A Q&A with the Halley DeVestern Band

Consisting of several grizzled veterans of the NYC music scene, the four primary members of the Halley Devestern Band, Halley Devestern (vocals), David Patterson (guitar), Tom Heinig (bass) and Rich Kulsar (drums) met the way most bands have met – through a series of serendipitous occurrences and through the old fashioned, six-degrees of separation. 

Much like Superhuman Happiness, the members of the Halley DeVestern Band are among some of the most accomplished in the city as they’ve played with the likes of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Mickey Dolenz, Shawn Mullins, the Zen Tricksters, the Lamont Cranston Band, Denise Barbarita and the Morning Papers, and others. Their latest effort together, Fabbo! Boffo! Smasho! released last month builds upon the bluesy, soulful rock sound of their previous album, Muscle Memory; however, the album also manages to reveal a band that’s grown both sonically and lyrically while being fronted by one of the most incredible voices I’ve heard in recent memory. 

Sure, sex and lust are a big preoccupation – and why shouldn’t they? After all, sex and lust have inspired some profound art. where Muscle Memory was overtly sexual, the material on Fabbo simmers and boils with a sensuality that may arguably be even more sexual. But lyrically, the material also discusses social and political issues, rooting the material in it’s time and in the universal, and it’s done with a sly, winking sense of humor. 

I recently spoke with the members of the Halley DeVestern Band, and collaborator Steve Jabbas, who was responsible for the impressive horn arrangements on “Muscle Memory” and “Code 9” about Fabbo Boffo Smasho; how they came up with the album title, and some of the song titles on the album; how they manage their songwriting process, considering that several members of the band are in different projects or have day jobs; their influences; the serendipitous fashion they all met; and of course, much more. 

Each member of the band also offers some honest and very thoughtful advice to artists trying to make a name for themselves, and if you’re an aspiring artist you may want to take some of it to heart. 

Check it below y’all. 

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that was the only thing you wanted to do?  

Halley DeVestern:  I was the youngest of four kids, so I had to learn to yell the loudest to be heard.  My older siblings used to listen to some great music: The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company, [Bob] Dylan, Donovan, Steely Dan.  That was my early music education.   When I was six or seven, the boy down the street had a copy of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and we thought it was really funny to play it as loud as possible and sing as loudly as possible and dance like maniacs until his mom yelled at us to go play outside.  I always wanted to play an instrument – my parents couldn’t afford to get me the piano I wanted, but they got me a little electric organ; my big sister had a guitar, which I used to play with.  My parents bought me my own Harmony acoustic guitar – I glued rhinestones from one of my mom’s old dresses onto the pickguard to spell out my initials.  I took up the violin in 2nd grade and played until high school.  That’s when I discovered that there were more cute boys in chorus than in orchestra, so I switched over to singing.  I used to mouth the words at concerts because I was too shy to sing in public.  One day I let out my voice.  People were surprised.  So I kept going.

I always loved to perform and I earned a BFA in Acting at Boston University School for the Arts.  But acting in the real world was not as artistically fulfilling as I had hoped.  It was all about “looking commercial”.  I had no control over my own artistic life.  One day a friend of mine encouraged me to focus on music because she felt that, while I was a good actress, I had a unique singing voice.  So that’s what I did.  

David Patterson: My stepmom came home to find me dropping the needle on a Ten Years After song and playing her guitar when I was eleven. At fifteen I started studying for a degree in music.

Rich Kulsar: I was told by my mother that I was constantly tapping my foot while still in the crib, you know the thing babies sleep in, not to be confused with the urban dwelling term… .so I think rhythm was already in me. Years later, I would take my can of Lincoln Logs, dump out all of the pieces, flip it over and drum on the bottom of the can with the two longest logs. In the 6th grade I signed up for band and started on the path of developing the raw passion I already seemed to possess. I guess from there the desire to make people move and groove never left.

Tom Heinig: As a young kid, I had no real interest in music and it all seemed pretty boring. Then when I was 11 or 12, the Beatles were happening, the older kid next door played bass in a band and my best friend had an electric guitar and a band that needed a bass player. So, I kinda started for all the wrong reasons – being popular and getting girls [like bass was a good choice for that!] – but things began to change right away. I remember being floored when I first heard ‘Nowhere Man’ – it seemed amazing that a song didn’t have to be about a girl or a dance or a teenage car wreck. And a couple years later, I was listening to AM radio when this hot new single – Jimi [Hendrix]’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”– came on and every hair on my head stood straight up – it was just that sonically powerful – still is, in fact. Those were a couple of the big milestones on my road to ruin, er, decision to play music. 

