San Diego “pink punk” rockers The Havnauts took the local scene by storm with their 2019 debut LP Go For It, earning them “Best New Band” & “Best Locally Recorded Album” at the San Diego Music Awards! We caught the full band, Shelbi Bennett (vocals, guitar), Jenny Merullo (drums), Zak Kmak (vocals, bass), and Josh Smith (guitar), right before rehearsal at School of Rock where most of them have been music teachers. Read on to learn about The Havnauts’ origin story, their favorite tour destinations, and what it’s like teaching kids how to play their songs!
Go For It was followed up by Reel Good Now in 2020. You can check out the band’s latest releases, a cover of The Stooges’ Search and Destroy as well as their latest single Bummer Man anywhere you stream music!
Photo: Matt Kelly
1. So, how did you all meet each other?
Shelbi: Well, Jenny and I met a long, long time ago. I met her when she was in the Heavy Guilt.
Jenny: How many years ago?
Shelbi: Almost ten, because I met you probably when I was 20. I don’t think I was even 21… I fucking know. We started working at the School of Rock around the same time, and then we met Josh.
Jenny: So, us three (Shelbi, Josh, Jenny), we all worked here at the same time, and that’s kind of when we formed. Now I’m the only one who works here. I met Zak from playing with his cousin Josh in Shady Francos for a little while. We went on a road trip up to Anaheim, and that’s how I met Zak.
Zack: Yeah, I was the roadie.
Jenny: We were gonna do a little bit of revisiting some Heavy Guilt stuff with Erik, the singer. He was like, “we need a bass player.” So, I was like, “This dude Zak could probably do it.” So we started playing music. That was before The Havnauts. That just didn’t go anywhere for me personally. Then Shelbi and I were like, “we should totally be playing together.” It just kind of formed naturally. It started with us two, and our friend Daniel (Schraer) who plays keys in a bunch of shit, and also plays guitar. He had some other stuff going on musically.
Shelbi: I think he saw where we were going musically, and was like, “that’s not really where I’m going. Love it for you guys though.” His songs were much different stylistically.
Jenny: At that point we called in Zak to come play bass with Schraer and us, and we thought that was The Havnauts. I feel like Schraer was here when we came up with “The Havnauts.” When he left we were like, “shit.”
Josh: I remember the specific point because you three were together running through a few guitarists, and then you (Shelbi) had written one of our earlier songs Go For It. It had a heavier kind of vibe to it, and I was, at least in my teaching and bands before The Havnauts, known as more of a doom-metal guy.
Jenny: We didn’t approach Josh until we didn’t know what else to do. That sounds bad, but it was mostly insecurity. We figured Josh was gonna say no, so when we finally asked and he was super into it, we were like, “fuck yeah!” It just felt good right from the first moment. I remember early on we kept being like, “are you sure you’re okay to wear pink?” And you were like, “I don’t own anything pink, but I could probably get a shirt that’s pink.”
Josh: I do remember it was a big thing of like, “we have a couple songs thought out. They’re a little heavier. We thought maybe you’d be a good match on that,” cause I was known a little more for playing heavier music. I remember the first rehearsal coming in here (School of Rock) to do it, and it was kind of like that moment when I feel like I just naturally wrote parts much quicker than I had ever before. There was no over-analyzation or anything like that. It just felt like a really good fit from the start. I was like, “man, I’m so stoked. Are you guys happy with me doing this? Because I would love to do it!” And there was like, a good reception on that end, and so it just immediately became a thing.
2. Where did the name ‘Havnauts” come from?
Jenny: I think I was reading some book and I just saw, “we’ve all heard the haves and have-nots,” and I wrote it down in my phone. We went outside to have a smoke or whatever, and we were like, “what are we gonna call ourselves?” I’m like, “well, we can start with the giant list I have in my phone. Most of them are probably fucking dumb,” and they are. It’s an ever-growing list. But that one was in there. I think we just decided to spell it differently kind of in the moment…
Shelbi: …because we knew it was probably taken already, and I think the astronaut imagery is better.
