Dodging Gnarls Berkeley 

Local hip-hop label Quannum goes pop with music veterans Honeycut.

Hot Berkeley band Honeycut wants to make one thing clear: It is not trying to be Gnarls Barkley. Yes, both make experimental pop that spans numerous genres. Both consist of experienced industry vets with that new-band smell, and both share a production ethos similar to film, wherein one person directs and the lead singer acts. But in the end, Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo is a huge black Southern gangsta, and Honeycut's Bart Davenport is a skinny white East Bay folker.

Davenport strutted and crooned to a tough crowd last Wednesday as part of Live 105's Annual Soundcheck Holiday Ball at 330 Ritch in San Francisco. He hit falsettos, pirouetted, and pointed despite the subdued 8:30 p.m. enthusiasm of Street to Nowhere's young female audience. That didn't frustrate him. He smiled with the poise of someone who's been onstage for two decades in one form or another since he attended Malcolm X Elementary and sang in the school's jazz choir. He has mutated fully from a young garage rocker into a 34-year-old folky blues singer into this new iteration of Jagger meets Depeche Mode, backed by Honeycut project leader RV Salters, the keyboardist from Blackalicious.

Playing a vintage keyboard with effects pedals, Salters, a five-foot-tall Frenchman, destroys his keyboard solo, wailing like a lead guitarist with a wah-wah pedal. His hands turn to blurs and enrapture anyone within a fifty-foot radius, especially Honeycut's third member, drum programmer Tony Sevener. The former Summercamp drummer traded in his traps for tap-tap-tapping on a bunch of buttons linked to sampled drum hits. He does this with an AKAI MIDI Production Center, a gadget that has become a staple in the hip-hop scene. "I saw Jel from Anticon playing one like this maybe six years ago and I decided, 'That's how I want to do it,'" Sevener says. "You could sample bird calls and make a song out of it. You can make a song out of anything."

Making a song out of anything aptly summarizes the beat Honeycut marches to. The band's official PR states that the three met through mutual friends, and Quannum, the stalwart Bay Area hip-hop label, offered to release their pop experiments. But Silicon Valley also played a key role in the band's genesis. The three worked together at MongoMusic, a Bay Area startup that was pursuing the code for a robot DJ similar to The proto-Honeycut team rented its professional ears and opinions to MongoMusic's meta-database, and even relocated to Redmond, Washington, after Microsoft bought the company. "We were sort of shanghaied up there," Davenport says.

Listening to and talking about all kinds of music seemed like the best job in the world — "A lot of envy was surrounding us at that point," Salters says — but Microsoft shut down the venture, and the three came home with some new ideas, which ultimately led to Honeycut. RV likes to call it an experiment to explore the following questions: "Is it still possible to push the boundaries a little and still remain pop? To be a band whose melodies can be sung in the shower and at the same time be experimental? The Beatles, David Bowie — those are the kind of shoes we want to be walking in."

Gnarls Barkley producer Dangermouse similarly told Chuck Klosterman for The New York Times that the Beatles had forced American bands to innovate, and the pop experimentation they catalyzed was Gnarls Barkley's defining vision. Dangermouse cast Cee-Lo in the dark, crazy-rapping preacher role. At the same time, Salter cast analogue-folker Davenport as a dark, moody, digital Jagger/Prince figure, complete with those moans, falsettos, and ass-shaking. All of this perversely echoes the 1920s studio compartmentalization of music writer and singer. "RV would say, 'This song is called, "The Day I Turned to Glass" and it's about this and this,' and have me write to it," Davenport says. "I had no idea how it would come out."

Salters, who is a pretty big film buff, references the moodiness of early Scorsese films like Taxi Driver. There's a grit, a danger, and a lot of conflicting desire in Honeycut's sound. Three years of tinkering later, the band shipped off its masters for debut album The Day I Turned to Glass just as Gnarls' St. Elsewhere hit the streets. The latter record became the year's template against which all other brazen pop experiments would be judged. "We finished the songs and sent the masters before we ever heard of them," Davenport says of Gnarls. "Although there might be some similarities — and that's cool — they didn't influence our record one iota. If there are any similarities, it's totally a coincidence."

One big difference is sales. Gnarls made history by going No. 1 in the UK on the strength of downloads alone. Its album is scheduled for double-platinum status by year's end and is nominated for five Grammys including Best Album, all done without a major label. Honeycut hasn't gone nearly as viral, despite great coverage in the LA Times, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Urb, and other media. Quannum has shipped five thousand copies since its September release, but the band has extended plans to tour in '07. Davenport has a different measure of success, though: "At the end of the day, if the majority of people hear this and like it, then I've done my job," he says.

Honeycut rounded out its short set at 330 Ritch with "Tough Kid," one of the album's standouts. The newcomers seemed impressed, gave some warm, hooting applause, and then went about trying to figure out exactly how they were supposed to describe this band's sound to their friends. For now, let's just call it Gnarly Pop.

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