The Heavy North on empty arena gigs and new EP – Dive Bar Blues

The Heavy North have been busy over the last few months with two single releases and a vinyl EP due for release in December. We caught the band on Zoom for a natter.

Following the release of their single Lying To Yourself during lockdown back in May and a follow up, Bring Me Love in September, The Heavy North are now looking to a December release of a debut vinyl EP – Dive Bar Blues.

A Liverpool based five piece, the band is Kenny Stuart (vocals / guitar), Jose Ibanez (lead guitar), Andrew Horrocks (bass), Ste Penn (keys / organ) and Mark Rice (drums).

There was a series of dates planned for 2020, including a headline gig at Jimmy’s in Liverpool and plenty of festival slots lined up. But, guess what? They didn’t happen.

But there have been positives, notably airplay from BBC 6Music and BBC Introducing, as well as a couple of gigs for the Liverpool Digital Music Festival, the second being in the M&S Bank Arena to a largely empty room. We wanted to find out what’s going on in the world of The Heavy North.

To Zoom we go. Kenny, Ste and Mark were happy to talk.

We won’t tell you what Kenny’s Zoom user name was for this one. It would be unfair. Save to say, if it were a stage name, it would probably get the band barred from, well, pretty much anywhere. It does win the prize, however, for the most inventive Zoom tag we’ve seen so far.

And then there was the matter of Ste’s 10 month old puppy yapping in the background. It was going to be an interesting one.

Undaunted, we started off, as usual:

P3dro: Where you and what are you doing?

Kenny: I’m in Aigburth, I’m sitting here talking to you lovely people. I’ve been in work, I work in the Home Office as my job, so I don’t have to re-train.

Ste: I’m in Waterloo, near Crosby. Just been for a dog walk on the beach. That’s what you can hear in the background. She’s still giddy and excited. As for my day job, I work for a charity and I’ve been going to the office during the lockdown, so not too much has changed for me. All good.

Mark: I’m only just down the road from Ste. I’ve just finished work as well. I was actually trying to switch careers to barbering when lockdown came. But that’s taken a bit of a hit, so I’m doing office work and waiting for it to pick up again.

P3dro: It’s all a bit mundane, isn’t it?

Kenny: Yeah, we wish we could tell you about all the gigs we’ve been to recently.

P3dro: Yeah, we wish. Tell us a bit about the band. How did you get together?

Kenny: I’ve known Jose – we’ve played in bands for the last 10 years together. The last band we were in, Jacobi, fizzled out. So we were looking for a new project and I happened to bump into Ste at a party – I’ve known him for years. Then Mark ended up coming down for a jam and then, well, yeah …

Ste: It was around summer 2018 when I’d met Jose. I’d kind of been in similar circles and we went down to 3rd Planet (Jose’s studio), it started off with the three of us. I had been in a band called The Wicked Whispers, but we packed in at the end of 2017, so when Kenny asked if we wanted to get something together, I went down to the studio and was introduced to Mark.

Kenny knew Andy as well.

Kenny: Andy used to come into the office and [tell me] he’d written some poetry. He’s a boss lad and that’s one of the reasons why, when I hadn’t even seen him play an instrument, but I said “Yeah come down”. He’s into his music. He’s our bass player, but he was a guitarist, but based on his enthusiasm and being a really nice lad, we thought, let’s give him a crack at it. And he’s been really, really good.

Mark: He’s a solid bass player. He’d played guitar before, but this is the first time he’d picked up a bass and he’s tighter than people who’ve been playing bass for ages. We’ve got a good, solid rhythm section going.

P3dro: You guys have been quite busy, musically, during lockdown. Two singles and the EP.

Kenny: Yeah, well, we’re trying to be as busy as we can. Ste’s really good at the administrative side of things.

Mark: It would crumble without Mr Penn.

Ste: Yeah, I think the lockdown did work out quite well for us, to be fair. We had a few things lined up anyway, aside from the gigs. We’d managed to deliver on what we’d planned out for the year.

Just before lockdown we played with Temples at the Zanzibar and thast was boss. Then Revo / EVOL asked us to support Cut Glass Kings at the Arts Club. Then we were scheduled to play a second gig with Cut Glass Kings the following week, which got cancelled. Within the space of two weeks we’d done two gigs and then everything was put on hold.

But lockdown has been good because we’ve had the two single releases. We haven’t done that much lockdown-y stuff, but we’ve [managed to keep] a decent profile.

Kenny: We did the Liverpool Digital Music Festival. We’re really lucky because we have a lot of really loyal people who follow us and push everything we’re doing. That always helps. And we’ve had some help from Janice Long and Dave Monks, so that’s really good.

P3dro: What was it like playing to an empty arena?

Kenny: Ah, we’re used to it!

Mark: While you’re playing you don’t really notice. It’s when you stop in between the songs and there’s all the reverb going out to nothing. And then there’s just a few people clapping.

Kenny: The good thing about it though, because no one has been able to do anything, was that the crew hadn’t been to any gigs fora long time either, so they were all really enjoying it. It was a good experience and we really appreciate that we were asked to play it. You have to take what you can get – it was definitely positive.

