The New Artist nomination for Heavy Hinges might be the most ironic of this year’s slate of Cincinnati Entertainment Awards candidates. Heavy Hinges is a freshly minted group with a history that dates back to early 2012, making them among the newest of the New Artist nominees. But it’s the Gospelbilly/Blues unit’s veteran genealogy that gives the nomination its interesting twist.
Other than the relative newcomer status of co-lead vocalist and crack ukelele player Maya Banatwala, Heavy Hinges is a veritable who’s who of the Cincinnati scene, with nearly a century’s worth of experience between the members.
Guitarist Jeremy Singer (also of local “Folk/Funk/Fusion” band Jimmelegs) and drummer Brian Williamson both have more than 20-plus years of band experience, while guitarist/co-lead vocalist Dylan Speeg and bassist Andrew Laudeman are equally tenured, with long-ago stints with The Rottweilers and Melvin Speed to their credit.
Laudeman and Speeg also honed their creative and personal relationship during a 12-plus year stint with the popular Buckra, which closed up shop in December 2011.
“We were evolving apart and it was long enough,” Laudeman says of the Buckra split. “I think we (Dylan and I) wanted to do something a little more rhythm based and less complicated.”
“It wasn’t like ‘What?’ We had already decided that was going to be it,” Speeg says of Buckra’s quiet dissolution at the Hinges’ Northside rehearsal house. “I don’t like feeling like I’m on autopilot, where I’m playing and thinking about something else. I was excited to do something totally different. Now when we play I have to think about what I’m going to do.”
Perhaps the strangest element of the Hinges’ story is the catalyst for the band’s birth. Speeg and Banatwala were bartending together at Clifton bar Arlin’s. Last year, Speeg was behind the bar while Banatwala was entertaining patrons on the club’s deck. One-time mayoral candidate, Arlin’s regular and 98 Degrees vocalist Justin Jeffre was impressed with Banatwala’s big, earthy voice and hipped Speeg to the talent right under his nose.
“I had no idea (Jeffre) was there,” Banatwala says, laughing.
“I knew she played ukulele because she’d brought it in,” Speeg says. “(Justin) came in and said, ‘Have you seen that girl play out there? You should do something with her. She’s awesome. She’s really funny, you should do a comedy thing.’ ”
After seeing Banatwala open for Cincy Reggae outfit The Cliftones, Speeg and Laudeman were sold.
“Somebody was like, ‘I like her but she’s so rowdy and cusses and yells at everybody,’ ” Speeg recalls. “I loved that about her. We were enchanted.”
As for Williamson, Speeg and Laudeman both considered him a prime candidate for the drum slot, but they were hesitant to ask.
“We didn’t think we could afford him,” Speeg says. “He’s too good for us.”
They took the chance and Williamson happily signed on. With the revelation of Banatwala’s potential, the quartet began exploring the fringes of the Hinges.
“I had been listening to a lot of old timey Gospel songs and Alan Lomax field recordings,” Speeg says. “I said, ‘Let’s listen to something we’ve never listened to,’ so we’d have something to play when we got together.”
“We didn’t want to start writing right out of the chute,” Laudeman says. “It’s best to learn some stuff and get the wheels turning.”
Referencing the super-diverse Buckra, Speeg says, “I didn’t want to be in a super eclectic thing anymore. ‘Anything goes’ was almost too boring.”
With a goal of stripping down and focusing the sound, the foursome assembled in different trio configurations to practice, slowly shaping the Heavy Hinges sound.
The addition of Singer on guitar broadened the Hinges’ sonic spectrum by adding exquisite atmosphere and brilliantly understated counterpoints.
“A lot of the songs were pretty well together,” Singer notes, self-deprecatingly. “I just added a little decoration on top.”
Just as the Hinges were finding the heart of their rootsy Gospel/Blues hoedown, tragedy simultaneously set them back and bonded them; Speeg and Banatwala’s fathers died. With raw emotional determination, the Hinges continued to hone in on their sound, culminating in a triumphant debut at MOTR Pub last August, just weeks after Singer had joined the band.
Heavy Hinges are currently recording their debut release and already have a stacked deck of great originals and a healthy collection of covers (including a jazzy spin on Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers”). The finished result will clearly reflect the band’s impeccable musicianship and balance the members’ wildly varied senses of humor with the inherent darkness that continues to inform their sound.
“At first, me and Andrew were like, ‘Let’s make something like a party band,’ ” Speeg says. “(Then) Maya would go to testify at her father’s murder trial and the songs got darker. But I think we’re still like a party band; the subject matter just got a little deeper than I thought it would be.”
“People get out and stomp to it,” Laudeman says. “It’s a little darker but it’s still fun.”
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