Concert Heartstrings Interview

Newport Bound: An Interview with Haunt the House

Who knew an impromptu ticket purchase to Red Line Roots‘ Locals Covering Locals at Club Passim a few months back would have lead to an interview, or in this case, a late Friday night coffeehouse sit down with Haunt the House in the lower east side of NYC. Fittingly, the name of this establishment is Whynot Bistro. So, next time you ask yourself whether to make that impromptu trip, start that band, or attend an inspiring afternoon show in Cambridge, Mass., instead ask yourself, why the heck not?

Haunt the House, born and raised in Rhode Island, originally began as the solo-acoustic project of Will Houlihan (vocals, guitar) and has since evolved into a trio with friends, or teachers (as Will describes), Bessie Bessin (vocals, accordion) and Amato Zinno (upright bass). During the short time we had together following their intimate and powerful performance at Rockwood Music Hall, experiences were shared, including upbringing, finding each other, the band name, John Keats, and of course, having just been selected to perform, Newport Folk Festival. As I found myself particularly inspired by the three individuals sitting in front of me, I witnessed something else in turn — how they inspire each other. I was affected and humbled as Will expressed, “I’m learning. I’m still learning…,” and further described, “I don’t think I teach them anything. They teach me.” Amidst the lighthearted laughter in reaction to Will’s assertion, my ears and the recorder caught Bessie’s own soft assertion and response — “He definitely does.” The heart of this band undeniably lies in their unconditional mutual admiration and respect for each other.

And so, I placed the recorder on the table, and Amato performed a sound check. He advised that we were ready to go.

Lauren Jahoda: Is Haunt the House a full-time gig, or are any of you involved in other projects and/or have a job?

Bessie Beesin: I was in another band, but that has dismantled. I also have a full-time job. I work as an mechanical engineer most of the time (laughs).

Amato Zinno: I play music full-time, or I’m trying to. I play with at least two other bands right now and they’re more like gigging bands, local, around Rhode Island. But yeah, you play all night type of thing…

On an as-needed basis…

AZ: Yeah, as needed bassist (laughs)!

(laughs)

Good one (laughs).

AZ: I do a lot of session work and playing out in bars and stuff like that. They are very different styles of music. One is a reggae band. Bessie’s way more badass. She works on submarines and stuff like that. She’s a secret badass.

Wow. Do you take vacation time to tour?

BB: Yeah, basically, vacation time is tour time.

AZ: Bessie also went into to work at 5:30 this morning to finish stuff.

Will Houlihan: For my answer, I actually have two kids. I had a completely different life before this, so I have to keep a balance with what I am doing with music and my responsibilities with family. It’s necessary for me to have some sort of outside income instead of just focusing on this. My oldest is 13 and we just bought him a cell phone, which is crazy. But I get to teach him responsibility by wasting his minutes (laughs), with photographs of New York (laughs).

Where do your musical backgrounds come from?

BB: Amato and I grew up playing classical music. I had no inclination to play anything aside from classical music for awhile, but then I sort of left playing the oboe and got into other things.

AZ: I started playing cello when I was 8 years old, classically trained, and I did that through high school. I then started playing bass in the 7th grade and I was actually very resistant to it at first because I thought I just wanted to be a cello player. It was great. It got me into jazz…my father is a jazz musician, so I’ve been growing up around music my whole life. It’s always just been there. And when I moved to Providence, I started meeting folk musicians and becoming a part of that scene. So my background is more jazz and I played tons of jazz through college. I try to play across styles a lot. I get bored if I play one thing for too long.

WH: When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t have much experience at all, except for church. I grew up in a very hedged, sheltered home and wasn’t exposed to any rock and roll, or anything like that, until later. At 14 or 15 years old, I started listening to music. I found my parents old records. They thought they had gotten rid of them completely, but there were a few of them there. The Kids are Alright…The Who, The White Album were still there. I had snuck some of that while they were away because they were working these jobs that overlapped shifts. So, if they weren’t home when I came home, I’d just put records on. Then I expanded and started listening to other things …The Pixies…anything I could get my hands on and listen to. I got in trouble a lot because of music. Well, not a lot, I can’t exaggerate too much. There was one time that sticks out in my mind. My parents are sweethearts. Just at the time, they were doing what they felt was right, like every parent would. But it just so happens that I took a really strong interest in music and that was the one thing I was rebelling against. That rule. It was strange. I was 20 years old and I remember wanting to play music but didn’t know how. I got married very early, around 20. Divorced by 22 and had my first son. And again at 24, divorced by 28 and had my second. Not until about 2008/2009 did I begin to get serious about music and actually start to write songs and play music out. That’s my experience in a nutshell. I’m learning. I’m still learning. I have catalogs and catalogs and catalogs to go through before I am going to feel like I’m sort of an accomplished musician.