WRH: Who are your influences?  

HD:  Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, the O’Jays, Ruth Brown, the Isley Brothers, the Temptations, the Spinners, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Chuck Berry, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads, Mary J. Blige, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Phoebe Snow, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Earth Wind and Fire, my friends, my family, the voices in my head…:)

DP: The Beatles first, then [Andres] Segovia, [Jimmy] Page, B.B. King, Keith Emerson and Steve Howe.

RK:  Earliest:  John Bonham, “Hot StuffDonna Summer …think this was a drum machine (Jimmy Bralower?)  and a live drummer combined,Gene Krupa, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Simon Kirke ( Bad Company) Neil Peart.   Later: Art Blakey, Steve Jordan, Charley Drayton, Elvin Jones, Richie Hayward (Little Feat) and Jim Keltner.

TH: Well, everyone I’ve ever played with might be the best answer, but that’s too glib, huh? Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and a few hundred other great blues cats. Lowell George, Charles Mingus, Cedar Walton, Captain Beefheart, JS Bach… I looked at this question and didn’t know where to start and now I don’t know where to end. 

WRH: What are you listening to right now?

HD: Funk and R&B from the 70’s, Classical guitar, Daft Punk, Bach Cello Concertos, the voices in my head, anything good. 

DP: James Brown, Bill Bruford, Meredith Monk, the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, Jerry Douglas.

RK: The Blues … 

WRH: How did the band meet? And when did you realize that you guys just clicked musically?

HD:  I met Rich through his wife (amazing singer / artist) Denise Barbarita, who was engineering and producing a project for me.  I met Tom when we both performed at a benefit for an animal shelter.  We met David though Rich and Denise.  We all come from slightly different places, but have similar musical sensibilities, sick senses of humor and a love of wacky.

DP: I had played with Rich Kulsar before but we all pretty much clicked from the get go.

Steve Jabas: I was introduced to the group though our drummer Rich. We have worked together in other bands and he has played on recording projects I produced. Also, by coincidence, both me and her guitarist David Patterson had subbed for each other on various gigs over the years, the funny thing is, we had only met each other once or twice before. Iʼd say everything clicked together right away.

RK:  This is a classic NYC band story …a bunch of vets of the NYC music scene polarizing around the talent and drive of Miss Halley. She had recorded a disc that my wife Denise Barbarita tracked and they called me in to lay down some percussion. When the lineup on that disc fragmented into rhe NYC band trash heap, Halley remembered me and we started working together with her new bass playing, songwriting Hubby Tom Heinig. Based on the vibe the three of us had, Denise and I recommended David Patterson to play guitar. This lineup did one disc together with a few choice guests filling in the sound, which was heading very naturally in the direction of “Roots” “Blues” “Americana."  I think this is when we knew we really clicked on many levels. 

TH: Halley and I were both asked to join a band being put together for a benefit. I hadn’t met her before but her singing knocked me out. I was just trying to quit smoking at the time and so naturally I bummed a cigarette from her one day after rehearsal and we got to talking. Turned out her band had fallen apart and she was looking for a new bass player and I was at loose ends and it seemed like a good idea. That’s when I found out she already had 3 CD’s out and had written a load of songs. After a while, she and I began getting together and writing songs and to me that’s the point where this band started to cook.  

How would you describe your sound?

HD: Blues funky juicy, from the gut, from the heart, sometimes silly, sometimes powerful.

DP: Rock meets funk meets all of your favorite influences at a very good party.

RK: The latest disc, FABBO BOFFO SMASHO is a more realized "Roots” “Blues” “Americana” sound. We brought in more NYC music scene vets, Mark Mancini on all things keyboard, who both Tom and I knew of; my friends, the CNP Horns with arrangements done by another friend Steve Jabas. Steve also happens to be from the same state as our bass player Tom. A lot of serendipitous events have given us a nice momentum. 

TH: Always a hard question. We have a bluesy rock sound but a funkier, more rhythmic sensibility than you might expect. We have a lot of flow and improvisation and we can move pretty easily and naturally between genres, and that’s one of the things I love about this band. We’re not caught in any one bag and we’ll try different ideas and grooves. Like Duke [Ellington] said: “If it sounds good, it IS good.”

