The Kid’s Alright: South Bay native Gavin Heaney has a new album shaped by the changes that have rocked his life
by Ryan McDonald
Matich Heaney, not quite one year old, was sitting on the ground in the backyard of his Hermosa Beach home. His legs were extended wide in front of him, and his head was bobbing to some unheard music. The morning sun was peeking through the trees. Matich’s father, Gavin Heaney, sat at a table nearby, sipping coffee and looking on with pride.
Then he noticed the icon emblazoned on Matich’s shirt.
“Frampton? Get rid of that thing! Put his Bowie onesie on!” Heaney said to Kimmy, his fiancee and Matich’s mother.
It was a joking request, but also a dead-serious bit of discernment. Heaney is a musician, and he embodies the contradictory blend of intuition-driven looseness and lock-step perfection the craft requires. He recently released “Downtime,” his first full-length album in more than five years, and will be playing a live show at Saint Rocke this Saturday to share the songs.
The time that has passed since his last album has been marked by transformation. Since the release of 2012’s “Fuzz,” Heaney met the woman of his dreams, became a devoted Buddhist, and, most recently, had a child. Given the changes, it’s not surprising that “Downtime” is Heaney’s most personal work yet. What is surprising, given the new demands on his time and attention, is that it is also his most fully realized. Heaney has staked his name on a sound that is intimate and sincere, in the perhaps quixotic hope that the modern, distracted listener will give the record the attention he feels it deserves, and enjoy the rewards of repeated exposure.
“I’ve been extremely picky about it. I’ve listened to it over 1,000 times. I know every note. Every single thing in there, I’ve heard it. And I can’t wait for other people to listen to it a bunch of times, and have it expand for them like it has for me,” he said.
Though some of the songs on “Downtime” started to gestate as long as five years ago, the album came fully together at a moment when Heaney had less time to himself than ever before. Shortly after Matich was born, Pat Dietz, owner of Dietz Brothers Music, where Gavin taught guitar for years, told me that fatherhood would make Heaney a better musician. The thought seemed to bounce off the taut string linking sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but Heaney had no doubt that it was true.
“He’s absolutely right. It made me squeeze every minute. I didn’t realize how much free time I had. Now, I don’t have downtime to think about it. In three hours, I can get so much done. It’s been a challenge, but it has definitely helped,” Heaney said.
The tone of Heaney’s singing voice periodically flickered into our conversation. Every album has a distinct vocal mood, and “Downtime” is a subtle but certain departure for Heaney. His voice is too textured to be a croon, too pretty for a rasp. It is — in the manner of someone talking in front of a child too young to understand what is being said, but old enough to sense changes in tone — half bark, half coo.
“Downtime” is a release of Latch Key Kid, which is less a band than a Heaney alias. Along with writing all but one of the songs on “Downtime,” Heaney plays almost all of the instruments, save for some memorable solos from guitarist Rand Anderson. But even the most talented of multi-instrumentalists rely on a stable of other musicians for live gigs, as Heaney will be doing this Saturday.
Heaney, in this sense, is a “bandleader,” a musician like Chuck Berry or James Brown, who can be on stage with a dozen other people but leave no doubt as to how to read the marquee. And Heaney, like these notoriously domineering musicians, can have a controlling presence. He has a gift for melody and a producer’s ear for what a song needs, but his place at the center of his musical ventures stems as much from his authorship of the songs as from the force of his personality.
When rehearsing or playing live, other performers may have ideas about how a song should sound, but Heaney bends them to his interpretation. This can occasionally resemble the prickly bandleaders of the past, who molded fellow players through glaring and hectoring. (Witness Berry, in the concert documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!” tersely responding in the third person to Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ questions with “If it winds up on the film, that’s the way Chuck Berry plays it!”)
Manhattan Beach resident Daniel McCashin has been playing in Latch Key Kid for about seven years. He said Heaney can come off “as a bit of a tyrant,” but that fellow players understand it to be just another aspect of his “professionalism.”
“He definitely has a vision for how he wants these songs to sound. All the guys who play in the band are kind of like hired guns. He wants it to sound a certain way, he’s got a vision, and it can be a little bit tense,” McCashin said.
