One of my favorite bands from last year are She Keeps Bees. Formed in Brooklyn by Jessica Larrabee (voice, guitar, keys) and Andy LaPlant (drums, production) they've been compared to The White Stripes in reverse, PJ Harvey, Cat Power and many others. But, Jess and Andy bring something less easy to define to their music. At times their raw, energetic sound suggest more than two musicians are present. Jess' soulful, bluesy vocal qualities are real and mesmeric, and together Jess and Andy transform what could be simple rock songs into expansive stories that are easy to follow, addictive, and heartfelt.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jess and Andy over Skype just before seeing them play live in Bristol, UK for the first leg of their European tour in November 2014. We talked about inspiration and themes behind the new album, engineering and production, touring and so much more.
Oh, and how are She Keeps Bees live? Incredible. I had shivers on the back of my neck for much of it.
Ask: Tell us about how She Keeps Bees started out.
Jess: I was doing some solo stuff in New York after living and playing in bands in Philadelphia and I felt like I needed a change. Boy, did New York give it to me! I moved there some terrible stuff happened. I got robbed, hit by a car, and I didn't have a place to live. I don't know why I didn't move back home, but I just stuck it out. I finally got all my stuff together and by the time I met Andy I was doing a lot of solo shows. Andy was an engineer and I was like, 'I want to be friends with you!' So, we started working together and he helped me record my first album, Minisink Hotel.
Then after a while I thought he should be playing drums with me, even though he didn't know how to play yet. My father was a drummer and so that was my first instrument. I taught him the basics and then he just taught himself. We grew together as musicians and our songs became a little more aggressive. We recorded our next album, Nests, and then Dig On, both of which Andy did all the engineering on. So, I felt really blessed to find this person who was willing to help for free! Or for free beer as I was his bartender!
Andy and Jess take over the playground! - Photo by Ana Groth-Shive.
"We grew together as musicians and our songs became a little more aggressive."
Ask: You mentioned your Dad being a drummer. Was that your main inspiration for picking up an instrument?
Jess: Oh yeah. Definitely. I always had this connection with music. It was a haven, a sacred, special thing. As a young listener I felt very protective of it too. Like, 'you don't understand it like I do!!' [laughs]. My dad always spoke the language of music and rhythm and broke it down for me. We'd jam in the car listening to stuff. As a kid he'd been in bands since he was 13 or so and was always very encouraging. I'm so grateful for what he taught me.
Ask: Were there any bands you listened to which inspired you back then?
Jess: From an early age Jimi Hendrix was amazing. So timeless. Also, probably a lot of the grunge stuff that was happening. Those were my first tapes, like the first Soundgarden album! I didn't really dig the whole '80s synth stuff, and then '80s Blues'¦ I was thinking, 'what is happening, right now. No!??'
Ask: Was that the same for you Andy?
Andy: Sort of. I got into punk and ska at some point in high school. I listened to a lot of the same stuff as Jess when growing up and then transitioned into punk rock as I got older and moved into Jazz and traditional Blues. We listen to so much different music now that it's almost hard to remember what were the defining things that were a catalyst for wanting to do music in the beginning. I had an insatiable appetite for finding bands and it was really hard back then. I'd go to shows where I grew up and try and find bands. Luckily there was a good local scene so that was nice.
Ask: What are you listening to now? I'm curious whether you listen to other music as much since the recording of your latest album.
Andy: We still listen to lots of music. We've been going through cassette mixes from this record store in Portland called Mississippi Records. They do a lot of cassette complications of old forgotten vinyl because they do a lot of crate digging. We tend to listen to older music, like Bo Diddley and Nina Simone, but we have a lot of friends in Brooklyn and New York who are in bands and doing great music as well.
Ask: The instrument that spoke to Jess is the guitar, so did you have a particular instrument that you gravitated towards?
Andy: The first instrument I started playing was piano. Then I went onto bass guitar and then regular guitar. Jess was actually a drummer first though before moving onto guitar'¦
Jess: Yeah, I didn't know I could sing and play drums. I didn't know that was an option. I thought, 'I want to sing, so I'd better go to guitar'¦'
Lunchtime performance by She Keeps Bees during their European Winter 2014 tour for 3voor12 Sessie op Le Guess Who?:
Ask: So Andy, you got into engineering and producing?
Andy: Yeah, I went to school in New Orleans and learned how to engineer there. Basically, I moved to New York looking for work. I found Jess, or really Jess found me! I was looking for people to record as I'd just got some gear and she was the first person I'd met and talked to who was a musician. We hit it off. I loved what she'd been capturing on her Tascam 4-track. I loved those recordings and thought they were great and didn't know what I was going to add to it. But we worked more and more together and it became a two-headed monster at some point.
