Like most things in Athens, The HEAP started casually, without grand plans or the desire for long-term commitments. Bassist Bryan J. Howard wanted to get a new project started featuring multiple bassists, so he got in touch with bassist Jeff Rieter, and the two started hanging out and having informal rehearsals to see what would happen. And what happened was funky.
The HEAP—not an acronym for anything, by the by—has been around now for five years, and in that time has solidified its reputation as one of the few combos in town versatile enough to touch on classic soul, relentless funk, kinetic New Orleans-inspired grooves and a little bit of bass-heavy rock and roll. The HEAP's music looks to the past, certainly, but isn't bound by it.
Over the years, the group has expanded to a nine-piece and released its debut album, Deluxe, in 2008. Lately the bandmembers have been acting as backing musicians for a number of acts and releasing singles digitally. As the band's fifth anniversary is quickly approaching, Flagpole got in touch with Howard to see what's up with his crew and their side work. We also asked him about a recording of Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" they were asked to do for the American Public Media radio show Radiolab.
Flagpole: What have you guys been up to recently? What are the plans for this upcoming Melting Point show?
Bryan J. Howard: The HEAP has been having a pretty good/productive year so far. We've been doing a good bit of recording and have had a few releases come out recently. We were honored to back Jim White on the track, "Here We Go" from his fantastic CD on Yep Roc Records, Where It Hits You. The HEAP Horns and I joined Bloodkin and Bobby Keys for their "Exile on Lumpkin Street," show which was a lot of fun.
We've also been going back through some tracks we began recording a while ago and finishing those up. So far, we've released three new songs digitally via Bandcamp.com. We are lucky to have had [Widespread Panic percussionist] Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz help us out with two of those. We're going to keep putting out digital singles and expect to have Sunny on a few more.
The Melting Point show should be great. We're looking forward to playing with Monophonics from San Francisco. We'll have Sunny with us and possibly another guest. It should be a great night of music. Our first show ever was opening for Kevn Kinney at the Melting Point in May of 2007, so we will also be celebrating five years together as a band.
FP: Are The HEAP, or any members of the band, playing with anyone else right now? What sort of creative muscles do you exercise playing for someone else? How does it differ for playing your own stuff?
BJH: The HEAP members tend to stay pretty active. I split my non-HEAP time with the bands Free Mountain and The Spinoffs. Ian Werden plays with The Vinyl Strangers and The Adams Family. Marc Gilley recently released a CD with his other band, The Odd Trio, who were recently nominated for a Flagpole Music Award.
When we're asked to work with others, we ask them what they want. Sometimes we have to make changes or want to show the artist we are working with a different idea than what they may have had in mind. Sometimes, the requests are just not possible. We do a fair amount of remote recording, and we had one request for a trumpet part that was insanely high pitched. We dropped it an octave and the artist was upset that we did not play it in the proper register. I had to explain to him that he was asking for a part that was an octave higher than the piccolo trumpet solo in the Beatles tune "Penny Lane." We just could not fulfill that request. We are usually able to give an artist what they want. The remote work is very interesting because it requires a certain amount of trust. When we worked with Prince's old keyboard player, Matt "Dr." Fink—he asked us to hold the phone to the studio monitors so he could hear what we were doing.
FP: What's the status of the Radiolab "Mellow Yellow" thing you were recording? That was supposed to be wrapped up last week, right?
BJH: We received a message from the executive producer of Radiolab, Ellen Horne, asking if we would be willing to record a song for an upcoming episode of the show about colors. Ellen was in one of my first bands, The Moorish Idylls. The Moorish Idylls eventually became Slackdaddy, and that is the band I moved to Georgia with back in 1996 with Ian Werden and Andrew McCain.
Radiolab was looking for cover songs about colors, so we chose Donovan's "Mellow Yellow." We had five days to learn, arrange and record the tune. We met the deadline and are now waiting to hear whether it'll be used or not. If it is not used, we will find a way to release it ourselves. We are pleased with the results. We had several folks help us out with the tune, including Sunny Ortiz, Kevn Kinney, Eric Wagoner and Rachel Townes. Marc Gilley handled the recording and did a fantastic job putting it all together. Hopefully, it will be used. I should find out very soon.
FP: Something we touched on last time you and I talked is how there's only a limited audience for the type of music you're playing—or any genre of music, really—in Athens. What are you guys doing to get out of town and get more ears turned your way?
BJH: Well, I think we are very fortunate to live in Athens. I am not sure that this band could have been conceived anywhere else. We are lucky that there are so many talented folks that are willing to work with others. That said, we have found that we are getting a great reception to our sound when we play outside of Athens. We would all love to make a living playing music, and we know it is a long shot but we are trying to put in the work to make it happen.
We've had our own issues getting on the road due to the size of the band and working with eight to nine different schedules. We will just keep doing what we are doing. People tell us that they like what we do, and I don't think we have any plans to stop anytime soon. We'll just keep trying to make a place for us and our music here.