An Endless Well: Homer Steinweiss of Holy Hive on Soul Folk Fusion

Homer Steinweiss has made his mark on a ton of recent pop music, drumming for the likes of Mark Ronson, St. Vincent, and The Jonas Brothers. He may be best known, though, as the former drummer of The Dap-Kings, where he spent years mixing it up with Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, and other retro-soul royalty, and that’s what makes his latest turn such a curiosity. With the release of his band Holy Hive’s debut full-length Float Back To You, he’s staking his claim in a blend of traditional funk rhythms and folk-inspired lyricism, courtesy of singer/guitarist Paul Spring.

Like the smoothest fusion projects, it highlights the common ground between its individual parts, and at the center of the soul folk venn diagram you find–what else?–love poetry. It’s what connects a traditional Irish tune like “Red is the Rose” (reimagined by Holy Hive in groovier fashion) and Sappho’s “Fragment 31” (which inspired the track “Embers To Ash”).

Spring’s soulful falsetto is the universal solvent that melts it all together over simmering beats by Steinweiss and bassist Joe Harrison. It’s a balmy, analog mix that brings out the best in its influences, resulting in an album that’s as heady and heartfelt as it is physical and liable to make you move.  Otherworldly and almost psychedelic, it sometimes feels like listening to summer songs from an alternate universe’s 1970s.

At the outset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Steinweiss left his New York City home to stay with family in Pennsylvania. From that out-of-state refuge, he spoke to The All Scene Eye by phone about making his first personal artistic statement and the spontaneous collaboration behind Float Back To You.

You’ve played on all kinds of records, but you’re known as being involved with soul and funk. What was it like taking those sounds and crossing them over into this folk territory?

For me, that’s the heart and soul of this project, and why it’s gotten so fun. Ever since I started doing music professionally, I always had interest in more types of music than some of my peers. Some of the people I worked with all along were real purists–we were just doing this old school soul or funk. I love being able to study something in such a specific way, but then all along, I was like, “Man, it’d be cool to do some 80s funk, or to do some country music.” Then when I was in college and late high school, I got really into Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and then kind of deeper into that world. My mom gave me her old banjo, and I learned to play that. I tried to make a banjo funk record when I was, like, 22, and it was cool, but I didn’t have the full vision for it. I just shelved it, and I was busy with The Dap-Kings.

When I started working with Paul, I didn’t even make the connection. Paul wanted to record a record, and I produced his record. I wasn’t like, “Man, we could cross this over.” But then we went on tour with Lee Fields, and I was noticing–we were playing these straight-ahead rock-folk things, not much soul influence in them, and I remembered that Paul’s got that crazy falsetto. I was like, “Yo, let’s just do one of these soul songs. See what happens.” And the audience freaked out. When we got back in the studio, it all became perfectly clear. I was like, “We have to do some soul music that I actually know a lot about, use Paul’s falsetto as an asset, and then bring in those folk elements that Paul’s more in tune with, but something I know a lot about too.” 

From there, it’s like you have an infinite well. You keep saying, “Let’s do a folk version of this old soul song. Let’s do a soul version of this old folk song.” It’s really endless because there are so many ways of doing everything. Folk tradition, you’ll have one guitar player–like, right now, Paul is really into Doc Watson. He has one way of picking, and it’s amazing. And if you apply that picking method to, you know, a Curtis Mayfield song, you’re going to get something you’ve probably never heard before because the Curtis Mayfield chords are something Doc Watson wouldn’t play. For me, it’s exciting to geek out and make cool music at the same time. It’s why it’s become such a special project for me.

You mentioned that tour with Lee Fields, and Holy Hive also did a year-long monthly residence at Sunny’s in Brooklyn. How did you see the band develop through that?