Ask: So, that was Minisink Hotel. Was that mainly recorded on the 4-track?
Andy: No, I actually got an M-Box in 2006 and used it to record into Pro Tools which I learned in school as that was what I was comfortable with.
Ask: Let's fast forward to now. I'm relatively new to your music and your latest album, Eight Houses, has completely enthralled me and been the soundtrack to my recent weeks. It's just beautiful.
Jess: Thank you!
Ask: From a technical point of view, this is the first album She Keeps Bees have had someone else produce. That must've been a bit of a transition for you. Did you find yourself sneaking back into the production room at times?
Andy: Actually, I found it pretty easy to just ignore that stuff. I was so out of my element because I didn't know much about any of the gear they were using. Nicolas Vernhes was using a pieced together 2 inch tape machine from the early '70s. I'd never seen anything like it before. So it made it easy to just sit back and let him work!
Eight Houses is the latest album from She Keeps Bees.
Ask: Was he running it into any particular piece of software?
Andy: Well, we'd do the guitar and drums to tape and as it was recording to tape it'd also record to Pro Tools. We'd go back and listen to both and see which sound we liked better and it was almost always the tape version! It was cool as the 'which sounds better' debate has been going for years and years since digital started becoming the norm. It was nice to have actual confirmation that tape was superior for us.
"We'd go back and listen to both and see which sound we liked better and it was almost always the tape version."
Ask: There's definitely an atmospheric, deep sound on the album'¦ sometimes there's so much space and at other times a really big sound.
Andy: Yeah! Jess' songwriting mirrors that too. Some of the songs are more dense and some ask to be very spacey.
Ask: Were there any software plug-ins that you noticed being used?
Andy: I didn't notice too many plug-ins. Nicolas does a lot of his work on the board and mixes a lot as we're going. It's really interesting as we'd be tracking and there'd be a little downtime and all of a sudden he'd go into mixing mode and be right there fiddling with knobs and by the end of the day the song would pretty much be done.
Ask: Why did you choose Nicolas Vernhes as opposed to you producing the albums as you had done before?
Andy: Well, we were just looking to do something different. We've been working with a manager who's been encouraging us to work with someone different and get out of our comfort zone just to make it easier on us. And it did! We weren't sure where we were going to record or how we were going to do it because our living circumstances right now are different. We knew we'd have to use a studio. And we've been listening to Nicolas' records for years and years, and it was almost unbelievable that he had agreed to work with us. We jumped at the chance to work with him.
Ask: Jess, tell us about the songwriting process for Eight Houses.
Jess: Some of the songs we'd written in 2011 as we'd done a 7' with a friend, Gasper, who is an incredible cellist. The two which didn't make it to the 7' were "Owl" and "Is What It Is". Those songs have around for a while but "Is What It Is" we totally broke down in the studio and built back up again just to give it another feeling: more delicate and processed instead of the same guitar and drums. We were a little nutsy about it when things weren't coming together in the studio thinking about how time is money'¦ not trusting ourselves, not trusting each other. We had a couple of days to think about it and it finally came together naturally, which is nice.
"When Andy comes in, he gives it the heartbeat and makes it real."
Most of the songs on the album started out on acoustic. They were just me in the laundry room figuring them out, giving them the bones. When Andy comes in, he gives it the heartbeat and makes it real. And we flesh it out together.
Ask: So, doing your laundry inspires you to write songs?
Jess: Ha, oh it was just like a place where there was some space that I could be alone in! We are living with my family right now, so it was quite difficult to find the space to write.
Ask: Does the music or a beat from Andy ever inform the creation of a song, or does the song itself come first?
Andy: I think that Jess is pretty much done with the song by the time it gets to me. When she's feeling brave enough to play it for me, it's pretty much finished. There's only two songs on the record where they weren't quite done by the time they got me to. I think "Feather Lighter" was one of them and "Is What It Is", definitely changed from what it used to be, which is probably more Nicholas' ideas than ours. We were struggling to find a way to make it different from the rest of the album as we didn't want to make it all guitar driven rock and roll. That's what that song was before.
Ask: I see. Which is how the synth sounds made it onto the song?
Andy: Yeah, there's lots of little organs and synth stuff happening.
Jess: Actually also the beats in "Is What It Is" are derived from fumbling with microphones or moving the amps. You can hear a lot of funny sounds that are being looped way in the background.
