There’s an old adage that says you can achieve anything you want in this world, just as long as you’re willing to let others take all the credit.
Adam Levy can relate to this truism. Big time. In his wallet, he always carries photograph-enhanced business cards with his name and basic job description: “Solo acoustic or multi-band musician,” with an exemplary roster of some of his more noteworthy side projects, like the experimental instrumental outfit Liminal Phase, the all-kids-music Bunny Clogs, his string-quartet buttressed And The Professors, and an R&B-revival cover combo called Hookers $ Blow. “That band started as a bowling-night thing, but it’s been going for 10 years now,” marvels Levy of his retro-hip brainchild. “We just played our favorite soul music, but now people want us to play weddings and all sorts of events. Some people have actually said that we’re the best cover group they’ve ever heard.”
There is, however, one highlighted moniker on that card that marks it as something special, a creative cut above the rest: The Honeydogs, a quiescent little roots-rock ensemble that Levy has headed up since way back in 1994. Starting with an eponymous debut in ‘95, the Minnesotans have issued brilliant little gems like Seen A Ghost (‘97), 10,000 Years (‘03), Sunshine Committee (‘09), and the great new breakup-themed What Comes After, to no trumpeted national fanfare. No real acclaim at all, oddly enough. Even The Honeydogs’ Wikipedia page offers a metaphorical shrug under “Reception,” where it reads “Lauree Guyer of Glide Magazine said that all of the songs in the band’s albums are high quality.” Sad.
But make no mistake. This isn’t another painfully humorous Anvil-type tale, wherein a musician blindly keeps pushing that Sisyphusian rock uphill, only to have it roll back down and crush him every few forgettable years. Levy is a truly great composer who’s quite content with word-of-mouth status around his native Minneapolis. Quite content with the day jobs he’s had, too, which have allowed him to keep all of his diverse undertakings aesthetically pure. Currently he’s employed by the president of a local music college; right before this, he taught songwriting and production classes at the Institute of Production and Recording, where he was also allowed to record Honeydogs albums, aided by teams of his own students. And—get this—he’s totally happy being the Local Hero.
”It’s really easy to be somewhat insular here—we’ve got an incredible music scene here in Minneapolis,” says the singer/guitarist, kicking his office door shut with an ominous creak. “So obviously I’d like to be more well-known for my songwriting, everywhere, and there’s always the hope that you just keep knocking it out, and more and more people will get it.”
Levy pauses, considering his uncredited career. “It’s hard,” he’s forced to admit. “But to me, it’s kind of like a life journey—we just keep making records, and I’ve started all these other projects that keep me buoyant and excited. And they’ve actually regenerated my interest in The Honeydogs. But what’s the option? To not do it anymore? The drive to create is the thing that keeps it all going, even when there’s no money. You still have to create. It’s like a disease or something.”
Perhaps it’s only a small cadre of rock critics that truly appreciates the underrated genius of Levy, who (again, quite sadly) is often mistaken for that other Adam Levy, Norah Jones’ guitarist/comrade-in-arms. Ironically, the two Levys actually met once, co-wrote a song together, and vowed that they would one day attempt a Levy-squared co-headlining tour. But every time a new Honeydogs album shows up on our desk, we scribes can’t help but be simultaneously delighted (as in, that Levy guy’s still out there!) and stunned (that Levy guy’s still out there?!). And What Comes After does not disappoint, starting with its bluesy, stomping opener “Particles Or Waves” (and a bittersweet chorus of “Trying not to hurt too many or myself too much/ The trek is long and the agony goes on as such”).
Levy follows it with suckerpunch singalong like the chiming “Aubben,” the Little Feat-funky “Broke It, Buy It,” the funereal, piano-based title track, a Replacements-punky “Fighting Weight” and “Devil We Do,” and a bluegrass-plucked “Blood Is Blood” (with its portentious bridge “I don’t play the game according to Hoyle/ Say I get a straight flush I’ll say it’s royal/ You know I’m shy a few cards,” which leads to a deceptively simple chorus of “Family is family, love is love, and blood is blood”). “Yes, that’s definitely a divorce song,” its composer says with a loved-and-lost sigh. “It’s a song I wrote to my wife, who I still love very much. We’re very close, we’ve got kids together, but it’s been an agonizing four or five years of processing all that stuff. So there’s regret in almost every number on the album.”
But how have Levy’s nine-to-five gigs dovetailed into his nocturnal side? To start with, the 47-year-old explains, he had a good two decades’ worth of non-profit experience working with at-risk kids in the Twin Cities before he was offered the plum Institute position. “So I guess I led a double life,” he reckons. “I was managing these employment-service programs for youth offenders and dislocated workers, but I managed to hit the road a little bit with The Honeydogs and then always come back to work. And I think the school liked that, the fact that I could work with folks that were not your normal students.”
For this interview, Levy’s office door is shut; for Institute students, it was always open. By the end of his classes, the kids were recording their own concepts, and most instantly picked up on what the prof was putting down. “But there were times where it was like ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here’,” he recalls. “But most often, those were students who just weren’t applying themselves, so I’ve definitely had moments of trying to redirect students as carefully as I possibly could—that’s the social worker in me. There were also real mental health issues, where music becomes therapeutic for people, even though to most listeners what’s going on is pretty unlistenable. So there’s a subtext to it, where this person is trying to process some major stuff in their life.”
The upside? Levy put his kids to work as part of their studio training: “So I could basically say ‘Okay—we’re going to record a Honeydogs album during this quarter!’ or ‘We’re going to an improvisational project called Liminal Phase!’ So I got students involved in every level of recording, production, even the distribution of the music, so they could see how you really build a campaign for the release of a record. So having the students be in this laboratory environment with a pretty competent band was a really good learning experience for anybody who was into participating.”
What will this underdog attempt next? That’s The Honeydogs’ underlying motif in What Comes After, Levy concludes. “The tone is certainly ambiguous—is it a question or is telling you what’s going on? But within, there’s certainly the idea of a band that’s been doing this for a long time—it’s a lifetime in music for us, so I’m always trying to figure out ‘What am I gonna do next?’ Because as soon as I finish a record, I’m already starting a new musical project—I’m in this really, really creative period, and feeling much more positive. Even hopeful!”
Grab a business card and call him this spring—Levy does do weddings.