In less than a year, the Fort Lauderdale-born musical act Heavy Pets will turn 15, and its member are prepping for the quinceañera just the way a South Florida jam band should: with live marathon recording sessions at Key West’s party pub the Green Parrot.
“We don't ever repeat songs, so we'll play something like ten hours of music — it’s four and a half hours each Friday and Saturday, and then we’ll work on whittling it down into an album,” cofounder Jeff Lloyd says.
The only thing he’ll say about that recording is that it'll quite possibly be the "jammiest" the Heavy Pets have ever gotten. That's a tall order following the release of 2018's Strawberry Mansion, the band's eighth album. The LP featured everything from psychedelic funk and soul to rock and reggae, appealing to a wide international audience in the process. It even became fodder for some high-school music students in the Philippines who recorded a cover of the album’s title track.
“We were very honored. We wrote to them and told them to keep up the good work,” says Lloyd, who discovered their rendition on Instagram.
And though Heavy Pets' members are now well beyond their teenage years, he says Florida gigs always make them nostalgic, because it’s here that they really grew into various stages of early adulthood as well as artists.
“It's defined the bulk of my adult life,” says Lloyd. “Having done this for 15 years now, our audience has naturally gotten older. We've watched our biggest fans go from being right out of college to getting married and having kids. It’s wonderful that we can experience all that together.”
Likewise, their music has developed alongside with them.
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Lloyd and bandmate Mike Garulli started playing together in high school in upstate New York. During college at Syracuse University, Lloyd played in a band with keyboardist Jim Wuest. Shortly after graduating in the early 2000s, all three of the musicians moved to South Florida with founding drummer Ryan Neuburger to work for founding bassist Joe Dupell’s Internet marketing company Emagine Networks. Their working relationship grew into a musical one, and out of it came The Heavy Pets.
“The current lineup of the band is the most cohesive and longest-running iteration of the band,” says Lloyd, noting that Wuest’s family friend Jamie Newitt joined as the drummer in 2008, and Newitt’s longtime friend and bandmate Tony D’Amato joining as bassist in 2012.
The Northeastern members of the band grew up listening to the jam music of groups like Phish, while the other members, many of them hailing from the Mid-Atlantic, came of age on a combination of jazz and funk.
“When we came to South Florida and we found ourselves living on the beach, it was only natural for us to pick up a beach vibe,” Lloyd says. "We were living in Lauderdale by the Sea, and we were just cranking out tunes. It's hard to not be swept away by like the beauty and uniqueness of South Florida.”
Today, he says, their sound is “kind of all over the map,” and in these times of great intolerance, you might say it’s a symbol of harmonious democracy.
“We’ve got these improvised sections where we tend to stretch them out and go just about anywhere, and to me that embodies the spirit of the band,” says Lloyd. “The most important thing is the way the music is derived to begin with. It involves listening and respecting other people's space and respecting what they have to say. When we’re on stage, we’re improvising. It's a conversation that we're having together, and we're not all just talking at the same time.”
And while the Heavy Pets maintain a long-running fan base, they’re pleased to see so many younger faces showing up to hear them at festivals such as Bonnaroo.
“I look at those crowds and I see a lot of my younger self in them. I see the adventurousness and the free spiritedness that still comes from people that go these events. They consume tons of music,” he says. “I just see this love and passion for a wide range of music, and it gives me hope. It gives me inspiration to expand my own musical horizons.”
That good-natured collaboration is also evident in the way the Heavy Pets use their shows for community outreach. As the headliners of this year’s Rhythm Foundation Holiday Ball, they’re asking fans to bring an unwrapped toy or canned goods as a donation to Miami’s Lotus House Women’s Shelter. For its part, the Rhythm Foundation will donate the show’s proceeds to Miami Beach Youth Music Festival, which takes place on February 29, 2020 at the North Beach Bandshell.
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And to complement the Heavy Pets’ multifaceted jam, soul-shaking “Sacred Steel” master Roosevelt Collier will be opening the show with a concoction of blues, gospel, and rock he calls “dirty funk, swampy grime.”
With any luck, all this musical improvisation and spirit of philanthropy will help the next generations of South Floridians to develop their own collaborative vibe.
“It’s important to listen and to pay attention to the little subtleties. That's the way that we can kind of build something together that works. It’s never going to be perfect, but it's going to be as beautiful as we can make it together,” he reflects.
The Heavy Pets Holiday Ball. With Roosevelt Collier. 7 p.m. Saturday, December 21, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $20 via rhythmfoundation.com and $30 on day of show. Concertgoers are encouraged to bring an unwrapped toy for the band's Lotus House Toy Drive.