Powerhouse five-piece perfectly marry old school rock vibes with soulful depth…
We managed to grab a chat with the much in demand guys from Liverpool’s finest, The Heavy North, ahead of their hometown gig at The Arts Club Loft. It’s fair to say that yours truly chanced upon these lads by at Rivfest 2019. Not only did I think I wasn’t going to be able to make the festival, but the band was only added at the last minute – a happy coincidence indeed as they were definitely a highlight for me amongst an impressive line-up.
Tightly summoned hooks yield deftly woven songs that elicit a wide range of emotions from toe-tapping, head-nodding approval from the most stone-faced punters to practically reducing them to tears by tugging intently at the heart strings moments later. For a band still only in their relative infancy they are already producing accomplished compositions that would put more established acts to shame.
However, it’s the mastery over their sound that leaves many scratching their heads. Stadium-filling tones rain down aplenty, but there isn’t a wall of speaker stacks to be found. For a five-piece with a complement that consists of two guitarists, bassist, drummer, and keys, and lead vocalist with accompanying backup vocalists, the balance of sounds hangs in the air as sweetly as if you were listening to an album.
- Kenny Stuart: Singer / Songwriter / Guitarist
- Jose Ibanez: Guitarist / Backing Vocals / Producer
- Andrew Horrocks: Bass Guitar / Backing Vocals
- Ste Penn: Keys / Organ
- Mark Rice: Drums & Percussion
Dawsons: How did you guys meet and when did the band in its current form start to write and record together?
Kenny: I’ve worked & collaborated with Jose (Guitarist/Producer) for about 10 years. We played in our previous group Jacobi together and have a great chemistry – the man’s a riff machine! I’ve known Ste for about 17 years we played in my first ever group when we were just starting out in the music world and basically, I’ve been trying relentlessly to get him in a band with me ever since!
Ste: Kenny knew Andy through work and invited him along to our studio for a jam – and at the time Mark was working as a session musician and Jose asked him to join us. It all came together really naturally – there wasn’t really a master plan or strategy as such, but it all worked out.
Dawsons: For a relatively new band, you already have a polished sound that seems distinctly “The Heavy North”. What and who are your influences be it artistically and musically?
Kenny: Dirty, rocky, blues sound like the Stones is great and is definitely the foundation for The Heavy North’s sound. Some of my personal favourites are Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Sam and Dave, John Lee Hooker, Beatles (Obvs) Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Iggy and the Stooges, Bowie, Peter Greens Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Pink Floyd, Paul Weller, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Free, Black Keys to name but a few.
Ste: Yeh, we’ve been described as “dirty dive bar blues” which I think sums it up, but we’re always introducing new sounds and influences.
Mark: Musically, Benny Greb and Jason McGerr are two of my biggest influences. The tones Benny Greb gets from such a small kit are massive and he comes up with such cool concepts and ways of creating drum parts. Jason McGerr produces really musical parts that always suit the tracks perfectly.
Jose: I have influences from all over the world artists, from Jimi Hendrix to Paco de Lucía (best flamenco guitar player of all times). I grew up with Clapton, Black Sabbath and heavy metal and punk. Definitely Led Zeppelin was my eye-opening moment of how a guitar should be played. I am a rock guy. But as a producer I’ve learned and appreciate other styles like Jazz, Folk.
Andy: My musical (and lyrical) influences are mainly Joy Division, Bowie and The Raconteurs. I try to take as much as I can from these influences when bringing my input to the band.
Dawsons: How have you managed to distance yourself from your influences to clearly mark out your own territory?
Kenny: I think for me personally I feel my sound comes from all my influences coming together merging heavy rock and blues with soul and psychedelia. I just play what I feel I would listen too.
Jose: Our sound comes from jamming. That’s how we do it. Sometimes a melody in my head could have a heavy rock vibe but adding some blues scales and in conjunction with the rest of the band we get our own sound.
Andy: I feel like we distance ourselves really well from our influences while tipping our hat to them at the same time. You have José’s gritty, frantic, growling guitar. Kenny’s soulful rock vocals. Ste’s toe-tapping melodic keys, all kept together by Marks uniquely soring drums to keep us in check.
Dawsons: Do you have any advice for others struggling to define their “sound”?
Mark: I’d say try not to stress and just go for what sounds right to you. Changing things up when you’re in a rut always helps though, like trying different drumheads, tunings, kit configurations. Just to keep things fresh and generate some inspiration.
Kenny: I would tell them not to worry too much and just play what they are into themselves and it will come over time and if you’re into what you’re playing then you will enjoy it and that’s the main thing, when it becomes work then you will have problems.
Jose: Enjoy jamming with the band, if it feels right, that’s the direction you wanna go for.
Dawsons: When was your first gig and what kind of teething problems – if any – did you have and how have you overcome them?
Mark: The only major change we made on a technical level after the first gig was to bring in a click track. It gave us much more consistency from gig to gig because we’d be playing the songs at the same tempo every night, without adrenaline taking over and speeding everything up!
Ste: We were really fortunate to play our first gig as The Heavy North at the Night & Day in Manchester, and with it being a ‘proper’ gig venue I suppose we skipped the usual teething problems bands can experience as we had a good sound engineer and a good setup.
Andy: I feel that we surpassed the teething problem phase by honing our skills in the studio by practicing religiously and making sure everything was tweaked before we went on stage for the first time. We have always kept the mentality of when we were to get our first gig that we would show anyone watching how much we have put in. Even to this day we have that mentality.
Dawsons: How did you refine your live sound and corresponding gear from first performance to now? Was it an unconscious thing that happened over time and continues to evolve?
