Q&A: Holy Hive
Holy Hive are the self-described pioneers of “Soul Folk” – a mash of the musical backgrounds of band members Paul Spring and Homer Steinweiss which results in the soft and homely sound in their debut album, Float Back To You. No Mas sat down with the two to track down the feelings, people, and relationships that inspire their signature sound.
Tomás Carlson, a.k.a. No Mas, hosts “Bonus Tracks” on WRBB 104.9 FM every Friday at 11 a.m. Each week, No Mas interviews emerging and established artists, breaking down the songs and ideas behind the records. This interview aired on “Bonus Tracks” on Feb. 12, 2021.
No Mas: I just want to start by going off of the background of the band. I remember that you had kind of a funny story on how the band started, you said you met through a family connection?
Paul Spring: So, I am married to Homer’s fiancée‘s cousin. They’re both from Minnesota, I’m from Minnesota, Homer’s from Brooklyn. But we met years ago and I was just friends with Sophia back in high school and he came to visit their family farm. I’ve known them a long time and over the years it developed into a musical relationship.
So how did that develop? I know that just because you’re family friends with someone doesn’t mean you really click musically. Just like the thought of “oh so-and-so does music as well” can be forced, so how did the collaborative atmosphere grow between you two?
Paul Spring: Yeah, so Homer, at that point since he was very young, was like a pro musician touring the country and I was, I just played locally around Minnesota and [I] showed him some of my music way back then. [I] was working on new music and sometimes some demos and we [would go out] to this studio right here, which was just built at that time because he would come like every summer. Sophia and I just started dating so this was like, 2014 or 2015. And so he invited me out here, we made a solo record, and then I was touring that record and came back and we made another record, and I was kind of tired of playing by myself all the time, which I’ve been doing for like, you know six years. [So] I asked if we could make it into a band, which we did. We called it Holy Hive and then shortly thereafter I moved out here to New York from Minnesota and we worked on this album, Float Back To You, for two years from like 2017 through when it came out last May.
Homer Steinweiss: I can add to that just to answer the original question. Like when we first met, Paul was super young and I was young as well, and I actually saw Paul’s high school band playing and was kind of impressed by his voice. And then like a couple years later he gave me some demos and stuff like, “hey you want to make a record?” and I was a little bit hesitant at first because like you know, like you said it’s like you don’t often, like, mix family and business and stuff, but then I started going through demos and thought it would be fun. I was into the music and thought it would be fun to try something and we started collaborating on the farm just like in this little room and it was like kind of instantly like a lot of fun and it was like: oh man, this could be like a totally different direction for me because I’ve been doing so much touring and drumming and this time it was like a totally different type of record and then that kind of like is how it went from being a family thing to like a music world thing.
Going on that note about going different directions, I think for both of you these are wildly different sounds than what you did before, especially for you, Paul. I went through your discography and it’s very much pure folk, very minimal, and you barely had any drums in your last few records at all. Do you feel like there was a shift? How did you deal with that shift from dealing with just this pure folk sound to something that was more upbeat and had a backbeat to it?
Paul Spring: Well it’s been a really fun shift I’d say. A lot of it came from the studio but also when we found on our first tour together, the sound developed a lot there because we were opening for a soul band and we were playing these folk songs from the first Holy Hive EP, which we actually don’t have out in the internet anymore, and developed it to be more reliant on drums and rhythm with less guitar and a different singing style. Just to do something refreshing and different and new.
So that was the tour with Lee Fields, right?
Paul Spring: Definitely.
So would you say you started off doing more pure folk and did you just change every like act or every show? How did that develop?
Paul Spring: Yeah, the first show was in San Diego and we were kind of kooky, we were wearing robes. I was playing a seven [string] nylon guitar [laughter] and singing these kind of Nick Drake-y folk songs which still had a really strong backbeat.
Homer Steinweiss: Yeah, we had started putting rhythm arrangements on this stuff when Holy Hive formed because Paul was like, “you know, I want to do something with the band,” but it was more leaning in the direction of the stuff he had already done so it was just adding drums to that. And then like as Paul was saying then like the next show we might have added a new song, right?
Paul Spring: Yeah, I feel like the first show, even before that San Diego show you showed us that Donnie and Joe Emerson song, which is just a two-chord jam and has falsetto, and we were like “we should learn this and play this” and we played it at the first show as a part of our set – like singing falsetto and doing their arrangement – and it was like the song that went over the best with that audience. So then at sound checks at the shows after that, we tried writing a song more in that vein and trying to make the set more leaning that way. Every show after that trying to develop that a little bit more and then we came back here and got in the studio and recorded three songs in that vein and showed them to Big Crown [Records] after a couple months and then started making the full length record.
