Student band Honey Butter looks to bring its unique jazz-soul-pop sound to the top of the charts
October 9, 2019
On a rainy fall night, a warm candlelight flickers on the brick-lined walls as around 50 audience members fill the music hall at Evanston SPACE.
The low buzz of conversation turns into cheers as the six members of Honey Butter trot onstage and station themselves among a slew of instruments: Sam Wolsk on keys and trumpet, Austin Klewan on sax, Oliver Holden-Moses on drums, Jacob Galdes on guitar, George Estey on the bass, and Alexa Moster front and center on lead vocals. For the next couple of hours, the group fills the room with smooth music — a blend of R&B, soul, jazz and pop influences.
Honey Butter, the eclectic band formerly known as Wop St. Bass Ritual, got its start jamming in basements around Evanston. Among Northwestern students, they’re probably best known for performing at Dillo Day 2018 and providing the “one-third rock and roll” for Mee-Ow last Winter Quarter.
Now, though, the group is hoping to break out of the student band bubble and into the professional music industry. They’ve been performing at venues across Evanston and Chicago, and independently released two original singles over the summer: “Pages” and “The Answer,” which have collectively racked up more than 80,000 streams on Spotify so far.
“It’s funny. If you’d asked me, like, three months ago, I would have been like, ‘I have no idea (about the band’s future),’” said Moster, a Communication junior. “And now I feel like all of us see this as a real-life career possibility. We’re hoping to play music festivals, we’re hoping to release more music, to play bigger venues — to kind of do this for real.”
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Galdes originally rounded up the band — or at least the first iteration of it — to play a The .WAV Company show in the Ski House basement during his freshman year, an effort that basically amounted to him texting a bunch of people he knew from the Bienen School of Music jazz program.
“We’d like to just hang out and jam and make stuff up. That was what we would do for fun. So I was like, ‘I might as well ask these guys,’” the Weinberg junior said. “That was the genesis of all of it. We had one rehearsal, we’re like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna play this song, this song we’ll just pass around the solos and it’ll be really fun.’”
Since then, the band has gone through a few shifts in membership. Though Holden-Moses, Klewan and Estey have been around since the first basement show, two of the other original members ended up transferring out of Northwestern. Wolsk joined the group for its Dillo Day performance and eventually came on full-time.
Moster was the last piece of the puzzle. Last spring, the band was in need of a lead singer after its former vocalist, Ogi Ifediora, started focusing on her own music career. They brought Moster onboard after seeing her sing with THUNK a cappella at a charity showcase, which also featured a Honey Butter performance.
“(Alexa) came out and started singing, and we all looked at each other like, ‘Who’s that?’ She was tearing it up,” Galdes said. “Then she came up after we played and she’s like, ‘You guys are awesome,’ and we’re like, ‘You’re awesome!’ And the rest is history.”
The name is another story. The group was briefly known as the Jacob Galdes Jazz Band (something Galdes said the other group members have never let him live down), and then switched over to Wop St. Bass Ritual, which was born out of an elaborate inside joke.
They ultimately rebranded to the shorter, snappier Honey Butter earlier this year, after many rounds of mixing and matching different words on a whiteboard.
“It kind of grew on us,” Galdes said. “We’ve kind of filled out the shoes of what that means — like, a smooth sound, maybe a little bit of old-time influence.”
Aside from Moster, who is a theater major, everyone in Honey Butter is currently in the Bienen jazz department or was at some point. Though they don’t advertise themselves as a jazz group, Holden-Moses said that their backgrounds definitely play a role in their music — particularly at Honey Butter’s live shows, which leave a lot of room for improvisation.
Giving band members room to riff creates an “organic element” in each performance, Holden-Moses said. That means no two Honey Butter shows will ever be exactly the same.
“It was definitely an adjustment for me to be in a room with five jazz musicians,” Moster said. “In theater, everything is very scripted. You walk on stage, and you read the text, and you do the play. Whereas with this, it’s completely creative… It’s a lot of collaboration and listening.”
