Music News

Rock Solidarity

Before the Heartgraves had a name, and when they were just five guys in search of a little alchemy, they were having an early Friday evening practice in member Jonny Bionic's duplex apartment. Bionic's neighbor had become accustomed to music from next door; Bionic would often practice with other musicians or work on solo home recordings. Anticipating that a full band might be a bit louder, he checked with his neighbor to make sure everything was cool.

"I spoke to her and I said, I'm going to have a band practice here and they are going to be a lot louder . . . is it going to be cool?' She said, It's cool,'" Bionic explains from the Bikini Lounge. "I asked her again, You sure?' and again she said, It's cool.' So we were rehearsing, not late or anything, like nine o'clock, and my neighbor started pounding on the door." The suddenly irate neighbor, possibly fueled by spirits, first asked that they turn it down, which they did. But as soon as the band started playing again, the neighbor began pounding on the walls. Confused, the band again offered to lower the volume. The woman instead threw a fit, told the band they had better not turn down but turn off and called Bionic a son of a bitch. Guess that means they were loud enough.

These kinds of incidents can create a band mythology. Turns out Bionic's neighbor was named Mrs. Heartgraves. An informed silence came over the players, and a few seconds later keyboardist Andrew Lockwood suggested that they call the band the Heartgraves as an homage to the unhappy neighbor. "We all seemed to be looking around and thinking the same thing," Bionic explains. And so the Heartgraves, an unusual brotherhood of active local musicians who never quite hit the mark with a myriad of dissolved projects, were born. The Heartgraves feature four distinct songwriters, four alternating lead vocals and one sympathetic drummer content to let his kit speak for him -- the guy once feigned death to get out of an interview. And since they are a fraternity of sorts, they have an insular frame of reference, constantly name-checking events and bands that would easily confuse someone new to local music. One minute they are talking about Gullabaloo, the Sunday night backyard theater event at Emerald Lounge, the next they mention the Trailer Park Disaster, Jonny B's other band, which some of the Heartgraves also play in.

The total list of former and current projects, large and small, compiled by the Heartgraves over the years hovers near 20. The band is definitely a product of a nice little scene revolving around the Emerald Lounge and Phoenix culture in general. The idea for the band, the core of which came out of the untimely demise of the promising Velveteen Dream, fronted by gifted songwriter Sarah Meyer, was to supply a forum for the stray material each of the four songwriters had amassed over the years.

Some bands of brothers opt for matching tattoos or brandings, or secret handshakes. The Heartgraves opted to show their solidarity by embracing a played-out idea from the rock music canon -- the "let's be funny and all have the same last name" shtick. The gimmick, however, doesn't obscure the genealogical tree these guys have planted. Take a look at this quick generational profile, and try not to get lost along the path:

John Blinco, a.k.a. Jonny Bionic, a.k.a. John F. Heartgrave (see what I mean), rhythm guitar/vocals/songwriter. He moved from Indiana in the mid-'90s to begin a new life. Perhaps best known for his band the Trailer Park Disaster, this odd duck brings at times quirky American rock 'n' roll and a unique stage presence to the band. A quiet and funny man offstage, onstage he goes for it, sometimes minus shirt.

Andrew Lockwood, a.k.a. A.J. Heartgrave. Local scenester deluxe contributes keyboards, vocals and big hooky pop with his smooth balladeer voice. A veteran of many projects including the Lemmings, Danny, and Velveteen Dream, he has been entrenched in Phoenix music for about a decade.

James Miles, a.k.a. J.L. Heartgrave. Another longtime local player and student of music, he and Lockwood have collaborated on numerous ideas over the years. Miles was at first reluctant to join another collaborative effort, having lately preferred to create intelligent acoustic pop gems on his own. But once Miles saw the enthusiasm of the other members, he became excited.

Pat Singleton, a.k.a. (what else?) P.J. Heartgrave. He's a hard-rockin' bass player featured in some of the Valley's most renowned saccharine pop bands, including Autumn Teen Sound, Sugar High, and Velveteen Dream. Singleton steps out with some nice straightforward rock songs and an informed vocal style. The starry night to Lockwood's pop day, Singleton enjoys stretching out the up-tempo rawkers.

Nicholas Pasco, a.k.a. Nick Heartgrave. Formerly of Penny Drops, as well as Danny, and Velveteen Dream. Little is known about this shadowy figure, except that he has previously played in bands with every other Heartgrave member but Miles. Pasco has a gently urgent drumming style, fueling forward movement while playing in the moment.

All right -- got it? The fact that the Heartgraves can bring so many songwriting styles and distinct voices, playing music from surf to Americana to down-and-dirty rock and still sound like the same band, is a testament to their professionalism and mutual respect for one another. "I make the comparison -- though it's not a sound-like comparison -- the way we work reminds me of early R.E.M.," says guitarist Miles. "They could take these various styles and play them out and it all hung together. You always knew it was the same band. They could do surf; they could do country; they could be ballady; they could do folk-rock, and it all sounds like R.E.M. And I think that's kind of the same with us."

Lockwood explains the gestalt. "We all have particular roles and they can overlap and get switched up sometimes, but it's more like a brotherhood," he says. "It's like, We're old men, we're here for your daughters and we figured out how we're going to get them.'" Miles humorously riffs on the band's comradeship by saying he refers to the Heartgraves as "the ministry of rock."

The bandmates' complimentary interaction as friends as well as what they are saying illustrates the uniqueness of the group. Bionic picks up where Miles leaves off with this observation: "I look forward to Pat's songs as much as I look forward to my own songs. I look forward to Andrew's and Jim's songs as much as my own."

Appropriately, the band's collective fire makes its sound dirtier than any of the players' past bands. Booze and smoke swirl in the mix, and while hooks abound, some of the sappy pop elements are traded in for rock nuance. "I think it's timeless rock 'n' roll," says Lockwood. "We're not some new sound. We're also not retro. We're not grabbing onto any passing trend."

It also helps that the friendly competition among the guys keeps them honest as songwriters. But it's not all brotherly love and "Way to go, buddy." Veto power does exist, and you certainly wouldn't want to play something the other members don't dig. Lockwood explains how Singleton voiced his dislike of one of his sappier numbers: "I had a song that Pat [to which] just kind of said, Andrew, I don't really hear any bass on that song. I think maybe I'll just sit that one out.'"

Even so, Singleton just enjoys learning how to play nice with others, a sentiment shared by the other band members, but probably not by Mrs. Heartgraves. "It sounds corny but we are each other's fans," he says. "I look at the set list and I'm like, Oh, shit, now I gotta sing!' I'll see it's Jim's song next and I'm like, Yes!' The songs are all really good, and having four writers in the band, it makes you want to bring in your best shit. You want to kick everybody's ass."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Bond