You all do come from very different backgrounds. I’m sure you are learning from each other immensely.

All: Definitely.

WH: I don’t think I teach them anything. They teach me.

(laughs)

BB: He definitely does.

AZ: I think in terms of life experience, I’m sometimes the impetuous youth of this group (laughs).

It’s important to have that spirit in there. How did you officially find each other?

BB: The stars aligned. Amato and I met with another group that I was part of years before. And Will and I shared a bill with my other band. I loved his music. Next, I think I got a Facebook message from him saying “Do you want to be a part of this crazy idea I have?”

That’s always how it starts (laughs).

AZ: It was a crazy idea actually. He asked about 20 people to be on his record (laughs).

BB: He sent one demo. I think it was “Mosquito Coast,” and I said, yep, I’ll sign on for this. And here we are.

AZ: I met Will for first time at a gig, but it was after a gig I had in Westerly that he asked me to play on his record. At that time I was playing with a group that was doing pretty well, but I had been left off the record, so that was a big priority for me to actually be recorded.

WH: I remember saying, “I like the way you play. I want your touch to be on this record.” I remember saying that.

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Will, do you do all the songwriting?

WH: The basic structure of the songs largely is me and these guys flesh it out. We work together to work out parts. I bring the skeleton and they put the meat and the flesh on it.

AZ: We’re the technicolor.

Where does the name Haunt the House come from? What does it mean to you?

WH: When I was playing solo, people would walk up to me and say “Hey, you’re voice is haunting,” and that kind of stuck with me. Also, I’m very religious, because of my upbringing…it’s always a part of me…and I love spirituals and hymns and thinking along those lines, the holy spirit is dwelt in your body and your body is a temple of the Lord and essentially haunts the house. It made sense to me. It just worked.

I love the name.

WH: I found out afterwards, after the fact, that there is this really awesome game called Haunt the House. I thought I should check if there was another band with the name and found the game instead. I was a little leery about keeping it but I think it’s okay (laughs).

I saw that in my Google search (laughs)!

AZ: It’s too late now. I mean, it’s on the record (laughs).

WH: And if they contact me now, I’ll just be like let’s get together to do a promotion thing (laughs).

I identified with what you said in an interview with Ian Fitzgerald for Red Line Roots. You were talking about your habit of collecting beautiful old and used books, and your interest in John Keats. I love Keats, but his name rarely comes up. How did you stumble upon Keats? What interests you about him and his poetry?

WH: There are a couple of things that brought me to Keats. I was very much into poetry for a short time, when I had some time way back when. I went to the library and I was looking through poetry books and his poems stuck with me. They created an imagery, but more than an imagery. An emotional reaction. And I have never had poetry do that before. It’s very pastoral. He creates this aura. If you’ve ever watched Disney’s Fantasia, it’s like that but in poetry form. I started looking into him and his biography. I found out that he died really young and he did these great works. I had always regretted not finishing school because I had gone to school and dropped out, got married and other things. Keats had passed away when he was 27 or 28 I think, but he had accomplished as much as any of his contemporaries, at the time. A lot of the critics were like this guy didn’t know anything about anything because he didn’t go to school. And I kind of felt that way about music because I don’t really know anything. I’m just taking the pen, paper, my guitar and lyrics and going out. That’s what he did. I really identified with him and his work; his drive to be prolific, get work done and believe that he could do it.

So, Newport (laughs).

(laughs)

How do you all feel about it? How will you prepare for it? Do you feel like you have to deliver in a way you never have before?

AZ: Honestly, I can’t speak for the other two, but I’m worried about everything but Newport right now (laughs). The amount of work we had to do to just put the 10 days of this tour together, it was a lot. The focus has been on that and we want to do another tour immediately before Newport and then ending there. I’m really excited to play but I’m thinking about everything else first.

WH: I think I share that sentiment as well, but not as much. I think we are a good dynamic, trio, as far as personal qualities and such. Amato is really practical…

BB: Will and I are the feelings.

WH: I’m very much the feelings guy.

BB: I’m halfway between.

AZ: We’ll freak out about it at some point. A good freak out.

WH: I’m super excited about it.

BB: The only tough thing will be that Will will have more faces and names to remember (laughs).

(laughs)

I know the line-up is just starting to roll in, but NFF is sort of known for their mind-blowing collaborations. Who is your dream collaboration?

WH: I’m really excited to see Bahamas. I think I would choose them.

AZ: For me personally, Jim James. That would be my Newport dream. Jim James, or Beck, or Bombino, who I saw there 2 years ago. I was so impressed with Bombino’s style.

WH: Ya know what? I would love to do something with Frank Fairfield. He’s so captivating.

You’ll have to come to the Heartstrings concert on 4/17 then!

Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel–the points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting.

(John Keats, To J. H. Reynolds, 19 February 1818)

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