Meet Honey 2 Honey, Your New Alt Pop Obsession

Honey 2 Honey are ready to take over Aussie pop - but they want to do it on their own terms.

Honey 2 Honey band profile photo

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A sub-Saharan lion from Canberra Zoo interrupts much of my interview with Honey 2 Honey. Its 5pm feeding roar makes songwriter and vocalist Rory Stenning lose his train of thought a few times, as does a flickering streetlight.

We’re sitting on a park bench with band members Daryl Prondoso and Del Lumanta in an unusually stagy setting for the nation’s capital. The Scrivener Dam lookout gives a view of the wall holding back Lake Burley Griffin, the city’s artificial watery jewel. The state zoo and aquarium is just across the dam; a giraffe gawks at us from behind its gate.

“Canberra is just a completely made up place,” Stenning deadpans.

Honey 2 Honey feel a little made up too. The trio, briefly a quartet and long a duo, is one of seminal Melbourne label Chapter Music’s latest signings — label co-founders Guy Blackman and Ben O’Connor tell Music Junkee they simply don’t sound like anyone else, and for once the tired maxim might actually mean something.

The Canberra/Sydney band call themselves dub R&B, though it only kind of fits. Stenning has an ethereal baritone voice, imbuing his intimate lyrical vignettes with paranoia. The band play with a disco pulse, infected with a motorik rhythm and distorted by gargling arpeggiators. Stenning is hesitant to give his lyricism direct meaning, contorting with discomfort whenever I try. The band um and ah in unison whenever genre is mentioned.

“The band has always been a bit of an anomaly. We’re floaters,” Stenning says.

“We find it hard to suggest bands to support us. We know what we love, it’s just like, what suits?” Prondoso adds.

It’s not a pretentious anti-genre stance — more an awkward admission that they really have no idea. A certain DIY-ness emanates from the band as soon as I meet them. Stenning, 25, looks comfortable in a thrifty green sweater and baggy grey pants with a neat modicum of facial scruff. He tends to self-deprecation often, though it’s clear he takes things seriously. The scenic spot and golden hour timing for photos are his idea. Prondoso, 32, laughs more often than he speaks and poses the most patiently. Lumanta, 30, is dressed in a yellowed workwear top and tracksuit and is soft-spoken, yet passionate. None of them are posing as Bandcamp slackers.

“We’re ready to make a pop banger though,” Prondoso says. Stenning clarifies: “On our own terms.”

“I like the staunchness of the DIY scene — sometimes it doesn’t want to change,” says Lumanta. “But with [Honey 2 Honey] it’s wholesome because there’s a lot of musical knowledge attached. In DIY scenes it can be-”

“Very anti-knowledge,” Stenning interjects.

“It can feel that way — like just do it and whatever, it doesn’t matter. I find the process of working with this band is there’s a lot of finessing,” she finishes.

Listening to the band’s debut EP A Taste Of, released in early April, a lot of that finesse is obscured. The four-track release feels like Stephin Merritt running rampage through ‘70s Berlin. It’s near impossible to trace the origin of each sound as they coalesce into a heavy groove, while Stenning offers no lyrical clues. Track times almost uniformly exceed six minutes.

“I think of sentences I like and I fit them together. I don’t have stories to tell or anything like that. It’s quite imagistic, I suppose,” Stenning says.

Lead single ‘Tone of Voice’ earned normally pay-gated street press coverage for its brazen immediacy; syncopated synth bass curls around a simple titular lyric (“Tone of voice/I love your/ Tone of voice/It’s control”). An accompanying music video directed by Stenning’s girlfriend Madeleine Andrews features him alternately grooving at a local pool and in the shower, tracking what it’s like to be “wet and alone”.

‘Under the Hangar’ is its sister track, incorporating butchered French in its ode to an intimate night out (“First man I kissed/I know you saw it/Under the hangar”). The last two tracks ‘4’ and ‘Colony Music’ are bleaker, sprawling with fracturing dub rhythms. “I hope they don’t find me,” Stenning wonders, as a twitching bleep, nervous organ and minimal one-drop beat vy for primacy.

The band’s singular sound has attracted tastemaking attention from FBi Radio and English station NTS via Trevor Jackson. They’ve also snagged the current mantle of Australian experimental affirmation with a Dark Mofo slot.

“We’re ready to make a pop banger though,” Prondoso says. Stenning clarifies: “On our own terms.”

A Slow Genesis

Stenning grew up in Canberra’s moneyed inner north, the son of two classical musicians. Music was never pushed on him, though the Steiner school he attended until year 10 frustrated his parents with its flimsy music education. Stenning disliked school, and counted on university to change his discipline — unfortunately, he began to study Jazz at ANU just before the School of Music’s funding was eviscerated.

After mortally offending his teacher by telling them ANU was his second choice, and (unrelated to his teacher) contracting glandular fever, he took a six-month break that turned into forever.

“I was a bit of a deadshit in school and I just hated it from go to woah. I had some real moral feeling about it. When I went to music school, I didn’t get my ass kicked which is what I wanted,” Stenning says.

During his permanent educational hiatus, Stenning became obsessed with house and techno through strange ‘80s gear relics. He started making music as Raus — doing “singy-songy-dance stuff” before pushing through to the purity of lengthy instrumentals.

“I remember an early gig, someone was really shocked that I had this ‘80s bit of gear – they were like ‘why are you playing the keyboard – you should be sequencing it’ and I was like, I don’t know!” Stenning says.

