There’s a hurricane coming. It’s already laid waste to America, knocked Mark Wahlberg for six, swept Obama to a second term and battered at the winter cabin windows of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Its corrupted R&B power is unstoppable and it’s heading right your way.
It’s called The Heavy, a trans-Atlantic four-piece that has ripped wildly across stage and screen for the past fifteen years, whipping and writhing with seditious blues drama, soul and gospel passion, the crunch of prime hip-hop and garage punk’s visceral electricity. And their latest landfall takes the form of sixth album AMEN – “an affirmation, a confirmation, an achievement” that they’re still here, as fired up and unavoidable as ever.
Because, for a band flying so narrowly beneath the mainstream’s radar, The Heavy are everywhere. Their songs – combining the band’s affectionate corrosions of vintage R&B with the gritty soul vocals of Kelvin Swaby, quite possibly James Brown reborn – are embedded deep into Western pop culture; mainstays of modern radio, TV, cinema and gaming that are, subconsciously or not, familiar to millions.
Their osmosis rise was swift. At the height of the blues rock revival in 2007 Swaby and guitarist Daniel Taylor, having formed a strong bond over vintage soul and Jim Jarmusch, recruited bassist Spencer Page and drummer Chris Ellul, two student friends they knew from Bath’s insular classic pop circuit, to help them construct the sample-heavy “bedroom” debut album Great Vengeance And Furious Fire, released on Ninja Tune’s rock imprint Counter Records.
Within a year, needing to recreate the album live had enriched their DIY aesthetic with a grainy R&B authenticity, horn sections and gospel backing singers. They began making waves Stateside, tipped by Spin and Rolling Stone in 2008. Then a live performance of ‘How You Like Me Now?’ – the lead single from 2009’s second album The House That Dirt Built, where The Black Keys’ more psychedelic moments met classic Stax – on The Late Show With David Letterman punted them straight into the American psyche.
“It felt like everyone that had played on there was playing for TV,” says Kelvin. “We went on there and just played as if we were playing a gig. I think that changed the future of the band.”
The US decided it liked ‘How You Like Me Now?’ very much indeed. The track was selected to soundtrack a 2010 Super Bowl commercial, and feature heavily in Mark Wahlberg’s sports drama The Fighter. “The Fighter was quite a big moment,” says Chris. “They took us to a cinema when we were on tour, rented out a whole cinema to show us the movie, and that was a bit like, ‘oh, wow, this is all over it’.”
Before long the song was “all over” US culture. On TV, The Vampire Diaries, Entourage, Community, Rookie Blue and White Collar all featured the track. In gaming, it appeared in Driver: San Francisco and MLB 10. On the big screen, Horrible Bosses, Limitless, The Expendables 3, The Change-Up, This Means War and GI Joe: Retaliation all played on the drama exuding from its corrupted soul, an attribute that makes The Heavy’s music naturally cinematic.
“The influence of film is quite powerful on our music anyway,” says Chris, and Kelvin agrees. “We’re huge Scorsese and Tarantino fans and in those movies, right from the jump, music is key right the way through. I’ve actually been in the cinema when our tracks have been playing and it sounds so much bigger than I ever imagined.”
The success of the song was, Spencer says, “quite overnight. It seemed to happen unbelievably quickly. The time we went back to America after it exploded, we were playing to a lot more people. For me it was an exciting time because you suddenly had this world open up to you and that is what you’re working towards, being able to travel the world and play shows and have people know your music and do things like big TV shows.” The song became so ubiquitous in the States that it was ‘How You Like Me Know?’ which played over the speakers at Barack Obama’s HQ in Chicago to declare his victory in the 2012 Presidential election; an answer, perhaps, to the Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who had used the song at campaign rallies until the band issued a cease-and-desist order.
The Heavy’s infiltration of the global subconscious was only beginning. ‘Short Change Hero’, also from The House That Dirt Built, became a TV sync mainstay, reached new generations as the theme to Batman: Arkham City and several Borderlands video games and even made it into real-life battle zones. “We knew a Special Forces guy in America,” Dan says, “and he told me they’d listen to ‘Short Change Hero’ in a tank when they were out on operations in Iraq.”
