Sweet Sweet Nectar: An Interview with BEES!

I had the good fortune of seeing BEES! at Ardmore Pennsylvania’s legendary Rusty Nail a couple months back and was blown away by their stage presence and energy. Worth noting: They’re not just Bees. They’re BEES! (Emphasis on the exclamation point; you need to shout it whenever you say it.) Since the show, I’ve had their CD, BEES in Space, on constant rotation in my car. It’s the perfect blend of 90s post-grunge guitars and old-school Nintendo video-game energy. To find out more, I chatted with the band’s singer/guitarist Mike Huff and bassist/backing vocalist Adam Sivilich…

What is it about bees as a species that’s so fascinating?

Mike: I don’t really know a lot about bees! The name is based on silly old monster/horror movies, like Tarantula! or Ticks. I’ve always loved that type of film – mostly cuz it makes me laugh. So it’s more like you’re in a horror movie, being chased down the street by giant, radioactive bees screaming, “BEES!”

Adam: So many things about bees are fascinating. The bee dance is a pretty good example. Researchers have studied the little shimmy bees use to communicate the location of that sweet sweet nectar. They found that the angle of the sun relative to the location correlates to the direction of the dance, even when the sun is obscured on a cloudy day, and the length of the dance correlates to the distance away. It’s also incredibly hip.

And your bees aren’t just ordinary bees, at least in terms of the art on your stickers and tee shirts. They have a kind of robotic, B-movie (no pun intended, mostly) horror sensibility. Who’s responsible for that art?

Mike: Brian Langan did the art for the original EP and BEES in Space. He’s so easy to work with and immediately knew what we were going for. He even designed a bee for our video game!

The Life Coach image was designed by Ardon Pixels, who we found through Reddit. Then we ran it through an image glitch website to get the We Don’t Wander cover!

There’s a bit of a video-game vibe—not just in the art, but in the music as well. How does gaming fit into the overall BEES! experience?

Adam: We’re both children of the early 80’s so we were kids during the golden age of regular NES & modems that go boing-boing. A lot of 8 bit tunes have been drilled into our brains over the years for sure.

Mike: We actually released a video game with our last single! It’s also called BEES in Space. It’s a Super Mario World romhack where bees have taken over the mushroom kingdom and Mario has to defeat them to survive. All of the bees in the game were designed by our fans! You can find out how to play it on our website. I’m also really proud of the BEES in Space theme music. It’s the first time I’ve created digital sounds “from scratch,” and I love the way it came out.

In terms of influence, gaming was a huge part of my childhood. At the same time that I was learning Green Day on guitar and Primus on bass, I was hearing F-Zero and Legend of Zelda on repeat. I think that’s pretty much how you get BEES!

(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to a trailer for the game: https://youtu.be/LHPqjUU91N8. Cool stuff!)

You also have a Twitch channel. How do you use that platform to engage with fans? Do you find it effective?

Mike: We started that right before we released the rom hack. Most rom hacks are insanely difficult, so we were trying to show people that: 1) rom hacks existed in the first place and 2) that they didn’t always have to be stupid hard. You need to spend a lot of time on Twitch to be a successful streamer, but a few people tuned in each time. If that got one person interested in our game, then it was successful! As of now, it’s been downloaded 331 times from smwcentral.net and hopefully a bunch more from our website!

Who’s in the band? What does everyone do—music-wise, I mean. But if you want to get into day jobs, that’s fine, too!

Adam Sivilich, Jason Gooch, and Mike Huff of BEES! PHOTO BY MICHAEL KANE PHOTOGRAPHY

Mike: At this point, we’re basically Spinal Tap when it comes to drummers, but Adam (Sivilich) and I have been ⅔ of BEES! the whole time. I sing and play guitar, and Adam plays bass and does backup vocals. This summer, we were lucky to have Jason Gooch on drums, but now he’s driving across the country with his dog. My day job is music! I teach anything with strings in the Philly School District. I work at five different schools, so one day could be beginner Orchestra and the next day is High School Cover Band. I really enjoy the variation and that I get to work with kids at all levels.

Adam: In addition to playing bass for BEES!, I’m also a stay-at-home super-dad, amateur figure skater, and avid backpacker. In other words, I am one tired dude most of the time.

