
Setty Hopkins and I started the band — he was the drummer in Dr. Horsemachine And The Moneynotes. We started the band in the winter of 2005. We started doing it at open mic nights. We started at The Bog while Pat Finnerty was running open mic and he and Brian Craig (owner of The Bog) wound up later joining the band. It was kind of a weird little four-piece band with simple songs, and it slowly evolved into something bigger. By the time we ended up incorporating some of the guys from Okay Paddy in 2007, it became more established. The background was just us playing open mics, and saying “we’ve got to write a song for this week, we’ve got to write a song for next week,” and then going out each week to play it. It became more ambitious.
You moved from writing for small open mics to touring regionally. How did that develop?
We did stretches early on with the original lineup. The original lineup was Austin and Coleman Smith — both great violin players. Coleman actually stayed with us quite a few years after we changed lineups. Austin played bass for us for a while, and Setty started playing drums — we all played whatever we needed. Austin was a classically trained violin player and he ended up playing bass for us. Around 2007 we switched it up a bit with another local band, Okay Paddy. We incorporated all of it into one band and dropped the first half our name. That was when we really picked it up. We recorded a full-length album. Half the songs were mine and half were Mike Quinn’s; really collaborative. A good chunk of the songs were 100 percent collaboration. From that point on, we did a lot more touring. We made an effort to get out there. We played South by Southwest, part of a showcase at CMJ and we played with a few more established bands like Ra Ra Riot at the Music Hall in Williamsburg and the Bowery Ballroom. We were ambitious and put time in.
Why did you guys split up?
It was a combination of things. To a certain degree, everything kind of runs its course. It’s not like we weren’t good together, it’s just that we’d gotten everything we all wanted to get out of it. We got some recordings we were really happy with, and I think toward the end, we were getting together and kind of struggling to come up with ideas and put them together the way we wanted. The other part is that it’s just a strain money-wise to go out and do that. It’s like any business — you need money to make money. I think we never got past the “lose money” phase. We’re all going out and playing, and because of that we’re all dropping down to part-time jobs or taking odd jobs here and there, you come back and you’re just a little more broke than you were the last time you came back. That can get to you and it hurts morale. The band always got along great and I think that’s why we can do things like get together and play a lot and do these reunion shows. It’s not like there was any animosity or anything. I just think it ran its course. I think a lot of people wanted to try new things and get out of what we’d been doing for a few years and shake it up. Then on top of that, I think we all needed a break from going out and playing a lot of shows. We’re still all great friends.
After And The Moneynotes stopped playing, did you go right back into music?
I didn’t really do anything. For two years, it was almost like I withdrew from it in a way. The day we decided we weren’t going to do it anymore was the day I went back to work full-time, and I pursued that for a while. I thought “well, I’d be happy if I never do this again.” That’s tough when it’s something you love to do and you’ve done since you were 11 years old. It’s not something you can just walk away from. So for a good year, I didn’t think about music. We did a quick reunion show, and that was fun, but I didn’t really write anything for a while. I had a good stretch for about a year when I wrote a bunch of stuff, but I didn’t really like any of it, so I scrapped it all. About a year and a half ago, I started getting together with my brother, Roy. I had an old organ that was from my parents’ house that they were going to throw away, so we brought that to my apartment. He lives in New York City, and he would come over once a week, and it was like going back to 2005 with the open mics. He was coming in once a week or every two weeks, and the goal was to have something to work on when he would come in. The first time he came, I really didn’t have anything written, so I thought “well, let me just throw something together, so when he comes over we have something to do.” I wanted to have some music, and after that, it turned into anticipating the next two weeks to have something else to work on, and it went that way for about a year. At the end of the year, we had a nice little collection of songs we had written and arranged between the two of us.
Heavy Blonde just kind of happened?
Yeah, really, just like before — we got together to play open mic night, so we had to do it. This came together so backwards compared to what we did in the past. Even when we recorded, it was to facilitate the live show. Everything was driven by live show first, it was all about being the best you can be and being really well-rehearsed. This was kind of the opposite thing, where it was 100 percent about the recording. I didn’t think twice about even playing a show until about two months ago. It wasn’t really on my radar because all year we’d been piecing things together to record an album. It came together kind of backwards, but it was still a necessity. In the past, the necessity was “we need to show up at open mic every week to have something to play,” and for this it was more “we want to hang out and play music in my basement, and I don’t want to have to play the same songs we played last week, so I’d better come up with a couple new songs.” So that was how it came together, just very naturally. Then we brought in Setty as our drummer really early on in the process, because we knew we needed a drummer. We knew we could record an album between me and Roy as far as instruments, but the one thing we knew was that we couldn’t cover drums adequately. He was really a natural fit — he was the only drummer that I’ve really played with in a band. The idea was that we weren’t going to go into the studio and just wing it, we were going to get together each week and make sure we had things the way we wanted them, and had a really solid idea of how we’re going to arrange these songs. It all came together mostly as a three-piece, and we added a couple other people later on without any live show in mind — almost sort of shooting ourselves in the foot, where we’d have people involved we could never possibly lock down in a live band. It was something we knew from the beginning, that it was going to be more of a studio band. We never really worried about how we would pull it off live. The goal then was to just make these recordings. We got guys like Nick Driscoll, a great horn player, in on a few sessions. We got JP Biondo from Cabinet — he did a lot with us vocally. But with these guys, you knew there was just no way we’d be able to play shows with that exact lineup of people. That wasn’t the point, though, it was to get it all done and arranged the way we wanted and recorded, and then we could worry about how we’d pull it off live later, and that’s where we are now.
