Hurricane Healing with Aaron Wilkinson of The Honey Island Swamp Band

Words by Bill Romba
Photo by Zack Smith

It’s safe to say that nearly everyone around the Gulf area of The United States remembers August 23, 2005. It was the day Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas and began to work its way toward Florida and Louisiana. The storm caused over $100 billion in damage and claimed the lives of over 1,800 people. Many citizens of the Gulf coast were forced to flee their homes —especially those who lived in and around New Orleans.

The Big Easy was one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina. Once known for its food, nightlife and music, New Orleans began making headlines for a different reason. While this was a major adjustment for its people, Louisiana residents Aaron Wilkinson, Chris Mulé, Sam Price and Garland Paul took the lemons life handed them and made lemonade. After adding a splash of vodka, they decided to start a party.

Stranded in California and unsure of how long it would be before they could return home, they started a band and began performing weekly gigs at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. They called themselves the Honey Island Swamp Band (as a tribute to the Big Easy) and have been making quintessentially American music ever since.

The Honey Island Swamp Band is currently on tour, delighting fans with their unique brand of feel-good, uptempo rock music. As we remember Hurricane Katrina’s impact ten years later, the Honey Island Swamp Band serve as a reminder that it’s possible to overcome anything. They also show us that music not only helps us relax and enjoy ourselves, but helps us heal.

We caught up with Aaron Wilkinson as his band prepares to bring those Big Easy vibes to the Big Apple for a show at The Cutting Room on September 3rd…

Honey Island Swamp Band is definitely a unique name. How did you come up with the name for the group?

We were all stranded in San Francisco after Hurricane Katrina and just randomly ran into each other one night at a music venue called the Boom Boom Room, which hosts a lot of New Orleans bands. This was about a month after the storm. We had A LOT of drinks and decided we ought to start a band because who knew how long we were gonna be away from home? We asked the club owner right then and there and he said we could play every Sunday. That’s how the band started. The next morning he called and said, “I’ve got to submit my music listings, what’s the name of the band?” We were like “uhhhhhhh…..” Then Chris Mulé, the guitarist, came up with Honey Island Swamp Band. The Honey Island Swamp is a really cool state park just northeast of New Orleans. It reminded us of home, and of the type of music we like to play.

What was it that made seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina the perfect time to start a band?

After the storm people all over were just really eager to help out anyone from New Orleans. Music fans all over the world were looking for ways to help New Orleans musicians and in San Francisco that meant we had sort of an instant audience. Club owners were willing to give us gigs, studios wanted to record us, and the fans wanted to support us. So it was really a situation where the universal musical community came together to lift us up.

A lot of your music has an upbeat, feel-good vibe to it. Did the hurricane influence your sound at all, from the standpoint of trying to help people relax and enjoy life?

That definitely entered into the equation. We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and at the time what we really needed was something to keep our hands and our minds busy, something to help us escape what was a very stressful situation. Music was our vehicle for that and we found that fans of our band seem to approach music the same way – as a way to let yourself go, relax, have fun and be in another place for a while.

Ten years after Katrina, would you say that the NOLA music scene has changed at all? How so?

Well it’s always changing, but after the storm it definitely seems a lot more diverse. Whereas before, the most prominent New Orleans artists were primarily jazz, funk and blues acts, now you have added to that everything from indie rock to bounce to folk/Americana. We had a big influx of people and therefore a big influx of musical influences.

You’ve enjoyed a lot of success from the 2013 record, Cane Sugar. Are there any plans for a follow up album?

Definitely. We plan to record this fall. A lot of the demos are already done and we hope to release the next record early next year. In the meantime, we are playing a lot of the new material in our live shows.

Do you have anything special planned for your upcoming show at the Cutting Room in New York on September 3rd? What can New Yorkers expect?

I intend to play the entire set from a unicycle while juggling flaming bowling pins. The bassist will attempt a back flip with a triple twist from the balcony, into a cup of water. You know, rock and roll.

Hey New York, get your tickets here! | The Big Easy