The Heavy Set Releases “The Highway and the Moon”

Parker Forsell

The Heavy Set is one of the Winona bands that have really broken ground in the past few years and taken their local music far and wide. Winona claims them, but their geography is little jagged since front-man Jake Ilika now lives in the Twin Cities area and bass player Jamie Groth lives in La Crosse. Their musical roots, however, are still a Winona venture – drummer Zac Barbieur and guitarist Jim Trouten are in Winona and Groth is a Winona native. I was recently able to talk with lead songwriter and vocalist Jake Ilika about their upcoming album release of “The Highway and the Moon”.

The group worked with Dylan Nau, of Apollo Cobra, on The Heavy Set’s most recent recording. They recorded several of the basic tracks at The Drum Farm, which is located in the woods outside Menomonie, Wis. “It was a really good experience, there is a house that you can stay at and this was the first time that we recorded this way. We basically lived at the studio for three days,” said Ilika. They also did some work at Essential Sessions in south Minneapolis and one song with Kevin Bowe and his recording students at IPR in downtown Minneapolis. All the dubs and finishing work was done at Nau’s Rocket Snakes Studio just outside the Twin Cities.

Comparing the current recording to the first two, Ilika says there is more rock-n-roll sound to many of the tracks. “People will notice a little more hard-edged element, a more upbeat sound than many may have associated with the band,” says Ilika. “It’s not a huge departure, our first record had a dropped a kind of metal sounding tune, but our second record was more Americana.” He claims Americana is still a backbone for the band, but the new record is exploring a harder sound. “We are definitely doing the dual guitar, metal-esque sound on a few of these, someone listening to a couple of the tracks mentioned they were hearing Alice in Chains. I don’t know about that, but we were definitely letting ourselves go after that harder sound,” adds Ilika.

Ilika says this sound goes back quite a way for him. His family moved to Winona when he was twelve years old, and he credits the town as the place where he really formed into who he is now. His mother was a church musician and he says he has memories as far back as he can remember of singing in church. “I took piano lessons from my mom but getting a guitar in eighth grade in 1998 was a real turning point.” He claims that is what really sent him down the path of wanting to make music himself.

He can remember getting his first records (Led Zeppelin and Rush) and not really listening to The White Stripes, The Strokes and The Black Keys – stuff his friends were listening to at the time. While listening to the classic rock of the 1970s, Ilika also got a guitar amp and starting jamming with friends in the garage. His school band didn’t work for him because he was always getting in trouble for improvising because he would get bored with playing the same songs over and over. Fortuitous as this point, a teacher told him, “if you want to do that you should probably start your own band.”

Toward the end of high school, he started writing down his own songs while playing bass in a cover band, which was not ultimately satisfying for him either. “I was playing with Aaron Lacher and a guy named Nate Dormody. We were playing college rock stuff. Rascals was the big bar in Winona at the time and that is what people wanted to hear,” Ilika says. “Nate had a couple original songs and I was always wanting to put them in the set. I would say, ‘Man these are really cool, you wrote them, let’s play them.’”

When the band did not seem interested in going in the original song direction, Ilika started a new project called Northwoods Band with Joel Ward, Ben Assef, and Charlie Smyrk in 2005. It was the start of Ilika writing, playing live, and recording his own material.

The roots of his current band The Heavy Set burbled up around a short-lived project called Limestone Cowboy. He had been asked to play pedal steel with this group of Winona-area musicians who were putting their own touch on some classic country songs. “I got to thinking, I really like this sound, it’s the kind of the feel I would like to have behind some of these new songs I am working on,” says Ilika. Lead guitar player Jim Trouten and bass player Jamie Groth came out of these first meetings around the music of Limestone Cowboy. They came across college phenom Zac Barbieur at a faculty jazz night at Ed’s No Name Bar, and the trio jammed behind Ilika for five songs one night during a weekly residency Ilika was doing at Ed’s in 2013. Things felt good and Ilika asked them to record with him.

“At the time, Jamie and Jim had been playing for a while and I just felt like they were older and wiser and then we brought in Zac, a younger person; it just set up a real good dynamic for the band. The other thing unique to the band is that all three of them are sound engineers, which really adds to the success of the band,” said Ilika. Recently they have added a keyboard player to the band, long-time recording engineer Dylan Nau.

The Heavy Set Album Cover The Highway and the Moon
The Heavy Set Album Cover: "The Highway and the Moon"

“The Highway and the Moon” is their third recording together. The record dropped February 2, 2018 as part of a dual album release party with The People Brothers Band at the spot where the band was founded, Ed’s No Name Bar. The group is touring to the promote the record, and playing an album release show at The Root Note April 6.

The Heavy Set Website

Ocooch Mountain Music Website


Parker Forsell  author

Parker Forsell is the Managing Director of the four-day, 11-stage, 400+ musician Mid West Music Fest and founder of Ocooch Mountain Music. Since 1992, Forsell has been organizing events, music performances and grassroots community networks of consumers, farmers and musicians. He has been a…