Well, the Sunny’s set is a three hour gig. We had about an hour’s worth of original material that we learned for live sets, so when we started doing Sunny’s, we were immediately, like, “Let’s just do more stuff.” We would bring in another singer to do an opening set, and we’d back them up, then we would do our set, and then we would do a set of covers. We got really into doing Kinks covers–you’d be surprised how many Kinks songs everybody knows in the bar, at midnight, singing along. [laughs]

But that, I think, epitomizes what we love about live music. I’ve been doing live music for so long, and you get a little jaded playing in big venues and playing the same thing every night. It becomes like a job. It’s really great being able to play for new people every night, but there’s something so satisfying about going to a small bar with 10 to 20 people, being able to play whatever you want–and you get to test out things.

We have a song, “Red is the Rose,” that we do on the record, and it’s an old Irish folk song. I remember one night, we were at Sunny’s, and I was like, “Let’s play ‘Red is the Rose.'” Paul does some banter sometimes, and he was like, “This is an old folk song that I learned when I was a kid,” and he was like, “I’m going to sing you the original version.” He starts singing it–there’s an Irish guy in the audience–and everyone’s quiet in the whole bar because he’s singing this beautiful folk song without any drums or anything. Then we played our version, and it’s just super intimate. 

Playing at Sunny’s, that cool old bar–I feel like that’s what we want to do the rest of our lives, is be that local band that can do something like that. It would be interesting, if we ever got any bigger an audience, how we’d bring that into a bigger-sized stage. We’ve opened for some people in bigger rooms, and it’s hard to get people’s attention, you know? No one knows who you are, it’s three people playing quiet music, it’s not super dynamic or exciting, but it’s cool,  and when you’re in a small bar like that, that’s where it really makes sense to me.

It’s definitely got groove, though, and that’s what’s so interesting about a track like “Red is the Rose.” How does that Irish folk tune become what it is on the record?

I think that’s so much like what I was talking about before. Those grooves are something that I just know how to do, so even if I try and make a folk song with a very simple backbeat, it doesn’t come out very well. [laughs] So then I’m like, “Okay, what do I know how to do?” And I’m like, “Well, let me try this funk beat.” I’ve been playing funk and soul drums my whole life, so that’s the default. Then you have to see how the song works with it. A lot of times, I might be like, “Paul, let’s write a song with this groove,” and he’ll be like, “Oh, that’s a cool groove. There’s this old Irish folk song. Let’s try that on top of that groove.” I think that’s how that song went down. I was like, “Let’s rip off this old soul song,” and he was like, “That’s cool. Let’s use this old folk song for lyrics.” I was like, “Perfect.” [laughs]

“Be Thou By My Side” is a little more direct in terms of interpreting the original. How did you first encounter that song, and how did it find its way into the repertoire?

I’m going to give my friend Danny Miller a shout out because he has a really cool design company–he did the graphic design for our album art. It’s called High Tide New York. He and me have been exchanging mixtapes for, like, ever. We kind of stopped now that Spotify happened because we can just see each other’s playlists, but we would send, like, 20 MP3s back and forth after the cassette tape thing was over, and he put that on one of his mixtapes for me.

It was such a weird song–the way that it sounded, the way it was recorded, and the way the vocals were. Everything was perfect about the original, and over time, I slowly became obsessed with it. I looked it up and found out that it was only on this band Honeybus’ album that was never released. That’s why it’s so obscure. I don’t know the full story, but there’s probably like, 100 test pressings, and some DJ has one of those, and he ripped it from some DJ set, so it was just one of those cool, super obscure songs. 

I showed it to Paul and Joe when we were recording the album, and I was like, “I think this sound is good for the band. It’s really lo-fi in some senses, but it has this crazy falsetto, and it’s unique,” and they were both like, “Yo, this song is the best.” I thought it was kind of my guilty pleasure, and they just like, “No, this is my favorite song.” “Well, you guys like this song too? Let’s cover it.”

Sometimes when you do a cover, it’s in order to take a song you love and make it yours, but in this case, no one’s ever heard it, so it’s almost like, “Let’s just show this song to the world.” I think the best way to show a great song to the world is as close to the original form as you can, and especially with the way they did the high vocals on the chorus, it just sounds like Paul. I actually like the way Paul sings it better. At first, I was like, “Paul, it’s cool, but it sounds nothing like Honeybus. You’re singing it all wrong.” And then–I know him personally, and he has such a sincerity to him that when he sings it, the lyrics resonate even more.