Mark: A lot of it just came from the amount of time we spent rehearsing, recording and adjusting things before taking it out live. Choice of gear developed from hearing things at soundcheck, listening back over footage or speaking to sound guys about what was working or not. It’s trial and error and it’s constantly changing.
Jose: Our sound is definitely evolving, we started with just our amps and that, after that we incorporated a click track, next step will be in ear monitoring system. In my experience as a producer, if you have the best monitoring while you track you will perform much better, same applies to a live situation. Don’t get me wrong, we are fully capable of playing with just our guitars, amps, keys and drums, but we want to sound better every time and we love gear so why not using tools that will make you better?
Andy: I have always preferred Fender over most brands and the shape and feel (complimented by the sound) of the Fender Mustang bass made it an easy transition for me having gone from guitar to bass.
Dawsons: Did your studio work directly inform your live gear, i.e. have you essentially taken what you use in the studio and brought it to the stage?
Ste: For me, yes. I use a Nord Electro 4D both in the studio and when playing live – but even if I use a Rhodes or a Vox Continental organ in the studio my Nord is pretty good at emulating the authentic sounds.
Mark: For the most part. I switch between different snares a bit depending on the room or what sound I’m after, but everything else stays the same live and in the studio and I’ll just tweak things with tuning or muffling.
Kenny: Yes, I take my voice most places! But yeh, as a band we try to stay true to our studio or recorded sound in every way.
Jose: Definitely, we try to be very accurate live with our recordings. What you hear in our recorded material is what you get live.
Dawsons: Can you take us through your current live rig for each member of the band? How did you each settle on the gear that you use live? Can you explain to us just how you get those monster tones – without giving away too many secrets?
Kenny: My standard rig is a Gibson SG Standard or my Fender Telecaster Deluxe custom, with an accompanying pedal board including a Mojo Mojo, Shimverb, TC Electronic nanoTuner, Nano Spark.
Mark: My kit’s a Tama Starclassic Maple with a 20”x17” kick, 10”x8” rack and a 14”x12” floor. I’ll bring that out when we use our own full backline. My snares a 13”x7” Starphonic Steel. All those drums have a wide tuning range, but the small footprint makes it really comfy to play and easy to transport.
For cymbals I use Zildjian 15” K Light Hi Hats, a 19” K Dark Thin Crash and a 22” K Light Ride. They’re big, washy and sound great live and in the studio. Hardware is a mix of Iron Cobra pedals and Gibraltar stands. I use Vic Firth sticks and Remo heads. All just really reliable and long-lasting stuff.
For click and samples I use a Roland SPD-SX sample pad. It’s useful being able to trigger it with sticks while I’m playing and we’re planning on experimenting with the midi output to do patch changes with Jose’s Kemper. At first, we were using an iPad and a playback app. It was more lightweight but was difficult to operate mid song if anything went wrong.
Ste: I use a Nord Electro 4D keyboard which a variety of presets and custom patches. For The Heavy North’s sound, I normally gravitate to a bluesy Hammond sound with a Rhode-style electric piano. I used to play a Vox Continental MkII in a previous band which was boss, but the Nord just opens up so many possibilities.
Jose: I’ve been using a Kemper for a couple of years. There is nothing easier than that for the sound guy at the venue. I get a tone that is exactly the same one I use in our recordings but through the PA. I own a few amps and I’d like to keep them in my studio for recordings, then I use the profiles on my Kemper for live. My main guitar with the band at the moment is a Strat and occasionally I’d use my Gibson 335. Pedals I own a few but lately I’ve been using a full tone Ultimate fuzz and a Xotic fx BB preamp to give some colour.
Andy: I tried a few bass guitars out but as soon as I had a go on the Mustang it was a no-brainer. As mentioned before the short-scale neck on the Mustang made it an easy transition. Especially in a live scenario when I didn’t have much time to get up to the same speed as the lads. On my end there aren’t too many secrets behind the scenes. For me it is just a good sound engineer to get a decent mix and EQ on the bass then keep an eye on the tone control. Let the riffs do the hard work.
Dawsons: If money wasn’t a limitation what gear would you each go for to create a dream gig rig?
Kenny: I’m going to get a Gibson J160E & probably an Epiphone 335 Pro as well just to give me a few different options. But if I want something a usually get it! Ha!
Mark: I really like the Tama Star kits and Q Drums. One of those and a few more cymbals from the Zildjian K and Avedis lines would be sick. A self-contained band in ear monitoring system would be great as well, like the ones based around the Behringer X32 mixer. Have everyone wireless, on the click, with their own mixes and make the show run seamlessly.
Jose: I think a 68 Strat for starters, then a 1969 Gibson ES335 in aged cherry. Amps I think I’d stick to my Kemper as there is nothing like it for a perfect sound live right now.
Andy: For me, a Rickenbacker 4003. Something heavy with a good image. Peter Hook in the early Joy Division days. Throw in a Fender Rumble to go with it. That’d do.
Ste: Well I’m a bit spoilt because I’ve already got an original Vox Continental Organ from the 60s, and my Nord sorts everything else out. I’d love to own a Rhodes, but I’m lucky enough to use one in the studio – I think it’s Jose’s!
Dawsons: What have you got lined up next for The Heavy North with regard to upcoming gigs, tours, EPs & recordings, etc.?
Ste: Well we’re approaching 12 months since our first gig and we’re made up with the year we’ve had. We’ve played shows in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Blackpool and Warrington as well as making our festival debut at Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) back in July.
Kenny: We’ve released a couple of singles so far which have been well-received, and we’re always recording and writing new material so you can expect new music really soon.
Mark: It would be great to do a few more out of town shows, perhaps a mini tour early in 2020.
The Heavy North “Some Good Lovin'”
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Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.