Toronto-based electronic duo Honey Beard has done the seemingly impossible. They have taken the best elements of the moody, dark synth-pop of the early 80s British scene, combined it with the modern savvy and psychedelic showmanship of the spectacularly popular MGMT, and added a healthy infusion of Friedrich Nietzsche-inspired nihilism with a Jim Morrison twist.
Founded in 2014, Honey Beard is comprised of two veteran musicians: expatriate Irishman Gary J. Conlon (vocals/synth) and Montreal native Tom Bell (guitar/synth). The duo has taken the Toronto club scene by storm, primarily due to their masterful live performances and truly unique sound. It’s music that makes you think, feel and dance.
Their debut full-length album, Dreamless Sleep, is dark synth-pop at its best. A follow-up to their more experimental 2015 debut EP, Honey Beard have really hit their stride and the new album represents who they are right now as musicians and songwriters.
Celestial Bodies (live video)
"It’s the statement we want to make to the world, and it’s not the happiest of statements. It kind of taps into that sort of existential anxiety, the sort of dread, that nihilistic view of life. We try to disguise it with happy sounds and beats, which I think makes for a nice blend” said Conlon, who noted that he came to Toronto in 2011 with his wife, and met Bell, who had come in 2008, while playing Australian Rules Football in a local amateur league. “He was the first person I kicked the ball to, and the first thing we talked about together was music. We started jamming together almost immediately.”
A lot of what makes Honey Beard unique is the story of how two unabashed rockers allowed the current of their creative muse to take them on a journey that saw them move from rock, to alt-folk and now to the Depeche Mode-inspired, keyboard driven vibe that dominates their sound.
“We had both been dabbling with synths and different computer programs and started off by creating backing tracks for the sort of acoustic alt-folk we were doing. But then we decided why not jump in with both feet and get right into the electronic world. We realized that we had this whole new suite of sounds that we could create with and it felt great to have this whole new palate,” Conlon said.
“When you’ve been around the block and you think you’ve done it all in terms of playing guitar and being in bands, this came along and grabbed us both by the scruff of our necks and made us just so much more passionate than we’d been about music in a long time.”
Another dynamic that sets Honey Beard apart is the emotive words crafted by lyricist Conlon. It’s almost a cliché to say that Ireland has produced some of the most stirring, deep, dark, literate poets, songwriters and novelist – all of whom seem to be able to effortlessly tap into their personal demons and the darkness that inhabits all of us, to stunning artistic effect. Conlon is no exception.
The first single from Dreamless Sleep, Hummingbird – and it’s emotional flipside, Celestial Bodies – show Conlon at his best, crafting two songs that on their own are evocative, challenging and haunting. Together, they are truly stark and soul stirring – in the best tradition of The Doors’ Jim Morrison.
“Celestial Bodies is about partying and general debauchery, while Hummingbird is when you wake up the next day, and the feelings of self-loathing and questioning who you are and what you’re doing with your life. It’s about hitting the ground and the black dog of depression gnawing at your bones. Hummingbird talks about how unsettled and pointless you think life is and there’s such a blinding level of self-hate and regret that you go right out and do it all again,” Conlon explained.
“It’s got that same vibe as a lot of Jim Morrison’s words. If you were to pull out a basic theme from all his lyrics, it’s death. Everything he wrote was shaded or connected to death, whether he was trying to get it over with quickly, or he was celebrating it or he was terrified of it.”
Let Me Disappear has Conlon at his most emotionally bereft, and is a song that assuredly resonates with anyone who has endured, or continues to endure the slings and arrows of an unfortunate existence.
“It’s a really personal song. It’s about difficult childhood experiences and just wanting to disappear. Tom wrote all the music for the song and I don’t know what it did, but it pushed me to sing in falsetto, which I don’t really ever do. But I wanted my voice and the character in the song to sound really vulnerable. Most of my songs are angry and passionate, but this song was about pure vulnerability and frailty,” Conlon said.
To counter this melancholia is the title track, which is Conlon at his righteously angry best.
“This track is representative of the tone of the whole album. It’s basically about our leaders, the politicians, not protecting us. Look at Donald Trump and people like that who are removing the things that protect our environment. So we’re all going to die from natural disasters. In this song it’s about the sea swallowing us all up,” he said.
“But the anger is directed towards the Bible thumpers too, who are rejoicing at the death and destruction because they think they’re going to meet God. But what about me? I don’t have any belief so I am going to die a pointless death because our leaders didn’t care. It’s going to be a dreamless sleep for me. That’s what it’s basically saying.”
Bell took a lyrical turn and actually crafted the touching and enigmatic SIGSALY.
“It’s based on a coded form of communications that the Allies used in the Second World War so the English and American forces could transmit plans back and forth. I guess I decided to use that analogy to represent a long-distance relationship that I was in for a long time. It’s a pretty sweet song and I guess it’s our love song,” Bell said, with a chuckle.
The mix of the retro 1980s keyboard sound with the dark lyrics has meant a broadening of the audience for what you might expect for a synth-pop band. Conlon said Honey Beard has even won over punk crowds.
Dreamless Sleep is a dramatic, impactful tour de force which flawlessly draws in listeners of many genres. The insistent emotional intensity of Honey Beard’s songs and the upbeat, retro-pop musical wrapping makes for such a delightfully immersive aural experience.