Geek-question time: Mike, I love your guitar. Is it a Reverend? How does it play?

Mike: It is! It’s a Reverend Descent, so it’s actually a baritone guitar. It has a longer neck than normal and I tune in C Standard, 2 steps lower than a normal guitar. I spent a month looking all over the country for the orange one too! It plays great. It’s super punchy and has a nice, full sound that you have a lot of control over. And it feeds back like crazy through the fuzz my friend built!

And I think I noticed that you play it through a bass amp for live shows. Is that right? How does that affect the sound or give you the sound you’re going for?

Mike: Yep! I’m primarily a bassist, I just play a guitarist in BEES! MarkBass amps are the best bass amps I’ve ever used. I like a lot of high-end and they’re really good for that, so I thought why not try it with the guitar? We’ve blended in “real” guitar amps on some of the recordings, but mostly what you hear is the MarkBass. I can get even more punch out of the low strings, but it also sounds great up high. And it’s really light!

Nice! Bass amps in particular can be heavy. It’s cool that you found that’s light and sounds good! On a separate note, you have a new album coming out in late September. Can you talk a little bit about that? How would you describe the music?

Mike: It’s just a couple songs, but we’re really excited about them. “A Thousand Times” is brand new, and it’s about how QAnon destroys families. Since we’ve been playing it live, we’ve found that it’s something a lot of people can relate to. It goes from calm, picked guitar to heavy, sludgy chorus and has your usual BEES! lyrical charm (“I’m so open-minded, my head is hollow.”)

The other song is “1×1.” It’s a fun punk song about leaving a band and starting another. There’s a demo on our bandcamp, but we never really got a solid recording that we wanted to release everywhere until now. This is the definitive version of “1×1.” Director’s Cut!

Adam: Yeah, we’ve got another real banger coming out soon, different I think than anything we’ve released before. Recording is always such a great time. Once in a while when we have a few new songs we work them out in the basement, get as tight as we can, then in the studio the fellas at Cardinal Recordings get us tracked and add the final seasoning. Recording, like live performance, is a critical part of developing musically. It drives the finer improvements to technique and helps shape the direction of the band.

Can you talk a little bit about recording? What’s your process? How do you go from having an idea for song to the finished version that appears on the album?

Mike: Most recently, we recorded “Sorry,” “A Thousand Times,” and “1×1” all at the same time. I write the lyrics and chords/riffs for most of the songs, but then we’ll spend weeks trying different variations, styles, note choices, or rhythms. When it’s finally right, we just kinda know! Going into the studio, we just shed the songs like crazy – working with a metronome, playing separately and giving each other feedback, recording and listening back over and over. Recording “Sorry” was really rewarding because most of the chiptune stuff was just in my head. The distorted guitars and chiptune sounds so good together and I wasn’t entirely sure it would!

Also, huge thanks to Mike Weiser of Cardinal Recordings for playing drums on “Sorry” and “A Thousand Times” with hardly any notice or practice. He and Steve Angello are the best.

What’s next?

Mike: Ska! No, seriously. We’re doing a ska cover of “I’ll Be Haunting You” by They Might Be Giants! Our friends in The What Nows?! are part of a group of musicians that puts out ska cover compilations called Rudy Reboots. They’ve done Ben Folds and Barenakes Ladies, and coming up is TMBG and Broadway. We’re big TMBG fans, so we’re glad they wanted us to contribute!

We’re also playing the Part-Time Rockstar Festival at Phantom Power in Lancaster with Scoopski on September 10th!

Very cool! You guys and Scoopski pair well together. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Mike: Thanks!!!

Just Kind of the Way I Write: An Interview with Scoopski

I’ve been meaning to interview the artist known as Scoopski for a while now. Recording with his wife (Mrs. Scoopski) in their eponymous band, his music strikes a delicate balance between poignance and humor. Take, for example, their latest album, See You Soon, whose cover depicts a fetus making a set of devil horns with his fingers and whose lyrics raise a wide range of existential questions like how did we get here, where are we going, and what exactly does one wear when it’s too warm for a hoodie yet too cold for a tee shirt? Though we didn’t get to tackle these questions when I caught up with Scoopski recently, we did get a chance to talk a bit about the peculiarities of our hometown as well has the latest endeavor that he and Mrs. Scoopski have embarked upon…

What part of Philadelphia are you from? Do you find that it influences the way you look at life in general and songwriting in particular?

