British band The Heavy offer punk, funk, soul, and rock and roll Special

Posted Jul 16, 2013 by Cate Kustanczy
British funk-rock band The Heavy have been churning out their unique brand of neo-soul rock since 2007. On their third album, they embrace a varied palette of sounds, nodding at the past while embracing the future.
The Heavy s third album is a fascinating mix of musical influences  including funk  punk  ballads  a...
The Heavy's third album is a fascinating mix of musical influences, including funk, punk, ballads, and neo-soul.
Andrew de Francesco
During a recent stop in Toronto this past June, the band’s bassist, Spencer Page, mused on what makes their sound so unique. While they borrow liberally from classic American sounds (particularly from the 1960s and 70s), there’s an indefinable quality that renders their sound, like Clapton filtering the blues decades before them, identifiably English.
“i think if it didn’t have that Englishness about it, it wouldn’t have done as well," says Page, "it would've been less unique.” They got the chance to celebrate that identity recently, playing Glastonbury's Other Stage on the festival's third day, showing off the material from their third (and latest album), The Glorious Dead (Counter). Britain's Independent declared, based on their charismatic performance and enthusiastic audience reaction, that "an evening slot on the Pyramid surely awaits next year."
Bursting onto the scene in 2007 with their first album, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, the band (vocalist Kelvin Swaby, guitarist Dan Taylor, drummer Chris Ellul, and bassist Page) gained widespread notice through their 2010 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, performing not one but two numbers; their feel-good stomp “How Ya Like Me Now?” (from 2010's The House That Dirt Built) was used on both the television program Entourage, and, among many other things, in a car commercial broadcast during the Super Bowl in February 2010. They’ve done three albums in six years, not a small achievement for a band based out of the small, unprepossessing town of Bath in southwest England. Their success hasn’t been meteoric, even if it might seem that way to some.
“The Super Bowl (commercial), Letterman, they obviously made a big difference,” Page says reflectively, rubbing a stubbled chin one sunny June afternoon after a soundcheck in Toronto. “But we’d been laying a lot of the groundwork before that (time). To the untrained eye it was sudden, but it wasn’t that; it was four years we’d been touring, playing really shit venues and sleeping in vans. So we’ve put the hours in. It’s rewarding it’s starting to happen. We just keep working hard.”
The band are set to play British music festival WOMAD at the end of this month, where, unlike Glastonbury, they'll enjoy an evening spot ("Something about nighttime has this mystery, this darkness," Page notes), along with extensive dates in North America, including outdoor music festivals in Montreal, Squamish (British Columbia), and San Francisco. The band returns to Europe to tour through the end of this year, winding up at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire the end of November.
What’s notable about seeing The Heavy is noting the audience reaction to their newer material; it’s rare for any band to be greeted with such equal vigour for both new and old tunes, but, Swaby’s beguiling leading-man swagger, combined with a water-tight backing band (that includes touring horn players and a keyboardist), allows them to show off The Glorious Dead to great, foot-stomping, hand-waving effect. There’s a magical combination that The Heavy seem particularly adept at capturing, of the contemporary and the old-school, of high-tech and low-tech; one comes away from their live shows appreciating their rock-out approach, their super-gracious integration of classic vintage sounds, and their deep, sincere commitment to solid musicianship.
Still, the band's third album is somewhat of a sonic departure, for while there’s still liberal dollops of the horn-drenched heavy funk that characterized much of their earlier work, there’s also a wider embrace of other genres, including punk, old-school soul, creepy balladry, and gypsy-rock. Moreover, album has a distinctly cinematic feel, with each of the album’s ten tracks serving as a sort of blueprint for the dreamy visuals the music inspires. When I tell Page I can hear the work of film composers Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini, he smiles. “You’re absolutely right! There’s a lot of influences. It gives it diversity, I suppose.”
Diversity is certainly what makes The Glorious Dead such a rewarding listen. Its first track, “Big Bad Wolf”, with a chugging, horn-heavy bassline, recalls P-Funk at its height, though the tune, with its minor harmonics and call-and-response structure, also bears more than a passing resemblance to the gypsy-rock of Goran Bregovic and Gogol Bordello. “Be Mine” sounds like a tune Phil Spector might’ve produced for The Ronettes way back when (indeed, bassist Page says the famed music figure is his dream producer). “Same Ol’” sounds like something out of The Temptations’ 1970s era with its lush arrangements, full chorus, and soulful delivery from lead singer Kelvin Swaby. “Just My Luck” has a loud, raucous edge recalling The Ramones, while the loping, haunting “The Lonesome Road”, with its spiky percussion and rhythmic guitar, could’ve come straight out of Tom Waits’ canon. The album's closing, "Blood Love Dirt Stop" is soaked in 1970s-era Stax-style soul, and offers a rich instrumental melange of tinkling pianos, bold brass, and lush back-up vocals to Swaby's Al-Green-meets-Curtis-Mayfield crooning.