You’ve got a lot of local talent on the recordings?
Yeah, we have me and my brother Roy, and Setty primarily. We went down to Philadelphia and we tracked it all live. We did bass, drums and acoustic guitar all live tracking. Then we came back up here and we pretty much turned Setty’s house into a studio. The guy who produced it, Nick Krill, worked with us in the studio in Philly and then helped us pretty much create a studio. We worked out of there for a few weeks getting these other guys. It was the three of us, then J.P. Biondo did a lot of vocals and a little bit of mandolin. Nick Driscoll did some clarinet and saxophone. Pat Finnerty, who was also in the Moneynotes, did a lot of guitars on it. Brian Craig also came in and did some percussion. These were all guys we brought in a little bit later. Once we knew what we really knew what we wanted, we were able to get the right people.
With a lot of old friends, is it a familiar sound or something new?
It’s a little more cinematic. I can’t avoid being kind of big with arrangements, and I think a lot of it is done effectively and plays out the way I wanted it to — like a soundtrack at times. There’s also a lot of throwback to ’60s psychedelic, too, which is something I don’t think we really did a lot of in the last band. It turned into something that’s very different from what we’ve done in the past. You could probably talk to each of the people involved and they’d agree; I don’t feel like we’ve touched on any of the stuff we’ve done in the past. I hope not, it feels kind of different to me!
Where does the name Heavy Blonde come from?
There’s a lot of references in songs to space. I wrote a lot in particularly about the sun. I remember at one point in the studio, we thought we should call the band Sun, and I thought that was awesome. Then we realized after like 10 minutes, of course there’s already a band called Sun. So we started passing around different names, and I remember sending something to Setty about really being into “heavenly bodies” like stars and planets. For some reason he looked at it really quickly and read it as “Heavenly Blonde” and then we kind of made it “Heavy Blonde” but didn’t settle on it. We thought if we didn’t think of anything better, we’d stick with it, and a few months later it was definitely the best thing we thought of. Then it went back to the Sun reference, the ‘Heavy Blonde’ was like the Sun. It turned into a backwards reference with what we were going with, and it just sounded right — big and theatrical.
Full circle from inside joke to an actual reference.
Once we came back around to it, we realized we settled where we originally were and it just made sense. It makes sense to me, anyway! I can visualize the artwork for it, there’s just something about it. We thought ‘we might find something better, we’ll keep that one on the list,’ not wanting to jump into anything. Then through all that we had all this stuff written and recorded and done before we finally settled on the name, and held out as long as humanly possible, and it just worked.
Was the show at The Bog a no-brainer, like a homecoming?
It just made sense, it was somewhere we hang out, a place we’ve played a lot over the years. Probably the most comfortable place for us to try something new, definitely the most comfortable place to start it. I think it just made sense right from the start that if we were going to do something live, we’d probably do a show at The Bog.
Where do you go from here? What are the next goals?
The biggest thing right now is that we put together a lot of songs and we even have reserve songs. We have a whole bunch we got in the studio and worked out, and a bunch we just didn’t have time to record. The next goal here is to just get out and actually be a band. We were a studio project, and now we’re a band. We have to find a lineup we can rehearse with and play with. We’re already dealing with a situation where our bass player, one-fifth of our band, is living in NYC. Right off the bat we’re struggling with that, so we have to be very careful about who’s in it and how it’s going to be. I think the goal is to just play some stuff live here and there when it pops up. You want to always have forward momentum and not to stall. As long as everybody feels positive about it, as long as there’s something going in the right direction.
