Revivalists never die: The classic sound of New York’s Hollis Brown
Maybe every band should choose a classic album and learn to cover the entire thing. The rootsy New York band Hollis Brown seems to have absorbed some good lessons from the exercise. A few years ago, Hollis Brown recorded a complete cover album of the Velvet Underground’s classic 1970 record Loaded. Hollis Brown, who are named after a Bob Dylan song, play the Garage in Winston-Salem on Aug. 3. I spoke with Mike Montali, one of the founding members and singers of the group, by phone from Queens, New York last week.
The Velvet Underground cover record came about when the band played a 2014 commemorating VU frontman and main songwriter Lou Reed, who’d died at the end of the previous year.
“We learned all of the songs for a tribute show for Lou Reed when he passed away,” says Montali. “We always thought it would be fun to do a record in full.”
It turned out to be a really good career move, too. A lot of bands work to not be known for doing covers; original material is often thought of as the way to distinguish oneself in the world of rock, which tends to prize some idealized versions of the notion of authenticity over other qualities. But it’s worth remembering that some of the greatest songwriters in rock-and-roll learned the art by playing tons and tons of cover tunes, internalizing the fundamentals of songcraft by osmosis almost. The Beatles played their legendarily long sets of other people’s hits in Hamburg before writing their own stuff. After mostly recording versions of old Chicago blues and Motown songs Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were basically locked in a room by their manager and told to write an original tune, because that was where the real money was. And Dylan’s Basement Tapes reveal the scope and depth of his soaking up of the history of American popular song as he was working on his own new material.
After that tribute show, Hollis Brown got a call from a record label interested in releasing a limited-edition recording of the album for Record Store Day. The label figured that at least the band already knew the material. So Hollis Brown headed into the studio.
“We did it all in two days — one take per song,” says Montali. The record was supposed to be a small pressing of 500 copies. But it caught people’s ears and eventually the band decided to do a digital release as well.
“It gave us some buzz in a weird way,” says Montali.
Since then the band has gotten to tour with artists like Counting Crows, the Heartless Bastards, and the Zombies. Beyond the exposure, the exercise proved meaningful as a study in songwriting. Artists know that less is more and that simplicity is a good thing. But it’s never easy to pare away excess and to avoid the temptation to display virtuosic chops, if you’ve got them. Getting inside those Velvet Underground songs drove home the point for Montali and his bandmates.
“I’d say 80 to 90 percent of it is three chords,” he says. “It’s more about style. There’s so much style behind it. If you’re saying something and you only have a couple chords, that can change the world. One of the things I learned from that Velvet Underground project was the importance of keeping it simple.”
On their original material Hollis Brown have a classic sound, with hints of the Wallflowers, the Black Crowes — bands from the ’90s that were already mining the styles of previous decades, but with a glimmer of sparkling polish. Some people like roots music to be raw and gnarly, others like it to have a little exterior gleam.
Hollis Brown can do gritty and bluesy, but they gravitate toward pretty, mid-tempo tunes, with delicate vocal harmonies and country-rock rhythms, at times sounding like Ryan Adams, Dawes, or a slightly more somber Dr. Dog. The spirit of the Band hovers over many of Hollis Brown’s recordings.
“There’s always this group of musicians that are revivalists almost,” says Montali. “There’s tons of music that’s still being made — and I guess we’re in that group — where it sounds like it could have been made anywhere between the ’60s and 2016.”
Most bands out of New York City these days are formed by musicians coming to the city to pursue a career at the heart of the industry. But Hollis Brown is a New York band, in a way. Montali started the group after playing and writing tunes in college with Jonathan Bonilla. The two had gone to high school together in Queens. The rest of the five-piece comes from other parts of the country, but the from-everywhere element is in itself a New York reality.
“The thing about growing up in New York is that you get exposed to everything — literally everything,” says Montali. “I grew up in the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the world probably.”
Part of what comes with that might be knowing when to assert yourself and when to stand back and let others do their thing. That’s as true musically as it is interpersonally. It points back to the lessons learned from studying Loaded.
“Minimalism seems to be at the forefront of a lot of different genres,” says Montali, citing hip-hop beats, EDM and pop. Montali mentions the extraordinary restraint of their drummer, Andrew Zehnal, who’s willing to recede into the background if that’s what’s called for.
“He is just an expert at putting his ego aside,” says Montali of Zehnal. “He does exactly what’s needed and no more. Even if it’s nothing — he’ll do that.”
The rest of the band is working toward on the same do-as-little-as-possible aesthetic.
“We’re a five-piece rock band with three vocal harmonies and lots of other tricks, and we can easily get carried away and put tons of shit on there. It’s almost a challenge to kind of remove yourself. It’s a discipline for the musicians to just play three chords.”
Montali alludes to the ruthless self-editing strategy of bare-bones fiction writer Raymond Carver as a goal.
“Defend the right of every note on the page,” he says, “that’s what we’re trying to do now.” !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Hollis Brown play The Garage, 110 W. 7th St., Winston-Salem, on Aug. 3. 9 p.m., the-garage.ws or call 336-777-1127.