British band The Heavy knows how to mix it up

Jay N. Miller

There’s a long tradition of British bands mining American rhythm and blues for inspiration. But nobody’s done it quite like The Heavy, the quartet opening for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on an American tour.

What would Wilson Pickett sound like as a member of OutKast? Is it possible to mash soul with industrial beats? Could Otis Redding be equally adept in a garage rock band as in a ska group? These are the kind of head-spinning questions The Heavy want to answer, and their latest album “The House That Dirt Built” has been charging up the charts.

“One of the more unique things about us is that we’re not just rehashing the past, we’re making new music with it,” said bassist Spencer Page.

They’ve also become a viral sensation thanks to YouTube, which carries the Jan. 18 performance of their song “How Do You Like Me Now?” on the David Letterman Show. The Heavy, backed with the Dap-Kings’ horn section, was so electrifying on that night that Letterman asked for an encore, and he and Paul Shafer joined in on the tune’s crazed chorus.

“The Letterman thing is really something people mention wherever we go,” Page said. “It has affected how well-known we are, in the States especially of course, but also all around the world. Even home in England, so many people said they saw it.”

With all of that sudden notoriety, the quartet hasn’t really toured much outside of their London-area club hangouts.

Opening for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings pairs them with a simpatico neo-soul act that can also really tear it up. The tour will serve as their introduction to most of America.

Vocalist Kelvin Swaby and guitarist Dan Taylor became friends in 1990 based on their common love of R&B. It was years later when their passion for reworking soul tunes with club mixes morphed into a band, with Page and drummer Chris Ellul filling out the lineup.

“This was never intended to be a band,” Page said. “It was originally just a fun unit to back the sound mixes they came up with. By the time of our second album, we were taking a full band approach to everything. We wanted it to be more polished than our first CD, a bigger sound with much more drums.”

The Heavy released two singles in early 2007, followed by its debut CD, “Great Vengeance and Furious Fire,” which came out in England in the fall of ’07, and hit the U.S. less than a year later.

The band appeared on the “Johnny Cash Remixed” album in 2009, doing their take on the tune “Doing My Time.”

The release of their second album last fall started their rapid ascent, aided by having “How Do You Like Me Now?” used as a soundtrack to a Kia Sorento television ad that aired during the Super Bowl in February.

The CD ranges from the garage-rock and soul of “Oh No! Not You Again!” to the minimalist “No Time” with its thumping beats. “Long Way From Home” is like a ballad. “Cause for Alarm” is a delicious ska/reggae anthem. “How Do You Like Me Now?” sounds like classic Stax-Volt soul with a searing jazz groove.

Just when fans think they have a clue on The Heavy, they end the CD with “Stuck,” a gently bumping ballad with the kind of lilt that is 180 degrees away from the rest of the album.

What else would you expect from a band that loves the latest house music and jazz grooves, yet cites Howlin’ Wolf as a prime influence?

“Everyone in the band has their own little pleasures musically,” Page said. “It’s a nice mix when we get together, with nothing that abstract. It’s just like a force of nature.”

The Patriot Ledger