Hey Marc! Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me! I’m from the Northeast part of Philadelphia. I actually grew up in the Philly suburbs, but I’ve been a Philly resident for 6+ years now.

That’s funny! I grew up in Northeast Philly and live in the suburbs now.

I think the place you live definitely influences your songwriting in some way or form. Anything and everything that inspires me is in-bounds for a song topic, and Philly/PA is directly mentioned in a number of Scoopski songs, most notably “Emergency Joyride,” “The Philly Monk,” and most recently, “Pennsylvania.” If I didn’t live where I lived, I could’ve never written those songs. Maybe I’m secretly trying to become to PA what the Chili Peppers are to Cali… Who knows!

Well, we do have plenty of bridges you can write about being under! The title of your 2020 album Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia echoes a certain politician’s comment about the City of Brotherly Love. What were your thoughts when you heard that comment? 

The funny thing about that is that the first time I heard that phrase, all I could think was “Man, that’s an excellent album title!” and almost immediately, that album cover of our cats shooting lasers out of their eyes towards the Philly skyline popped in my head. I’m aware that people flipped that phrase around and claimed it as a Philly pride thing, and that’s cool, too, but my interpretation of it was quite literal and just silly!

One thing I like about your music is that it’s funny without being jokey, if that distinction makes sense. Why is humor so essential to your music? 

Thank you! I like to think of it that way as well. I think the weirdest thing is I don’t usually write songs with the intention of being funny… It’s just kind of the way I write! I’ve always liked artists who use lots of pop culture references, and I think when a reference to a videogame or a movie is dropped in the middle of a somewhat serious song, it almost immediately brings some levity. I also think some of the songs may seem silly on their face, but are actually a little darker than they let off, such as “Clark Griswold,” which is a song about feeling like a total failure.

Definitely… Does the humorous nature of your songs ever influence your musical decisions, particularly with respect to arrangements, instrumentation, and style? 

I would say sometimes, for sure. For example, on the first album “Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia,” the track “Miles” which is about a character from Sonic the Hedgehog, starts off with one of the iconic sounds from the videogames.

Sometimes, on the flip side, the music can actually dictate the topic of the song. The track “Mr. Spyder” from that same album was a co-write between Mrs. Scoopski and I, but it started with that piano intro she came up with. All we could think of was that it sounded like a spider, so we came up with the lyrical content around that.

Visually, your album covers employ a lot of ironic juxtaposition. The cover of 2020’s Things Are Fine evokes the Jet Star rollercoaster that washed out to sea in 2012, and the cover of the “Joy to the World” single that your released this past November features a handful of goth kids seated around a fairly chipper Santa Claus. How does that sense of irony translate to your music? Or is it actually ambivalence?

In the case of the cover of “Things are Fine,” that cover was pretty intentional. There was a lot of really bad, negative things going on in our lives from the time that album was recorded (May 2020 to February 2021). I always loved that image of the Star Jet in the ocean, the two of us actually drove down to Seaside to see it ourselves in 2012, shortly after it occurred. When I was thinking of album covers for “Things are Fine,” that image really stood out to me. A rollercoaster that was separated from where it originally stood when the boardwalk beneath it collapsed, beaten and worn down by chaotic storms. Yet it still remained, and still stood tall. I think there’s an odd message of hope in that image. 

Absolutely! I was entranced by that image as well!

As for the “Joy To The World” cover art, that one is totally ambivalent. That image was an old internet meme, taken at a nearby mall in the Philly suburbs. Our cover is very poppy and not gothic or heavy in any way, so I suppose it’s more of an ironic cover!

And speaking of covers, you recently released a pop-punk cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” What was behind that decision, and why that song? Also, just out of curiosity, what’s involved in getting permission to record someone else’s music?

10/10 segue there!

Thanks! I try!

As for that cover, I’ve always liked that song, and really enjoy a handful of CCR songs as a whole. One day Mrs Scoopski had that song playing while we were cleaning, and immediately the sound of a pop-punk cover of it popped in my head. The original really already has the tempo of a punk song, so it was actually a very natural transition. 

