It’s going on 10 p.m. at the Brown family home off Rimrock Road and 17th Street West. Surrounded by the comforts of doilies and dusty clocks on wood-paneled walls, The Forestry has gathered for band practice.
Ken Brown, father of the band’s 16-year-old frontman Guthrie Brown, is stretched out on the couch as the group begins to wail. A moose hangs above Ken, a silent witness to their budding talents. Keyboardist Will Honaker is sandwiched behind an old Hammond A-100 organ, drummer Jordan Finn is angled in the corner, and Phil Griffin is at the front with Brown. Feedback rustles the group, and Brown coyly replies, “It’s rock and roll.”
With an acoustic guitar in hand, wearing a Flight of the Conchords T-shirt, Brown begins singing, his mop top flopping to the left, his eyebrows raised on high notes. Christmas light strands hang in the backdrop, colorfully illuminating the wooden walls.
Suddenly the sound breaks open; Griffin motions to Honaker to back down as he plucks his white guitar. Brown stomps his foot, his head shaking in movements that will no doubt become his trademark. With bullish force to his voice, Brown embodies a promising frontman at a tender age. He croons and harmonizes with Griffin and Honaker, the musicians mixing vocals, acoustic and electric guitars and keyboard with up-tempo drum beats.
Performing under The Forestry moniker for about eight months, these young musicians have landed some impressive opening slots in Billings for national touring bands, including The Thermals and the Spill Canvas. Their songs, like something lifted from the margins of a high school notebook, are clever in their simplicity. Lyrics are themed around tales of loss, or about a cat that left home and didn’t bother to leave a note, or an ode to Smokey Bear, with the ever present youthful exploits: “I lost my friends at a party / I shouldn’t have drunk that special drink / that made me think I could breathe underwater.”
At the front of the group is singer and guitarist Brown. He picked up a guitar when he was 6. His mother was a Broadway singer in a chorus line, and he followed her lead into musicals where he found his voice and predisposition to performance.
Brown founded The Forestry with longtime friend and musician Phil Griffin, 17, who plays the upright bass in Known By Name and Brown and Green’s Soul Machine. Brown and Griffin gigged together their first few years at Saturday Live and in friends’ garages under the name Gutpill (a combination of their names).
“Phil and I grew to become friends playing acoustic,” Brown said. “We played a lot of shows but we never wrote anything. We were just playing covers and having fun. Without Gutpill the Forestry would not have happened.”
When they added Honaker (who just began his freshman year of college) to the group, the dynamic began to shift. Onstage with The Forestry, Honaker mans the keyboards and plays sax and clarinet.
Griffin credits his musical mentor Parker Brown with getting them to evolve beyond Gutpill. For (Guthrie) Brown and Honaker, it was family ties.
“Our families know each other really well, but we didn’t, which was really funny,” said Brown. They became Gutpill and Will.
They added drummer Jordan Finn, 19, because they “needed some funky beats,” Griffin said. The group became The Forestry, and Brown began to write original music following the addition of Finn. Lyrically he began to evolve his songs beyond silly jokes.
“You took yourself seriously,” Griffin said.
“I am so happy playing music, and we absolutely lose ourselves,” Brown said. “We love playing and we have so much fun,” Honaker said. “It’s about the music and having fun with the music.”
Staying close to home
Flavorful cities such as Nashville, Honolulu, Missoula and Portland have long courted local talents away. With options on the table including Juilliard and Boston’s Musical Conservatory, Honaker skipped the East Coast for now and began his first year of college this fall in Bozeman. He returns home on the weekends to make music with his friends.
Honaker’s talents are honed from musical lineage, natural talent and a professional drive. He is a multi-instrumentalist, and his toolbox is filled with woodwind instruments, keyboard, and bass.
“I’d be in Boston if it wasn’t for these fools,” he admitted with an endearing tone. Honaker said he was conflicted with his choices in school. “I just weighed more of an opportunity here with these guys and saw more of a life,” he said. “If that’s what I love, why change that?”
As school threatened to fragment the band, members made a conscious effort to keep together. Their bassist moved to Missoula but returns to Billings occasionally to perform. Honaker comes back most weekends to practice, and the band has a typical roadmap ahead of them that includes traveling, recording and releasing an EP.
“There’s a connection that you make when you play music with someone,” Honaker said. “I feel so connected here that my heart tells me I should stay.”
Of his musical future, Honaker said, “I definitely want to go the professional musician route. I just want to eat up as much as I can, learn as much as I can, be able to practice more, and this gives me more time to do that.”
His father, Bill Honaker of Walkers Grill, and the jazz groups that perform there each Sunday gave Will a background in music. His uncle is also a talented drummer, and he recalls his musically inclined aunt with abiding respect.
“Every single family get-together my aunt would always whip out a song. I hated and loved it at the same time,” Honaker said. He remembers being around music from a very young age. “I was so interested in (music). I loved music, and my dad always pushed it.”
Honaker recalls watching his dad play at Walkers. “It is just such an ascetically pleasing experience.” Honaker almost followed his father’s footsteps to drums, but “dad told me to do something that had notes.” He said he chose the clarinet because he liked the recorder, and moved into a variety of woodwinds.
Of the Forestry, Griffin said, “I don’t personally think we’re that good. But we like what we are doing and people like that.”
Honaker disagrees. “People see that, and they like what we’re doing, and they’re supportive,” he said. “We’re not as mature yet as our music. We’re still kids, not even 20 yet. We’re still growing.”
Finn, the eldest of the group, is attending school at Montana State University Billings. He said he’d like to transfer to Missoula or Bozeman after finishing his second year.
“In all honesty, Billings doesn’t have a lot to offer,” he said. “We are doing what we can.”
Finn grew up in California and moved to Billings five years ago with his family. There are not many places like (Billings), he said. “It just looks like a great place to live. It’s safe, you can get a little bit of everything, but you want to get a little more. There is such a want to get out.”
“I love traveling and would love to experience that culture,” Honaker said. “Yet it’s a different culture everywhere; a mile outside of town it’s a different culture. I’d love to experience the West Coast, anywhere, hopefully with these guys.”