It’s just one of those covers that you don’t have to do much to, you know? Someone else covered it recently–a band called Drugdealer. They did a different version, which is cool too, but when it calls for it, I like just doing covers as they are.

You touched on the lo-fi sound of the original, and there’s this real classic, analog feel to the Holy Hive record. How did you develop that aesthetic?

Coming up the way I came up, it was basically, like I said before, around a lot of purists. Not just purists in style, but also in recording–I grew up with Gabe Roth, Leon Michels, and Thomas Brenneck, and all these guys produce soul records. We’ve all shared studios and worked together, and we all record on tape all the time, so that, for me, is actually like the default. Rolling tape, getting a good take, and then I usually bounce the stuff to the computer so I can do my editing and stuff.

I’m not super, like, “It has to all be on tape,” but I find that if you do it like that, not even just for the sound, but for the process, it makes the thing work better. Instead of being like, “Okay, let’s do it a couple times, then edit it right away,” you have to get a pretty decent take on tape first, just to get the performance. It kind of forces you into doing a performance and limiting what you have, so you don’t put 12 mics on the drums–you might use one or two tracks for drums and then a track for guitar, a track for bass, and a track for vocals. Then you have a couple tracks for overdubs–we have an eight-track. Once you fill that up, you decide what you want to do. Do you want to bounce it to the computer and add more stuff, or do you want to just mix it off the tape? Do you want to bounce it around?

It’s the process that I like best because it feels very natural, and then when you put it onto a record like this, it’s really minimal production. I try to be as minimal as I can. Some songs have more, but when you’re doing just drums, guitar, bass, and vocals with a few overdubs here and there, you want everything to really sound warm and pleasing, and recording on an analog console with analog tape helps you get there.

You work out of Diamond Mine Recording in Queens, which you’re a co-owner of. What’s the story behind that space, and what was it like working there on this record?

So, Thomas Brenneck, Leon Michels, and Nick Movshon are guys I’ve been working with since I was in high school. Me and Tommy had a studio together about ten years ago, Leon had his own studio, and Nick used to kind of float around between them, and we all got kicked out of our studios at the same time–it was that type of Brooklyn gentrification. They were going to tear down all the places and turn them into condos, or whatever. It was like, 2013, 2014, we were all done with our leases, and we were like, “Why don’t we all look for a spot together and make something bigger and better? And pool not only our money, but all of our gear that we’ve collected individually?” We found this space in Queens. It’s not crazy. It’s like, 1300, 1400 square feet, blank space, and the floors were concrete, so it’s good enough to put a recording studio on.

It seemed like a building that they didn’t really give a fuck what you did in there. [laughs] That’s the most important thing. In New York, everyone is so particular about how long you can stay, your noise complaints, all that stuff, so we were like, “We’re going to soundproof it the best we can.” We moved in, we got a bunch of gear in there, and I remember when we first started playing, we were like, “No one’s complaining. This is great. The soundproofing worked.” Then we went downstairs–the owner of the building has his office right below us, and they were like, “Man, we love the saxophones. We love the pianos. Who was that singing yesterday?” [laughs] It turned out that they could hear everything. It goes right through the floor, but they loved the music, so that worked out.

We have an in-house engineer named Jens Jungkurth now, and we’ve really honed in on all the sounds that we like over the past five or six years. We’ve treated the room, we’ve muffled the drum, so when I record, I don’t even need to have an engineer. I know where to put my microphone. I know how to tune my drums. It’s really seamless, and it’s great to be able to record a record like [Float Back to You] there because every once in a while, Nick or Leon might pop in, and I’ll be like, “Hey, you wanna throw some saxophone on this track?” Or, “Our bass player is in California. Wanna throw some bass on it?” That creates this collaboration that is all over the record because it’s a space that people are constantly coming through.

Is there a favorite example of that on this record for you?