As for permissions, that song and the other covers we’ve done as Scoopski are only on YouTube, and not on any streaming services (aside from BandCamp, where I have payments disabled for that song). The reason being is I’m actually not quite sure how it works, myself! The only reason our cover of “Joy To The World” is on streaming services is because I do know that song is so old that it is part of public domain, so anyone can do their own version of it without worrying about copyrights. This is definitely a topic I need to learn more about, myself!

You and me both! Now, Scoopski, the band, is a family act. You play guitar and bass and handle production, while Mrs. Scoopski plays piano and synth. And you both sing and write songs. What’s that dynamic like? 

It’s really amazing to have a life partner who is as into music as I am, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. We were bandmates first, we played together in a band where she played keys and I was the lead singer for about a year before we began dating. 

I think we both made each other better songwriters in a lot of ways, too. I knew virtually nothing about music theory before knowing her, and she says I helped her come out of her shell more with songwriting.

I’m very happy that recently Mrs. Scoopski has become more and more prominent in our songs, especially on the album “See You Soon,” where she wrote and sang lead on 3 of the tracks. (On “Things are Fine”, she played lots of piano/synth and sang lots of backup vocals, but only sang lead on the closing track).

I get just as psyched when she shows me a song she came up with as I do when I come up with a song. I remember when she first showed me the song “While We Wait” and how excited I was to record it, it’s still a favorite of mine.

Scoopski usually tends to have more songs where I’m the lead singer, just because I usually write songs really quickly and pump them out, and she usually is more measured and gets moments of inspiration. But I always go to her for input on my songs, especially during the editing process. There’s been lots of instances where a part of a song had a bad musical decision on my part, and she steered me in a much better direction.

Do you ever get to play live? If so, is it just the two of you, or do you fill out the band with additional musicians? Also, do you need a bass player? 

Unfortunately, there is yet to be a Scoopski live show!

We have played live before in the past, but not as Scoopski. As I mentioned previously, the two of us were in a band together, and we’ve also performed acoustically at open mic nights a couple times, but it’s been many years since we both played out together. 

This is something I’ve thought about a lot in the past year or so though, as you’re now on a growing list of people who have asked us about performing live!

The public demands it!

I really like the way my friend Modern Amusement (who can be heard featured on the song “RIDING THE WAVES” on our new album) performs live. His music is upbeat and energetic, sort of like how ours is, and he performs solo. But, instead of performing acoustic, he actually plays an electric guitar with distortion and all along to a backing track with the drums, synth, bass, etc. It sounds really great, and I’ve totally envisioned us playing live shows this way eventually! 

There’s something really magical about being in a full band, when everything clicks as a unit, you feel like a family. But, it’s also a lot of work and comes with a lot of emotional baggage… and at this point in time I’m not sure it’s something the two of us would be completely committed to, especially since we actually have our own little family now! So this is another reason why the option I mentioned previously may work best for us.

But hey, if we do decide to go the full band route, I will certainly hit you up for your bass skills! 😉

Nice! Your latest album is dedicated to your newborn son. How has becoming a father influenced your outlook or changed the way you think about making music? 

Absolutely! Becoming a father is very new to me, but it’s already the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

It’s extra special to us, given the journey we went on to bring our son into this world, which is documented and summed up in the YouTube video for the title track “See You Soon.”

The thing about this album is, to us the vibe of it feels very celebratory and triumphant. A lot of the songs feel like they’re sung with a big smile. It’s especially a stark contrast to us when compared to our last album, and hopefully those good vibes shine through to the listener as well.

 What’s on the horizon?

I feel this question goes hand in hand with the last, because with our baby boy being here now, we haven’t quite figured that out!

I’m a songwriter, so there is constantly new ideas kicking around in my head, I just can’t stop them. But when I record, edit, and mix the Scoopski tracks you hear, that is very time demanding. Especially in the editing process, I am almost in another world with my studio headphones on, and that doesn’t gel very well with having a newborn baby at home.

But with the nature of our project just being the two of us, as long as we’re both alive and kicking, I see no reason to think Scoopski won’t continue to exist and thrive to some extent.