But Heaney also has more subtle forms of persuasion, evident during rehearsal of songs he did not write. Heaney and others begin playing; someone will sing along and emphasize a particular word or beat, then, in barely noticeable fashion, shift to harmonize with Heaney; it is almost never the other way around. It’s not that Heaney’s interpretation has greater fealty to the original, or more melodic consistency. What draws people in is the bob of the head, the possessed tapping of the feet, the unconscious smile on his face. Heaney almost always seems as though he is “feeling” the song more than others. For bandmate and audience, in other words, Heaney convinces more than anything else because he looks like he is having a good time.
Latch Key has an acorn stash of songs you are unlikely to hear elsewhere in the South Bay, including “Where Eagles Dare” by the Misfits, “Cool it Down” by the Velvet Underground, and “Happy Together” by the Turtles. But they know when to play the hits. McCashin recalled one Latch Key set years ago at Sharks Cove in Manhattan Beach on the Fourth of July. The band had been booked to play from late afternoon to early evening, to catch people flowing off the beach. Things were slow when the band arrived at 4 p.m., so they took their time setting up. It would be the only respite they would have for the rest of the night.
“The day just kept flowing. People were coming in and out all the time. And we decided, as long as there was a crowd there dancing, we were going to keep playing. It ended up being like a 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. gig. That one was exhausting. It took me a few days to recover,” McCashin said.
Now, Heaney has a weekly acoustic night every Wednesday at Sharks Cove. The event has evolved into something of an open mic, with people coming to try out new material. It is an ideal set-up for Heaney, who has the rare gift of making other musicians around him better, pushing them to explore talents they did not realize they had.
“A lot of these people don’t have bands, they don’t have the chance to play with other people. And they just get excited,” Heaney said.
Deciding to starve
Heaney formed his first band, AWOL, in 1992 while still at Mira Costa. The punk rock outfit took advantage of the South Bay’s then-thriving all-ages music scene.
“We used to play this rad warehouse gig in Torrance. Velocity, Velocity Studios…I don’t know if anyone actually recorded there, but we played with Sublime, Out of Order, all kinds of rad punk bands would come through there,” Heaney said. “It was underground. That thing couldn’t have been legal. It always felt like at any moment the cops could just bust in and shut it down.”
AWOL stayed together while Heaney and bandmates attended UC Santa Barbara, but broke up after they graduated. Heaney followed that with Slackstring, a softer-edged, classic rock-inspired group with fellow Manhattan Beach natives Eric Lyman, Matt Muir and Brett Thomas. The quartet released an album in 2015, and still plays the occasional live show. But keeping a collaborative project like Slackstring together requires a devotion of time that was not practical for the other members.
“It’s still a lot of fun. We keep in touch, and we still write music. But it’s just hard with our separate lives. Everybody has to have normal jobs… except for me. I just decided to starve,” Heaney laughed.
Heaney had brief flirtations with what he calls “the civilian side of life.” He worked for a time as a substitute teacher in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. (Full disclosure: While attending Mira Costa High School, I once had Heaney as a substitute teacher. He chucked the day’s lesson plan, and we watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” periodically pausing to discuss the mythology of the Old West.) But Heaney has found a way to make music work by exploring almost every aspect of the business, including producing albums from his home studio.
South Bay harmonizers Sand Section cut their first two recordings at studios in Los Angeles, but they decided to pursue something closer to home for their third release, 2012’s “Still Life.” The duo, composed of Tony Gonella and Jeff Nisen, settled on Heaney as a producer in part because they were fans of his work with Slackstring.
Gonella recalled Heaney as anything but a passive producer. Like McCashin, Gonella described Heaney as ready to point out weaknesses. (He responded to a take that Gonella and Nisen thought had gone particularly well with, “Well that one was all over the map.”) But he did so, Gonella said, out of a vision for the album’s potential that even the musicians had not yet recognized.
“At that point we were not really aiming for a polished product, and we were cool with where he took us. He laid down guitar tracks, mandolin on some songs, electric keyboards. It added more on, but it still allowed for a certain rawness. That’s Gavin’s sound, and that’s what we really like. It comes across as really authentic.”