Stenning recruited a virtuosic friend from jazz school, Luke Keanan-Brown to make Raus more live. The project morphed into Honey, sounding more like the dance-punk dominating the ‘cooler’ side of the ‘00s rock revival. A strikingly different version of ‘Colony Music’ from 2015 still exists on Bandcamp; rave-rock cowbell and the double-tracked mantra “I know where I’m going now” sound awkwardly close to LCD Soundsystem. Ironically, Honey 2 Honey was born because Stenning wanted to end it all.

Ironically, Honey 2 Honey was born because Stenning wanted to end it all.

“We would only practise on the day of a show. We would practice for like six, seven hours and we would rewrite everything on that day and then go play the show in the evening. It was beginning to give me PTSD basically, I was on the verge of having a meltdown. I’m just very attached to things being a specific way. Luke is just off in the clouds, a spiritual jazz man,” Stenning explains.

Mutual friend Andrew McLellan of Enderie strongly encouraged Stenning to record Honey’s output to date to at least leave them with a document of the last five years.

“Andrew was like ‘you guys have to record and you have to get recorded by someone, a proper recording engineer. Like someone who has done a Fat Freddy’s Drop album, someone who knows how to do the dub sound. And we were like, you can do it. That’s just you Andrew!” Stenning laughs.

The capstone recordings for what became A Taste Of began in 2017 with McLellan and Holy Balm’s Yoni Hochman at a Sydney location Stenning says he is not at liberty to disclose. Once the band became active again, they started getting requests to play shows. The only problem was, Stenning and Keanan-Brown didn’t even know if they could play the material live.

Honey 2 Honey

Grace Jones, Dub, and Jessica Alba

In June 2016, Sydney punk rocker Lumanta was asked by McLellan to organise a show at the now-defunct Record Crate in Glebe for a Canberra band by the name of Honey. Unfortunately, the night chosen was timed well with some Sydney flash flooding.

“I thought I was going to die,” Prondoso laughs.

Stenning and Keanan-Brown unpacked their extensive setup in front of Lumanta and Prondoso, disturbing them with its sheer bulk. Honey had recently bought a limited-release MIDI clock made by “Swedish progressive house idiots” that sent specially timed triggers to three or four pieces of gear at once — largely to avoid expanding the line-up.

“I had no idea what was going to happen,” Lumanta says.

“I had no idea what to expect either, but then you [Rory] did a Grace Jones cover and I was like….this is sick. I need to be friends with you,” Prondoso laughs.

Nightclubbing was a big thing for me,” Stenning adds.

Prondoso and Lumanta hail from a noisier musical background in Western Sydney, littered with contact microphones and pots ‘n’ pans, though their households growing up were steeped in R&B. So when it came time to expand the line-up, Stenning turned to Prondoso and Lumanta — with a shared love of Grace Jones underpinning their friendship. Keanan-Brown has since quit the band. The transition to the name Honey 2 Honey itself was a Chapter Music commissioned move, due to the existence of a Christian ambient rock band already named Honey.

“There’s also that fantastic film called Honey, starring Jessica Alba. Sometimes if you search Honey 2 Honey, you get Honey 2: The Motion Picture Soundtrack. So we really just need to work on our search engine optimisation,” Prondoso laments.

Honey 2 Honey

Honey 2 Honey. Left to right: Daryl Prondoso, Del Lumanta, Rory Stenning.

Dreaming In The Capital

Below the dam wall, Stenning points out Canberra’s unusually flush stock of psychedelic mushrooms. The blue meanie is its most potent and prized, its effects neither condoned, nor condemned by Stenning. Teenage drug experimentation in the capital is common for the same reason it is in country towns: boredom. But a far higher disposable income than the rest of the country means Canberra has softer drugs and more art.

“Canberra is actually a quite a good place to do art or music because you end up with heaps of spare time, because there is fuck all to do. Things are still relatively cheap, your income matches your expenditure much better than it would in Sydney,” Stenning says.

“You have a lot of nerdy middle-class kids who have money to buy gear and sit around in their room and smoke weed and make records.”

It’s those conditions that have allowed rising triple j sweethearts Moaning Lisa and Genesis Owusu to emerge from the territory in recent years, though it’s key that these acts don’t play locally for longer than they have to. A revolving door venue scene is so dire that house party gigs have long had to fill the void. Even then, the halcyon days of Canberra house gigs are over, with the mythologised Lacklustre Records’ Macarthur HQ closing in October last year.

“Canberra always feels like it’s in a bit of a lull. People have a lot of complexes about it. It goes in ups and downs and when it’s really in an up, my observation is that people are like ‘Oh! Something is almost happening! Canberra is about to be awesome’. Then that doesn’t happen, for structural reasons almost definitely. Bands disband. There’s a period of convalescence and things go up again,” Stenning says, staring at the gushing dam flap.

Honey 2 Honey was incubated in Canberra’s post-blog music scene, where internet music and hyper-locality collided. The difference between Honey 2 Honey and those fallen bands is their outlier status; nobody sounds like them. Courtesy of Chapter Music’s prestige, the band is now in a unique position to transcend their DIY roots. Will Australia catch on?

Honey 2 Honey launch A Taste Of in Melbourne, Sydney & Canberra this May and are part Dark Mofo’s Night Mass line-upA Taste Of is available as a 12” on Chapter Music via Inertia.

Joshua Martin is a Melbourne-based music and media writer. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaMartJourn.

All photos by Joshua Martin, follow him on Instagram at @rolodexphotographer