Honeysmoke doesn't claim to have created its own genre, but we think the local band's blend of bluesy guitars and breezy island instrumentation is pretty unique. The foursome uses lap steel, ukulele, harmonica, resonator guitar, upright bass, and the occasional accordion to achieve a sound that's ripe with both Mississippian as well as Hawaiian flavor. And it's all quite fitting for Charleston, a place that can certainly appreciate sunshine-meets-swamp music.
Though the band officially formed last summer, frontman Dave Ellis, slide guitarist Justin James, and bassist Michael Rogers played music together for years as former members in the Beach Boys-esque band The Explorers Club. Their new project — the trio is joined by drummer Oleksak — is heavily inspired by the Delta blues.
For Ellis, the musical change of direction started while he was browsing around a music store. He saw something shiny and knew he had to have it.
"I bought one of these resonator guitars," Ellis says. "I was always kind of interested in them, and I was getting into the Robert Johnson thing, and there was one at Ye Olde Music Shop for cheap. So I bought it, and it inspired the whole idea [of Honeysmoke]."
When it came to scratching the itch, he wasn't alone. "Justin was really into the blues and plays a really great slide steel guitar, so we just jammed some blues standards. Justin came and had upright bass, and Mike started figuring it out and learned it. And then Jake joined us in August, so I started doing some recordings of some songs I had previously done in this style, and that's where the album kind of came from."
Honeysmoke released its self-titled debut this month, a simple seven-song disc. The record contains covers of Tom Waits ("Jockey Full of Bourbon") and Robert Johnson ("Come on in My Kitchen"), plus the band's own tunes, like "Sullivan's Blues," a song Ellis co-wrote with James. "The Ballad of Honeysmoke" is the leadoff track and a basic blues jam. "My wife was cooking dinner, and I thought it might be fun to just have a straightforward 12-bar blues kind of song, so I just pulled it out at rehearsal and it worked," Ellis says. "It's just about the person you love cooking you dinner in the kitchen. It's about just feelin' in love, you know, and coming home from a hard day's work and the person you love is there with you."
The album's fourth track, "Sunny California," is a song Ellis penned about a past relationship while he and The Explorer's Club were in Los Angeles. The influence of his former band is obvious in this particularly laid-back tune, which is probably best heard under the haze of a setting sun. "On Holiday" is in the same vein, and like Ellis' blues excursion, it was inspired by an instrument.
"That one I wrote last summer while on vacation with Justin and his family in St. John," Ellis recalls. "I was there for 10 days, and I bought a ukulele before the trip and just learned it while I was there. I wrote that song on the second day.
For Ellis, learning a new instrument inspires creativity. "An unfamiliar instrument can sometimes inspire you creatively, because you don't really know all the rules yet, and you haven't really gotten locked into a typical way of playing it. It's been that way for both Justin and myself on ukulele," Ellis explains. "And a lot of the material we are currently writing has started on the ukulele. Sometimes it takes getting away from the everyday grind of life for me to be inspired."
As for the band's name, Ellis feels it's a remarkably apt way to describe Honeysmoke's sweet but bluesy sound.
"I was just researching blues terminology and stuff," Ellis tells us, "and there was this one [reference] called the Honeydripper, a guy who was just a smooth-talking guy with the ladies or something. So I liked that, but Robert Plant actually had a group in the '80s called The Honeydrippers. So we couldn't use that. And then [the research] also talked about smokestacks, so I decided to put the two together."
He adds, "Honey and smoke has a kind of cool little image of something sweet and something smoky —something that drips, something that rises — like two opposite ends of the spectrum put together. And it's kind of weird how it worked out with our group because we do the sultry, smoky blues, but we also like the sweet, mellow sound of the islands."
Honeysmoke will celebrate the debut disc at an album-release show Aug. 27 at the Royal American.