The challenge will just be figuring out how music fits into our new lives as parents. But music has always been the thing that bonded us, and so for that reason I know the music will find a place, especially because we want music to be a huge part of our little guy’s upbringing!

Maybe a children’s album would be the next logical step for Scoopski? Might be!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Scoopski! 

A Push to Challenge Yourself Musically: An Interview with Jeff Willet of Table for 26

Jeff Willet is a massively talented arranger and musician. I had the privilege of working with him when he conducted and wrote the score for a project I was involved with a while back, and I’ve also been lucky enough to play live with him on a couple of occasions. For the past few years, he’s also been putting together a band called Table for 26. COVID-19 slowed things down a little bit for them, but over the past few weeks, their efforts have started to bear delicious fruit. 

What’s the idea behind Table for 26, and how long has the project been simmering?

The idea has been in my mind for about six years now and stemmed from working mostly alone on my solo album which has still yet to be released. I thought it would be cool to do a similar project with large-scale arrangements, but with other people to get that connection between musicians that I’ve had playing in bands before. I’d been in and out of a few metal bands, and I was thinking that there’s gotta be a better fit for me, somewhere out there. It was actually my wife Jen’s idea: “Just start your own!” At first this didn’t sound too feasible because I was still a bit new to this area [Philadelphia] and didn’t have too many connections. Little by little the idea evolved and after filling in with the Divine Hand Ensemble a few times. I met three of our string players (Thuy Nguyen – violin, Hannah Richards – viola, and Jon Salmon – cello) who really helped to get this project off the ground. It was right at this same time that our other drummer (Emily Roane) and our former trombone player (Aaron Buchanan) moved to town, and Emily started working with me at Steve Weiss Music. I pitched the idea to them all as something like “a push to challenge yourself musically with some very eclectic music and instrumentation,” and it seemed like that’s what they were looking for as well.

Musically and logistically, I imagine! How do you keep everyone organized?

This is certainly a challenge, so I’m glad you brought it up. One reason I was hesitant to start a project like this is scheduling, thinking that if it’s difficult to plan rehearsals for a four- or five-piece band, anything bigger would certainly be almost impossible. As it turned out, we all had Wednesday nights available so rehearsals were pretty set for a few Wednesdays per month, and we’ve made great progress with that. There were some lineup changes over the couple of years we’ve been together, which is fine — everyone has plenty of things going on. Even everyone in the group now has other bands they’re involved in, as well as day jobs, school, and other endeavors. Keeping this in mind and allowing flexibility with musicians that we all trust has been a huge part of making this work.

As far as organization, we have a shared folder on Google Drive that is well organized with sheet music, up-to-date mixes, ideas for new music, video planning & progress, rehearsal schedules, photos, etc. Everyone in the group has access to it and can tell exactly where we are with everything. Between that and a group text, I feel like we’re all on the same page, which is a great feeling!

Beyond logistics, what kinds of challenges did you face when you were working on the project

Getting a large project together like this with zero budget is certainly a challenge. We needed to figure out a rehearsal location that can physically hold us all and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. We also had to scout locations for video shoots that could hold us all, and the same for live venues. We can’t just show up to any bar and expect them to accommodate a 14-piece group.

Promotion has been an interesting process as well. On one side, we’re just some people from a few towns around Philly, but on another hand the videos we’ve made have reached thousands of people from different countries through YouTube. I really couldn’t do this if it weren’t for the help of others in and close to the band. We’ve got some very knowledgeable people with various connections and capabilities that we’re putting to good use!

Why did you decide to record covers as opposed to original music? How did you choose which songs to cover?

Covers were a great way for all of us to get used to playing together and in a large group like this. I’ve had a large list of possible covers for years now, so we narrowed that down and arranged the songs for this specific instrumentation. The plan was to do a few covers and then start on original music, but I think it’s fun doing covers, especially with songs from artists that many people may not be familiar with. We have to choose our covers carefully though, as some songs don’t exactly lend themselves to our “sound” – somewhat on the darker side of pop, alternative, and progressive music. Now that we have a couple years of rehearsing and recording together under our belts, we are pushing ourselves to now also write original music, and I’m expecting to see some great things come out of that as well!