I’d go with “Oh I Miss Her So.” Paul wrote that song one day after we had recorded the bulk of the album. A lot of the time, when Paul writes a song, he shows it to me–or vice versa, I write it and show it to him–and we take it apart until it’s something totally different. With that song, I was like, “This is perfect.” We were at the studio playing it, and I was like, “Man, I wish we could cut this right now,” and Nick and Leon pop in. Joe’s in California, so Nick learns the bass part, Leon sets up the engineering, and Leon has this totally unique way of recording drums, so he gets the drum sound super tough. It just came together so quickly. It’s one of my favorite tracks that we’ve done, and the way it turned out is a lot because Nick and Leon happened to be there at the right time.

You mentioned that came after the bulk of the record. Is that why it ended up on the Harping EP?

Exactly. We finished what we thought was the record, and we were like, “We want to put this out,” and Big Crown was like, “Great, we’ll put it out in November 2019.” I forget–maybe the original release date was March 2019, but whatever, it was a while. They had all these other releases, and they were noticing that we didn’t have any followers. They were like, “We want to push your album back to get these other albums,” and we were like, “Okay, that’s fine, but we want to keep recording stuff and we want to put out some singles.” The owners [Leon Michels and Danny Akalepse] were like, “That’s fine. Digital singles, that doesn’t cost us anything.” So we started just recording all the time, like, “We’ll just release singles until our release date.”

Then Paul wrote that song, and he had this idea to have a harp player on it. We called Mary Lattimore. She came in, we had all these other songs, and she recorded them all in one day. She was just busting them out. By the end of the day, we were like, “Damn, I think we got five or six tracks.” We pitched the EP to Lepse, and he was like, “This is great.” [laughs] So we put out the EP pretty fast. It was probably a month or two after we recorded it. And that one song, Lepse and Leon were kind of obsessed with it. Lepse was like, “We have to put this on the album.” So we resequenced the album a little bit, and I’m excited that ended up on there, because I think it belongs there.

You worked with some other cool people on that EP–you had vocals from Sasami Ashworth. How did that collaboration come together?

That was really, really fun. My old manager Alex Kadvan–he manages The Dap-Kings. He used to personally manage me, and we’ve stayed friends, although I don’t really work with him that much anymore. Any time he has an artist who he thinks I’d like, he says, “Come on, check this out,” so he hit me up, like, [laughs] “Sasami’s playing this little showcase in New York. I think you would really dig her.”

That week, me and Paul had been working on this song, “The Things Themselves.” We had cut the rhythm track and we were cutting the vocals, and I had written the vocal part for the song. I had envisioned it a certain way, and Paul just was not delivering what I wanted. [laughs] We started talking, “Let’s get some female vocals,” because that’s really what I was hearing. I started running through my Rolodex–you know, “I can get the person who used to sing backgrounds with Sharon, I could get this person.” Alex emailed me right around this time, and I was like, “I’ll come to the show.” And when I heard her sing, I was like, “Man, this is the person.”

After the show, I went up to her, and I was like, “Hey, I’m friends with Alex. He invited me to the show,” and she was super nice. I was like, “Are you in town? If you want, come by my studio tomorrow.” Alex was saying she might want to record some drums or something, and I was kind of trying to reel her in with that. I was like, “You can come check out my studio, I can record some drums for you,” and she was like, “Cool, yeah, I’d love to. I have the day off in New York tomorrow,” so she came through. That day I was showing her the studio, telling her how we do our drums, and she’s very, very astute about recording and drum sounds. The way she was talking about drum sounds was super advanced. She was like, “I hate this drum sound, I hate that drum sound,” and I was like, “This is my type of person.” Just, very particular about everything. [laughs]

I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to throw this out there. I’ve got these two tracks that we’ve been working on. We’ve been looking for a female vocalist. Maybe you want to sing on them?” I played them for her, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m down. I have, like, an hour. Want to record?” She did one take of each line, maybe two, just, so in-tune, and so emotive in the perfect way–my heart was racing because it was so good. That rarely happens in the studio, where something is so good that you feel like the computer’s about to crash. [laughs] You know? It’s too good. I’m like, “Something’s gotta go wrong.” Then she left, I sent her the mixes, she said they were cool, and that was that. It was a one-day thing.