Jenny: He seems pretty content, but like also a little concerned. You know? Like, “I guess this is it, but this seems bad.”
Josh: The space trash hit him and he just keeps going.
3. Of all the places music has taken you to, which is your favorite?
Jenny: Santa Cruz.
Shelbi: In the UK, I was playing with a Kate Bush cover band, so obviously they were very enthusiastic. I feel like they bought more merch, they sang the songs back at you, they just care more sometimes than it feels like people care here.
Josh: I feel like they’re much more receptive in the UK. If they’re walking by and they hear a live band, they’ll just walk in. Shelbi was doing a Kate Bush cover band, and I was doing a Stone Roses cover band, which is only popular in the UK. I agree with you all day, Shelbi. It’s a totally different pace of musical experience.
Shelbi: And everything is so close together. We don’t have to drive like 9 hours to get to another place. It’ll be a long day if you’re taking the ferry to Ireland or something, but other than that you’re just looking at the English countryside all day.
4. You all have played in several bands over the years. What is different about writing a Havnauts song?
Shelbi: Well, I feel like for me, I write a bunch of different kinds of songs, but most of the time when something is a bit more on the angry side, or a bit more angsty, I know that it’s a Havnauts song. Most of the time, if it’s just a chorus or a verse, a lot of times it’s like 80% done at most, and then I’ll bring it to the Havnauts. We just built up a song the other day. Josh will write a part, and we’re like, “awesome. Sounds great.” Jenny does a cool thing: “awesome. Sounds great!” Zak writes cool harmonies and cool basslines. When Zak writers songs I’m kind of like, “uh, what are the chords?” It’s really collaborative. It’s really nice, and it’s nice to know your idea will still remain untouched or will just get better.
Zak: It’s like the least judgmental space that I’ve ever been in. It’s like anyone can say anything at any time, and everyone is down. We’ll all give it a shot even if it’s like, “I don’t know if I agree with that, but let’s do it.”
Shelbi: At least just try it because you might be wrong.
Josh: Maybe I’m speaking for everyone on this point, but for me, it’s way more organic than any songwriting process I’ve gone through with other people, because either there are egos in the way, or there’s completely different opposites of songwriting styles. I think that all of us at some point have had a lot of training or teaching in the realm of creating songs and music, and what sounds good together, so it’s never a moment of, “well, what should come next?” We just decide to try it, and if it falls flat on its face that’s fine. We just leave it where it was, and we move on to another idea. But it comes along so much more naturally to where we’ve written records together where I think all of us can kind of agree, “that came together so much faster than we possibly thought it ever could.” It could be the difference of one rehearsal between two shows that we could have a new song in the set.
Jenny: And then sometimes we’ll go months without. Or we’ll have a song where we work on it for a year. This is great example. Shelbi brought in a song. We worked on it for a while, and then we had shows, and we just didn’t really nurture it very much. We had some ideas down, but we kept the same song and basically rearranged it the other night. I don’t want to call it lightning in a bottle, because it happens from time to time. Not every song. We’ve had some songs where, like Josh said, everything just kind of clicked, and the transitions work, and we can kind of tell that it’s working. And sometimes we fuck with a song for a really long time before settling on something. I feel like now our biggest challenge is making songs that are Havnauts songs, but don’t sound exactly like every other Havnauts song.
5. Which Havnauts song would you teach to a School of Rock student?
Jenny: The last time they did the Best of San Diego show that happens periodically, the Encinitas school did Ghosts, which is one of the songs off our first album. I was actually the drum teacher for the drum student who did that song, which was a little weird having to stay within the confines of something that we recorded, because when we play live I don’t think any of us necessarily do that. As far as our songs now, Bummer Man would be awesome. It’s quick and fun and catchy ,and every time I’ve actually played it for a kid they’ve been like *nods head back and forth,* and then I’m like, “okay, that’s a good sign.” The first lyrics are tender in a childlike sort of way. It kinda brings the kid into it. What do you guys think?
