Jake Ilika discusses the long road to the Heavy Set's ‘The Highway and the Moon’

The Heavy Set

The Heavy Set Jake Ilika

When you spend a lot of time on the road, sometimes the moon is your only companion at night.

On their latest release, The Highway and the Moon, the Heavy Set gather an album’s worth of lunar mystery into a set of songs that feel like they’re being sung for you and for you alone. The album is emotional but never overwrought, touching but never maudlin.

Finding time to work on the album has been a balancing act for lead singer Jake Ilika, in between his other musical projects (Ilika Ward, Land at Last), his day job, and being a father. Ilika shared his working process and discussed the band’s new sound with us in advance of the Heavy Set’s album release show at the Hook and Ladder this Saturday.

City Pages: How do you find time to write and create for this project between work and your other projects?

Jake Ilika: You have to make time. Before I moved up here [from Winona], I wrote a lot on the job driving around in my delivery truck. Balancing the groups, my family, and job can make that challenging to carve out alone time to be with the guitar and a notebook and write, so sometimes it’s sprinkled here and there or jotted on multiple sheets of paper around the house and car. I wrote the lyrics to one of the songs on this album in my car before the guys showed up to rehearsal, but a lot of these songs have been in the works for a long time.

CP: What is it about the Heavy Set that draws you back to it to keep creating new songs?

JI: When writing songs or getting ideas specifically for the Heavy Set, I get to tap into the composer mindset and imagine parts in my head—dual guitars, percussion, keys, vocal arrangements and harmonies—being played by the band, or additional musicians we could use for the sound, whereas writing an acoustic-based song is pretty easy to bring to either of the duos or my solo repertoire. So I am constantly being drawn to the fuller sound for songs which makes me sit and compose parts to bring to the rehearsals and try out.

CP: You do a songwriter series in Winona at Ed’s No Name Bar. How has this changed your songwriting?

JI: Hosting the songwriter series has definitely opened my mind to a lot of different sounds coming from a lot of different amazing songwriters with varying approaches to their songwriting. I can get into different styles and be influenced by a lot of their sounds and styles of both their performances and their lyrics. It’s been a lot of fun hosting that and not only showcasing the region’s great songwriters in a stripped-down format, but also being turned on to so many different styles to be inspired by.

CP: How do you think your other projects in life shape what you do with this music?

JI: I get inspiration and influence from new artists I discover through friends playing me new music when we’re on the road. Mike Munson, my duo partner from Land At Last, introduced me to artists I’d never heard of or spent too much time with — Duke Garwood’s Garden of Ashes and that album’s sound really influenced the slow burn of the title track "The Highway and the Moon" and the spacious soundscape created by Brian Blade and his band on his album Landmarks was taken directly into the next session I had booked, which was a week or two after Land At Last toured around the middle of the country last March and where Mike introduced me to these albums. The use of space but also getting the most out of that space — if that makes sense? — really helped me craft the sound we were going for on the last few songs we recorded for the album, and also influenced how we mixed the first tracks we recorded before I had ever heard these albums. 

CP: The Highway and the Moon is very different from your last albums in sound -- less country and more rock. What shifted that allowed you to write differently?

JI: I love and am extremely drawn to bands that don’t pigeon hole their sound and aren’t afraid to skip around genres on the same album — artists and bands like Wilco, Ryan Adams, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Beatles. I love bands that know their sound and stick to it, too — not trying to say I can’t get into bluegrass or punk or anything with a steady sound or style -- but I have always been inspired by and have wanted to emulate my heroes that have fluidity to their sound, their album approach, and their openness to extreme change at the risk of being received as "all over the place."

CP: Do you think this is the sound you're carving now with this project?

JI: It’s hard to answer the question “What’s your genre?” because when this band first started, it definitely was going to be an alt-country/Americana band. While we still include that in our sound, even on this album, rock music was one of my first loves, and I wanted to express that more with this collection of songs and showcase my bands versatility in our approach to the songs we were crafting. I think it was true with our first studio effort, which was just six songs. Our last record was heavy on Americana, and that came from a combination of the songs themselves and bringing them to life with our Erik Koskinen. I wanted to take a step away from that for this record and branch out to other sounds I knew we were capable of.

CP: These days three years is a long time between albums. What happened between these years that filled your time?

JI: It feels like three years, but it actually was just over two years since our last release; we released our last record in November of 2015. Most of the last two to three years has been spent in studios and on the road or stage, which I'm totally fine with. It just makes time fly planning and executing all that. So I agree, two-and-a-half/three years is a long time in today's music climate where it seems like studio efforts get churned out left and right by artists, but doing it independently, with no fundraising or financial backing other than the money you bank from shows and merch profits definitely plays a role in the timeframe of our releases, but it also makes this that much more rewarding. Hopefully the growth we've had over the last few years is noticeable on this new record and in our live performances. All that being said, it's been twelve years and I'm still waiting for Tool's next album to drop...

