The Honey Island Swamp Band are a thrilling, eclectic band that defies genre conventions, renders song structures elastic, and wholeheartedly stresses that the song reigns supreme.
Since they formed in 2005 in San Francisco after their displacement from New Orleans via Katrina — and subsequently relocated back home — the band has evolved to embody contemporary roots music. If you’re wondering where the numerous streams of American sounds coalesce and commingle in the modern scene, look no further.
And the fivesome — bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Wilkinson, guitarist and vocalist Lee Yankee, bassist Sam Price, keyboardist Chris Spies, and drummer and vocalist Garland Paul — is about to release their most satisfying, consolidative album to date: Custom Deluxe, out June 23 on Color Red Music. Songs like the kinetic “High River Rag,” authoritative “Wildfire” and blues-rocking “Sugar For Sugar” display these musical omnivores at a new zenith.
“We’re definitely melody-driven, vocal-driven, lyric-driven,” Wilkinson explains of the Honey Island Swamp Band’s modus operandi at this juncture, with Custom Deluxe. “We like something that’s new, yet sounds like it could have been a hit that you didn’t know about.”
The Honey Island Swamp Band titled Custom Deluxe after an old truck Wilkinson used to own. (“We are very much an old-school truck type of band,” he says.) The logo on the album cover is a modified version of the real-life insignia on the truck; after Wilkinson described his vision to designer Chris Ball, he whipped it up immediately.
“I loved it instantly,” Wilkinson recalls. “We didn’t even do any revisions.”
Prior to the making of Custom Deluxe, the Honey Island Swamp Band were in something of a transitional period. “We had a new guitar player, and a new keyboard player, and we were touring behind a record that they did not play on and weren’t involved with at all,” Wilkinson says. “Which is not ideal. But we had known each other forever, so that helped.”
Eager to create a document of the reconstituted Honey Island Swamp Band, the band recorded Custom Deluxe at various studios around the United States during off days during a heady touring cycle. “Everybody, in every walk of life, feels better about something when they have some ownership of it,” Wilkinson says. “The guys get way more invested.”
The frontman goes on to compare the experience of hunkering down in a studio for an extended period versus booking one-and-done sessions. “When you lock yourself in a studio for a week, your process is often different,” he says. “You’re like, OK, let’s get all the bass and drum tracks for all the songs, then those guys can leave and go about their lives.”
“That’s a cool way to do it,” Wilkinson continues. “But we wanted to try something different.”
This piecemeal recording process found the Honey Island Swamp Band in all manner of contexts: including on top of a mountain in Colorado and in a lengthy session in the Big Easy. By all accounts, things were cooking for Wilkinson, Yankee, Price, Spies, and Paul.
“When we started the record out, we were in a pretty good spot,” Wilkinson says. “The band was growing, and we’d been to Europe a couple of times.” The band had begun to break through overseas; Demolition Day was even released on a German label.
“We had all kinds of things lined up to go back,” Wilkinson adds. “And, of course, all that went down the toilet with COVID.”
Fortuitously, the global disaster turned out to be a creatively fruitful time for Wilkinson; he wrote a number of songs for the record, and was able to make ends meet via weekly social-media livestreams, an experience he calls “flattering and gratifying.”
Once the Honey Island Swamp Band was able to reconvene, Custom Deluxe took on a sharpened, wizened quality — the pressure resulted in a gem of a record.
The first track, “Gone,” was also the first track recorded for Custom Deluxe. The band tracked it at Eagle Wind Sound — a studio owned by the Alan Parsons Project’s singer, PJ Olsson — in Winter Park, Colorado; Olsson also engineered the session.
“It was really cool to work with him and get all his insights,” Wilkinson says, noting the richness of the room, dominated by a beautiful grand piano. “It sounds awesome, and [keyboardist] Chris [Spies] got a great take on that song.”
During the same stretch of days off, the band headed down the mountain to Denver to record at Scanhope Sound, owned by Josh Fairman from the band Sunsquabi. There, they tracked “Boneshaker” — the penultimate tune on the album. Eddie Roberts, who played in a band with Spies at the time, sat in on the session: “He played some great guitar that was perfect for the vibe,” Wilkinson notes.