So your sound developed on the road for the most part?
Same question to you, Homer. So you were playing, like you said, with bands, just as a drummer. Do you feel like there was also this shift in your case where you’re taking on a more songwriting-heavy role, a more executive role in this band?
Homer Steinweiss: Yeah totally, it was you know, I had been doing mostly gigs as a drummer. A lot of live touring gigs, but also a lot of studio work at that point. So I had to produce some records too but it wasn’t like my main thing. I was getting more and more into producing and engineering and stuff like that. This record was kind of the first record where I like produced it but was also the artist. Usually as a producer I think what I tend to do is realize the artist’s vision. I’m not the type of producer who’s like the artist, but in this case I was more [a] producer as [an] artist as [a] part of the band. It was just nice to be able to assume that role. I felt like maybe all my experience started giving me a little more confidence to be able to do something like that.
When you’re writing songs, is it one of you sends an idea and you build on it, is one of you in the “main seat”? How does that collaborative flow work between the two of you?
Homer Steinweiss: Good question. I would say at first it was mostly Paul bringing in songs and me like arranging them and changing them a little bit. And as we started working together. I think one of the reasons that me and Paul are continuing to work together [is that] we just love to collaborate so we just started doing more and more stuff together. Just kind of co-writing songs from the ground up. We’re starting to get into a flow now where we basically both go home and write songs and then we bring them in and record them and then we go back and decide which ones are good. When we bring the song in we might change it; we might switch the lyrics but generally it’s like we’re both writing and then like finishing them together and that’s kind of like our main process now.
So speaking about songwriting, there are a lot of covers on this new record. One of the main ones that stuck out to me was the “Be Thou By My Side” cover. It was just beautifully done, but I didn’t even realize it was a cover at first just because of how it matched with the rest of the album’s sound. So which one of you actually suggested to start that cover and what drew you to it?
Paul Spring: That was Homer. He got recommended by the guy who helped design our album cover, Danny Miller. So Homer showed it to us and really pushed for us to like learn it and play and cover it.
Homer Steinweiss: Yeah it’s one of those songs that my friend Danny, who designed the record. put on a mix for me, we used to exchange mixes all the time. It was a great song, but it’s a song that was impossible to find, you know. The original version was just never released, it was just on some test pressing that some DJ played. That mixtape got burned around so people started passing the song around even though you can’t get it on Spotify. When we decided to cover it I was just like, you know it’s one of those songs that’s so good the way it is, let’s just do it exactly like that and kind of, you know not make it our own, but just kind of introduce it to the world.
Going on the same topic about covers, another cover on the project was “Red Is The Rose.” I can tell that these cover songs were included because they have an importance to you. You said that that was the first song that you learned when you were twelve, if I recall correctly?
Paul Spring: Oh yeah, so that’s an Irish folk song. That’s actually a major with one four five Irish folk song that uses a Scottish melody from Loch Lomond. [There was] a lot of Irish music in my house growing up. [I] always loved the lyrics to it, and we were working on an instrumental – a minor kind of funk soul instrumental – and struggling to find lyrics that fit, so I kind of plugged those lyrics in to the melody we had made and they fit perfectly. It’s kind of a cool marriage of those two worlds – funk and soul.
And is that sort of the same process when you worked on “Embers To Ash” with the Fragment 31 [Sappho] poem?
Paul Spring: Yeah. We borrow other folks’ lyrics that we like.
One thing that interested me about “Embers to Ash” – you said you also studied mythology back in your own time, so how did that influence the album’s ideas? I know on the EP that you released before, on the cover there’s some imagery that could be linked to astrology. Do you think that also had an influence on this album as well?
Paul Spring: Yeah, both of us [studied Greek]. [Homer] did his senior thesis on symposium, I studied Latin and Greek in college. And I don’t know, those old poems and those old philosophy texts are just so timeless. Especially how they discuss love, nature, and beauty, so they’re fun to be inspired by and go back to because they pretty seamlessly still apply today; having such universal subjects. Yeah, we love that classical stuff.
I feel like with the actual arrangement of the album itself, people have been calling it minimal or people have been calling it sparse, but there are some elements that I feel were more consciously included; the harp and the horns were the two main things that stuck out to me. Since this is such a minimal record and since there is more of a conscious effort of what to choose, what drew you to the sounds that you picked?
