After their first streak of live gigs got stalled by the global 2020 shutdown, Brooklyn-based indie outfit War Honey decided to get creative. Refusing to let the dissolution of their original rhythm section deter them from making a record, band leaders Gabrielle Dana (vocals) and Ben Fitts (lead guitar) worked on more material and recorded a series of songs in lockdown on an interface, recruiting their friend Victoria Smith to contribute the drum parts.
The result was War Honey’s first EP, Shard to Shatter, an eerie and corrosive collection of operatic polemics on war, sexual violence, and the destructive effects of capitalism. The record received an onslaught of praise from publications like Mad Indie Media, UNHNGD, and Here Comes the Flood, and was eventually picked up for distribution in 2021 by Handstand Records.
This month War Honey released their highly-anticipated follow up, The Last Woman Left at the Market, which the band has described as both a companion piece and an inverse of the previous record, tackling equally brutal subject matter while brightening up their sound to fit a live setting.
A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents caught up with lead singer Gabrielle Dana and guitarist Ben Fitts to discuss their thoughts on the current state of live music, being raised in the Bronx, and moving to a rural setting in Pennsylvania to work on their latest material.
What are each of your New York origin stories?
Ben Fitts: We’re both from the city. We grew up in different boroughs originally. My parents moved to Riverdale in the North Bronx. We met at a local guitar school when we were teenagers, which is where we both work now.
Gabrielle Dana: We also met our drummer at band camp. Our bassist is from Virginia and he came to New York a few years ago. Ben went to school in Massachusetts and I stayed in New York and went to Hunter and when he graduated he was looking for a place to stay and I was looking to fill a room, so that’s how we ended up living together.
How did the band initially come together?
Dana: I was in a band for five years that wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to, and my fellow bandmates were not putting in the same effort I was. So I left that band and came to Ben and another friend of ours with this idea for a new project. We both wanted to do the indie thing, but neither of us were able to. Before that I had my other band and Ben was in a metal band out of college.
You recorded your debut EP during the big 2020 shutdown. What did that experience teach you?
Fitts: A lot. We had performed two of those tracks live and one of them was written during lockdown and the other was an ambient interlude that has never been performed live. At the time we were building stuff in the recording space, which gave me a really different perspective on rock band songs because a lot of what we recorded for the EP was stuff we could never recreate live. So it felt extremely insular and indicative of the conditions in which it was created.
That’s very interesting. Can you name some examples?
Fitts: It was just the two of us and our friend Victoria Smith on drums after we lost the initial lineup of the band in lockdown. Victoria had jammed with us maybe three days before the shutdown was announced.
Dana: She didn’t have a recording setup at all. Ben and I had an interface and that was it. So she was essentially positioning her iPhone around the drum set to get a snare, a kick track and all of those dynamic drum sounds before we mixed it.
You’ve described the new EP as both a companion piece and an inverse of the last one. How are both projects similar and how do they differ from one another?
Dana: The first EP had a lot to do with politics, social change, and stuff like domestic violence and sexual assault. I think this second EP is more of a reflection of growth in the process. Some of the lyrics I had already written down a couple years ago. I think it’s also reflective of how we enact growth, change, and the systemic structures that prevent us from recognizing how these problems are created.
Fitts: The first EP was a selection of songs that weren’t tailored to a live setting. These new ones were songs we had played live a whole bunch, and we recorded it by live-tracking it. The first EP is a snapshot of where the band was at that particular time. This one is a companion piece because it shows the evolution of the band since emerging from lockdown. We’ve been playing shows again and we now have a more secure sense of identity. It was built around trying to capture that energy. As much as I love the first EP, we simply didn’t have that sense of unity as a band yet, so we weren’t really able to capture that energy yet.
Dana: We did the instrumental tracking in the studio and Ben did a lot of the lead overdubs at home. I tracked the vocals at home as well.
Gabrielle, how long have you been singing? You sound like you came out of the womb singing operatic arias.
Dana: [Laughs] Thank you! I was actually a very late talker. My parents hired a speech therapist when I was three and a lot of my first words were sung. I learned how to play drums at ten and started writing songs at the age of nine. I started training in opera when I was fourteen.
What have you learned from opera training that you find useful today?
Dana: The style I was doing was Italian soprano. I had a teacher who knew my personality very well, so she would give me the most demented and fucked up subject matter to sing about. The technique I developed was very behind-the-eyes in tone; that dark and high-pitched tone that people like Florence Welch do is all rooted in opera, so that’s something that I’ve carried with me and have always taught my students as a vocal coach. I think fundamental vocal technique is essential for any genre in order to know what you’re capable of.
I really loved “Forage for Porridge.” How did that song come about?
Fitts: Our lease was up during the middle of the pandemic and it really didn’t make sense for us to go to Manhattan. So we rented a place in rural Pennsylvania. While we were out there I was listening to a lot of retro surf rock and garage rock — a lot of Dick Dale, the Monks, the Sonics — and then I started writing riffs that were reminiscent of that stuff. It’s funny too, because surf rock is normally associated with California beaches, yet something about Northeastern wilderness always makes me think of it! I wrote the riff to “Forage for Porridge” while we were out there and turned it into a song that would fit our aesthetic more. We’re both massive fans of Modest Mouse and the Pixies, because they use a lot of those riffs already, so those songs were nice templates to have.
Dana: When we were out in Pennsylvania we got stuck in a strange residential complex. The land that we thought was going to be our own backyard was actually a shared space where all the neighbors were on top of one another. And I ended up bonding with this middle aged lady who told me all these of stories about her life. She was raised in rural Oregon under extremely rigid, conservative values. Hearing about all of the shit she had to put up with and the mistreatment she endured — something almost all women experience at some point in their lives — I heard all about how life had just taken advantage of this poor woman. She was the picture I had in my head when I named the EP Last Woman Left at the Market.
Are there any records you each loved as a child that you still love now?
Dana: Oh god, there’s so many! My first show ever was Cheap Trick when I was four. My dad was obsessed with them. I’ve been to see them maybe 25 times in my life. I got into Modest Mouse pretty young. Every single thing they’ve ever put out is incredible.
Fitts: My parents didn’t listen to much so I didn’t seriously get into music until middle school. The first group I ever really loved was the Ramones. A lot of that classic starter-kit punk — the Ramones, the Clash, New York Dolls — that’s probably the earliest music I’ve gotten into that’s held up quite well.
Why is live music so important, especially now?
Fitts: You really get to see the craft unfold right before you and connect with performers in a way that wouldn’t be possible just by listening to the record. Live music is inherently communal and extroverted while simply listening to music alone in a room with headphones is very personal and introverted. That’s the full experience of what music as an art form has to offer. Doing just one or the other as a creator or consumer isn’t getting the full picture. It’s like reading half of a novel and stopping at the halfway point every time. Live music is how I’ve met a majority of my friends. It gives smaller bands the reassurance that people are responding to what they’re doing and that their work has value.
Dana: Live music is important for the evolution of the art form as well. As great as it is to get a track immortalized in the studio, live music is spontaneous, which makes it exciting. You’re never going to do the same thing twice. The DIY indie space is so important because it’s nice to know that you belong somewhere; a place you can go where you’ll always meet like-minded people. That’s just invaluable.
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