The band didn’t get back in a studio until spring of 2019, when they booked a session at the Music Shed in New Orleans. There, they recorded nearly half the record: “Sugar for Sugar,” “High River Rag,” “I Don’t Wanna Lose,” and “Wildfire.”
That session was helmed by the band’s old friend, producer Jack Miele — who had worked on previous Honey Island Swamp Band releases Wishing Well (2009) and Good to You (2012). And two of the tunes — “Sugar for Sugar” and “High River Rag” — were co-writes between Wilkinson and Spies.
The bandmates developed these tunes via an unconventional method. “He would send me tons of tracks he recorded — mostly little snippets of ideas he would play to different drum loops,” Wilkinson explains. “Then, when we had hours to kill out on the road. I would listen to them while I was driving or something, and note the ones that caught my ear.
“Then,” he continues, “I would take the track or even just a few measures of it, and develop a little bit — add lyrics, vocals, et cetera. It’s a fun way to write, and we both really dig the results.”
As “Sugar for Sugar” materialized, Wilkinson took it in a direction reminiscent of the legendary Taj Mahal. As for “High River Rag,” “It seemed like it wanted the Allman Brothers treatment,” Wilkinson says. “Lee gave it some killer slide sounds.”
Wilkinson pulled the vibe for “High River Rag” directly from his surroundings. “I already had those lyrics kind of rolling around my head, just inspired from living right on the Mississippi, like we do, and seeing how insanely big it gets at high water,” he says. “This song was the perfect fit for them.”
The core of the Iron & Wine-esque “I Don’t Wanna Lose” came from Wilkinson’s desire to experiment with guitar harmonies over a bed of mostly acoustic guitar. “It’s a pretty simple song in that it has very few chord changes,” he says. “But that droning simplicity allows lots of room to experiment with different harmonies and textures.”
In the studio, “Wildfire” came about almost on a lark; they didn’t plan to record it, and none of Wilkinson’s bandmates had previously heard it. “But it’s fun in a session to sometimes throw in a song that no one has rehearsed,” Wilkinson says. “You get a lot of spontaneity that way and everyone locks in focus, because you have to.” In just a few takes, the band nailed it.
Shortly after that session, Wilkinson and Spies returned to Denver and recorded “Second Son” with a host of different accompanists, including Eddie Roberts. “The Colorado cats were phenomenal,” Wilkinson says. “Second Son” was another co-write; they arranged the complicated horn break through a wine haze. (“I think we arrived in a good place,” Wilkinson says.)
During the break due to the pandemic, Wilkinson wrote “Down the Line” while living on the beach in Pensacola, Florida; the meditative feeling of surfing inspired the tune.
“In surfing, looking down the line refers to looking down the line of a wave you’re riding or about to take,” Wilkinson says. “So, a lot of the lines in that song have a double meaning about both surfing terms, and the mindset I was trying to cultivate during COVID.”
As the pandemic showed signs of receding, the January 6 riots broke out, an American tragedy that inspired “Dark Days.”
“With Covid still coming and going, tours and festivals being rescheduled and re-canceled, and the country seemingly so bitterly divided, it just felt like really dark times,” he explains. When the band returned to the studio — this time, in Covington on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, with Jack Miele behind the board, they recorded both “Down the Line” and “Dark Days.”
The Honey Island Swamp Band capped off Custom Deluxe with “By and By,” a song Wilkinson originally wrote for G. Love at the bequest of music-industry cats in New Orleans. “By and By” stands alone on Custom Deluxe,” as Wilkinson played all the instruments except the drums. “I’ve always wanted to do one like that,” he says. “I’m excited to have it included on the record.”
As a whole, Custom Deluxe shows the Honey Island Swamp Band to represent the best of two worlds: a band capable of sharp, solid writing, who can also bend and stretch the material live in the spirit of Van Morrison of the Allman Brothers band. After so many years together, the band is more capable than ever of surprising you, and sticking in your craw.
“I think that’s why we’ve been able to keep it going as long as we have,” Wilkson says. “When you write a song that’s timeless, you get a better chance of not going out of style.”