CP: Who did you work with to produce this album? How did they change the feel of the album when it came time to record?

JI: Dylan Nau [Apollo Cobra/Rocketsnake Studios] has worked with us on all three albums, mostly behind the board and adding keys to songs, and though we batted around the idea of an outside producer like we did with Erik Koskinen on our last album, we decided that Dylan knows us best and would be a blast to officially work with on a full length record. He suggested an amazing studio in Menomonie, WI, called the Drum Farm, and just the location and vibe of that studio helped shape the sound of this record so much. It had a tiny house on the property that we basically lived in for the weekend while we recorded. We also recorded at another connection of his, Essential Sessions in Minneapolis. Dylan’s outside ears, while also having that “Fifth Beatle” role over the years—he’s played live with us a bunch, though until now wasn’t an official member—was just what we needed to drive each song in the direction we wanted it to go, with enough space between producer and artist that his knowledge, ideas, and critiques were welcomed professionally and also as our friend/bandmate.

CP: Can you tell me more about the title track?

JI: The whole album is based on a collection of recurring thoughts I have as a musician when driving home at night, some abstract and others pretty literal. You have a lot of time to think when driving home after a show, or on to the next gig, and even happens when traveling with others. Those hours churn out a lot of the early parts of the creative process for me. I thought naming the track and album The Highway and the Moon encompassed that whole idea. Some songs are about relationships, some about the struggles of an independent musician, some about love lost and gained. I see these songs, as my bassist Jamie Groth likes to put it, as "little movies." 

I experience sound visually and have since I was a kid, so over the last year of driving around and creating these songs, I picture a night drive down Highway 61 along the river, or through the farmland of Highway 52, and, like the lyrics say, it’s just “me, the highway, and the moon.” As I pictured each song as its own “thought” or little vignette of the whole story, "The Highway and the Moon" as its own track collected all of those thoughts into one song. It was only fitting to put that track last in my mind. It starts with a little sound effect of someone getting in the car and buckling up, it’s kind of droney like a long drive and the hum of the tires can be, and parts of the chord progression are like your mind fighting off sleep. Dylan even mentioned the vocal harmonies on the reprises sound like a semi or car horn blaring at you as you drift out of your lane. Jim's final siren-like lap steel solo invokes an image of the chaos of staying awake or being pulled over to me, and it all ends with what I picture me—or the listener—pulling into the driveway and finally making it home safe.

CP: I also loved "Always My Son." Can you tell me more about that song?

JI: This song is about my son, Gavyn. I’m not his biological father; his dad walked out before he was born, and I met his mother when I was 20, and he was just 14-months-old, so I'm the only father he's ever known. For many complicated reasons, his mother and I put off telling him this truth until this last summer. He's 14 now and in high school, and just an amazing kid and a huge influence on my writing. I’ve had this particular song in the works since he was probably 9. 

We recorded it at our tracking session at Essential Sessions in Minneapolis. He was somewhat forced to listen to all these rounds of mixes in the car and around the house over the last year, but I always avoided that song because he still didn’t know the truth. When we finally told him, he just hugged me and said, “I love you, Dad,” and we had this amazing moment. The truth was out there, finally. My immediate reaction after the outpouring of mutual love was to take him to the car and listen to the track. "That was pretty awesome, Dad," is all he said, and that was good enough for me. He’s one of the best people I know, and I'm always bouncing my songs and demos off of him.

CP: What other song are you particularly proud of on this album?

JI: I really like how “Everything You Told Me” came together. We’ll try and pull it off live, but it was a fun challenge to write something that wasn't necessarily meant for the stage and get these big guitar harmonies out of my head to have this sound that we normally haven’t gone for in previous writing. It’s got a lot going on, and though it’s busy, I think it’s part of what I was going for with the story behind the song. At my part-time job, I work with a lot of folks with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and this song’s sounds and lyrics are attributed to what I witness with those diseases. There’s a lot of turmoil and tension, mood shifts, and movement in it. The song is a little restless and always moving to the next part. I can’t imagine what having dementia or Alzheimer’s is like, but I imagine it being similar to the parts and lyrics of this song.

CP: Can you tell me what we can expect to see at the album release show?

JI: A lot of energy, rock and blues. In addition to it being our release show, it’s also a Midwest Music Fest pre-party, with ticket giveaways. So it'll be a really fun, celebratory, rocking night at one of Minneapolis’ best venues. The Hook really puts out a great vibe as a venue, and they do a great job getting a lot of awesome music in there, both local and national.

The Heavy Set
With: Black Eyed Snakes, Mike Munson, Liquor Beats Winter
Where: The Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat. Feb. 3
Tickets: 21+, $10/$13; more info here