Folk Duo HoneyHoney's Career Started With an Oversized Cardboard Check
Photo by Marina Chavez
HoneyHoney began 10 years ago when guitarist Ben Jaffee and siren Suzanne Santo crossed paths in Los Angeles. With influences as diverse as Rage Against the Machine, Dean Martin, Hank Williams and Gillian Welch, this duo strives for originality in their musical style, just like their heroes.
Their humble beginnings in the music business started with an opportunity including Kiefer Sutherland, Mark McGrath, and a gi-normous cardboard check.
Before returning home to L.A. to promote their latest album, 3, with a show at the El Rey, L.A. Weekly caught up with Santo to ask her about HoneyHoney's origins, their instrumental versatility, and the one thing she doesn't want to emulate in another of her heroes, Etta James.
Who’s opening for you at the El Rey show?
There’s this comedy act, Ben Hoffman, he did a show on Comedy Central called The Ben Show for a season. He’s a really talented singer and musician. He has a country act called Wheeler Walker Jr. It’s some dirty shit ... it is really funny. There will be a surprise. Then this incredible band called Zero DeZire with Inara George and Barbara from Belle Brigade.
What’s your favorite song off the new album that you enjoy playing live most?
That’s funny, 'cause we’re not playing them all. We have had such a brutal tour, we haven’t had a minute to work on new material. Between "Big Man" and "Burn Me Out." Those are two powerful songs to play live. They feel good every night.
You do an amazing cover of Etta James' “At Last” live and told a story before about seeing her at the Hollywood Bowl?
Yes. It was hard, because she can’t sing like she used to … so I felt like she was overcompensating with her gestures. She grabbed her crotch multiple times … on the Jumbotron … it’s like, what the fuck are you doing, Etta James? But she’s Etta James and it spoke to me as far as being able to have a career that people want to hear me sing later in my life. I’d like to do everything I can to protect my voice and be able to sing later. I don’t want to be Etta James grabbing my crotch when I’m 80 at the Hollywood Bowl, but I’ll do it because I want to!
When HoneyHoney began, how many instruments did you play?
I was already playing violin, singing, and standard acoustic guitar. I picked up the banjo because Ben already played guitar. We wanted another sound, the banjo is a percussive instrument, and brings that to the table. Ben was really patient with me, because it took me awhile. Ben’s learning banjo and I’m playing more guitar now so we have that party trick to switch it up.
You guys began your career on Kiefer Sutherland’s label, Ironworks. How did that happen?
The opportunity presented itself from entering a radio contest in L.A. Just for the record, it wasn’t rigged and there were other great bands in the contest. We were presented this life-size check by Mark McGrath and riding back to Venice Beach in Ben’s Saab with this life-sized check in the back seat filling up the whole car. That night was the first night we met the whole label. Everyone was falling over wasted drunk. We were like, just in shock over the whole thing, just meeting Jack Bauer [Sutherland], getting this life-sized check, everyone falling over drunk, it was like, “What the fuck just happened?” We made our first record with Ironworks and we are really proud of it.
Do you both live Westside?
I live in Echo Park. I’m so glad I did. I feel like I enjoy my Los Angeles life so much more. Not stuck in my car as much as I used to be and sitting on the 10 made me ravenous. For awhile Ben lived in Los Feliz and I was in Venice. Now I can walk places.
Where is the life-sized check?
It was in Ben’s place for awhile, in his closet. Hey Ben, didn’t you try to karate chop it at one point? We were going to try to take it to the bank. I think he tried to Ralph Macchio the cardboard.
HoneyHoney headlines the El Rey on Wednesday, July 1.
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