Andy: We were trying to record the beat to a click track and I was like, 'this is stupid, I can't do this.' Then we sampled some of the drum sounds and laid down a beat that we could play the organ to and it just sort of changed the shape of the song completely. I thought it was great. Just what we needed to breathe new life into something we'd been kicking around for three years. We haven't really played it live too much. Maybe a couple of times.
Ask: So this slapping of microphones and looping of rhythmic parts was done in Pro Tools?
Andy: Yes, Nicholas used Pro Tools for sequencing. It was the first time we'd ever done anything like that and was cool!
Ask: Based on that experience would you consider employing more techniques like that on future songs?
Andy: I don't know. As we've been trying to figure out how to get that song across when playing live, we've gone back to a more organic swing. We've never been comfortable using sequencing live.
"We like to think of ourselves as one of those bands who could fall through a worm hole into the 1972 and still be a band"
Jess: That's what somebody was saying, 'maybe you should do that. Have an MPC or something?' I was like, 'what'¦? '
Andy: Yeah, get a digital drum pad. I'm like, 'Never!' We like to think of ourselves as one of those bands who could fall through a worm hole into the 1972 and still be a band without the aid of a computer! [laughs]
Ask: But you'd be able to take your iPhone with you still?
Jess: I know! There's this app called Keezy which Andy has been using and it's hilarious. It samples and we make songs about breakfast or he'll be recording me without knowing it and will play it back and the conversations and songs from that are just so funny.
Ask: So it sounds like you're making a conscious decision to use less technology that gets in the way where possible?
Andy: I guess it's just what we're comfortable with. I hate the idea of getting on stage and having something go haywire with a computer or sampler. It would make me feel really stupid. So we prefer to keep things pretty organic.
Jess: Maybe it's a control thing. We are control freaks!
Ask: I always feel substituting instruments or effects live with digital technology can be dangerous. There's a danger of losing something, losing a feeling or the ability to transmit an emotion.
Andy: Yes, you could suck the life out of a song and then you'd be stuck up there basically doing karaoke.
Ask: You've had a lot of positive press since Minisink Hotel and especially Dig On. You've been compared to artists like PJ Harvey, Cat Power, White Stripes (but in reverse!) How do you feel about these comparison?
Jess: Oh gosh. PJ Harvey is so incredible and I'm very humbled. She's still like a unicorn to me, I've never seen her live. She's like a mythical creature. I'm so proud there's so many women making music with a lot of guts. It's happening in New York. And with CMJ we saw a lot of women not doing the baby voice, or haunted with lots of reverb!
"what's happening with this idea of sexual empowerment which comes from stripping? I'm a little tired of it."
I don't get angry or upset when I hear those styles of music, I just think, 'where are the strong women?' At least what's happening with pop music, what's happening with this idea of sexual empowerment which comes from stripping? I don't know. I'm a little tired of it.
Women like PJ Harvey. Her sexuality comes from within and it's a definite strength and her lyrics are always carved and well thought. I'm so glad that people feel that resonance with me. It's humbling.
Ask: Something that will strike everybody when they listen to your music are your uniquely soulful, almost bluesy vocal qualities, Jess. I heard you're a completely self-taught vocalist?
Jess: Yes, and it drives me crazy because I feel like I'm doing it all wrong and I'm afraid I might be off key and being a hack. But that's my brain: I just start to beat myself up about things and I just can't control it! hmmm'¦ I could take some lessons. I've got a CD of like, 'You Can Sing!' OK, I've got a CD, I'm ready to do this!!
But seriously, I do feel that because I didn't cover other songs (I always wrote my own since I was a kid), it was always my own voice I was using. I got very comfortable with my chest voice and if I did do a couple of vocal lessons where I was asked to sing up high. I couldn't. So I always tried to follow my own natural instincts. I'm sure any vocals coaches listening to me are thinking, 'oh, she sings with her throat'¦'
A person was telling me recently that Madonna sang through her nose and it wasn't like she wasn't successful, you know!
Ask: I believe you've worked closely with another Brooklyn-based musician, Sharon Van Etten, who also appears on Eight Houses?
Jess: She happened to be in town when we were recording. She's a very kind, giving and supportive friend. It was nice to have somebody we respect so much, be one of the first people to hear the songs and give us confidence. She's such a professional. She came in for an hour and knocked it out! We had done some songs in the past and we always loved how our voices sounded together, so it was just kismet. Then our friend Adam Schatz, who is an incredible saxophonist and piano player, musician, singer, came in and did all the horns, some of the texturing and organs.