— tucker hottes
Even more from Williams:
It’s time to just get it out into the world
The main thing right now is to just rehearse these songs and get them right. What we have now is a five-piece lineup, it’ll be like our fallback lineup. If we do something big like a CD release, and the opportunity comes up to do it, I’d like to get some of the other people that are involved in it up on stage. But we also need a lineup that we can play whenever, we needed to strip it down to a five-piece. We have to translate a lot of what were horn pieces into guitar parts, stuff like that. Figure out how to turn something that sounds like a movie soundtrack at times and bring it back to a band with two electric guitars, a bass, drums, and percussion. We’ve been doing a really good job with it, but we’re not even near done with that. There’s still songs we haven’t even touched yet that have to be rehearsed with this lineup.
Only way to do that is to play, right?
Yeah, once you get that first show under your belt, you feel like ‘alright, we know we can play this live.’ In a way we’ve been doing it now, we’ve been going to Windmill Agency Recording Studio up in Mt. Cobb. We’ve been going up there and doing marathon five-hour sessions, because we can really only meet once every other week or so with the full lineup. Other than that, it’s just been getting together in pieces. I’ll get together with whoever is available – you might not have a bass, but you can run through parts with everyone else. It’s kind of the way we had to do things with the Moneynotes before we played at Montage, so it’s not anything unfamiliar. We had to rehearse entire sets with Mike because he was out in LA, and it’s like that now with Roy in NYC. But with everyone else ready, you can get even one solid practice in and be good. It’s just the reality of the way we have to rehearse. It’s not like it was 10 years ago when we could get together every night. You’ve got to work around it, work with what you’ve got.
Will you be rehearsing with the Moneynotes as well before this year’s Susquehanna Breakdown?
We probably will a little, but we’ve played those songs like thousands of times. I feel like it’s etched somewhere in our brains, you know? Maybe it takes a couple days and you’ve got to get it back out of your brain, but last year we just got together in like 20 minute stretches. Same way we’re doing it now, we’ll get together working on material for our other bands, and then devote like 20 minutes to pick two or three of the old Moneynotes songs and brush up on them. We were all kind of expected to just do our homework – not to make it seem like regimented practice. I had copies of the albums at my parents’ house, and I just went up and grabbed them and listened to the songs and re-learned them. It wasn’t an issue to do that last year, I don’t think it’ll be an issue this time. If we get together in pieces and then get together as a whole one or two times, we can make it work.
How did the reunion shows come about?
Last year we got the call out of the blue – Bill Orner called us last year and asked if we’d be interested. Because we’re all really good friends, it seemed pretty obvious that if everybody could be around, we’d definitely do it. Nobody had any opposition to it. This year it wasn’t really out of the blue, I kind of felt like we would do it again. There was never anything official, I think it was something that a couple months ago Bill just started calling around to everybody. I think that this year because last year went well and we all had a lot of fun, everybody was happy with it, it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Not like we expected it or anything, it’s not like a band that doesn’t really exist anymore should play once a year. We don’t feel entitled or anything. But last year was out of nowhere, it was awesome because we hadn’t played in forever. It was a surprise.
We see so many national acts at Montage, it’s great to have something there for the local scene.
It’s amazing, I think the whole mentality behind it is just great. We don’t need to just rely on outside stuff, I don’t want to be down on any big acts, but there’s great stuff happening around here. Cabinet is doing awesome, and I think it’s important to have that kind of showcase here – to showcase bands like us. There are huge acts that come through, that’s great, but we have a lot going on here, and we can play too. I think it’s great that they’re doing and that Bill is doing this, to make it local because there is good stuff here. And I’m grateful that he’s willing to put a band on the bill that hasn’t really done anything in three years. And I dunno, two years now? I guess it’s a tradition at this point. I think it’s a great thing.
There’s so much great original music in this area.
I think it’s something I really took for granted here until we started going out and playing more shows out of the area. I remember talking about it with my brother and a few other people. The level of musicians here is amazing, there have been a lot of people for a very long time who are really talented and doing really cool stuff. You go to other towns, and you just expect that they’re going to have their version of The Bog, like it’s in your mind that every town has a Bog, or a place you know you can go and play a show and there will be people into it. You just take that for granted, that every place has some sort of scene. But it’s not true, not every town has really great bands and great supporters of music. I think that’s something we took for granted until we went out and did it – it’s kind of the exception to the rule around here.
There are a lot of talented people here.
That’s another thing – I’ve played with a lot of bands, and I just feel like the people I grew up playing music with were top-notch. You just take all that stuff for granted, that there are good scenes and good musicians in every town and anybody can just throw together a band. And it turns out that I just got really lucky. I have a brother who’s a great musician, and I have these friends who are great musicians, and we all grew up in the same town and somehow it just worked out that way. I don’t think it’s the case everywhere where people are so supportive, either. Just the fact that people will come out and see the Moneynotes at this point is pretty amazing and baffling to me – we don’t exist as a band. We don’t really play. But there’s people who will come out and be supportive. It’s awesome, there are just really loyal music people around here.