Q&A: honeyhoney's Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe

SoundSpike, October 20th, 2010

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Honeyhoney is well named. There's an almost tangible sweetness to their sound, flush with swirling notes practically begging to be scooped out of the air and spread on toast with jam. But they don't cloy the way some boy-girl combos do. Helmed by multi-instrumentalists Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe, honeyhoney seethes and roils and ropes you in with their sometimes plaintive, frequently edgy, always compelling songs.

What's harder to pin down is the genre. "Jazzy punk folk" comes to mind, but the Santo-Jaffe concoction is headier than even that recipe. Santo's voice is by turns wistful and sultry, the emotional counterpoint to the understated yet urgent precision of Jaffe's guitar and piano. Add in her fiddle and banjo and the playful snipes the two sling back and forth at each other like siblings trapped in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon on a cross-country family trip, and that's when things get really interesting.

Santo and Jaffe are poised to sneak off to the studio to record their second album, but you can catch them in the wild at L.A.'s Ford Amphitheatre Aug. 7 and out with Xavier Rudd in Santa Cruz, CA (Aug. 16), and Solana Beach, CA (Aug. 17). In the meantime, SoundSpike ran the elusive pair to ground at a recent Hotel Cafe gig (July 9) in Hollywood, CA, for some photos and a chat.

SoundSpike: How annoying is it when photographers crawl around on the floor right under the stage while you're playing?

Ben Jaffe: Not annoying at all.

Suzanne Santo: I don't even notice it.

BJ: And that would have been weird if we were super annoyed.

SS: It's a compliment. Unless you're like, "This band sucks!" while you're taking a picture. Because that's not cool. But no, I think it's kind of flattering. It's like someone's trying to capture our "special moment."

BJ: Or look up your skirt.

SS: Or look up my skirt. But I'm wearing shorts. Unlucky for you!

You guys started out as Zanzibar Lewis. Where did you get that name?

SS: Growing up, my mother called me Lewis. It was her nickname for me because when I was a kid, I was loud and annoying and I had this obnoxious laugh...

BJ: When you were a kid?

SS: Shut up. I will kill you right now and make sure everyone knows I did it. I reminded her of the comedian Richard Lewis, so she called me "Lewis." And my uncle Tony calls me "Xana-du! How are you?!" And then at some point Zanzibar Lewis.

So that's your alter ego?

SS: Kind of, actually.

What's yours, Ben?

BJ: Oh, I just like to keep it simple: Satan.

SS: He's the Beej! Beej the Deej.

BJ: That's not an alter ego, Suzanne.

SS: Come on, Ben, be honest with her.

BJ: Well my initials are BJ and it's kind of an elongated BJ the DJ.

SS: Ben is multifaceted.

How did you guys end up shooting a music video for "Little Toy Gun" with Kiefer Sutherland?

BJ: Well, we were signed to his record label [Ironworks] for a while.

And how did that come about?

SS: Sexual torture.

BJ: We won a rigged contest.

SS: No it wasn't, Ben! We had actually approached the label before this contest, and they were like, "Well, if you are interested, then you should join this contest that we're having." It was with 98.7 FM, and we won and got this five-song EP deal, and then it turned into a full record deal. But we're no longer with Ironworks anymore.

What happened?

SS: You know, they're a really great label, but they're not the right ones for us and what we want to do. It's just one of those things. It's like leaving a good lover. It's like, "Ah, you were so great, but you know, it's not quite right...but the sex was great!"

So you guys are sans label, then? A true "indie" band?

SS: I think the word "indie" gets abused. I think it gets stamped on crappy material sometimes. It's like, "Hey, it's indie." And it's like, "Aw, come on." That doesn't make it good.

On your site you describe your music as "rocktastic" and "freaky deaky," but if you had to pick a genre, how would you describe honeyhoney's sound?

BJ: I don't know. It's like folk music now.

SS: It's pretty folky.

BJ: It's like cross-folkination. I mean, it's minimally drawn from American rootsie stuff and styles. You know, country, bluegrass, stuff like that.

SS: Jazz.

BJ: Yeah, jazz music.

SS: Hip hop.

BJ: We didn't really get there.

SS: We're going to, though.

I hear you're going back into the studio. When is that happening?

SS: Tomorrow?

BJ: Yeah, hopefully. We're going for something preliminary tomorrow, and then hopefully in the next month.

Do you have a tentative title for the new album?

SS: The Dope Shit? No, we don't yet. We haven't really gotten there yet.

Can you give us a hint of what to expect from the new album?

BJ: No.

Let's go back to your first album, "First Rodeo," produced by Jude Cole. Am I insane or am I hearing a Jon Brion influence with some of the arrangements and the warbly barrel organ madness?

BJ: The keyboard madness comes from a really amazing pianist named Pat Leonard. He played keyboard for most of the record and came stocked with a deep library of sounds to choose from. The Brion vibe comes courtesy of an instrument called the mellotron, which immediately grabbed our mind as the coolest ol' timey vibe enhancer you've ever heard. It was one of the first "sampling" keyboards, so the sounds it creates are usually about 50 or 60 years old. Jon Brion uses similar sounds in a lot of his productions so no, you're not insane. He is a true badass.

It's always interesting to hear the story behind songs. What's the story behind "Black Crows?"

SS: I used to live in this place that was so fucking loud all the time, even the crows would like -- in the morning, it was like, "Cawww! Cawwww!" and it would wake me up even if my windows were closed, and it would drive me crazy. And so I'd look out my window, and there's these black crows and this gorgeous blue sky and this wire, and I'm like, "Fuck you guys. Let me sleep!" And so it started with that, and having a hard time working and some days are better than most.

It's interesting that such an annoyed moment turned into such a sexy song.

SS: I love it. I think it's a fun song. I'd like to figure out how to play it live where it doesn't sort of plateau, because it needs the bells and whistles, I think. Otherwise it's just like, "Bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp," the whole time, so you need to sort of dress it up.

Does it need more cowbell?

SS: Yes, it does. And sex appeal.

Speaking of which, what would be the best way for someone to get either of you to agree to go out on a date?

BJ: Pay the tab.

Photos (c) 2002-2010 Melissa Henderson / SoundSpike