Honeydogs’ Life

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
  you’re sayin’
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.”

It wasn’t.


Losing Transmissions

Two months after the album’s release, Mercury Records fired its president. The Honeydogs were relegated to “orphan project” status, with nobody championing their cause. From there, it was onto another brutal tour: small van, cramped hotel rooms, crowds that often numbered fewer than a dozen. Without a corporate push, “I Miss You” lost steam. Though the band’s best work lay in the future, its shot at stardom seemed to have slipped away.

Today, Adam Levy is philosophical about that period. “To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s really glad it didn’t happen on that record,” he allows. “Maybe I would have been ready, but I feel like musically I matured after that.” Had “I Miss You” become a major national hit, it could have proven an albatross, he says, imprisoning the group in the roots rock/alternative country/“No Depression” genre. “We’d already grown tired of the alt-country thing,” he says. “I was tired of getting put on bills with bands that sang about Jesus, dusty roads, and whiskey, you know? We were so not that band.”

The experience also taught the songwriter a hard lesson: never compromise the music. “After that, I decided, ‘I don’t ever want to do this again—I don’t care what the cost is,’” he says. “Some people might say, ‘It cost him his career.’ But I feel like I’m making better music, I’m in control of that music, and, as a songwriter, I’m more true to myself.”

Chris Roberts, an MPR arts reporter, agrees. “I think they’ve been doing this for such a long time that, at some point, they gave up on the proverbial golden ring and started to set artistic goals that meet what they’re up to in their own lives,” he says.

As frustrating as the Seen a Ghost experience was, however, the worst was yet to come. Trimmed to a trio following the departure of guitarist Borschied, the Honeydogs cranked out their most exemplary batch of songs yet. But now, the industry’s larger forces took hold. When mega-conglomerates Universal and Polygram merged, Mercury Records was subsumed into the Island Def Jam Music Group. Just before the shakeup, Mercury provided funds to complete the next Honeydogs record, ironically titled Here’s Luck, which reunited the band with producer Fields. Recorded in 1998, it languished. The new label bosses agreed to release the record, then sat on it for a year.

“After long blackouts, silences, hemming and hawing, multiple changings of the guard at Mercury/Island Def Jam, and some major fist-pounding and screaming on our management’s part, Mercury finally released us,” Levy says. It was the summer of 1999. The Honeydogs shopped the record to tiny Ryko subsidiary Palm Pictures, which, amazingly, shelved it for another year. Finally, in February 2001, the three-year-old CD was released to rave critical reviews—and little else. “No promotion, nothing, zero,” fumes producer Fields. “No single, no video, no nothing.”

That’s a shame, because Here’s Luck arguably heralded the arrival of the “real” Honeydogs. Gone was any trace of alt-country twang. In its place—and now fully realized—was the adventurous pop classicism first heard on “Into Thin Air” from Seen a Ghost. By now, too, darkness had descended on the music; Adam Levy’s lyrics were growing vaguely subversive. “They have the secret code,” he sings cryptically on the opening track, “Stonewall,” the band spinning out dizzily behind him. “They have the secret kiss—that I want to know.”

Part of the record’s angst is personal. Even as the group was adding a permanent new guitarist, Brian Halverson, Noah Levy was drifting away. The Here’s Luck sessions, in which the band recorded as a trio, were difficult; frequent fights broke out between the brothers. After an agonizing 2001 tour opening for the Scottish duo the Proclaimers, Noah finally quit. No announcement was ever made, and the drummer continues to record and play occasional gigs with the Honeydogs. But he is, in Adam’s words, “an ancillary member” of the band.

Noah mostly blames himself for what he regards as his heavy-handed attitude toward a band that he’d wrapped his entire personality in. While his Honeydogs work represents his proudest moments, he says, in the end he just burned out. “I had so much anxiety around the band,” he says. “And when things were going badly with the band, they were going badly in my whole life. It was painful.”

Today, the younger Levy is an in-demand session drummer. He’s played on records by Evan & Jaron and Mandy Moore and backed adult-contemporary stars Five for Fighting on lengthy tours and during two appearances on The Tonight Show. He even does TV jingles. He has discovered, he says, the joy of just being a drummer, particularly now that he can make a living at it—an impossibility with the Honeydogs. “Frankly, I’ve never been happier than when I’ve been out of the band, just for my own personal sanity,” he says. “I am happy just playing music and not worrying about it personally.”

Ancillary status notwithstanding, Noah Levy has played on both of the Honeydogs albums recorded since his departure—2003’s rock opera 10,000 Years and the new, unreleased record. He’s also expected to sit in on drums for the next several months with Adam Levy’s other group, Hookers & Blow, an R&B-flavored über–cover band that’s become a Thursday-night mainstay at Gluek’s Restaurant and Bar in downtown Minneapolis. All in all, Noah says, he’s glad he’s still in the band’s orbit: “I feel like they’re being gracious in letting me stick around.”


The Crown

Noah Levy thinks it’s no accident that the Honeydogs have made their best music since he left, even if his erstwhile bandmates disagree. Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that, with 10,000 Years, the Honeydogs reached their zenith.