Along with producing, Heaney also has had success with music publishing through his imprint Beach Town Music. His songs have appeared on the soundtracks of major motion pictures, and one of his tunes was featured in a commercial that aired during the 2008 Super Bowl. But the changing nature of the music business has made this less profitable. Large corporate buyers are able to choose from a previously unimaginable volume of songs, while smaller Internet ventures often simply take tunes without paying anything.
I asked Heaney if there was a moment when, after learning Kimmy was pregnant, he considered pursuing a more stable career. But his response made him seems more resolute than ever. He pointed out that, unlike past albums, on which he licensed the bulk of the tracks, none of the songs on “Downtime” will be. The decision limits the commercial potential of songs into which he invested a great deal of effort, not an easy thing to do for a man with suddenly limited time.
“Luckily I have the right partner. Kimmy’s a dancer, and it’s well understood between us that neither of us are giving up our dreams. That wasn’t ever really an option. Make no mistake, I’m getting my side hustle on. I’m not selling real estate, but I am doing guitar lessons,” Heaney said. “It’s just made us both more determined to make our dreams work. We can’t go to the civilian side of life. We’re artists, that’s how we resist.”
The Third Perfection
Gen Kelsang Tangpa is the resident teacher at the Mahamudra Kadampa Buddhist Center on Cypress Avenue in Hermosa Beach, where, for the last five years, Heaney has been a practitioner. In an interview, Tangpa recalled particularly thoughtful comments Heaney had made during a recent discussion with other members of the center’s foundational program. He said he has seen Heaney evolve over the years into a student capable of profound insight into Buddhist teachings.
Heaney began regularly attending classes at the Kadampa Center around the time he met Kimmy. And, when asked what some of the songs on “Downtime” were about, Heaney was forthcoming in the manner of someone accustomed to confronting the truth. “Dream House,” for example, features idyllic lyrics about building a home, set off with a spritely mandolin solo. But the song has a wistfulness, a kind of whine, just below the surface that, Heaney said, comes from the realization that he will likely never be able to buy a home in the town he grew up in. The changing nature of the South Bay also inspires the opening track, “Out of Place.”
But Buddhist practice, Heaney said, has given him the ability to see these changes without letting them get to him. In recent months, Tangpa said, students at the center have been studying non-attachment. Part of this was aimed at a better understanding of patience, the “third perfection” of Buddhism.
“It is only when we are free from anger and dissatisfaction that we can welcome criticism and experience adverse conditions without feeling harmed,” he said.
Tangpa’s description of the virtues of patience sounded a lot like the lessons one might learn from having a child. (He recently had an opportunity to listen to “Downtime,” and said he heard “a bit of the dharma” in it.) Asked about the effect of fatherhood on Heaney, as a person and as a musician, Kimmy agreed that it had made him less attached to a certain kind of result.
“Having a kid makes you less selfish, less self-consumed. Gavin is always so picky about his music. He’s a perfectionist. I think it frees him up a little bit. One, he just doesn’t have the time. And two, I just think it opens you up. Sometimes, he doesn’t want to share things he’s written. He’s more likely to share things, more joyful about it.”
Heaney did not entirely agree with his fiancee about the impact of having a child on his perfectionism. “Downtime,” he reasoned, was his most carefully wrought creation. Then, perhaps without realizing it, he proved her point about the lessons of letting go. He described himself as “scared to death” about releasing the album, and said, “It’s funny, when you get to the end, there’s a slight temptation to just not even put it out, to just keep it to yourself. I don’t know what that’s about.” But earlier, in describing how he felt when Matich was born, he appeared to answer his own question.
“Having the baby was scary, but it never felt weird or wrong. And when he came, all my fears and doubts were put aside,” Heaney said.
The lesson of “Downtime” is not that Heaney hesitated, but that he did it anyway. And there is no doubt that seeing a miracle of his own making helped that happen.
Latch Key Kid performs Saturday night at Saint Rocke at 7:30 p.m. To listen to “Downtime” for free, go to http://latchkeykid.org/.