This article originally ran as the Herald Arts magazine cover feature on August 23, 2014.
You might suggest that the essence of Honeyblood is equal parts garage, punk and pop. You might reduce the Glasgow duo’s composite parts to The Breeders, PJ Harvey and The Bangles; or surmise that their vivid narratives draw from the feminist writings of Angela Carter; or contend that the blinding dynamic of guitarist-vocalist Stina Tweeddale and drummer Shona McVicar puts the White Stripes in the shade.
But Honeyblood’s provenance, it transpires, is somewhat more prosaic than that. “Honeyblood is actually a mixture of water, honey, cornflour and red food dye,” offers Tweeddale, stirring her coffee and nursing a cold. “It comes from a lazy Hallowe’en costume I once made for a gig. I swirled it round in my mouth on-stage. And then I spat it over the audience.”
This live prank echoes the corporeal feminist-punk antics of L7, and Lady Gaga’s penchant for vomit-pop rainbows, and there are other visceral elements in Honeyblood’s moniker – and modus operandi – too. Their name, and art, conjures the saccharine / barbed dissonance of the 90s riot grrrl movement, and “I want to drink the honey blood” is a lyric from Gutless, by femme-grunge icons Hole.
We speak about Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur, with whom Honeyblood were photographed (and rumoured to be working) last month, as we sit near Glasgow’s Old Hairdressers, where the duo launched a DIY cassette to 30 people in 2012, and returned to launch their brilliant debut album at a hugely oversubscribed gig last month. We chat about a remarkable year that’s seen the duo record their eponymous calling card with alt-rock legend Peter Katis (Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, The National), and release it to widespread acclaim from the likes of BBC Radio 1, Mojo and NME.
And we talk about how we almost lost Honeyblood’s (bitter)sweet charms to modern dentistry.
The tale of Honeyblood, so far, is wrapped up in their debut album, hence its eponymous title. Tweeddale, originally from Edinburgh, and McVicar, who hails from Cumbernauld, first met in Glasgow venue Bar Bloc (also the headquarters of feminista-pop collective TYCI) while playing in other local bands. McVicar was in PartWindPartWolf; Tweeddale in Boycotts. “I didn’t play guitar or write the songs in Boycotts, I just did the singing,” Tweeddale recalls.
“So I wanted to do something where I wrote all the songs, and played all the guitar. I’d actually been stalking Shona online before we properly met,” she admits with a laugh. “And I’d watched her play drums. So when I saw her in Bloc one night, I just went over and said, ‘Hi, do you want to maybe jam some songs that I’ve written?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah!’, and that was it really.
Much is rightly made about the duo’s incendiary chemistry – they are a joy to witness live, all shared smiles and glorious noise – but they always intended to recruit more band members, says McVicar. “We thought we’d be getting more people in to join the band – you know, so that we could progress and make the songs sound better,” she offers. “But we kept meeting and jamming and playing, and I guess we worked out how to fill the songs, to make them sound good – and loud – ourselves. Just the two of us.”
Tweeddale smiles over. “And the funny thing is, sort of by accident, this has ended up being the band I wished I was in when I was 14.”
In their early days, in 2012, the duo worked up four original songs – No Spare Key, Biro, Super Rat and Bud – all of which would go on to appear on their debut album, suggesting they had their no-messing, nature-entangled, harmonic-punk ethos nailed from the off. Then they started playing live, and bagged a record deal, of sorts, at their second-ever show.
“It was at Wide Days in Edinburgh,” Tweeddale says of the annual music industry showcase. Their clamorous garage-pop caught the attention of Alex Knight from Brighton indie empire Fat Cat (also home to Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks and PAWS), who kept in touch, and eventually released their debut album. What did Knight make of the band back then? “I remember he said, ‘That was really good. But you have to gig, gig, gig,’” says Tweeddale. “So that’s what we did.”
But just as Honeyblood found their swagger, they were floored by modern dental practices, as McVicar recalls. “We’d been together six months or so, and we’d been gigging, we’d been getting record label interest. At the time though, I was graduating from university, and I studied dentistry, and basically, if I didn’t work as a dentist for a year, I’d have lost my whole degree,” she explains. “I had to leave the band.”
Tweeddale nods. “She had to do it. And at that point, things had started to happen for us – people were like, ‘Come down to London, do this, do that’, so Shona made this really adult decision for me – she said, ‘Go on, you can do it without me – I don’t want to hinder you at all.’ It was a really nice thing, but we were both heartbroken.” Tweeddale continued to write songs – including the album’s raucous Killer Bangs, for McVicar (“I need this with you / I made this with you”), and Choker (inspired by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) – and recruited a replacement drummer in New Zealand’s Rah Morriss, who sustained Honeyblood’s gathering momentum in McVicar’s absence. Then Morriss’ Visa expired.
Was there an implicit understanding that McVicar would, or even might, re-join Honeyblood after her year of being a dentist? “Not at all,” says Tweeddale. “I remember going round to Shona’s house, and saying, ‘Rah’s leaving, she’s going back to New Zealand. Your year [of practising dentistry] is nearly up – do you want to come back in the band?’ Shona was like, ‘I need to think about it’. And then: ‘Okay, I’ve thought about it, it’s fine.’ And I was like, ‘Cool! Well, we’ve got a gig in Estonia, so pack your bags.”
That was just over a year ago. Within months, the women were in the US, recording their debut album with legendary alt-rock producer Peter Katis. Was it difficult working with someone else in the studio, having always had such an intimate set-up?
“I was really nervous,” Tweeddale confesses. “On the first day I acted like an absolute fool. I’m so socially awkward that I literally didn’t know what to say to Peter because I was just overwhelmed by the fact that we were in America recording our debut album with such an amazing producer. It felt unreal. I felt like I wasn’t worthy to be there. So I just freaked out. Shona took me aside and said, ‘Look, you have to act cool!’”
Did Katis actualise the aesthetic the women had in mind, or did he surprise them with what he brought out in their songs? “He’s a bit of a genius,” McVicar offers. “We wanted the record to sound true to the band, and we wanted it to have a live feel, but we also wanted to make it sound bigger, and fuller. We wanted to make the best versions of these songs that we could. And somehow Peter did all that.”
The album was released to Transatlantic acclaim last month, at which point another US music legend popped up on Honeyblood’s Twitter feed, thanks to a photo they posted of themselves with Melissa Auf Der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins). Tweeddale is wide-eyed at the memory. “Oh my god I know! That was a massive, massive deal,” she says. Were they working with Auf Der Maur, or just hanging out? “Well, let’s just say she had an input into a song we were recording,” Tweeddale enthuses. “She was one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She said she loved us.”
If there’s a sense of coming full circle in Honeyblood working with a musician who inspired their music and name, then it’s a recurring pattern for the duo. From the tale of a drummer who left and returned, through their repeated homecomings at the Old Hairdressers, to the life cycles – of nature, people and relationships – that define their debut album’s songs. They’re as sweet as you like, with a sting in their tales. All hail the new queen bees of rock.
Honeyblood play Stirling Tolbooth on Sept 11, Dunfermline PJ Molloys on Sept 12 and Glasgow CCA on Sept 13.
Related articles: Honeyblood live review (The Herald, July 2014)