By the time 2012’s third album The Glorious Dead catapulted tracks including ‘Same ‘Ol’ and gritty gospel funk blast ‘What Makes A Good Man?’ onto adverts, TV shows, games and the trailer for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, The Heavy were pioneering a very modern method of rock’n’roll survival and prosperity; they were arguably the 21st Century’s first major sync sensation.
Expanding the scope and ambition of their sound over 2016’s Hurt & The Merciless and 2019’s Sons, and growing increasingly tight as a unit despite Kelvin moving to the US with his American wife in 2016, the band hit 2020 on top of a world about to deflate. Their sixth album had been written during sessions in Florida at the end of their 2019 US tour and demoed when Kelvin visited the UK in February 2020. Real World engineer Joe Jones and Black Keys and U2 producer Tchad Blake (nicknamed “Captain Crunch” by the band) were on board. Then, for a year, they sat and waited.
As Rockfield Studios began to re-open in 2021 The Heavy snatched sessions where they could throughout the year, with Kelvin recording his vocals remotely in the US and the band “keen to be able to try and have everything based around the live performance”, recording live takes in the UK with Little Barrie’s Barrie Cadogan and on-stage keyboardist Toby McLaren filling out the sound. When possible, Dan travelled to Columbus, Ohio to record the voices of The Heavy’s regular gospel choir and by February 2022 AMEN was complete and ready for release whenever touring became viable again – i.e., early 2023.
Arriving three years on from their last live shows, and self-released for the first time for “more control”, AMEN would naturally mark a new era for The Heavy even if it didn’t sound so much like a force-of-nature rebirth. Opener ‘Hurricane Coming’ is a buzz funk tornado, an exhilarating maelstrom of ‘60s R&B riffs, horns and gospel harmonies, inspired by Kelvin being caught up in Hurricane Irma soon after moving to the US. “The power of that, and it only touched us at, like, a one,” he recalls. “It’s just the way that relationships are as well. It was a reminder ‘to be a little more careful of taking something beautiful for granted’. Don’t take people for fools. There’s always something waiting, lurking, even…”
The grimy swamp glam of ‘Bad Muthafucker’ and gnarled roadhouse rocker ‘Stone Cold Killer’ (about Dan’s new kitten – “that beautiful thing kills everything”) bristle with the same untamed energies, inspired by Dan’s recent submersion into the YouTube channel of Alan Lomax’s classic field recordings. But AMEN has broad stylistic sermons to preach. ‘I Feel The Love’ jumps with the Pentecostal pop fever full of Mississippi heat. ‘Ain’t A Love’ tells the story of a deceitful old flame returning to town in dark, lumbering tones akin to a Morricone carnival. ‘Messin’ With My Mind’ imagines The Stranglers as a bunch of ragged Southern shack shakers. And ‘Whole Lot Of Me’, ‘Feels Like Rain’ and ‘Without A Woman’ evoke the string-drenched classic soul of Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield with a sly modern crackle.
If much of the album finds Kelvin dredging the murkier depths of the romantic experience, there are hints of wider turmoil too. Just as 2019’s ‘Better As One’ (you might have heard it on the Fast & Furious: Hobbs And Shaw soundtrack) was a comment inspired by the violence of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the sultry ‘Just Like Summer’ touches on global ills such as war and climate change, and their effects on the human mindset: “with the ocean rising, can’t take the heat, then we all start singing to a different beat”.
“I think we write very, very ambiguous songs that can be for a number of situations,” says Kelvin. “We’ve tackled that but there’s other shit going on in ‘Just Like Summer’ as well, and throughout the whole of the record. It’s not just a relationship with your partner, it’s an environmental relationship, how we’re being looked after. There are so many divisions being sewn across the planet. There’s so much ‘truth’ that’s not truth. They’ll sell us all shit and we’re assuming that it’s gold. We have voices.”
Come 2023, The Heavy are every bit as revitalised as AMEN sounds. “We’ve honed our craft,” says Chris, “we’re just better at what we do.” “It feels like a step-up,” Kelvin adds. “It feels like all of the songs are insane. There’s no filler at all.” He cites the merging of two separate ideas – one his, one Dan’s – to make ‘Without A Woman’ as evidence of the band’s natural magic. “That kind of shit is why we are the band that we are, because we can do that. We could be an ocean apart, but we still have this spark. It’s just there.”
Batten down, this one’s a soul force 10.
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