This cinematic concept album makes the Who’s Tommy look like a Katzenjammer Kids cartoon. (Naturally, no Honeydogs release has shifted fewer copies.) 10,000 Years unspools a lengthy, somewhat obscure narrative about a dystopian future, and for the first time, Levy loads his encyclopedic pop arsenal onto one record, incorporating world beat signatures, Bavarian beer hall melodies, Cuban rhythms, bossa nova, Indian raga, and more, all without forsaking his addictive melodic hooks.

United Musicians, an artists’ collective launched by Los Angeles popmeister Michael Penn and his singer-songwriter wife, Aimee Mann, distributed the album. Both are Honeydogs fans—so much so that, inspired by Levy’s literate conceptualizations, they issued their own concept records in 2005 (Penn’s Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 and Mann’s The Forgotten Arm). “As a listener, it makes me feel good to know that the person writing the music has really thought it out and that it is very meaningful to them,” Mann says. “If it wasn’t, then you’d really kind of wonder why they’re even bothering.”

Penn ranks Levy and the Honeydogs among the top rock artists of their time, despite the lack of popular acclaim. “In my estimation, they’re right up there,” he says. “I think that Adam is a smart songwriter. One of the things that appeals to me is that he has a fine pop-melodic sense, but lyrically he has a social conscience.”

The problem the Honeydogs face is endemic—the corporatization of a business that no longer is controlled by arts-minded “music people,” Penn says. “I think what’s getting in the way is the structure of the business, and the fact that there is so much control by the corporations over the menu that people have to choose from. Without people being exposed to music, they have no way of knowing about it.”

Fields thinks the real problem is that the Honeydogs are grown-ups, with families to feed and jobs to keep. They no longer hang out in clubs, meeting people who might lead them to their next gig. More importantly, they’re obliged to stay in Minnesota. If they moved to Los Angeles, Fields says, they might have a reasonable shot at the big time.

But that’s not going to happen, because, indeed, the Honeydogs have grown up, along with their music. If that means they’re relegated to the status of everybody’s favorite Twin Cities underdogs, that’s fine with MPR’s Roberts, who calls them “a Twin Cities institution.” For his part, Fields promises to support and record the band as long as it exists. “I don’t do this for the money; I do other things for that,” he says. “My whole thing is, whatever Adam wants, I am in. I’ll keep doing this until I die, just because I trust his artistry so much.”


Hearts and Heads

It’s possible to watch that artistry expand every Thursday night at Gluek’s. The regular Hookers & Blow gig, far from being just a fun way to spend a couple of hours onstage each week, has become for Adam Levy an invaluable ongoing tutorial in pop-music theory and practice. Noah says he thinks these steady stage workouts—and the resulting exposure to such seasoned musicians as trombonist Matt Darling, trumpeter Steven Kung, and pedal steel wizard Joe Savage—are improving the Honeydogs’ chops, expanding their musical vocabulary, and allowing them to simply relax and enjoy playing.

The “Gluek’s effect” is readily apparent in the band’s forthcoming CD, the bulk of which was recorded with Fields in just five days last year. It may come to be viewed as yet another milestone in the band’s oeuvre, a satisfying successor to the almost-impossible-to-follow 10,000 Years.

Suddenly, amid the band’s familiar crunchy guitars, glistening strings, and throaty Mellotrons, there are blasts of Ornette Coleman–style sax, along with tingling vibraphones, swinging jazz horns, French cabaret piano, and stand-up bass. Vocalist Andra Suchy turns up prominently in the mix. Guitarist Halverson takes a bow as lead vocalist on the gorgeous, meditative “Heads or Tails.” And Adam Levy’s nimble acoustic guitar figures shimmer on “Truth Serum.”

Many of Levy’s usual lyrical themes are front and center—mental illness (“Belle Epoque”), sexual wanderlust (“Rattling My Tin Cup”), and the American political morass (“Don’t Cut to the Chase”). But this record sounds more organic and intimate than 10,000 Years, and despite some bleak moments, it comes across as more lighthearted than its predecessor. “I feel like this one is a little opposite of what we’ve been doing,” says Norton. “It’s a little more upbeat, the songs are more concise.”

Maybe the Honeydogs are getting used to the idea of being a bunch of Minnesota homebodies. Norton, for one, insists he has no regrets about his band’s shoulda/woulda/coulda-been trajectory.

“If you take the adoration and popularity away from it, what do you have? You have your body of work,” he says. “In some ways, it’s a blessing that you didn’t sell a million records and have a million people telling you what you should do next.”

Halverson is hard-pressed to understand exactly how it is that he hasn’t “made it” as a Honeydog. “As I think back, this is exactly where I wanted to be,” he says. “To be rich and famous would be nice. But to be in a band that you can put in your own CD player and listen to them—and not get sick of them—I don’t think many people have that.”

Adam Levy, however, acknowledges some regrets—and lingering dreams. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a remote hope that someday there will be recognition of what I’m doing, or what we’re doing,” he says.

Perhaps that’s for another generation of eager musicians. In the meantime, Levy can reflect on a singular local band’s achievements—and look forward to many more. The next Honeydogs project could be a collection of jazz standards, he says, or a bunch of scrappy three-chord rockers. At this stage, anything is possible.

“Who knows?” he says. “If somebody 10 years ago had played me what I’m doing right now, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. When the chips were down, we’ve always put our heads together and started creating again.”