Ask: Two of my favorite songs on the album are "Owls" and "Radiance", both of which feature other sonic elements. "Radiance" was a bit of a grower for me, and then after a week it just got me.
Jess: Oh, I'm so glad. The piano I used for "Radiance" was something like 120 years old. We held on to the sustain pedal to give it that atmosphere.
Ask: Yeah! It's such an atmospheric and beautiful track. About the whole album, there's a thread connecting all the songs which follows the history of the Native American people. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Jess: Yeah, one of the first tours we did in the US I just started reading a lot of stories about Native American history. The more I read, I was just depressed by the atrocities. Wanting to find understanding I wrote some songs when we returned from the tour. Then I began thinking about this micro to macro side of it, and how universal these stories are. It's the natural resources that are being taken and with that there's assimilation and a breaking of a people. I really began to get inside that torment to try to find understanding for myself.
Growing up in Maryland DC there are all these truths that I never knew. All these monuments I went to see as a kid were built by slaves and nobody told me that! There's a lot of issues in this country that are just not faced and I wish there could be more truthfulness and acknowledgment about what really happened. Maybe there could be healing after acknowledgment.
Then with my personal journey realizing when someone is taking your power away and feeling lost and weak and not even know that that's what's happened. The songs are trying to help people on that journey. Hopefully there's an arc in the album that people can feel.
Ask: In terms of your personal journey entwined in the album'¦ can you tell us more?
Jess: It's been about self-doubt and just feeling guilty about my light or my gift. I don't know, it's just a lot of my own personal brain stuff. I do talk about the brain'¦ my heart knows where that strength is, but the mind really plays tricks on you and sometimes it's like the language you use, you don't even realize how you can be kind of putting spells on yourself. Like, '[this] always happens to me.' It becomes habit and has nothing to do with reality or that these things used to serve you but no longer serve you. It's like baggage or scars you're holding on to. So, yes, it's about reinventing myself, trying to be a stronger person.
"It's like the language you use, you don't even realize how you can be kind of putting spells on yourself."
Ask: So would "Radiance", for example, be a positive affirmation for you?
Jess: Yes, absolutely. The feeling with "Radiance" is that stillness that you feel with earth energy. I don't know'¦ I guess being possessed in a state which is very pure. Also, I just lost my father in the summer of 2014 and "Radiance" was written for another friend who had dealt with death. I was trying to understand it, and now that I've had to deal with it in such a real and close way, I'm having to listen to the song in another way too. We haven't really played it live yet. We haven't figured out how to do the recording of it justice. I feel shy about it because it feels so real and raw for me still.
Ask: What does Eight Houses mean?
Jess: First it came from astrology. I love reading birth charts and I've been teaching myself for a couple of years. My sun is in the 8th house and the more we thought about it'¦ we've been in a band for eight years, this is our eighth release we've also been living with no real place to live so every friend we have we've probably stayed on their floor. It works on many levels. And if you read up about the eighth house it's a lot about what was happening in our lives.
Ask: The sound on the album undulates between a variety of moods, going between being really rocky and aggressive and quiet and calm. How do you find you can convey that when playing live?
Jess: Andy and I definitely use the mind meld. I realize he had to learn to play with me because I speed up and slow down all the time, because I'm so involved in the song I try to be really present when I'm singing and so it's not just a fashion. At the same time it's a good release. The energy is real when we're letting it all out. We both know how to communicate without speaking which allows us to get aggressive and pull it back and still be together when we do it. We have Adam playing guitar with us too now and he's incredible and adds a lot of nuance and texture which we've put on the new album. So Adam is catching up to the mind meld!! He's just incredible.
Ask: Do you ever veer back behind the drum kit, or is that now solely Andy's domain?
Andy: Sometimes we'll do a switch during practice if we're bored. 'Why don't you play guitar? You try singing!' So I'll do my best Jess impression'¦ and then she's like, 'how the hell do you play this song on drums??'
Jess: He's so unique with his beats. I'm always amazed with how he does it!
Andy: But, it's good to understand that neither of us have it very easy.
Ask: Yes, there's obviously mutual respect and you both feel safe in your positions in the band'¦
Andy: For now!! Yeah, but I might kick Jess out. [laughs]
Ask: The most striking thing about She Keeps Bees is that there's the two of you that rock out a big sound despite the absence of a bass player.
Andy: Well we did full band parts for all recordings. We did a bass and piano so you're hearing us playing most of the instruments. When we play them live it's a bit different, so we try and make up for the lack of some frequencies with more energy.