WRH: You have a new album which recently came out and one of the first things I noticed was that lyrically a great deal of the material wasn’t as overtly sexual or sensual as Muscle Memory; instead it’s sensuality simmers and boils to the surface, which may well be sexier.  However, a song like “Tore Up From The Floor Up” seems to come from personal, lived experience – that decadent night that you wake up from feeling like death, and you’re wondering to yourself “How did i get here? What happened?” Did that song actually come from a personal experience?

HD:  Yeah, kinda sorta (giggle)…not completely, much conjecture.  Sexual, eh?  Hmmm…

RK: I gave Halley the Lyric idea/hook “Toe Up From The Flo Up” and she ran with it….. Halley?????  I can say that the phrase was uttered many times to me after a night of partying by former bandmates ….I guess I stole it from them!!  HAH….  

TH: Not as overtly sexual? Oh, could that be because Halley and I got married in between those two records? You never know where a song comes from. We had just spent 17 hours driving home from a tour that ended in Knoxville and we were dead exhausted, but for some reason I woke up 2 hours later with the riff for ‘Tore Up’ stuck in my head, so I got up, played it into a recorder, wrote a couple lines and went back to bed for another 12 hours. That said, yes, there was considerable prior research done on the subject matter.  

WRH: “American Pain” and “Code 9” are probably the most politically/socially conscious songs I’ve heard you guys do up to date. What were the inspirations for the songs? 

HD: Whenever my sister and I talk on the phone, we to try to “one up” each other with personal tragedies.  I call it playing “misery poker”: the one with the worst life wins.  That was the impetus for “American Pain”, that need people have to be the most miserable one in the room.  Then it grew to a more global/national focus; about people complaining and getting whatever they can get from the system, from gambling, from insurance fraud, from disenfranchising others.  And here I am, playing by the rules like a sucker.  I want free money too.  I want to complain.  I want my American Pain.   It’s not about one political stance or another – it’s not “anti-entitlement”.   I believe strongly in Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, unions, health care reform and taking care of people in general.  That’s what we’re here for, to take care of each other.  "Code 9", well that’s a swipe at “Big Brother”; we’re being spied on, judged, scrutinized, categorized, trapped in boxes.  We find that little room above the antique shop and damned if the telescreen doesn’t come crashing in.   But we keep running.

SJ: It was later in the recording process when I was asked to lend my production and arranging skills for the album, the result was the horn section arrangements for the songs “Muscle Memory” and “Code 9,”

The first thing I did was to spend some time really listening to the rough mixes and considering the lyrical themes Halley had in mind. I like to have a copy of the lyrics, because I feel that lyrics must always be central, being supported by the surrounding instruments both with the notes they play, and the “message” they convey.

On Code 9, I wanted to enhance the “Big Brother” theme Halley wrote about, and drew influence from many of the great soul and funk horn sections recorded in the 1970s.
I wanted to create something like you could have heard on a 1970s cop drama on television!

The last section of Code 9 was particularly fun to do. I loved the track Halley put down that sounded like she was running and trying to escape something. Upon hearing it, I could picture her running down a dark, rainy street in some sort of futuristic film noir. To help enhance the cinematic feeling of that section I came up with some concepts to have the horn players play different types of sound effects. So all of the police sirens, helicopters and footsteps running off into the distance were actually trumpets, trombones and saxophones!

RK: All Halley and Tom here.

TH: I see that Halley explained ‘American Pain’ pretty well in her reply and that song was pretty much her baby. For ‘Code 9’, I was thinking of the Arab spring and how those movements were largely organized on cell phones and juxtaposing that with American kids frantically punching ‘9’ to prevent Mom from seeing what they were sharing with their friends. It kinda changed when we sat down to write it out and it got a more ‘Life During Wartime’ vibe. The music itself changes the way the lyrics run sometimes and Halley has to shape the lyrics to make them sing-able and natural.                      

WRH: “The Jesus I Know” paints a kindly, gentle picture of Jesus – and a bit of a more historically accurate one at that. The song seems heavily inspired by old gospel tunes. Was it?   

HD:  That’s largely Tom’s song, I just helped here and there…I do try to channel gospel vibes when I sing it.

RK: I think with this lineup of musicians it naturally went in that direction.

