USD Radio caught up with Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe of honeyhoney following their set opening for James Morrison at Humprehy’s by the Bay on May 5, 2012.
By: Drew Howard & Sarah Pacitti
Two weeks ago we caught a portion of honeyhoney’s set on the sun-soaked grounds of the Empire Polo Club at Coachella Weekend Two. In the blistering heat of a packed Mojave tent, the band brought its unique take on roots music to the inebriated masses. Last night, on Saturday, May 5th, we saw the band open for James Morrison at the markedly upscale Humphrey’s By the Bay to a throng of oldsters who politely sipped top shelf cocktails in neatly organized rows of white folding chairs as they tapped their toes to the music.
The juxtaposition between the two performances could hardly be more apparent, but perhaps that what makes honeyhoney so intriguing. Their tunes pervade through a patchwork of genres, paired with skillfully crafted lyrics and a caliber of expert instrumentation that is seldom witnessed. Playing analog music in a digital era, these qualities convincingly make honeyhoney appealing to the restless masses in Indio and the subdued patrons at Humphrey’s alike.
The duo, Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe, backed by a live band played a number of songs off each of their two full length albums. After the set, USD Radio had a chance to catch up with Suzanne and Ben who were in the midst of a crisis trying to get their ailing tour van back in to action so they could return to LA and continue on to their next show in Boulder.
USD Radio: I had a chance to catch a bit of your set at Coachella (weekend 2). What was it like performing at the festival? Had you ever been as an attendee?
Suzanne: I actually had been before in 2010 as a worker. I was selling barbecue in the VIP section for Baby Blues Barbeque which is where I worked in LA for a number of years. I went to see the Avett Brothers because I love them so much.
Ben: It was incredible to play Coachella. The stage setup was crazy, it was unlike anything we had ever done before. Some of these James Morrison stages have been roughly that size, but getting used to the sound is like (guttural noise) and it’s kind of difficult to feel out of touch with what you’re playing. But also the energy from the crowds at these shows is so powerful. I remember when we hit the first big drop in our set, you could just feel the energy from the crowd like a big wave that washed over you. It’s an amazing feeling but also a bit overwhelming.
USD Radio: So, I’m a bit confused because the contrast between Coachella, and Humphreys where you played tonight was huge. Do you guys usually play in upscale venues such as this one or is it always something a little different?
Suzanne: You know, I wanna say yes. Since we play all different types of music we’re in weird positions all of the time. We opened up for Matisyahu once at a music festival. We were on the reggae stage! With all reggae artists and us. No one ever really knows what to do with us. We’ve opened up for Gavin Degraw and Lifehouse, Christina Perri….I don’t think we’ve really found our niche yet.
USD Radio: I noticed you have a couple other festivals on the horizon including Sasquatch and Newport Folk Festival. What’s the dynamic like playing festivals versus regular gigs?
Ben: Well, from the technical perspective it’s totally different because you just get booted on the stage and booted off. You can’t really settle in—not that we’ve really been able to on the support shows either because you have such limited time, so it’s a challenge in that sense because you have to have your shit together to an extent where you’ll sound good either way. So that’s a challenge, but the environment is so amazing because you have all of these bands that we love and look up to and dream of playing with.
Suzanne: It’s like going to a playground for indie rockers and also very successful musicians.
Ben: It’s like when else are we going to get to play at the same place as Tenacious D. Which is something we’ve talked about for six years and it is something that would never happen if we weren’t playing a festival like this.
USD Radio: Suzanne, I understand you started out in LA as an actress, was the goal to always breakthrough as a musician or did your intentions shift from acting to music when you met Ben.
Suzanne: Well, I actually started out in New York City. I started out as a model when I was 16 and I worked and went to school. And then I started acting, and then I fell in love for the first time. My first love was a little bit older than me, and he wanted to move to LA so I was like ME TOO. And then we broke up our first week there, and I was devastated. I got really sick for like three months…I could always sing and I taught myself to play guitar years before. I also played violin and I just started playing songs and writing out of sheer despair (laughs). My roommate was a booker for local clubs and I just started playing, and things just started to snow ball. I met Ben a few weeks later, but it was really suprising to me that I became a professional singer.
USD Radio: So do you still act?
Suzanne: I do actually. I haven’t “worked” in a long time but I have a great agent and I still go out for certain projects, but I do friends’ projects and things like that. It is something I love to do and I’d love to go back when the time is appropriate.
