Honey Island Swamp Band was formed in 2005 in San Francisco, when they were displaced from New Orleans during the devastating Hurricane Katrina. Their music embodies features of many genres, including blues, country, and soul. Out of their seven released albums, five have been named Roots Rock Album of the Year by New Orleans’ Offbeat Magazine.
The group’s most recent album, “Custom Deluxe” was released in October of this year, embracing their southern rock sound. They also just finished their stay on The Big Easy Cruise, a seven-night, New Orleans themed music festival on the sea where they collaborated with other well-known roots musicians. The band is currently touring across the southern United States.
We recently caught up with the bands’ lead vocalist and musician, Aaron Wilkinson, while they were on the road. We covered what his perfect day in New Orleans looks like, what it was like recording an album across the country, and the story behind the old truck on their new album’s cover.
I’ve been listening to the new album and “Gone” is one of my new favorites. The music video is cool because it shows the band traveling across the US. Were there any certain spots or places that influenced the song?
When I started writing it, we were driving home from some place in the northeast and it was an all-night drive. We were crossing the border from Tennessee to Georgia. The sun was coming up. That’s kind of how I started the first verse of the song, although in the song I made it a sunset instead of a sunrise.
It got me started and then this sort of idea just came from there and started rolling out. That was the inspiration, kind of a quiet moment there, everybody else was asleep. I was driving the bus and the sun was coming up. It’s a pretty part of the country right there.
What’s your favorite thing to buy at a truck stop?
I may or may not have spent too much money at the jerky counter at Buc-ee’s over the years. I like the truck stops over in the Lafayette area where they got all the Boudin. They all have awesome food and mystery meats. I would say that’s probably my favorite.
What does your perfect day in New Orleans look like?
I guess maybe brunch. Maybe boozy brunch. In the afternoon or evening, a Saints game, which they win for a change. Then maybe a show at Tipitina’s afterwards. Maybe to Snake and Jake’s after that, we’ll see how it feels.
Got any favorite brunch spots?
I like Atchafalaya, those are friends of mine, we play there sometimes. They always have bands on the weekends here. It’s on Louisiana Ave and Laurel. The food’s awesome. They usually have really good bands there.
I know you guys play the Saints tailgate sometimes. What are your favorite tailgate foods and drinks?
I mean, there’s so many options. It’s hard to choose one. I suppose some sort of fresh seafood, maybe that I even caught. Chicken wings are never a bad thing for a game. Cold beverages got to be in there too, or a crawfish boil. But the Saints don’t play during crawfish season.
I’ve photographed you guys for years at Jazz Fest. Do you have a favorite Jazz Fest memory?
There was one years ago where it was kind of threatening to rain all day during our set and threatening to cancel our set. We were playing the last song, and right when we went to the last chorus, the sky just opened up and started to rain. I just stood out there in the rain and finished the song on the stage. It was awesome. It just felt cosmic or something.
What makes a great song, to you?
There’s a lot that goes into it. I guess it starts with good lyrics. It has to have a hook. We try to write songs where it might sound like something you’ve heard before, even though it’s the first time you’re hearing it. By the end of the song, it’s familiar enough that you can sing along with it, you know? That’s a catchy song.
I’ve been listening to the new album and it’s really great, so I can’t wait to see you guys.
I appreciate that. We worked hard on it. In the past we’ve done records where, if I’m being totally honest, we go to the studio with maybe 5 or 6 songs that we feel really strongly about. The other four that we use to flesh out the record, kind of digging deep in our bag, coming up with one on the spot, and maybe they’re not quite to the level of the others. But on this one, we spent a lot more time doing it. Some of that was intentional, and also Covid and things that came up in the middle of this process. But then because of that, all the songs on this album are super strong.
You guys recorded the album all over the country. It was a little different than just going to one studio.
Yeah, that’s right. It was a longer process and we did it in different studios as we were touring around. As you know, we had days off here and there, we would get in the studio and do it. And because of that, I think the process was a little bit different. We would go in with one song and concentrate on taking that song from the beginning to the completion as opposed to some other situations.
In a studio situation, you’re recording maybe half a song and moving on and doing half of another, depending on how you set up and who’s there and that sort of thing. Often you don’t start and do one song from beginning to end, whereas in this case we were able to do that and I think it was pretty cool.
You guys just got off the Big Easy Cruise. What were some of the highlights?
The Big Easy Cruise was awesome. Having all the other musicians there come and join us on the stage, having time to sit and watch John Cleary’s band for a full set, or hanging out with some of these guys at dinner or the artists lounge.
Usually everybody’s moving so you don’t get to hang out with each other very much. Everybody’s on their way somewhere, coming from somewhere, and you might pass each other but you don’t get to spend any time together. So, on this one, we got to spend a lot of time with other artists. That was really cool.
What were some sit-ins that you guys got together on the boat?
We had Susan Cowsill and her husband, Russ Broussard sit in several times. On the last night we played the very last set of the cruise. We kind of made it known that we just wanted everybody to join us, a sort of come one, come all. We had Alex McMurray, Susan and Russ.
We had John “Papa” Gros, Ian Bowman on saxophone, some of the guys from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. There are people I’d never even met before that were out there. Kirk Joseph, my good friend, the founder of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, on the first night. It was really just a ton of collaboration.
What is the best road trip you took in that old truck on the cover of the album?
Well, I had one like that. That was not the exact one. Let’s just say it wasn’t the most reliable truck, so I don’t know if I’d call it a road trip, but there were some good fishing trips taken, that’s for sure.
What are some of your favorite fishing spots?
Well, I can’t give away my secrets but I’ll say this. There are lots of good places within a 30 minute, an hour drive from uptown New Orleans, where you can get good fish. I’m a Louisiana fisherman. You don’t have to go far, I’ll tell you that.
Favorite new song to play on the album?
Well, you know, I don’t know. I kind of like them all. I feel like I’m choosing favorites among my children If I pick just one. Some of the ones that make it into the set every night are “Gone” or “Sugar For Sugar”, which is a popular one.That’s one we play just about every night.
What’s the story behind “Sugar For Sugar”?
We just kind of did a different writing technique and some spots on this album where I would ask our keyboard player, Chris Spies, to sample a beat from somewhere, just kind of freeform and improv over. When we’re riding down the highway with a lot of time to kill we would say, just give me a bunch of these and let me listen to them and see if there’s anything I can make a song out of.
There might be 100 files in there, and I’d listen to them and write down a few that I thought might be possibilities. That was one that he had pretty well formed the music but didn’t have any lyrics. I heard that, and I was like, I could definitely make a song out of that. It kind of had a Taj Mahal vibe to me. I was thinking about older blues and stuff like that.
Somewhere I had heard that phrase in a really old blues recording from like the 30’s or something and it had that “sugar for sugar, salt for salt.” I was like, man, that’s pretty cool, I’ll tuck that away and use that sometime. So, when I heard Chris’s song I thought, well this is the perfect fit for that.
The band will be playing a hometown show this weekend for the Saints Pregame on Sunday at Champions Square! If you are in New Orleans stop by and check them out.