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A Talk with Zach Ernst of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears

Like their forefather, the late, great James Brown, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears are currently one of the hardest working bands in show business. For what seems like an almost continuous five year stretch, the band has been honing their craft the old school way, town to town and country to country. The results of their musical maturity and growth on their seemingly never-ending tour are on full display with the band’s latest release, Scandalous, the exceptional follow up to their impressive debut album, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is. For fans of classic R & B and high energy funk, you won’t find a better act today carrying the proverbial torch originally lit by The Meters, Sly and the Family Stone and the Godfather himself, Mr. James Brown.

I recently had a chance to speak with Zach Ernst, lead guitarist and founding member of the Honeybears, about the current tour and the band’s latest release.

Pop Bitez: Who were some your biggest influences when you were first starting out?

Zach Ernst: I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff, when I was in high school I started listening to a lot of the guys who’ve influenced our current sound, like The Meters and James Brown.

PB: How and when did you discover Joe Lewis and decide to form the band?

Zach: Well, Joe was playing around town for awhile, in Austin, and he had kind of a reputation locally, when we first met I approached him as a fan and a writer for the Daily Texan, the college paper for the University of Texas,  I was also part of the UT concert committee at the time and we had Little Richard coming in for this big free concert and I pretty much convinced the committee to book Joe as the opening act because I thought he would really fit the bill. So he played that show with his old band and then it was shortly after that we decided to start a band together.

PB: And is it true Joe was close to throwing in the towel and maybe leaving town before you guys joined forces?

Zach: Yeah, he was sort of fed up and tired of playing the same ten songs for the same ten people every week and I think getting a new band behind him helped in his deciding to give it another shot, we were fortunate enough to catch some breaks early on and we’ve just kept it going from there, I think we’re actually coming up on five years now.

PB: Wow, and it’s probably all a blur at this point, you guys have been on the road almost that entire time, right?

Zach: Yeah, we’ve been on the road for most of that, I was still in college when we started, I was 20 and I’m 25 now. The whole first year and a half I was still in school and then we hit the road really hard and put out the first record and kind of got swept up with everything.

PB: There’s been a really nice steady progression for you guys, don’t you think?

Zach: Yeah, a lot of bands a lot better than us work for a lot longer before they get the opportunity to quit their day jobs and tour, so yeah, we definitely don’t take for granted the opportunities we’ve been given.

PB: There’a always a lot of talk about the “sophomore jinx” and how it’s really a sink or swim moment, clearly you guys are swimming, in fact I’d have to say, as strong as I think that first album was, Scandalous really seems like a more focused and mature album. How was your approach different on this one?

Zach: Well, I think we’d played so many gigs together that we just got better as a band, everyone had improved, Joe became a better singer I think and got better on the guitar, all of us got better playing together and we were just a lot more confident going in this time. I also think we grew as songwriters, I think this second one is better and it’s pointing towards a more original direction rather than a kind of homage to our favorite stuff. It would have been easy to do, you know, our modern take on southern R & B but, there’s a lot more blues on this one and straight up rock and roll and I think  as we continue writing the third album we’ll keep moving in that direction.

PB: There have been so many really excellent bands coming out of Austin in the last decade, what is it about Austin that separates it from all the other major music cities?

Zach: Live music is just a big part of what people do here, you know, you go to other towns and you get the tours coming through but there just aren’t a lot of venues for local bands to play, in Austin there are just so many clubs and so many opportunities to get on stage.

PB: As far as the steady climb up the ladder is concerned, is there a particular highlight that stands out for you personally?

Zach: When we did our first headline tour, which was not that long ago really, two years ago, I think, we’d done a ton of support shows opening for other bands early on, but once we started going to towns on our own and seeing that there was a crowd there for us… and playing places like New York or D.C. or Boston and Chicago, and being sold out or at least pretty full and realizing that all this hard work and promotion we’ve done is working. The fact that we can go somewhere we’ve never been and there’s a crowd for us is still kind of shocking to me, you know, the fact that wether we’re in a new town or we’re playing abroad, there are people showing up and they know the music, that’s still really surreal. I’ve gotten the most gratification from that…

PB: Sure, knowing they’re all showing up specifically to see you….

Zach: Yeah, it’s different if you’re playing in front of a bunch of folks and they’re not really paying attention because you’re just the opening act and, sometimes, when you’re supporting, you want that, where they don’t know who you are in the beginning but by the end you’ve won them over, but going on a headline run and having people there excited about seeing you is something else.

PB: Scandalous is one of my favorite albums that came out recently, I’m curious, what’s the best stuff you’ve heard this year?

Zach: I just got the new Tom Waits album which is unbelievable, it’s so good, as always, he just keeps getting better. We’ve got a friend in Austin who has a re-issue label that distributes stuff through Light in the Attic, they’re called Heavy Light Records, and there’s actually a track on our album that features some guest vocals from a band called The Relatives, and this guy just put out their recordings from the 70s, they’re kind of an obscure band from Dallas that did some really incredible stuff and the label also just put a record from a band called Kool and Together, which just came out a couple of weeks ago and is also old recordings, they’re just an unbelievable black rock band from Texas, you know, we listen to a lot of old stuff, but I really liked the Charles Bradley record, I thought that was really good and there’s a guy from San Francisco, Ty Segall, who we all really like.

PB: If you could go back in time and catch one concert you missed, who and when would it be?

Zach: Maybe that Stax Revue that went to Europe with Sam and Dave and Otis Redding, or Bobby Womack doing a show on the “Chitlin Circuit”, I would’ve loved to have seen that.

Check out “Livin’ in the Jungle” from Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears’ new album Scandalous!

Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears Tour Dates

11/08/2011 Santa Fe, NM Sol Santa Fe
11/09/2011 Phoenix, AZ The Crescent Ballroom
11/10/2011 Solona Beach, CA Belly Up
11/11/2011 Los Angeles, CA The Echoplex
11/12/2011 Fresno, CA Fulton 55
11/14/2011 San Francisco, CA The Fillmore
11/16/2011 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
11/17/2011 Vancouver, CA Rickshaw Theatre
11/18/2011 Seattle, WA Neptune Theatre
11/20/2011 Bozeman, MT The Filling Station
11/22/2011 Boulder, CO Fox Theatre
12/07/2011 Auckland, New Zealand Powerstation
12/09/2011 Marrickville, Australia The Factory Theatre
12/10/2011 Meredith, Australia Meredith Music Festival
12/11/2011 Oakleigh, Australia Caravan Music Club
12/13/2011 Melbourne, Australia Prince Bandroom
12/31/2011 Chicago, IL Double Door