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Creativity is an ever-mystifying thing. Keyboardist Peter Sands, who just ducked into the bathroom for all the usual reasons, somehow emerges with inspiration for an arrangement-in-progress. His band, the Honeydogs, is gathered in the living room of bassist Trent Norton’s modest Hopkins home, rehearsing for an upcoming acoustic show at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis—a gig that, like so much in this brilliant band’s career, won’t actually come to pass. The lads are reworking one of their greatest songs, “Losing Transmissions,” nearly from scratch. Sands and his spooky harmonium drone serve as the fulcrum of the newly evolving, Qawwali-tinged arrangement.
After settling back in behind his instrument, Sands shares his epiphany. “I was thinking,” he says. “I was looking at the cat sitting there in the sink while I was taking a pee, and it dawned on me that this part of the song is when we bring out the old-school Roland synth, and just have it be that kind of tape-echo thing. And then we could still do what you’re already doing. Sonically, I think that would be cool.”
Cat? Old-school synth?
The drummer—or, for rehearsal purposes, the bongoist—Peter Anderson, fully comprehends and endorses Sands’s idea. “Yeah, because if I’ve got my little groove box doing an old-school Roland-sounding drum machine in commonality, it would be like brush drums over a filtery—” He stomps an urgent bap-bap-bap-bap.
In the shared vernacular of these musicians, this exchange evidently makes sense. It’s greeted with a knowing nod from the Honeydogs’ big dog, Adam Levy. “I love that idea,” beams the band’s lead singer, songwriter, and musical polymath, looking ever the hipster daddy with his bushy hair, funky clothes, and fashionable specs.
Sands’s harmonium drones a Hindu hum, washing over Levy’s warm singing voice. Soon the tune shifts gears, its middle verses chugging, unplugged Joy Division–style. Band members interrupt the music here and there, tossing out suggestions as the arrangement takes shape. Levy sings on, more dreamily now, couplets that could stand as his band’s epitaph:
You can lead a horse to water
but you can’t make him listen to you.
And I can’t hear a single word
when I’m playin’….
There are three proofs that render modern faith-based economics—the idea that the commercial marketplace resolves all problems, rights all wrongs, fills all voids—a fallacy. One: the American health-care system—say no more. Two: public broadcasting—without it, life would be unbearable, yet commerce would naturally kill its like. Three: the Honeydogs—a group of musicians whose mastery of their art stands in direct, inverse proportion to their commercial success.
Not that they wouldn’t love to have it otherwise. “It’s not like we set out to be unpopular,” jokes bassist Norton. But give credit where it’s due. After 13 years, the Honeydogs are still mushing onward, putting the finishing touches on a new, as-yet-untitled album. It’s due for release sometime later this year, assuming the band can secure a decent distribution deal.
While no-more-deserving Twin Cities musical ancestors (the Replacements, Hüsker Dü) have been deified, the Honeydogs have been neglected. Virtually any other band would have surrendered long ago. But these guys are committed: to each other, to their music, to their political causes. They’ve organized benefits for victims of the conflict in Darfur; also, Levy, guitarist Brian Halverson, and former band manager Ryan Dolan spearheaded the Rock for Democracy project in 2004. They’re a workaday bunch of thirty- and fortysomethings, most holding down day jobs and raising families. But none is prepared to give up on the group—or on Adam Levy’s music.
Why do these guys stick it out? Sands: “It’s a challenge.” Norton: “We’re brothers.” Levy: “This is the meaning I get from my life.”
“That’s one of the reasons I’m such a great admirer,” says Bill DeVille, weekend deejay at Minnesota Public Radio’s the Current and a longtime Honeydogs acolyte. “They’ve persevered. They’re continuing to create their art, and I think [their new material] is better than anything they’ve ever done.”
Seen a Ghost
The band formed in the late 1980s as the Picadors, a pop-rock outfit noted mainly for its long-haired wunderkind drummer, Noah Levy, Adam’s younger brother. Later, as the Adam Levy Band, the brothers worked as backing musicians for Martin Zellar after the breakup of Austin legends the Gear Daddies. The Honeydogs—initially just Norton and the Levys—debuted in 1994.
Their cause soon was taken up by John Fields, who would one day head off to L.A. and become a big-league record producer (Mandy Moore, the Backstreet Boys, Switchfoot). At the time, Fields’s uncle, Steven Greenberg, whose monster disco hit “Funkytown” helped put the Minneapolis music scene on the map, had just launched independent label October Records. Fields’s job was to scout local talent, and he made a beeline for the Honeydogs, recording a four-song demo for $500. Greenberg heard it and quickly signed the group to a deal.
Their first album, The Honeydogs, appeared in 1995. Recording as a trio (with key support from multi-instrumentalist Fields and friend Joe Savage), the band kicked out a rocking, hook-laden gem, highlighted by such heartfelt mini-classics as “Those Things Are Hers” and the ballad “Becky’s Hand.” It also marked the first appearance of “I Miss You,” a roots rocker that would—in a re-recorded version—prove the closest thing to a hit song the band has had to date.
The follow-up, Everything, I Bet You (1996), landed the Honeydogs squarely in the alternative-country camp. This album, produced by Tom Herbers, built on its predecessor with sharper writing, more nuanced vocals from Adam Levy, and more assured playing from the entire band, which added a second guitarist, Tommy Borschied, during the sessions.
Everything introduced the poppy “Your Blue Door,” the thundering “Kandiyohi,” and the propulsive “Tell Me.” But its most significant cut is “Miriam,” which marks Adam Levy’s graduation to the top stratum of pop songwriters. It’s a gentle tribute to his grandmother, whose progressive political views and action landed her in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s. In her final years, Levy says, she rued her grandsons’ musical ambitions, pressing Adam, a brainy anthropology graduate, to follow his father into academia. The song’s lyrics, delivered matter-of-factly, detail Levy’s last encounter with her as she lay dying.
“I think it was an effort to say, ‘Hey, everything you taught me was meaningful, and I’m going to find a way to reconcile these two worlds,’” Levy says. Its mingling of disarming melody and social commentary—the song talks about the burning of a cross in the yard of Miriam’s African American neighbor—can be seen as a kind of template for much of Levy’s subsequent work. Sociopolitical acuity, honed by day jobs as an inner-city social worker and an employment program manager for at-risk St. Paul youths, became a motif in Levy’s songwriting.
With Everything, I Bet You in the stores, the music industry began taking note of the talented little band from Minneapolis. In 1996, the Honeydogs signed with a major label, Mercury Records. For a moment, it appeared the world was their oyster. “There was a very short period when I thought, ‘Wow, this really could happen,’” recalls Noah Levy. “We got signed by the president of Mercury Records. That was big.”
The immediate result was Seen a Ghost, the only truly uneven record in the Honeydogs’ canon. Released in 1997, it’s filled with bright spots: the wistful, slow-galloping title track, the rustic “John Brown,” and the baroque daze of “Into Thin Air.” But much of the album, at Mercury’s behest, comprised simple retreads of tunes from the first two records. The Honeydogs as a Honeydogs cover band didn’t really work, with the possible exception of “I Miss You”—a big regional adult contemporary radio hit. Some of the air seemed to have gone out of the Honeydogs. Still, the major-label game was on, and the band was focused and hopeful.
“There was a certain momentum around here,” Noah says. “But we pretty quickly figured out it was going to be a slow build, if it ever was going to happen at all.”