Playing music for a never-ending summer, Hotbed ‘sitting in the barrel of a breaking wave’
It’s about 9 a.m. on a Saturday in June. I spent the night on a couch in a house in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. The room is pitch black, but I can hear Jake Wipf, the lead singer of Hotbed, in the kitchen, opening cabinets. Then he walks into the living room and rips open the curtains.
“Ah, f _ _ _!” he says, looking out of the window. He’s tall, with long brown hair, like a surfer version of James Dean. “They tagged the van,” he adds, matter-of-factly.
Outside, on the street, Hotbed’s bright white tour van has been covered in green marker graffiti. “It’s OK, Kevin has stuff to remove it,” Wipf says, referring to keyboard player Kevin Kruelle.
The band’s cat, Ava, an adorable gray-and-black-striped tabby, tiptoes toward him. “Everyone always wants a cat,” Wipf says, squatting down to feed Ava. “But I’m the one who ends up taking care of her.”
Drummer James Mckenney joins Wipf by the window. They discuss the van, and then the three of us head out for coffee.
Hotbed moved to Philadelphia from Newark in early 2019. Around the corner from their house sits Kung Fu Necktie, a popular bar and venue. Across the street is The Boom Room, a recording studio. We pass by Johnny Brenda’s, where they will play with garage rock band RFA in October. Next comes a large mural tribute to Philadelphia-based musician Kurt Vile. Philly is a music city, and Hotbed has made a home in the heart of it.
Sandy Psych Rock
Released in April, Hotbed’s debut album, Florence, is a beachy banger, music made for sunsets, bonfires, listless days, and passing, simmering summer love. They describe it as “sandy psych rock” – songs stained by cigarettes coupled with live sets that can plunge into thrashing jam sessions. Which is fitting, since it was recorded in the summer of 2018 by Ryan Rolig, who has worked sound for reggae rock titans like Slightly Stoopid and Pepper.
The album cover, a green and blue painting of a house, was made by their friend, Caleb Smith. With its jalousie windows and wood paneling, it resembles Kruelle’s house, a three-bedroom ranch on the “Forgotten Mile,” a quiet stretch of Coastal Highway between Rehoboth and Dewey. Florence was recorded on his porch.
Hotbed began as four friends playing together during their undergraduate days at the University of Delaware. Jonathan Diehl and Mckenney have known each other since kindergarten. Diehl, who plays bass for Hotbed, first met Mckenney at Brandywine Elementary, but they didn’t become friends until they attended Alexis I. duPont High School, where both played bass drum in the marching band. At the same time, Mckenney and Wipf were on the swim team. While carpooling to and from practices and swim meets, Wipf would compliment Mckenney on his taste in music.
Fast forward to their sophomore year at UD. Mckenney and Diehl ran into Wipf at a New Year’s Eve party. Wipf mentioned that he had seen them jamming on Instagram. A week later, Wipf came over to Diehl’s house. Soon, Wipf’s old roommate Kruelle started playing keyboard along with them. “We unintentionally became a band,” says Mckenney.
They weren’t bent on playing live, or recording, but gradually practices became rehearsals. They wrote a few songs, and in the spring of 2016, they played their first show at Homegrown on Main Street in Newark. It was packed. Next came Newark’s Deer Park Tavern and then The Starboard in Dewey Beach, where their name would appear as a seemingly permanent fixture on the marquee. Not that it was necessary; in Dewey, everyone knew when Hotbed was playing.
One of their first songs, “Db Lines,” off of their EP Undercovers (2017), is a reggae-tinged tribute to Dewey. “From Chesapeake to Collins Street let’s all unwind / and by the end of the night you’re gonna figure out what’s a real good time.”
Filled with phaser pedal riffs and crashing keys, it’s a hair-let-down-tequila-flushed night, an anthem for the salt-covered and carefree.
Instagram for CR-Vs
Soon after my visit to Fishtown, I call Mckenney to learn more about the band, and catch him in the midst of pursuing his other passion—photographing Honda CR-Vs. “Wait, hold on,” he says. There’s a pause. “I’m looking at this really nice CR-V right now. I’m just gonna take a photo of it real quick.”
Mckenney runs a popular Instagram account, @phillycrv, featuring 1998 to 2006 Honda CR-Vs with boxy frames and the iconic trunk-mounted spare tire. “It might be the best social media account on any platform,” wrote Adam Hermann in an article titled “This Instagram account documents very specific Honda CR-Vs around Philly” for Phillyvoice.com.
Mckenney snaps a photo, then comes back on the phone. “This is a nice one,” he says. He tells me about its step-on rails and tinted windows, a car customized with care. In a later Instagram post on @phillycrv captioned “Here’s a few beauts from this week,” you can see it: a gray CR-V parked in front of an old red brick house on an unassuming street in his neighborhood. “It’s clean,” he declares. “It’s real clean.”
Although the account is now focused on Philadelphia, its origins lie in Delaware. Early posts showcase cars parked in Branmar Plaza, in the back lots of UD dorm complexes, and in the driveways of ramshackle beach houses. But just before moving into his new Philly residence, Mckenney’s own maroon 1998 CR-V was stolen, stripped, and left for dead.
“I was just visiting,” he says. His roommates had moved in before him while he stayed in Delaware to finish up some classes at UD. He woke up one morning to go home, walked outside, and. . .“I was like, I swore I parked here.” He called every towing service. Then the police.
“It took me 15 minutes to realize that…holy shit…my car was stolen.” An agonizing, empty week went by, without any new information. Suddenly his phone rang. It was a towing company in Cherry Hill. They had his car. “The person put little wheels on it. All of the windows were smashed in,” says Mckenney. He gave the towing company the deed. “I wanted nothing to do with it.”
It made Mckenney question whether moving was the right decision. He talked to the police and reached out online. “People were just like, ‘Yeah, you just got really unlucky,’ which is what I wanted to hear.” He moved in a few days later.
“You come here and you’re a tadpole in a pond, but it’s worked to our advantage so far—because we’ve been able to get into the music community,” Mckenney tells me.
Since their album release, they have been writing nonstop. “We kind of want to be one of those bands that just puts out a lot of music,” he says.
At the end of July, I went to see Hotbed play at The Starboard. It’s the kind of place where you drink a Corona Light, two margaritas, a shot here, a couple of shots there, and then hurl half-digested cheese fries onto a beautiful beach, an outpost for the sunburned and sloshed. On stage, Hotbed tears into a cover of “Pawn Shop” by Sublime. It’s warm out, at least for now. There are makeouts and mini mosh pits, but tonight all of the lights are on Hotbed, and they’re right at home.
After their set, Mckenney, Wipf, Diehl, and friends all pile onto mattresses at Kruelle’s house, sleeping into sobriety, a band sitting in the barrel of a breaking wave.
Find their music on Spotify. Visit them at hotbedband.com, facebook.com/HOTBEDMUSIC, or instagram.com/hotbedband.