Beyond jazz, the band members cite a wide variety of musical influences. Soul legend Stevie Wonder is high on everyone’s list, Holden-Moses said, as are soul-pop group Lawrence, R&B artist D’Angelo and singer-songwriter John Mayer.
But each member adds their own eclectic tastes. Holden-Moses admits he sometimes ends up going down random musical rabbit holes, like when he once became obsessed with a bunch of 12th-century French composers.
“We really align with lyricism and being able to being able to produce things that are really sweet and nice on your ears,” Holden-Moses said. “But we also have different sides of us that are a little bit more raw and emotional and erratic … We take a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of different places.”
While they started off performing mostly covers, Holden-Moses said the group now focuses on original music. He and Galdes collaborated on a lot of the band’s early originals, including their first two singles, which were written in their respective hometowns of Norman, Oklahoma, and San Francisco.
At this point, though, Holden-Moses said every member of Honey Butter is involved with the songwriting process — sometimes writing on their own, other times coming together to flesh out an original. For Holden-Moses, the songwriting process is an important chance to share a piece of his own story with the world.
“I’m a performer. I’ve never seen anything else that I want to do. And what I love about performing is sharing: I love being able to give a piece of myself to other people,” Holden-Moses said. “It’s a lot like having a conversation with a really trusted friend. I need to feel like I have a way of expressing myself and being heard, and that’s a lot easier than, like, yelling about your problems in the street.”
A track that’s especially close to Holden-Moses’ heart is titled “Gentle Rain,” which he said is about a difficult personal relationship that defined his childhood.
When the band breaks into that song at their SPACE show, the crowd grows quiet. Everyone seems to lean into the stage as Honey Butter moves through the intensely personal track (“Why must you call me names? / Why must you make me feel ashamed? … Just think of me / I’ll be your gentle rain”), complete with a nearly three-minute-long guitar solo from Galdes.
Once the song comes to a close, the crowd breaks into roaring applause.
“If you guys look under your seats, you’ll see a box of tissues,” Klewan quips. “Don’t be afraid to break them out.”
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Moving forward, Galdes said the band is juggling a lot of different priorities. They’re looking to continue doing shows in different venues and building relationships with other Chicagoland musicians, while also continuing to write, rehearse and record new music.
They’ve even stepped up their fashion, and Moster said she’s become a bit of an unofficial style adviser for the group. Though they don’t necessarily have a single, unified style, she said she tries to help everyone feel confident in their unique concert looks — whether it’s head-to-toe snake print or a retro bowling shirt.
“I probably have collectively over 100 outfit pictures from the guys combined,” Moster said. “A large part of music is aesthetic, fortunately or unfortunately, right? When you’re onstage, how you present is a part of the story you’re trying to tell.”
The band’s current goal is to release an EP sometime next month, Moster said, with a full album planned for the spring. After that, the band hopes to spend the summer on tour, looking to venture outside the Chicago area.
When asked about their visions for the ultimate future of the band, Honey Butter’s members don’t play down their ambitions. Galdes says performing at San Francisco music festival Outside Lands is a personal dream; Holden-Moses brings up Coachella, “Saturday Night Live,” Madison Square Garden –– maybe even a Grammy.
But no matter where Honey Butter ends up as a band, its members said they’re in it for the long haul.
“I guess that’s the most encompassing view of what I want it to be for the future: I want it to be my life,” Holden-Moses said. “Of course, I would love to really succeed, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen. But I’m having fun making music with my favorite people. And as long as we can continue doing that, I would love to keep doing it.”
In the same vein, Galdes said the things he really values about being in Honey Butter are the personal relationships he’s formed with his bandmates and the experience of performing alongside them.
Of course, fame and fortune would be cool, he said, but that’s not why he does it.
“There’s no feeling like being on stage and just letting fly. Like, everything you’ve been thinking about and feeling, just let it out,” Galdes said. “When you have good musicians backing you up, then the world is your oyster.”