I actually did record some drums for her a couple weeks later. I don’t think they ever made the cut, but I would love to collaborate with her any time she wants to because I’m a big fan of her as an artist and super grateful for her to join us for those two songs.

What has it been like sharing these songs, either from the Harping EP or from the upcoming record? How have people responded to the sound?

It’s a little bit emotional for me because I’ve been doing music since I was in high school, but most of the music I did, I was not that confident to put my full stamp on, you know? It was always like I was a supporting member. Even as a producer, I always feel my role is to let the artist say what they want to say, so this is one of the first projects that I’ve been an artist and a producer and it’s really like, “This is what I want to say.” I’m not just part of someone else’s thought–this is really my thought, along with all the people I’m collaborating with.

After all these years, it was a big deal to see how that was received, and everyone is so encouraging. Even the people who I felt like might be like, “Why are you doing this weird white boy soul shit?” [laughs] It’s come from all different places, where people hit me up, and they’re like, “Man, I love this Holy Hive stuff. It’s really different, it’s really cool,” and it’s really satisfying. And if people don’t like it, they’re not like, “This is terrible.” They just don’t hit me up and say it’s great.

I think that’s something that you learn as you put yourself out there more. Obviously, if you read critics, someone’s gonna diss your thing here or there, but the people who you care about and who you care about what they say, they’re either going to be honest with you in a way that’s constructive, or they’re not going to say anything at all if they really don’t like what you’re doing. You don’t really have to worry about the people who you trust and love when it comes to putting your art out there.

What’s next for Holy Hive after this release?

Ever since our album got pushed back so long, me and Paul have been committed to just recording a song, having a new song every month, and we want to get back on that, so we’ve basically recorded our next album at this point. I don’t know when Big Crown is going to put it out. I don’t know if we’re going to put it out as an EP, or just, a song, a song, and then make another album after that, but I feel like we’re just getting started.

One of the things we’ve done that’s been really fun for the second album is that–it’s been really hard to get the bass player in the same room as us because he lives in California, so we did a couple things where we were going on a short tour to California and we rented out an Airbnb for a week. We brought a Universal Apollo, a drum set, a bass, and a guitar, and we recorded almost the majority of the second album in an Airbnb. [laughs] I’m sure other people are doing that because–I mean, why not do that? It’s such a cool way to make music because you get this whole different vibe. Every place you go becomes, like, “These are the desert tracks, this is the tennis house track.” It kind of speaks to this time right now where everyone is separated, so being able to record on these mobile rigs is something that we’ve gotten good at. I think you should be expecting, if not another album in a year, definitely a bunch more songs after this album comes out, very soon.

What sounds have come out of that mobile process?

We’ve released one song from those sessions, and that song is called “Golden Crown.” It was a random release, but it’s on Spotify, and it was very influenced by Los Terricolas. It’s this Mexican ballad, and it obviously doesn’t sound like that because we’re not singing in Spanish and it’s a different vibe, but the inspiration is there. We want to make it a desert album, so it’s a little bit more minor, it’s a little bit more, I want to say–maybe a little more creepy? [laughs] But I think that there’s a through-thread of, like, a funk beat, Paul’s falsetto, a couple guitars, maybe a saxophone or flute here and there, and that’s our sound. You can’t get away from it.

I came across a Reddit post wondering what kind of snare you used on the record–could we satisfy that curiosity?

I have a couple that I swap in and out, but I have five or six of a snare called the Ludwig Acrolite. They’re student model snare drums that they started making in the 60s, and they still make them today, but the models from the 60s and 70s are these really light aluminum drums that just sound perfect. When I was 18, I got hooked on these, and they would cost, like, $50. Now you find them, the vintage ones, for $300 or $400, so they’re still not very expensive. That’s my sound–I can’t get away from it.


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