USD Radio: Speaking of acting, your music videos are very theatrical. Did you guys come up with the new “Angel of Death” video concept? How did that come together?
Ben: For the “Angel of Death” video we did come up with the whole concept. It was the first time we had a chance to steer the whole project from the beginning and we really did the Hollywood run around. We wrote it and got our friend Brian Scott to direct it, we produced it, we cast it, Suzanne got the food, so it was really this whole idea that we took from concept to completion and we’re really proud of how it came out—Which is kind of rare for us to be honest, because it’s been what five six years? And we have one other video that we’re stoked on and Kiefer Sutherland kind of did it for us. So this was a great kind of chance for us to make something we could be really proud of.
USD Radio: You guys were killing a lot of people off in that new video. Do you know all of those people? Who were they?
Suzanne: We do know them! We are fortunate to participate in this production called Largo, which, I don’t want to say it’s high brow…
Ben: It’s like a Cadillac style venue, it’s a big community. One thing that’s a big draw is that it’s this big community that comes together to play music.
Suzanne: But they don’t let just anybody play there so when we were first accepted into the club we were like “holy shit!.” But we started off in this “Thrilling Adventure Hour” which is this comedy kind of 20’s radio style performance. That all of these amazing actors and comedians do like once a month. It’s like one of their passion projects, and we’ve been brought in to sing a couple of times and we just made friends with these people. And it was so cool to have them all come through. And we were like, “Okay, well, we’re shooting in Compton, in warehouse, and we can’t pay you….but we’ll have snacks.”
USD Radio: Your influences seem pretty diverse. Some of your tracks, especially from your first album, are very jazzy, while others, especially from your second album, are much more folksy. Do you set out looking to make a track sound a specific way or does it just come out sounding a certain way based on the songwriting process?
Ben: I think it’s a natural progression of us trying to gain more focus. It was a lot of songs I had written originally for this solo project of mine. Before I met Suzanne I didn’t listen to much folk or “roots music” or country at all. She introduced me to that kind of stuff. And I think as we worked together more and more we were achieving some sort of focus which I hope will continue on the next record, and I think that’s one of our greatest assets and greatest hindrances at times—we kind of buckshot you know what I mean? I like the direction we took with Billy Jack, leaning a little more heavily on the…I don’t even know what to call it…
Suzanne: Or our live sound—First Rodeo (the band’s first album) has so much production on it with the Jazz progressions.
Ben: I think that’s also a result of the situation we were in. The label we were on put us in this ridiculous $2 million studio that the label owned. And they brought in all of these heavy dudes …so it sounds like a $2 million album and the second one we did in a garage. But there was almost the same amount of production, we had a horn section and stuff, but it just doesn’t sound so expensive.
USD Radio: Speaking of your latest album, who or what is Billy Jack?
Suzanne: It was an idea we came up with as a homage to our friend Jim Turner, who was actually the angel of death in our music video. He was an actor/comedian that Ben lived with in LA for a while in his family home, he rented out a room. It’s kind of this crazy house with a bunch of artist/comedians, like this commune…
So Jim had this song that he’d sing called “Billy Jack” based on this movie called Billy Jack, that was this cult classic shot for like, I don’t know ten grand in the seventies and it totally flopped at the box office, but then it became this like ten million dollar cult film. And we thought that was really cool because it didn’t do very well at first but it was really successful in the end.
USD Radio: What’s next for honeyhoney? Another album, headlining tour?
Suzanne: Definitely another album, and maybe a headlining tour. We played a headlining tour last year. We actually came to San Diego—we played the Soda Bar. It was a horrible end to our tour. The night before we played the Troubadour in LA and we sold it out and people were getting turned away at the door. We had press and KCRW there and all this crazy shit. And the next day I remember showing up at the Soda Bar, hung over, exhausted,, slightly sick and being like “What?!”
Ben: It looked like someone had vomited on the pool table.
Suzanne: The power went out twice during our set. And we ended up playing acoustically for part of it. But we ended up having this amazing time as a band, and after the show we sat around and talked about how much fun we had. It was very private, there was like 40 people there. We just talked about how much fun we had the last month and then drove back to LA. Humility is bliss.
Ben: And that’s kind of where we’re at. We have these amazing moments as a band and then SMACK, these kicks in the balls. And that’s fine, I don’t see that changing at any point.
Check out honeyhoney’s latest album, Billy Jack, or catch the band on tour. They’ll return to San Diego on July 26th, 2012, opening for Sheryl Crow at Humphrey’s by the Bay.