Ste: We’ve been quite choosy and picky about what we did. A lot of people have been asked or encouraged to do lockdown sessions, especially early on, with acoustic guitars in their bedrooms. We made a decision early on that was something we didn’t want to do. Instead we’d pick and choose what we’d do as a band. We were lucky to have Jose as our guitarist – he’s extraordinary with the mixing, so with some of the pre-recorded stuff we did, we were able to get that just right.

We also did two tracks for Janice Long that went out on Radio Wales. Just having these opportunities, once or twice a month [was great]. The single release in May and then the one in September has also helped fill that void.

P3dro: Have you actually recorded any music during lockdown?

Mark: Bits and pieces, before everything went up in the air again, we got a couple of rough drum tracks down.

Kenny: The last single was done in lockdown, wasn’t it?

Mark: Well we had a hard drive malfunction in the studio and we lost [a lot of material], one of which was ‘Bring Me Love’. So when lockdown eased we were able to get back in the studio and do some stuff – it was a bit of a rush trying to put everything back together. So we re-recorded it from scratch.

Kenny: It was better though, because we got to add a few little intricate parts.

Mark: Yeah, before that it was a bit basic, but we’d been playing it live since we’d recorded it, before lockdown, so we could embellish it and [improve on it]. I think its better than the original.

Ste: We were lucky because we had the May single – ‘Lying to Yourself’ – all lined up. We’d done a video for it a couple of weeks before lockdown at a place in Liverpool called VideOdyssey, so we sat on that for a while. But with ‘Bring Me Love’ we put ourselves under a bit of pressure. We felt we needed to get it out ASAP. But it worked out well in the end.

P3dro: Tell us a bit about the artwork for the EP.

Ste: It was done by Alex Wynne. He plays in a band called Fumar Mata. A long story short – he’s mate of Dan [Hewitson] who did our videos. We put him through the mill because you need to get the spine right and the bleeds right, but he’s done a boss job.

Dive Bar Blues

P3dro: It must be a bit frustrating planning the EP release in December, but with no chance to play gigs to promote it.

Kenny: There’s a lot of people who are going to be getting it as a Christmas present.

Ste: Yeah, it’s a shame. There’s a few bands who are doing socially distant, stripped back gigs and I wouldn’t rule that out for ourselves. We were planning to do something at Phase One in Liverpool, but we’re on hold at the moment.

The EP is our first vinyl release, but is essentially a collection of four tunes that we’ve already put out. We already have some new tunes on the go, so hopefully we can follow it up in the new year. The EP is a kind of ‘story so far’ for us.

Mark: It’s a bit of a wrapping up as well, where we’re up to now. Then in the new year we’ll have some new tunes coming out.

P3dro: We were going to ask about new material. Can you even make plans at the moment?

Kenny: That’s not something we’ve particularly struggled with. There’s always something on the go. We could go into the studio to rehearse and come out with three potential tracks. We’ve always been really lucky, everyone’s quite expressive, so it’s not like there’s ever been an issue of having no ideas.

We’ve always got something ticking over, or something that needs finishing, or that we go back to and re-jig it a bit. There’s always stuff going on.

Mark: Because we’re based in Jose’s studio, we’ve developed a good workflow. We can go in with no ideas, but we can start something and then, say, get some drums down and then come back to it later.

P3dro: Do you all contribute to the writing process?

Kenny: Lyrically, it’s me, but otherwise, everybody contributes in their own way. We just bounce off each other. I’d never tell Mark what to play on the drums, or Jose what to play on the guitar. Everyone just cracks on with themselves. If something sticks, then fine.

Mark: The root is Kenny’s lyrics and a lot of Jose’s guitar playing. Then we all kind of add our own bits.

Kenny: We’re lucky because Jose can put his producer’s head on as well.

P3dro: We’d guess with an EP called Dive Bar Blues, it’s not particularly difficult to imagine what the band sounds like.

Kenny: The title actually came from one of our first reviews.

P3dro: Where do you get your influences from?

Kenny: I love listening to blues and soul. I’m really into ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac‘. Like, a lot. Like, unhealthily. I’m a big Stones fan as well.

Ste: We’ve all got slightly different tastes, but with a lot of stuff in common as well. I like a lot of the Stones, Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks. I suppose my last band was a lot of 60s psych and it makes an imprint on you. The Black Keys and BRMC as well.

Kenny: Mark’s the goth.

Mark: Probably not a lot of the stuff I listen to comes through musically, but I do try and slip it in there. A lot of the things I listen to, the drums have a slightly modernist, hi-fi sound. On the last two tracks we tried to bring that out a bit. But, yeah, I’m the resident goth.

P3dro: Recommend a band or an album you think we should be listening to right now.

Ste: Not right now, because it’s an old record, but there’s a boss album by a very short lived Liverpool band called Rockin’ Horse, it’s called ‘Yes It Is’. It’s well worth a listen. It came out after Merseybeat, but you can hear The Beatles all over it.

Kenny: I’ll go for ‘Exile on Main Street’ by The Rolling Stones. Just because it’s boss.

Mark: The new tune from Architects, ‘Animals’. They’re a bit of a metalcore band, but this is a bit more radio friendly.

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