On the night Alfred Howard played the last show with his former band, K23 Orchestra, he had no idea he was about to meet the future lead singer of his next. In fact, after spending seven full-throttle, road-weary years as frontman for the spoken-word-meets-psychedelic-funk ensemble, Howard had no interest in ever being in a band again.
When Erik Canzona, a fan of K23, gingerly inquired about his plans for the future, Howard sullenly responded, “Whatever it is, it's not going to have anything to do with music.”
Canzona was content to leave it at that until nearly two years later, when he was one of three people who responded to a craigslist ad that Howard posted, looking for a singer to help start a band influenced by “Wilco, Otis Redding, and Radiohead.”
One of the respondents was a girl who said she liked to sing, but mostly in the shower. The other was a guy who said he'd have to split time between the new project and his main focus, a Sublime cover band. Both candidates were, as Howard puts it, “incorrect.”
And so began a collaboration that has spawned from its original intention as strictly a recording project into a six-piece live band. With Howard as lyricist and percussionist, Canzona on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Josh Rice on keys, Sean Martin as lead guitarist, Jason Littlefield on bass guitar and Jenny Merullo on drums, the band's sound has evolved from mostly low-key, back-porch folk strummers into a sweeping brand of folk-rock that incorporates everything from subtle string and keyboard arrangements to hard-hitting rock drums and gritty, over-driven guitar.
For Howard, just finding a vocalist who could so naturally interpret his descriptive and emotive lyrics was nothing short of a musical rebirth. After years as a frontman performing very politically charged, rapid-fire spoken-word poetry, the night-in / night-out grind and constant touring had started to take its toll. He admits that in a figurative sense, he had lost his voice.
Things were different for Canzona. “Al was kind of ready to call it quits on being in bands, but I was the complete opposite,” he says. “I had never really been on the road or played in bands before. I played guitar and sang, but I had never thought about doing that in front of people or anything.
“But when I met these guys,” he adds, “it just felt right and I knew that I really wanted it to be a real band.”
The Heavy Guilt's new full-length album, In the Blood, is proof positive that Canzona got his wish. The 11-track collection tells the tale of a band that has spent a lot of time on stage, getting to know one another, developing an identity and a dynamic range. Lyrically, Howard purposefully paints some of his most gritty, desperate scenes yet, which stand ready for Canzona's guttural interpretation.
“I try to write songs that suit Eric's voice,” Howard says. “To me, his voice has such a raw, emotive sense, and now that I know him better, I try to convey that lyrically.”
And the well from which the band draws these lyrical motifs is not shallow.
“Al has a Word document with about 900 pages of lyrics,” Canzona says. “I look through it all the time and there are certain ones that just click with me. It's really important for me to be able to relate.”
One particularly stirring track is “Wyoming,” a beautiful, longing ballad about missing someone terribly but still searching for a silver lining. It's a common idea revisited at several points on Blood, elevating the band's songs from merely morose, shoulder-shrugging laments to uplifting tales of struggle and longing. Canzona draws you in by the end of the vivid first verse: “Warmth and wind Wyoming whispers wishing you were here / Why were you like willows winter leaves they disappear / Shaky sly like cigarette smoke offer up a glass / Have a toast to all the flaw and coax me with your rasp / All in all it is alright / As long as day comes from your night.”
“Blistered Hands,” meanwhile, showcases the group's collaborative spirit and its ability to lay down a dynamic assault of high and low, loud and quiet. A tasteful psychedelic interplay between Rice's dreamy Fender Rhodes twinkles, and Martin's dissonant guitar stabs builds nicely into a blistering guitar solo.
Asked what comes next for the band, Howard and Canzona are somewhat dismissive. But Howard acknowledges that he's achieved at least one of his dreams.
“For me, I've been waiting to put out an actual album for probably 30 years,” he says. “So, I'm good now. I put a record out on vinyl. I won.”
The Heavy Guilt celebrate the release of In the Blood with Low Volts, Gun Runner and Black Sands at Glashaus Artist Collective Warehouse on Saturday, July 16. There will also be record vendors, circuit benders and live art exhibits. theheavyguilt.com