TH: Yeah, the thought from the beginning was to have a churchy, gospel feel, but one that portrays Jesus as he really was instead of making him some glorious blond guy ruling in heaven. We’ve had this ongoing kitchen table discussion about how all religions twist their founding principles to their own convenience, and when a Buddhist mob in Myramar killed a 90-year-old Muslim woman last year, well, there you go… Again, this one kind of came to me – this time while I was making guacamole and had to keep wiping avocado off my hands each time I thought of a new line. Halley saw me doing this and wandered over and read was I was putting down and loved it. And then she fixed it and wrote over some of the dumber lyrics [“The Jesus I know drives an old Volvo/don’t watch no Fox News’, etc”.] and gave the verses a better chord structure and it was done. We’d only rehearsed it once with the band before we went in the studio to lay tracks and we just did one take of it with the time we had left over on the session and.  . . there it is. A frigging miracle.  

WRH: Typical for a great deal of bands these days, members of the band are in other projects or have day jobs. How do you manage the songwriting process? 

HD:  Good question.  It’s not easy.  Sometimes we just want to come home from work, eat and collapse like most people.  Sometimes the muse just comes, and that’s cool.  Sometimes you gotta give her a push.  Sometimes you gotta leave her be.  I, personally, am not very disciplined.  I have to do more writing, more practicing, less collapsing.  Praying for a non-day-job life.

SJ: For my arrangements on the album, I first created a midi instrument demo in Pro Tools, and emailed a mix for Halley and Tom to listen to. We would use email or talk over the phone about any adjustments to be made. After the arrangements are approved, charts were created for the live horn section to record in the studio.

RK: With Halley and Tom cohabiting, it’s pretty convenient for them to write.  The core band all lives in NYC so getting in a rehearsal room once in a while is not too difficult and because we have a great chemistry, seeds for new songs and fully realized stuff happens often. 

TH: Halley and I generally write songs at home and record rough demos – sometimes just bass and vocal, other times we might add guitar or a drum machine track and we email it to the other guys so they can get ideas about it. Then we get together and try it out. It’s like taking a theory to the lab: Some theories are brilliant and work right away; others are dead ends; and some are like slow-growing cultures in a Petri dish – those are the ones that seem to work but we don’t use right away. We’ve got a couple songs like that sitting on a shelf in the dark that hopefully we’ll take out and start playing again someday. Yeah, it’s not like we all live in Big Pink or the Monkees house or something; it’s more like I have to work till 6, Dave’s flight lands at 6:15, Steve finishes his last lesson uptown at 7, Rich has a gig in the Village at midnight so, rehearsal from 8-10 on Wednesday works for everybody, right?

WRH: In one of the emails to set up this interview your drummer, Rich Kulsar hinted that you guys had an interesting way of coming up with song titles for the album, and that various members contributed song titles or significant portions of the songs. How did that work?

HD:  Yeah, it’s often the product of a long run of dirty jokes or funny anecdotes or riffing on something or just letting something come out of a jam. 

SJ: I believe, that I was the one to point out the album title. Following a particularly good rehearsal, Halley sent out an email to all of us with the subject “Fabbo Boffo Smasho.” I guess she was really happy with how things went in the rehearsal! My reply back was simply “and is Fabbo Boffo Smasho the name of the next album?” I really liked the sound of it, it sounded like a fun album title! The next email from Halley was “Hmmm….perhaps it should be…”

…and the rest is history…

RK: Hmmmm ….. not sure what gave you that impression Mr. Helms.   It’s not like we are burning sacrificial animals or vegetation while dancing naked on hot coals heated by the fires of Shamanic Healers!   We just jam sometimes and stuff comes out of the ether.

TH: HAH!!!

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?

HD:  JUST DO YOU.  Forget “fame”; just love your music and play it.  You better love it because that might be all the satisfaction you get. 

DP: Follow your Bliss! 

RK: You might know how you want others to perceive you, but ultimately, they will see and hear what they want to.  Do what’s in your heart and hope for the best!!

TH: That anybody who gives you advice may mean well, but they’re generalizing from their own experience. You should respect that and take advantage of any of their wisdom you can, but you’ve got to make your own mistakes. It’s making the mistakes and getting over them that makes you interesting. 

Halley, what advice would you give to women trying to make a name for themselves as artists?

HD:  Have a thick skin, watch and learn from drag queens, be yourself, love yourself, don’t worry if you’re not “pretty”, don’t worry about making a fool of yourself, own that stage, fuck what people say or think, live your fantasy out loud (cause that may be all you get), respect your fellow musicians, don’t be jealous of others’ successes (there’s room for everyone), learn as much about the business as you can, think like a man sometimes, don’t take yourself too seriously and HAVE FUN! [And] always love your audience.