Homer Steinweiss: I feel like in our music, having like the amount of space that’s in there, when you bring in another element it makes that element just feel more present. If you have a ton of different elements, [when] you bring something in and out you don’t notice it as much. When I think about our sound, I kind of just picture the record as kind of like its own character. When the trumpet comes in it’s like a new character arrives and says hello and then leaves. I feel like the choices we make are just based on the people who play those instruments. For trumpets, my friend, Dave Guy, [is] an amazing trumpet player and he hangs around my studio. So [when] we worked on the song, I thought horns would be cool but I knew Dave would bring something to the table. It wasn’t just like ‘oh I have this trumpet part let’s add it,’ [I wanted to] hear what he would bring to the table.
So it’s very personal?
Homer Steinweiss: Yeah, there’s a personal element to it. But I feel like there’s also a really big element [regarding the harp’s inclusion]. I feel like Paul should talk about the harp if you’re asking specifically about that because that one came in because Paul had written a song and he was hearing that part on [a] harp. He basically saw that this harpist [Mary Lattimore] was in town and was down to do sessions. We were fans of Mary and so [we thought] that would be sick. I feel it’s not that much more intentional than if you’re adding elements to any record it’s just those happened to be the elements we added, you know what I’m saying?
Running back to the idea of personal meaningfulness: when it comes to the cover songs you picked that had the connection to your childhood and the friends or family that performed on the record, is it fair to say that this album has this emphasis on these personal relations and family?
Homer Steinweiss: Yeah definitely, that’s a good point.
You can kind of hear that with this sense of like a timeliness in the album, there’s a sense of comfort. Were these feelings you were trying to capture when you were writing this record, or was it just something that occurred naturally?
Paul Spring: I think I think we were trying trying to capture that, especially with the music we’re listening to and referencing. The summer before I moved out here, Homer recommended The Impressions to me, Curtis Mayfield’s band. I was working this job trimming trees and just listening non-stop to their singles collection and I just really loved the way that music made me feel. Homer listens to that sort of soul music all the time [as well], and it’s nice to create – or at least try to create – music that makes you feel good and has that love and comfort in it.
So apart from soul records that you were referencing, were there any sort of other folk inspirations that you kind of drawn from? Or was this something where you dived into just the pure soul mindset and soundscape?
Homer Steinweiss: No it’s definitely trying to cross-pollinate a couple different things. Consciously being [aware that] I know these elements really well from this world of music, Paul knows these elements from this world of music really well, and then we both know the opposite world well too, you know. I’ve always been really into folk music and been into like singer-songwriter music and all that stuff. So it’s kind of like, okay, let’s do something that brings all of our influences to the table, but it’s not exactly like any of those things. It’s kind of boring to just replicate something that’s already been done, especially when it’s been done so well. If you take a Woody Guthrie song and then try to play Woody Guthrie perfectly, it could be great, but Woody Guthrie already did it perfectly so it’s just like an impersonation. But [Bob] Dylan basically did that with Woody Guthrie, and then he made something new out of it, so it’s cool to do that. It’s like a way to get to where you’re going, but definitely we weren’t just like “let’s make a soul record” [or] “let’s make a folk record.” Let’s take our personal feelings and relationships and put it into something new. Something that we can relate to.
Do you feel like you brought this blend of soul and folk to a point that you’re content with? Are you going to dive into that sort of split there or experiment with the balance some more?
Homer Steinweiss: I mean I think that the only way to actually do it is to just keep trying new things. If I was to say, “yeah we got it we nailed the direction now we know what we’re doing,” then I would just be lying, you know? [laughter] The fact of the matter is just like we make something new and we’re going to try and do something different and I’m not really sure where it’s going to go. That’s what makes it good; just like finding something as opposed to just being like “okay I know how to do this. I’m going to do the same thing over and over again.” For me, I have to keep developing it. I don’t know which direction it goes. Maybe it goes exactly down the middle or maybe it goes backwards. There’s not really a clear intention there.
Paul Spring: I agree with that. I think we have it in mind that we still want to have soul and folk blending, but we’re just focused on the songs and whatever songs feel natural based on what we’re feeling and what we’re listening to. I mean the songs that we’re making now, they are continuing that blend, and we’ll see what happens I guess. I would say it leans a little bit more on the folk side. A lot more acoustic guitar and a little bit less falsetto.
Homer Steinweiss: That’s true, the next record is looking more folky, less falsetto.
Float Back To You is available to stream or purchase on all platforms.