Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears Bring on the Backlash
With their fourth full-length, Backlash, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears return to the grunge-y classic soul and punked-up R&B sound for which they’re known. The Austin-based band lays down a good groove on the album’s first single, the horn-driven “PTP.” Barcelona-based illustrator Roger Haus directed the accompanying music video. We phoned Lewis earlier this month as the band was about to embark on its first comprehensive run of the states since 2013.
You were working at a pawn shop when you first picked up the guitar. What’s the story there?
I used to work with one other guy there 24-7—my boss. I hated him so bad. He was like the comic book store owner on The Simpsons. He looked like him and talked like him. He was into guns and hardcore conservative. We hated each other, so I would kill time playing with the merchandise. I picked up one day and that’s how that went. I was making up weird stuff on my own. As far as knowing where everything is on the guitar and exactly how to play, I’m not like that. I see guys who play with their eyes closed, and I still can’t do that shit. The more I got into, the less I practiced. I would play it all the time when I first got it. It was easy to get the gist of it. I never took any lessons either so that was the other thing. It wasn’t that bad.
What was the Austin scene like back then?
It was good for us. Prior to this band, I had played around Austin for a long time as Black Joe Lewis & Cool Breeze. We had somewhat of a following from that. Then, we put the new lineup together and it took off pretty quick.
What was the Lost Highway/Universal Motown experience like?
They were cool. They were really nice for us. They put a lot into it. I don’t know if they got out of it what they wanted. We got picked up right after we started. We were pretty new at it back then. We got on the national front and were still learning. Now, I’m glad I’m self-releasing. It would have been cool to have that income later on as opposed to when you’re still a bar band.
Talk about how the songs for the Backlash started to come together.
There was a batch that had been sitting around for a year and a half. We didn’t finish it back then because we didn’t like everything we had. We wanted to do everything right on this one. I went through a breakup a couple of years ago and some of the songs are about that, and the Ferguson stuff was going on when I was writing. Some of the songs were written way back and then some are newer.
What made you want to retain the Honeybears name?
We had to because when we changed it everyone got confused and thought I fired the band and didn’t have the horn section anymore. They wanted the Honeybears, but it was the same damn band. There was a lot of confusion. I just wanted to bring it all back together.
You recorded with Stuart Sikes in Austin at Big Orange. What was that experience like?
It was relaxed. It’s not like the fanciest studio. As long as the guy recording you is good and you have decent equipment, that’s all you need. You go to these fancy places and you can’t smoke pot and they don’t want you to set your beer on anything. Fuck that. I don’t like that. It’s about who’s working the board and engineering. If you got that going on, you can get a good sounding record from just about anywhere.
The horn arrangements are terrific.
There’s a few that I would tell them what to do and then they would put their own variation on it. There’s a lot where they come up with their own stuff. It depends on the song.
You’ve said Nile Rodgers was an inspiration. Talk about that a bit.
Yeah, my dad is from that era. I always liked his shit. A couple of years ago, when I moved back to Texas, I picked up some Sister Sledge and Chic records. There’s a movie called Alphabet City that he did the soundtrack to and that made me want to buy more of his shit. When you’re a kid, you don’t take your parents’ music seriously. It’s when you reach an older age that you get it. Bernard Edwards is also amazing. His bass playing is great. I really like the no horns disco. Chic is like a funk band. They changed the disco scene, which had relied on strings on horns before that. Chic was like a funk band that was sped-up funk that became disco because it was do dance-y.
And they influenced hip-hop.
Oh yeah. He’s had a resurgence with Daft Punk. I don’t care much for that, though.
“Lips of a Loser” is such a great break up ballad. What inspired it?
That was a breakup song. I was engaged to a Canadian girl. We broke up and I was going back and forth between there and here. It’s how it went. I’m over it now.
Talk about “Nature’s Natural.” What made you want to address that topic?
I was just pissed off when I saw that going on. Cops were stomping people out . . . I was pissed off and that just came to me really fast. When I was younger and I was writing, everything came fast. Now, the more I write, the more thought I put into it and the harder it is. That’s one of the few that came to me really quick.
The band’s been around for a decade now. What keeps you going?
It’s rough. It’s how I make my living. I dropped out of high school, so it’s all I got. It’s been a lot of people in and out and I’ve had people leave the band and try to sue me. It’s always something. One of my favorite things is seeing how I deal with conflict if someone has an issue. I’ve gotten good at being a boss. That’s nice to see. Sometimes, you have to tell people they need to be prepared. I don’t care if someone in the band finds a gig that pays them more and it will advance their life. As long as they let me know, it’s fine. In the past, that shit used to freak me out. As long as you’re working, you can usually find people. I like the group I have around me right now. I don’t trust a lot of people anymore. There would be people who I thought were my friends until they had lawyers hitting me up. It’s a good lesson on people. I feel like you can’t fuck with me anymore. I have my shit locked down.
This is your first tour in three or four years.
We did a short three week tour at the end of the past summer. I’m excited but a little worried about it. I’m not conditioned like I was back in the day. It took me about a week and a half to get used to being around everything. Now, I’m totally chill. It’s good. I’m excited about the album. I like it a lot. We’ve self-released the album, so I don’t have a label fucking with me. Everything is on me and if anything goes wrong, I have to look to myself. It’s cool.