In the Studio: Honeyblood
Stina Tweeddale and Shona McVicar caused a stir in 2013 with their determined brand of noise pop. The Skinny met the Glasgow girls to talk about studio freak-outs and how domestic life in Connecticut helped shape their debut
The double act is a familiar concept in theatre and comedy; think of Morecambe and Wise or Waiting for Godot. But musicians have tended to steer clear of partnerships. Even the great songwriting duos will nearly always draft in a backing group to boost their numbers on stage. It was only around the turn of the century that a variety of artists – from The White Stripes to Death From Above 1979 – illustrated the raw power and sonic dexterity that two people can make when armed only with a guitar and a drum kit.
Honeyblood have little in common with those groups, but they do similarly suggest that sometimes less really can be more. Their sound recalls The Breeders circa Last Splash, PJ Harvey's Dry or the reverb-heavy harmonies of West Coast slackers Best Coast. It's a winning combination.
Drummer Shona McVicar and guitarist/vocalist Stina Tweeddale have come a long way in a short time since playing their first gig in February 2012, when they supported Allo Darlin' at Edinburgh's Sneaky Pete's. They soon landed a record deal with Brighton’s FatCat, released a well-received single in Bud, completed their first tour of the UK in October and then recorded what is likely to be one of 2014’s most eagerly-anticipated debut albums – and all without a bass player.
The Skinny met Honeyblood in a lively Woodlands bar shortly before Christmas to talk about that record, surviving the attentions of US immigration officers and why every band suffers at least one studio freak-out.
It was at Peter Katis' residential studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that Honeyblood taped the as-yet-untitled LP. The American producer's Tarquin complex is best known for handling The National’s breakout album Boxer, and to all diehard FRabbit fans as being the place where Scott Hutchison nailed down The Midnight Organ Fight.
“It’s this huge Victorian house – imagine the one in The Addams Family,” explains Tweeddale. “Peter bought it cheap and had to do it up. Upstairs is the recording studio, and downstairs there’s a wing for the bands to stay in.” McVicar interjects, grinning. “Which was awesome for us. Unlike The National, we didn’t have to share beds because there’s just the two of us.”
The duo recorded 13 songs in Bridgeport in an intensive 10 day schedule, with breaks being taken to allow Katis to maintain a domestic routine – a reasonable request given that his family stay in the same house as the studio. “We would work from 12-10pm, and there would be a break in-between where he would go and put his son to bed and have dinner and stuff,” Tweeddale says. “His son is six, and I think he connected with us because we’re more his size. He’s used to bands of big guys being around. Peter’s still very passionate about music. He’s not a typically cynical producer. I think it’s because he prioritises. He used to work flat out, like with The National when they worked every single day until it was right. But now’s he older, he has a family, so he stops on Friday and starts again on Monday.”
"When it came to playing guitar and singing, I totally freaked out" – Stina Tweeddale
The routine did have its advantages. While the producer relaxed at home, Honeyblood headed for a weekend in New York. This downtime was spent seeing the sights and relaxing, and not, as Tweeddale is keen to point out, playing gigs. “Just for the record, we did no shows. I had my guitar in the case and took it on the plane as hand luggage. The immigration caught me at the other end and asked me, ’what are you doing with that?’ And I was like, ‘err, I’m just going to jam with my friend.’ They pretty much thought we were going on tour, which you need a working visa for. It’s supposedly the way a lot of bands tour without a working visa, by claiming they are recording an album." McVicar quickly adds, “But we’re not 100 per cent sure of that fact. So let’s just say we were there on holiday.”
When they returned to the studio the following Monday, the pressure to finish on time suddenly seemed very real. “Peter talked about these ‘freak outs’: no matter how long a band has to record an album, they will, at some stage, freak out,” Tweeddale explains. “And I had a freak out. I just… kind of went away for a wee while on the second last day. But then, by 8pm on the last day, we had everything done. I still don’t know how.”
Despite spending the seven-hour return flight Scotland discussing track listings and potential artwork ideas, the duo can’t say for sure – at this stage, anyway – which songs will make the album. There’s a possibility that a new version of Bud could be included. The only thing that is certain is the record will be out in the spring, most likely April, and that Honeyblood will be back on tour across the UK to support it.
Playing shows is second nature to Tweeddale and McVicar; it’s what brought them together in the first place. They met when students at the University of Glasgow, by which time they had been playing in bands for the best part of a decade, despite still being in their early 20s. Tweeddale had begun writing songs at home in Oxgangs, Edinburgh, aged 14 – around the same time that McVicar was learning to play the drums while at school in Cumbernauld.
Fast forward several years and their respective bands were sharing a bill at Bar Bloc on Bath Street. Tweeddale was the singer in Boycotts, and McVicar was pounding the skins for Partwindpartwolf. The pair hit it off from the start. “I said to Shona that same night that we should start a band. Her boys were really protective, asking if I was trying to steal her from them – but mine were like ‘whatever,’” laughs Tweeddale. “We [Boycotts] were best pals, they were like my brothers – but you’re always the girl in the band. It seems me and Shona were both in the same boat; when you’re in a band with three boys they just poke fun at you all the time.”
There were no messy breakups. Both Boycotts and Partwindpartwolf reached their natural conclusions over time, and Honeyblood were free to begin their first rehearsals as a two piece. Tweeddale had already written several songs, including the soon-to-be live favourite Super Rat. McVicar believes the decision not to bring in a bass player was a natural one. “We sounded pretty awful at first, but we kept practising just the two of us and never found anyone else. It’s not like we’re ruling anything out.”
Anyone who has seen Honeyblood live will testify to the richness of their songs, but the absence of a third wheel remains a talking point. “Andy from The Twilight Sad actually offered to write all of our bass parts,” Tweeddale grins at the prospect. “But playing just the two of us was more about the person than the sound. And it doesn’t sound bad… or empty. Having a bass player would be great, but we don’t feel like we’re lacking. I’m constantly trying to work out how to make the guitars sound a bit fuller. But I do not want to compromise my tone. I just don’t want to play through a bass amp – which is what a lot of people have suggested. Also, I have no upper body strength so I don’t think I could cart a bass amp around.”
Her time in Boycotts meant that Tweeddale was already an experienced live performer, but there were some new challenges for her to tackle with Honeyblood. “When it came to playing guitar and singing, I totally freaked out. Sometimes it’s easier to play when you have people behind you.”
Having overcome that fear, Honeyblood’s reputation as a live act continues to grow. They will kick-off 2014 by performing at The Skinny’s 100th issue party later this month. “I love The Skinny,” says McVicar. “I’ve read it the whole time I’ve lived in Glasgow.” Tweeddale, meanwhile, is an even longer-term fan, having picked up the very first issue back in 2005.
Honeyblood are already planning life after the release of their debut album, with several new songs already written. And there’s no danger that these best of pals will fall out. “I think we actually get on better the more time that we spend together,” says McVicar. Tweeddale nods in agreement. “Yeah, we’re very lucky. Maybe we’ll go find a bass player, and we won’t have to spend so much time just me and you!" she booms. “I’m joking, obviously.”