As of this writing, you’ve released two songs but only as YouTube videos. Is that part of a larger plan? Are you building toward an album?

Well, yes and no. We’re going through the proper channels to acquire licensing to be able to post cover videos on YouTube, which is another expensive process, albeit well worth it for peace of mind. I do intend to look into the legal logistics of releasing the audio for these songs on other music streaming platforms as well, and certainly that will be much easier to do with our original music (another huge push for that!). So yes, we do intend to have some larger releases, but nothing currently on the radar for that until we finish up enough original music to warrant it. We do have nine more cover videos in the works though, and two more that are finished and will be posted within the coming weeks…

I have to say that your videos are fascinating to watch because (I think!) we’re actually seeing the musicians performing—and not miming like musicians often do in videos. Is that right? Why was capturing the performances on video an important element of the project?

This was a very important aspect for us as well. It’s easy (and sad) to see the miming as you put it in other videos out there. You have singers obviously not singing with the same intensity, drummers visibly off from what you’re hearing – why even do it at that point?

We are very lucky to have an incredibly videographer working with us (John Welsh of Rare Light Media), who has great equipment, great ideas, and a great eye for putting it all together. John and I often joke that while we were putting the first round of four videos together, it started as “can we make this happen?” and quickly turned into “yes we can definitely make this happen!” as I was on the audio recording and mixing side of things and he was handling all things video (lighting, filming, editing, color correcting, etc). So it was also a challenge for us to push ourselves to be able to take on a project like this from a different angle and see it through.

On this first round of four videos, we felt it was important to capture the true essence of the band, no embellishing, minimal studio effects, so we made sure to follow the “garbage in/garbage out” rule and pay close attention to every small detail from the start of the process. Everyone was very well rehearsed at that point, so what we’re hearing is a very good live representation of how the group sounds as a whole. For this next round of nine videos though, we’ll get to have some more fun in the studio experimenting with different recording and mixing techniques, which i’m very much looking forward to!

Did recording video while you recorded the music add another layer of complication to the endeavor?

Absolutely! We didn’t start recording and filming until we felt we had an absolutely solid lineup of like-minded individuals who understood the process and the hard work involved. We didn’t piece the songs together in the studio – these were full takes. This made it much easier to sync up on the video editing side of things so we could present it as a studio playthrough, and not too much in the way of audio editing either. That being said, it took a couple years to get to this point.

Did you record everything in one take, or was multitracking involved?

Everything was multitracked. Due to COVID-19, we had to make 100% sure to do this as safely as possible. We recorded everyone either individually or in smaller sections – strings and saxophone all at once, both guitarists at once, keyboards separately, vocals separately, bass separately, and each drummer separately. There were three different rooms used, and while John was able to control the lighting and camera angles enough to where he was confident that the end result would all look similar, my job was to make sure that everything sounded similar. I think we actually did okay!

Any chance you’ll be playing live any time soon? Or any time not-so-soon, for that matter?

Oh I really hope so!! We have a lot of fun at rehearsals and recording sessions, but it would really take things onto the next level to perform live, as soon as COVID-19 safely allows. We have a list in our shared folder on Google Drive of connections at different venues and festivals where we’d like to make this happen. We also wanted to get the first round of videos finished and released before we looked into booking shows, because “Hey can my 14pc band play there? Also we don’t really have a designated genre!” only goes so far with nothing to visibly or aurally back it up. It’s really a group effort, and we all definitely want to get out there, so well make it happen! We’re actually working on some added visual aspects to accompany a live performance as well. We want to make it a great overall experience!

What’s on the horizon—either for Table for 26 or for you personally?

Oof, yeah. Well I still have my solo album to finish up (just a lot of mixing at this point), and there’s also the nine new Table for 26 cover videos that I mentioned earlier, as well as the original songs that we’re working on. I’m hoping to keep this progress moving forward on all fronts, and still set aside plenty of time in my day to play with my dog, Wally.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jeff! I really appreciate it! 

Thanks Marc – really appreciate you thinking of me for this, and I can’t wait to share all this new music with you and everyone else over the next few weeks and months!

Jeff Willet and his faithful dog Wally. Photo credit for both photos: John Welsh