Interview: From Subway Stations to Sold Out Shows With THE CALIFORNIA HONEYDROPS

The California Honeydrops are a powerful Bay Area soul band that have been spreading their music all over the world for ten years. Originally an Oakland street-funk duo, co-founders Lech Wierzynski (lead vocals, trumpet, guitar) and Ben Malament (drums, washboard, percussion) have built out a dynamic ensemble that now includes bass, multiple horns, and keys. Their sound is multi-dimensional – a toolkit of R&B, get-down funk, southern soul, delta blues, and zydeco that turns an ordinary venue into a vibrant dance party. Those in the industry have taken notice, as the group has shared the stage with legends including B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Buddy Guy, and Dr. John.

In addition to a packed tour schedule every year, The California Honeydrops have managed to record seven albums. The latest, Call It Home: Vol. 1 & 2, is a powerful 16-track collaboration centered around the band’s upbringing, musical roots, and journey to date. In light of the new record – which is set for release on April 6th – we caught up with Ben Malament to discuss the band’s origins, new music, and upcoming tour.

MG: Go figure – right as you guys are finishing up a break and gearing up for a multi-country tour, I bother you with questions. I really appreciate y'all letting me get a sneak peek at the new album - I can't stop listening to it. What went into this project? How was it different than the previous 6 releases that you all have put out?

BM: A lot of great work went into the album, which is our first double-album. We tried to record as much of it live in one room as possible, giving the music a slightly different sound. We recorded it onto tape as well in studios between San Francisco and Oakland.

We kept the album pretty short, but there’s a great range of music between our foundation as a rootsy kind of band – with a stand-up bass and washboard – to the band that we’ve become – the use of electric bass and electric keys. All that is blended with different styles of songwriting...anything from R&B to country blues to stuff we don’t know what to call that has influences from reggae music and old soul. We never wanted to be in a particular box, and I think this album still justifies that.

From Left to Right: Ben Malament (drums, washboard, percussion), Lorenzo Loera (keys, melodica), Lech Wierzynski (lead vocals, trumpet, guitar), Beau Bradbury (bass, percussion), Johnny Bones (tenor saxophone, clarinet),

MG: It’s almost impossible to put you guys in a box when you hear soul, funk, zydeco, and anything in between. With such a wide range of sounds, instruments, and players, how does that play into the songwriting process and band member responsibilities?

BM: We know what we can do…and we work it out so it sounds good! We don’t really try to do anything extra fancy. Lech writes really good songs, and then we all come together to make it sound like what we can play. On this album though, there are a ton of amazing special guests that really boost the music. Bonnie Raitt sings on a track. Kid Andersen plays guitar, bass, and some drums. And there are a ton of other great guests – it’s really dope.

MG: As you mentioned, you guys were just on the road with Bonnie Raitt, and you’ve toured with The Tedeschi Trucks Band. Do those experiences build the relationships that lead to guest appearances on the album, or is it more from local connections in the Bay Area?

BM: It’s a combination from touring and people that we know from home.

MG: And speaking of touring – you guys always seem to have a jam-packed schedule. How in the world do you find time to write, record, and consistently perform at a high level?

BM: (Laughs) I don’t know. We took some time off before this tour, and we leave for Australia on Monday (3/26). This two-month break is the longest the band has ever had, and it’s because we’ve been working really hard for the past ten years.

MG: I’d say that’s well deserved. So then take me back the beginning of that ten-year span. Where did your musical roots come from, and how did you and Lech link up?

BM: I grew up in LA, where my dad, Bruce Malament, was a musician. I grew up around music, and I knew that I liked it and that I’d always be playing. I never thought I’d be doing it for a living, but I love playing in bands and for people. And so did Lech, who I met at Oberlin College in Ohio, where we had a couple bands together. He moved out to Oakland a couple of years before I graduated.

We again got a band together one year after I came out here, and we started busking in the streets and playing up to three gigs a day. We were doing what would be impossible today in the Bay. It’s funny we’re talking now, because my landlord actually let me know he’s raising the rent. It just shows that we would not be in existence if we started within the past six years here.

MG: After you and Lech started playing together out West, how did you bring on other members? What are the steps that led to today’s California Honeydrops?

BM: The band has changed many times. We were nervous at first when we had to introduce a real bass instead of a washtub bass (laughs), but we’ve had some wonderful bass players. Usually our pianists are much older than everyone in the band – that’s always helped our sound, because those people are coming from the music that we really love. But today’s current makeup is the youngest we’ve been, with Lorenzo on keyboards.

We’re always open to exploring different instruments. We’re actually in the middle of a week-long retreat right now, where we’re basically re-learning how to play a bunch of stuff.

MG: Will that translate to your live performances, in that we’ll see different takes on previously recorded songs?

BM: (Emphatically) OHHH yes, oh yes.

MG: I love it. That definitely jives with the group's reputation of putting on a hell of a show. For those of us that haven’t seen the band live - which is a group of people I look forward to no longer being a part of after Old Settler's Music Festival in April - what are we in store for?

BM: Well in the first place, we appreciate people coming to see us. We love the energy of people, and we do try to play to the crowd. We actually haven’t made set-lists in the past, so no show is going to be the same. Even if we decide to make them going forward, it really comes down to the people in the crowd. We honestly just want to enjoy our time with the people there. We know we want to throw a good party, but we can still have fun up there on stage as well (laughs).

MG: I guess it’s fair that y’all get to have fun too. In that case, how fun was it playing The Filmore for the first time?

BM: Woah, it was awesome. We’re actually going to be playing there again for the Bay Area album release. But yeah, you really do feel the energy bouncing from one end of the room, down the hall, and to the stage.

MG: What a thrill for a local band. Are experiences like that anything like what you thought you’d be doing? What are the next big milestones ahead?

BM: Musically, we’re always working and exploring. But man, five years ago…I don’t know, it’s really trippy – it’s awesome. We’re taking a nice slow road that we’ve been able to maintain by continuing to play the music that we want to play. It’s just awesome that the fans are still with us, and we can reach a lot of people. And those people return the love, energy, and support. I don’t know if we could ask for much more.

The music business is a dangerous game - it can be pretty disheartening. It can really break down the integrity of individuality and art. So, to be able to do what we do is a blessing. While I am impressed with how hard we continue to work…I’m just grateful that we’re still doing it.

Single-take recordings and multi-hour performances without set-lists proves this ensemble to be as authentic as it is talented. Make sure to pre-order Call It Home: Vol 1 & 2, and don’t miss the party (tour schedule) when it comes to your town.

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