The California Honeydrops discuss local roots, eclectic sound

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Lech Wierzynski, lead singer of the Oakland band the California Honeydrops, speaks with a voice halfway between a southern drawl and an easygoing Midwest accent. He’s affable and easy to talk to. He’ll frequently stop a train of thought to ask, “You know what I mean?”

“The Bay Area’s still a special place for us,” said Wierzynski. “People in the Bay Area are like our old fans. That always makes it special, I think, for them to … watch the band grow.”

And they’ve certainly grown. The California Honeydrops, a Bay Area gem with roots in Oakland, first got its start busking at BART stations and playing gigs at The Cheese Board Collective. Now, this hometown band is playing shows across the globe, everywhere from New Zealand to New Orleans and back to Oakland again, where it supported blues singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt on April 23 at the Fox Theater.

“We try to be as close with the crowd wherever they are and whoever they are,” he said. Though the California Honeydrops has moved beyond its humble beginnings, the band actively strives to maintain the hometown, community-oriented spirit it believes defines its music. The band members interact with the audience as much as possible during their shows, asking them to have dance contests, sing harmony for the band or say “hi” to one another. Their performances are organic — and, to a degree, fairly unplanned. They don’t make a setlist. “We don’t know what we’re going to play,” Wierzynski explained.

He added, “We’ve just built on playing on the street, at little clubs, at bars, at festivals, but not on the stages, and just getting people to have some fun with the music and be part of something.”

Its behavior during performances isn’t the only thing that sets the California Honeydrops apart from other groups. Unconventionality is an integral part of the California Honeydrops experience. Its music is an alchemic combination of blues, New Orleans second-line, soul, jazz, zydeco, funk, Bay Area rhythm and blues and more — an entrancing if difficult-to-classify blend of American musical traditions. When asked to categorize the California Honeydrops’ sound, Wierzynski simply responded that he doesn’t think about it.

The California Honeydrops’ diverse influences combine to create a sound that is vibrant, energetic and joyful. It uses a tub bass, jug and washboard — nothing you’d ever hear from a mainstream artist. It’s easier to imagine the band playing at a wedding or a community celebration than it is to see it at a large concert hall. Wierzynski agrees. “It just sounds better at little venues anyway,” he said of the band’s music. “It sounds better in your living room … (or) in your backyard.”

Wierzynski’s introduction to the world of American music was also nontraditional, much like the band’s eclectic sound. Wierzynski was strongly influenced by his parents, who were at one time political refugees fleeing Stalinist Poland. Wierzynski recalls that his father used to listened to bootleg copies of American music in the pre-World War II years. “Those were the years where you weren’t allowed to participate in any American, Western, capitalist culture,” he said. “That was punishable by death.” His father, he says, wanted to pass on that love of music to him.

Now a professional musician himself, Wierzynski finds himself following in the footsteps of some of the world’s most famous musicians, who — Wierzynski noted — also combined diverse musical traditions. He pointed to Ray Charles, whom he calls “the king,” in particular, as one artist whose sound synthesized different musical influences.

The California Honeydrops has made a name for itself as a band without clean artistic boundaries; the band is currently signed with Tubtone Records, a small Oakland-based record label. One of the band’s greatest difficulties to date, however, has been breaking into the mainstream music industry without an easily identifiable sound. “It’s damn near impossible,” Wierzynski noted. “The music industry doesn’t know how to label you, and they don’t know how to market you.”

Still, Wierzynski is unfazed. “People give a label to something so they can sell it,” he concluded. “Musicians who know, just play music because they like music.”

Contact Sarah Coduto at [email protected].