Bringing back old sounds is a tricky business. On one hand, everybody loves a little nostalgia, but the "revival" label can be awfully sticky to forward-looking artists.
So why, after all this time, do The Heavy come out looking so slick?
On the band's latest album, Sons (available now), the U.K. neo-soul band's brassy riffing, Gospel grooves and analog swagger suggest the hallmarks of a revival group. But if there is a line at all, The Heavy walks it, and the balance the band strikes over and over again is admirable.
As front man Kelvin Swaby tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A, The Heavy has a reverence for the classics, a yearning to exploit the greatest tricks of its forebears and a burning desire to create something authentic and new with each record.
It's a tall task, but Kelvin insists the technique behind it is ever-evolving. He tells QN'A the band's synthesis of vinyl inspiration with digital composition is with one goal in mind: to create a monster.
"We always knew that we wanted to make something that was familiar, but absolutely different, if that makes any sense," he says. "It was about going into our record collections; it was about all those beautiful tracks from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s that we used to love, but then finding the influence and inspiration from just those four- to eight-bar licks that just have you grooving, where it just kind of hits that sweet spot."
With hook in hand, The Heavy looks for ways to keep it interesting for as long as possible — ideally, a whole record.
"We knew we wanted to be familiar, but absolutely different," Kelvin adds. "And we wanted it to be a beast; the sum of its parts had to be bigger than just [the band members]."
Read Kelvin's full QN'A below.
The idea that you guys study hit records from yesteryear makes a lot of sense because The Heavy does short songs really well.
(Laughs) My favorite album is Ann Peebles' I Can’t Stand the Rain because it’s 10 tracks — it’s what we base our ethos on — it’s 10 tracks, but it comes in at, like, 28 minutes. So by the time you get to the end, you want to play it again. We try and keep it concise.
Sometimes I listen to a record and just get the feeling that it's meant to be experienced live — like there's some extra juice in a live setting, with that air coming at you. But I read that playing live wasn't always your focus, musically.
I was in a band [before The Heavy], but I used to just write melodies and lyrics for the girls to sing; I would always kind of sit back and work on production.
When myself and [guitarist Daniel Taylor] got together, I’d be writing songs and I wanted him to sing the songs because he’s got this amazing John Lennon-esque voice. And his timbre is just beautiful. I was writing songs with him in mind, and he was just like, ‘Dude, your guide vocals are just slaying it, so you should do it.’ So that’s how we kind of got to that point. We both write, but I am the lead now.
The Heavy seems to really thrive in concert, and you're an exciting front man to watch. How did you get to that point as a performer after relishing being the man behind the curtain?
In England, we used to have blues parties with like a reggae sound system set up in people’s house. They would generally occur on the weekend. You would always have MC’s, and there would be somebody toasting, there might be someone singing. You have to freestyle — off the top of your head. I was doing that for a number of years, probably 16 – 19 [years old].
It was great development for me later in life, just being able to come up with melody on the fly, and have a whole party rocking … so I had that experience there, but I hadn’t really taken it out.
The Heavy live is a different beast, and it is definitely a beast.
Do you still write using loops and stuff like GarageBand or Logic? Or now that you have a band, do you try to compose in the jam room?
Yeah, I’m always writing. I’m always sketching. But regardless of whether I’ll [program] something and the beat is tough — super, super tough — I’m always going to get [drummer Chris Ellul] to play on it and around it and get him bring what he brings to The Heavy.
I think what we’ve become really, really good at doing now — between myself and Chrissy we do program quite a bit — but we’ve become really good at getting the sound directly in. We concentrate on that now.
It’s great to have these apps and the loops out of GarageBand and Logic, but there’s just something about having drums from Chrissy, playing around with it, throwing it through a ton of gear, blowing your mind, and then treating that like a sample and then chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. And then [we’ll get] him to play on top of that with a different sound.
It’s been about 12 years since your first record. Is there anything from that early part of your career that you miss?
No, because I think as much as this beast has grown, everything that we wanted about it, all of the saturation — the dirt, the filth, the grime — those imperfections, we still keep within what we do. I think we’ve become a little better at recording it. I think a lot of people, as you become more successful, they want to remove all of that business. We don’t. We still want to keep that business in there. We don’t ever want it to be perfect because the imperfections make the track.
While “Better As One,” sonically, reminds me of James Brown; lyrically that one and “Fighting for the Same Thing” evokes Sly & the Family Stone songs like “Everyday People” or “Stand!” that are kind of heavy subjects addressed in a positive way. Where did that one come from?
I think as we’ve grown with the band and as I’ve grown as a man and as a father, it’s what I want. I’ve become more socially aware. With everything that’s been going on in Britain, in regards to Brexit, and the change in political climate over here. I live in Florida now — I’m watching the news all the time. It’s crazy right now.
So it came from there, from being socially aware, but also about kind of what I would like for my children. I think between myself, Daniel and Chris, who have children in the band, we wrote with that perspective. I kind of presented the idea with those two tracks, and then we just worked out the music to them. And there they are.
It’s like, there are so many people who will kind of sleep and then complain about it. The intension of “Fighting for the Same Thing” and “Better as One” is that we have to remember that these [politicians] work for us. And if you want to do something about it, then you go out and you do something about it.
When you’re asked to vote, then go out and vote and let’s not complain about the aftermath. …You still have to work as one, regardless of the outcome or whoever you voted for, you still have to work as one for the betterment of the county or the community.
At the moment, The Heavy's next run of live dates isn't until October; what are your plans for the time in between?
There are some penciled in. We have a few dates penciled in for September. We’re trying to build a tour around that and just see if we can work it out — if not it’ll be after. We’re doing Europe in October through November.
If you’ve not seen us live, you need to come see us live because it’s a party.
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