It’s rare that you come across a rock band that takes rocking as seriously as Lovehoney. It’s not that they carry that existential weight of being “serious musicians,” but they understand that the breed of mud-caked, rhythm-and-blues-driven music that Chuck Berry started and Led Zeppelin continued and Black Sabbath turned to 11 is less central to New York’s music scene than it used to be. Sure, the Black Keys were the biggest band in the world for a while, until they traded in blues for bouncy, polished pop, and Jack White is headlining half the major festivals on the circuit this summer in support of a new album set to drop later this month. But dense, blues-driven sounds are a rarity in today’s music landscape.
The reality is that rock stars feel increasingly like relics, with their rightful heirs in all things excess and relevance firmly planted in hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Future, the Migos. That’s where the star power is, and rock has been woefully left behind.
Lovehoney wants to change all that. “What rock and roll needs is people who want to be rock stars,” says guitarist Tommy White, 34. “We go to bed thinking about playing the Garden and the people that we idolize felt the same way. We don’t want to play for a bar tab, we want to make this our careers.”
“We’re playing so we can quit our jobs,” bassist Matt Saleh, 31, agrees.
White and his bandmates don’t think that spirit has been around in New York since the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the rest were hellbent on rock stardom from their home bases on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. “I think that after the Strokes and all that, the scene plateaued here,” drummer Tom Gehlhaus, 33, said.
“It was the same scene that inspired me and Matt, and it fizzled out,” White continues. “A lot of pop garbage came out after it, but now, you know, people are saying, ‘Oh, we want to hear people with guitars and songs.’ So for us, we want rock ’n’ roll” — at least the kind they like to play — “to be known again.”
Lovehoney may be getting close. The band has released a series of EPs over the past 18 months of what White calls “heavy R&B.” Their most recent, a tight, three-track project named Feelin’ No Way, released last October, drips with heavy distortion, the fuzzy feedback like the White Stripes at their grimiest. Alysia Quinones bursts into the recording, a controlled vocal detonation in which you can hear her background in metal, soul, and hard rock bleeding together. The EP sinks somewhat in the middle with the claustrophobic, muddy “Come Over,” but thunders back on its closing track.
The band formed in New York, after each member had gone through fits and starts in other bands. White served as the initial fulcrum; Quinones, Saleh, and Gehlhaus all knew him separately through the city’s rock scene, and bonded over a shared love of all things R&B and blues. Gehlhaus and Quinones are both native New Yorkers — Queens and Brooklyn, respectively — while White and Saleh are from southern Connecticut. They’ve run the gauntlet of club-size venues dotting Brooklyn and Manhattan, but they’re still waiting for a breakthrough that will let them graduate to the kinds of spaces that will let their music roar.
Devil Woman, an EP they released early last year, showcases the kind of sound that can fill the city’s larger stages. The title track finds Quinones at her most playful, letting her force skip over White and Saleh’s turbid string work. But it’s on the other two tracks — the band has an affinity for short, concept-driven projects — that you can hear the disparate background of all four musicians fusing together beautifully. “Beauty in the Struggle” is equal parts Alabama Shakes and No Doubt, by far the gentlest track in Lovehoney’s library. “I’m Gone” plays like an updated blues standard, White’s slick guitar work giving Quinones’s considerable vocal talents room to exhale completely.
Quinones, 28, knows that she has a responsibility to expand musical opportunities for women who look like her. (Quinones is Puerto Rican, Surinamese, and Guyanese.) “It’s really important for me to show my face for other girls out there that are just like me,” she said. “Spanish girls from New York that don’t think they fit into that demographic of, like, ‘rocker girls.’ There’s a lot of girls speaking for girls, but there’s not a lot of girls in rock music talking for urban girls.” There aren’t many role models for that cause other than Quinones, and she wears the purpose with pride. “Brown girls are in. We have so much soul, we’ve been through so much. Let’s take it back to all these girls that had, like, these rough voices.”
Gehlhaus chimes in. “It’s not like [Quinones] is from Michigan who just moved here two months ago. She’s born and bred New York and she’s real,” he said. “We’re all real here. This is not like let’s move here and be a band. We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”
A focus on authenticity can only take a band so far, but Lovehoney thinks their brand of rock can be a soundtrack to escape in the current climate. “We’re just trying to be that music for those people that are like, ‘I’m mad. I want some really good, dirty rock ’n’ roll. I want to just not think about anything,’ ” White said. “We try to have a feeling behind everything we do, because, if we wanted to, we could make whatever music to be popular. But then for us, we wouldn’t inspire anybody. We’d just be another fad.”