Jess: The older albums were just Andy and I together and I used heavier gauge guitar strings and pumped up the bass dial on my amp, trying to keep the low end as much as I can. Now that we have Adam playing with us and I'm trying to teach him these older songs'¦ I'd been compensating my playing the bass and melodic parts at the same time in my guitar work and then he's like, 'well what do I do??' So, it's been interesting to re-evaluate how we express these songs live.
Ask: How do you prepare yourself for every gig? From what we've talked about, I get the impression connecting with the space you're about to play in is important. Would that be fair to say?
Jess: Yeah, I think when I don't do that and we're rushed on stage my energy gets manic and my breathing gets manic. I've really had to teach myself to be calm and not so frantic. Over so many years of playing, people thought I was out of my mind or drunk or on many drugs. And I was never on anything! It was just me naturally. [laughs] I was like a storm. It's taken me few years to get comfortable and calm. I'm still working on that and trying to make a ritual before playing to get my energy into a centered place.
"It's taken me few years to get comfortable and calm. I'm still working on that and trying to make a ritual before playing."
Andy: On the last tour, we were doing line checks and we'd get all our gear on stage, get it checked and then they'd be ready for us to play. So we tried to steal away for a minute to do like a group hug. Ha, I know it sounds kind of lame, but it actually gets our heads all together. It's like a sports team.
Ask: So, you'll soon be finishing your European tour, what do you have planned when it's over?
Jess: Just a couple of months of rest. Then in March it'll probably start up again as we continue to tour. Hopefully coming back to the UK for summer festivals. Other than that we're just in live performing mode. It took us about two years to get this album carved and finished. So we want to play as much as we can and we've just got a US booking agent, so that helped us with this last tour. All other tours we've been doing everything ourselves which is so much work! It's nice to have a team we can rely on.
Ask: I guess when producing an album, writing new songs can get put on the back burner. Do you find the same when touring as well?
Jess: For the last tour in the States we were just on the run. We had 15 dates in a row with lots of 8 hour drives when it's like that it's just exhausting. But maybe with Europe there'll be more space to jam as we actually will get sound checks and stuff! In the States it's been like, 'OK. Plug in and whatever'. The UK is slightly more professional?
Ask: What tips would you offer to anyone reading this who would like to break into making music?
Jess: I grew up listening to the whole Fugazi scene. Discord records was close to where I grew up and so doing it yourself was the way to go. The internet has helped that. I'd suggest focusing on work that makes your heart have enthusiasm. Don't worry about what other people think, or the comparison journey thing. I do the same'¦ 'oh, this didn't happen so I'm not successful'¦' It's never like that. These things take time.
Andy: Don't let a weakness stop you, but try to turn it into a strength. When we first started I only had two microphones to record with. I thought, 'how am I ever going to record drums and guitar with two mic?' But, just do it and figure out a way to make it work, instead of letting something you perceive as a weakness stop you.
Jess: It can sound cooler, because that's the way old drums used to be recorded: just the room!
Andy: I feel a lot of people get caught up in gear envy or gear lust. Some people say, 'I need a vocal compressor before I can record vocals for this song.' No you don't. It's like just do it!
Jess: Andy did the engineering for the vocals for the Groove Armada songs I did and he had a tube sock over the SM58 I sang into. It sounded great. But I was like, 'that's it? That's the final?' I had these dreams I'd be flown to London or recording in a fancy studio. But we just emailed it to them!
Ask: What gear do you use now for recording and mixing?
Andy: I inherited a 4-track reel to reel quarter inch tape machine I'd been dying to work with. I got it serviced a couple of years ago and haven't been able to use it yet. I'd like to use that and I also have a Pro Tools rig and a couple of ribbon microphones, Cascade's Fat Head and a ShinyBox mic that I've used on most of our stuff. I've used the same passive Event 20/20s monitors for years. I just love them, I bought them from a guy on Craigslist in Queens.
Ask: I guess when touring you're just armed with your instruments only.
Andy: When we come over, I bring my cymbals and Jess brings her guitar and we have to rent drums and amps and stuff. Luckily we don't have too much gear to take on the road.
Jess: I have a Fender Strat '79 Antigua Hard Tail. He's my good buddy. He's been with me since 2003. I had a telecaster which got stolen. So I bought the Antigua used and felt a lot of mojo from it'¦ 'oh boy, I'm gonna get pregnant from this guitar!' We also use my dad's drum kit in the States which is a Rogers Holiday 1965 kit.
Ask: Thanks so much Jess and Andy. We wish you lots of success for 2015 and beyond. I'm off to catch up with your back catalogue, starting with Minisink Hotel!
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