The Heavy s embrace of sonic variety may help explain the wide generational appeal of its fanbase. P...
The Heavy's embrace of sonic variety may help explain the wide generational appeal of its fanbase. Page (far right) says he’s been “struck by how diverse the age range is” at various shows. “There are kids as well as people in their 60s! It’s such a variety. Initially you’re thinking, “Why isn’t it full of young girls?!” -but we’re attracting more people. It’s a broader appeal, so hopefully that means a greater lifespan (for the band) as well.”
Andrew de Francesco
The Heavy were formed when guitarist Taylor and vocalist Swaby met and bonded over their love of old soul records in the late 1990s. Their first single, 2007's "That Kind Of Man" gained the notice of indie label Ninja Tune, who signed the band to their rock imprint, Counter. 2008 was a busy year for The Heavy, with Rolling Stone placing the band on their "Hot List," and then going on to play the prestigious South by Southwest; they've since gone on to play SXSW a few times, collecting a Best Discovery Award in Spin Magazine's annual round-up of the Austin festival's best sounds. In 2009 they appeared on Johnny Cash Remixed (Compadre Records) with a stirring remix of Cash's "Doing My Time." Both "How You Like Me Now" and "Short Change Hero" have been used widely across TV, film, sports, advertising, video games, and even politics. And, after their appearance in 2010, the band returned to the Late Show in August 2012, a week after the release of The Glorious Dead, performing a thoroughly rousing rendition of "What Makes A Good Man?", complete with blaring horns and backup singers (and yes, Letterman asked for another encore). It was one more step in the English neo-funk band's progression, albeit a big one that has arguably helped to open a lot of doors, particularly with North American audiences.
That doesn't mean composition comes the way one might expect; creating songs hasn’t, for the most part, involved the four band members being in a room at the same time, jamming and banging out ideas as many bands do. Rather, it has taken the form of Swaby “building beats” around a demo, as Page explains, and bringing that to the other three for further work. Page confesses he’d like The Heavy’s next album to be done “in a more traditional way, with the four of us in room, record(ing) it as live as possible.” Such an instinctual approach would echo something The Heavy did in recording the bustling, manic, Screamin' Jay-Hawkins-meets-Ramones-esque track "Oh No! Not You Again!!" (from The House That Dirt Built).
“I was talking to Chris (Ellul) about it,” Page recalls, “and really, (we think) the best thing we ever recorded was "Oh No! Not You Again!!" because it was live, it was just all of us together in a tiny little room. It’s not that the other stuff doesn't have any balls or vibe, but you can feel (the difference) -it’s just got that energy from the four of us looking at each other. I've always wanted to record that way.”
Another wish for the future? Recording a theme song to a James Bond film. “I'd love to,” Page says, breaking into a broad grin, saying that he hopes “someone might pick it up” -”it” being the cinematic, vigorously aggressive vibe of The Glorious Dead that, in some instances, seems lifted straight out of a 007 soundtrack. “Some great artists have done some great James Bond themes,” he says, “and certainly something we’d like to do. It’s a great honor, it’s bigtime...”
Frontman Swaby confirmed the band's intent at the release of the album, noting, "With this record, we went pretty cinematic: we basically set out to score a film that hasn’t been written.” Indie London, in their review, called The Glorious Dead "a cinematic joyride." So perhaps fans will hear the band do a soundtrack or theme song (or both) down the line, but for now, The Heavy are busy with their touring commitments, promoting the new album, and absorbing various sounds along the way. Playing various jazz festivals has meant exposure to the genre, one Page isn’t a fan of -at least for the moment. “I think it’s amazing musicianship,” the 30 year-old notes, “it’s just never appealed to me. I've tried, and... it’s not for me. I wonder if that’s something I'll get into when I'm older. I know people in their 40s who didn’t touch it until later.”
When I tell him I hear, among the many other sounds, jazz in The Heavy’s work, he’s amazed. “Really?!” He pauses. “Well... we don’t go out purposely and say, “This is the sound we want in our music.” We just do it.”