Shelbi: If I had a singing student, I’d probably give them Not Not Mutual or Ghosts because those songs are freaking hard. They’re really hard. A lot of times I’m like, “dammit I wrote that, but dammit it’s hard.” I know I’m singing on a good night when I can sing those songs.
Josh: For me, going back to what Jenny said, when we had the local show in Encinitas, we all showed up for one of their rehearsals as a full band, and we watched them perform it. Then we were pretty much advised to give notes if there’s a special way we play something to make it easier on them. A lot of the guitar players for my part in Ghosts, the little bridge section where I play a little passage, they were really overcomplicating it. I had to kind of dissect and go like, “look, I’m a huge fan of Rush. The way he plays bar chords, he takes away the two highest strings and plays those open strings. Think about it that way.” And we kind of just trail through it together. It was really cool to watch the gears click together in their head, and go like, “oh, that is much easier than I thought it was,” but it’s still different enough that I feel like it almost made them want to explore the idea of writing a little bit differently as opposed to how a normal lead guitar player would play. I call them the “Little Italys,” which is fine and all, but you also want some melodic approach. So, I felt like it opened their minds a little. That was really cool and very humbling.
6. What advice would you give to someone picking up a guitar for the first time today?
Zak: Just be loud. Annoy your roommates.This is a lesson I’ve had to learn in my life: you’re just going to be bad way longer than you’re ever going to be good, so you just gotta be bad for a while. Just pick up the guitar or trumpet or bass, or whatever you’re going to do, and just do it. I’m doing that right now. I’ve had to humble myself. I’m trying to get better at finger-picking guitar. The dexterity and the patterns are so similar, and yet so different. I told my partner, “I’m just going to do this, and it’s not going to be good. I’m sorry.”
Josh: I would say don’t overthink it, and don’t start with theory. It’s the most overwhelming thing in the world for a child who wants to start playing music, and specifically a stringed instrument. Don’t learn “every good boy does fine.” Don’t learn sheet music. Go and learn your favorite song in the world, and just start from ground zero because you’re only going to be happier with your progress. Eventually you’ll be able to play along to your favorite song, and that gives you that fire to want to be better.
Zak: Learning a song by listening to it is also a crazy good skill and something that’s not easy to get if you’re using tabs or sheet music all the time. Stepping back and trying to use your ear is something that not everyone can do. It’ll help you so much. You can play so many more songs over the course of your life.
Jenny: I would say to fit it in every day, even if all you have is 5 minutes. I think the biggest mistake people make is that if they feel like they don’t have an hour to spare then it’s not worth it. So, they’ll maybe cram once a week, and muscle memory just doesn’t work that way. If you want to get better at something, you have to pick up your instrument even if it’s just for 2 minutes. Fit it into your life like you brush your teeth every day.
7. Do you have any plans for new music?
Jenny: We have a couple new songs. We have one that we’ve been playing on the regular at shows. We have one that we more or less just finished the other night. We have one that’s in development that’s a Zak song. I mean, we would love to have enough for another 8-10 song album within the next year or so. We don’t really have a timeline set for that, but we are definitely working on new stuff.
Zak: There’s nothing pushing us but ourselves right now, which is both freeing and terrifying. It’s all on us, which is really cool, and we get the time to play and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s nice to have a looming deadline though.
Jenny: Having released our last full album in the beginning of 2020, it just feels like there’s so much unfinished work from that album that we just never really got to realize. Our biggest focus lately has been trying to expand beyond San Diego, and maybe that’s why we only have a few new songs at this point. I have no doubt that we would have gone on some sort of tour in the summer of 2020. We were trying to, but the last show we played (before the pandemic) was like March 8th, and then that was it. So we made a bunch of music videos and stuff, but right now I feel like our focus is definitely to branch out and play with bigger bands.
Shelbi: Before the pandemic hit we were playing like 3 shows a month. Most of us were in different bands at that time, too, so we were just so fucking busy all the time. We were writing new songs, putting out albums, planning a tour, all this stuff. And then the pandemic just threw a monkey wrench into that momentum. I feel like we’re getting that back now, but once we get more of a routine of playing out of town, and getting more validation and motivation, that’s gonna help a lot I think.