The Heavy Heavy: “Our sound? The Rolling Stones meets The Mamas & The Papas”

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. The retro-rockers on evoking the greats of the past (without pastiche) and hitting hit the road with Black Pumas

One of the hardest parts in this job is nailing a comparison. Artists groan when their work is pitched against someone else’s, no matter if it’s right on the money; journalists, meanwhile, quake at the idea of making one in fear it’ll blow up in their face and feature as the key storyline in the artist’s next press campaign… been there! Best, then, to push the artist to do it themselves, and not let them weasel out of it with a “we like a bit of everything” before they curate an ill-fitting ‘influences’ playlist for Spotify.

The Heavy Heavy, thankfully, have no qualms over comparing their sound and their work to their heroes. Their answers? The Rolling Stones and The Mamas & The Papas. “The Stones are the bottom of everything we do,” Will Turner, one half of the Brighton duo, keenly tells NME of the key influences behind ‘Life and Life Only’, the band’s debut EP that’ll be released on vinyl this week (July 22).

“One of the main goals for us is to make people feel good,” adds vocalist and songwriter Georgie Fuller. “And there’s so much music out there that’s sad, but The Rolling Stones have this magical quality to make you feel good and feel like life’s a party. And The Mamas & The Papas had the glistening West Coast sound that we love, too.”

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It’s this attitude that makes ‘Life and Life Only’ such a refreshing listen. This is folk-rock that unashamedly harks back to what Turner calls his favourite period of music: lush ‘60s pop through to the early ‘70s, and the birth of the digital era. In the wrong hands, this refined mindset would sound crusty, snobby and tiresome, but here that approach generates songs that are familiar, accessible and rather quite exciting.

“We’re not trying to create a pastiche or make another sound that’s identical to something that exists, but to carry on what we believe is the greatest era of music,” Fuller says. Michael Kiwanuka, Leon Bridges and Paolo Nutini are such acts who, like them, aren’t repeating history, but instead taking their inspiration from it, and they sound like some of the “coolest records ever”.

Turner is more blatant: “There was a similar set of ingredients in that 10-year period that I think was the best sound ever, whether that was Joe Cocker, The Beatles or Led Zeppelin. We want to try and exact those ingredients and put them in every song that we do. Aim for Aretha Franklin, going for Bob Dylan… we want to go that high. I don’t think there’s any reason to settle for anything less than the ‘best ever’.”

‘Go Down River’, the first song the pair worked on together, is a rich soul ballad that acts as the midway point of The Band, Otis Redding and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. ‘All My Dreams’, a funk-rock groover, has hints of Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin, and the harmonies on ‘Man Of The Hills’ appear plucked directly from The Mamas & The Papas’ ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’.

The Heavy Heavy
Credit: Holly Whitaker

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It’s a sound Turner has been chasing for over a decade. His previous band fizzled out, but a chance appearance from Fuller on one of their tracks opened their mind to a new way of working. “Something about the way my voice hit the mic and the way he produces the sound, we had a moment where we were like, ‘Woah!’” Fuller says.

In little over two-and-a-half years, the pair have released their debut EP, expanded to a five-piece band and signed to ATO Records, home to Nilüfer Yanya, Alabama Shakes and Black Pumas. Things appear to be accelerating: not only did they recently appear on CBS’ Saturday Morning TV show for a live performance of their Americana-tinged single ‘Miles & Miles’, but they also just completed a support slot on labelmates Black Pumas’ European tour.

It was, incredibly, the band’s first-ever full tour and saw them playing to growing venues across the continent. They’re grateful that the psych-soul band’s fans got down early for their set and made up for lost time by snapping up their merch. “They’d buy it, put the t-shirt on and then stick out their bellies, and we’d sign the tops for these slightly rotund German men,” Turner laughs.

Aside from the merch takings, valuable lessons were learned. They were in awe of Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton’s magnetic stage presence, and geeked out with guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada on sound technique: it’s the kind of advice they’ll use when stitching together their debut album later this year, for which they have 40 to 50 demos.

Most of all, it set a new benchmark, and another chance to follow in the footsteps of those they consider the best. “Watching them up close and realising how they got to this level was a huge eye-opener,” Fuller says. “It made us think, ‘Fuck, if we work hard like they do, this might be possible for us.’”

The Heavy Heavy’s ‘Life and Life Only’ EP is released on vinyl via ATO Records this week (July 22)

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