Hollis Brown lead singer/guitarist Mike Montali talks about the Americana band’s new album as well as comments on the current state of songwriting and the albums that helped shape his own craft.
Hollis Brown released 3 Shots, its first album on boutique indie label Jullian Records, in May. Founded in 2009 and named after Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown,” the band released its first album – Ride On The Train – 2013. Last year saw the release of Hollis Brown Gets Loaded, which features the group performing tracks from the Velvet Underground’s 1970 Loaded LP.
Along with Montali and lead guitarist Jonathan Bonilla, Hollis Brown also includes Dillon Devito (bass/vocals), Andrew Zehnal (drums) and Adam Bock (keyboard/vocals).
Montali not only talked with Pollstar about 3 Shots but he also delved into the band’s upcoming tour with Counting Crows, how he and bandmate Bonilla are “scholars of the history of music and songwriting” and that someday he hopes to be sitting “on a beach doing nothing.” Of course, he was just joking about the beach … we think.
With two musicians from Queens, N.Y., plus two members from Ohio and one from Missouri, does the band have a hometown?
We all live in New York now. That’s where I grew up. That’s where we started the group. It’s strange because when you say you live in New York, everybody pins you with the Brooklyn scene. I dunno if we really have a home in that world. We say we’re from Queens because it separates us from every other band that says they’re from New York.
Do you think 3 Shots is the best album a new listener should check out to get acquainted with Hollis Brown?
I’d say “yes” to that. It’s definitely the way to get introduced to our sound. I think it has the most depth and the best production out of everything we’ve ever done. Don Dilego produced our record. It’s definitely the most produced whereas Ride On The Train, our first record, was our introduction to the music world. It’s a little more … garage rock, indie. We were recorded live right to tape, no digital, no anything. .. It’s how we sounded live and raw. A lot of bands that come out release all these crap, bullshit, like, sterile recordings because they think they need to make a radio sound. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to introduce ourselves, how we sounded and how we played.
The new record, I think, is a little more of an upgrade to the sound we started withRide On The Train. It’s got a little more depth and we tried to up the production a little bit. I’d hope people will start with the record we just made because it’s new and then go back and see where we came from.
Do you think the band’s sound has evolved over the past albums?
It’s something that we’re intentionally doing. We don’t want to make the same record all the time. … It still has that cohesive feel because it’s the same people writing the music, singing and playing it. So it’s still going to have our imprint as people and how we perform naturally. But we definitely want to constantly change the sound that we have. Hopefully the next record we’ll get to change and do something new again and constantly try to push the boundary and … evolve. A lot of bands … like AC/DC … can keep that one sound for 50 years. For us, I don’t think it’s going to work that way.
So Ride On The Train depicts where the band was at that moment while playing gigs night after night?
It was all done live. All the vocals were done live. Adam Landry was our producer for that one. He has a house down in Nashville. We went down there and pretty much shacked up for 10 days. He has this cool studio in his backyard, kind of an actual garage/barn. We went right to tape. We just wanted to make a record that we felt would be like the records we loved growing up – Creedence Clearwater Revival and Rolling Stones records. You can hear the bleed in the microphones and feel that it is a special moment that’s being put down to tape, like all of those Neil Young records. We wanted to do that with Ride On The Train and Adam was the perfect guy to do it for us.
The Gets Loaded record was a whirlwind thing. We did this Lou Reed benefit show in New York after he passed away and we did the whole Loaded record live … It was really good and got written up in Rolling Stone. We got a call from the record label that put out Ride On The Train … they said, “We have Record Store Day coming up and it would be cool to keep your name out there. If you guys already know the record, go in and record it live.”
So we did that. We recorded … like 10 songs in two days with Don Dilego in his house in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. We put it out not really thinking anything of it. Just 500 copies for Record Store Day and it sold out pretty quick. Now, every time we play a show, everyone is calling out a Velvet Underground song to play. We didn’t really expect it to have the reaction it did.
When it was time to make an original record, we thought Don was the right guy so we went back to the Poconos. We wanted it to have a little more texture and substance and mature a little sonically. That’s where 3 Shots comes from.
How much planning transpires before you even roll tape on an album like 3 Shots?
It took a while to [finish]. Since Ride On The Train we’ve been working on writing tunes and flushing them out. John and I will sit down and write a song on acoustic [guitars] and get it demoed to where we can bring it to the band. Then we had something crazy, like 50 songs, and brought them to the band, saying, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” … A few were cut and we were down to 20 songs.
We had been touring nonstop, Europe, etc. … just flushing out tunes. Then we set aside … two months where we sat down with Don and we did a little pre-production. We had the songs how we wanted to play them and then it changes again when you get a producer. It’s kind of like five stages. It starts in my head, or with me and John or however the song is being written. Then we take it to the band and it changes again. Not necessarily lyrics or melody but the way we’re going to present it. It changes again when you get the producer involved. Then it changes again when you get into the studio and figure out what you can accomplish. Then it changes when you’re mixing it. It’s constantly evolving.
How much time might transpire between writing a song and hearing the playback of the first studio recording?
It’s different for every song. Our goal is to be back in the studio in January and February and recording another record. Some of the songs on Ride On The Train, me and John wrote when we were first writing songs together. Some songs have taken five or six years to be recorded. Some songs … we wrote a couple of weeks before the recording sessions. With us it’s not like there’s a set time. It’s when it feels right and when the songs mix and feel right together. … I hope that if I write a song today it will be out next year. It all depends … on the vibe we’re trying to create with the group of songs we choose to record. We were picking out songs for this record, 3 Shots, [including] songs John and I had written when we were freshmen in college. We had a mutual friend that said, “Man, I really like that song you guys wrote. What ever happened to it? You should bring that one back. That one is going to be a really good one if you finish it.” So we sat down again, came up with a new angle to arrange it, sonically. A new topic to discuss, lyrically. It was constantly evolving.
Did you ever look to other songwriting teams for examples on how to create music?
Oh, yeah. We’re both big scholars of the history of music and songwriting. We want to continue the lineage of great American songwriting. I feel that there is a void of that in the music world today. I think it’s like dumbed down bullshit pop that companies are trying to push out to meet a quota.
You go on the road and meet a lot of people who want to be songwriters but they don’t know the history. You mention Lou Reed and stuff, Simon & Garfunkel, and they don’t really know what they’re trying to do came from. I think there’s a big void in popular music in that. I think it’s dangerous because pretty soon people will think Paul McCartney is a new guy who appeared on a Kanye West song.
Do you think the band’s affinity for performing Lou Reed’s songs came about from being from New York?
I dunno. Probably from coming from New York. I know when Jon and I first started listening to music together, there was a handful of records we felt a vibe with collectively. One of them was Loaded, another was Ziggy Stardust, another was Freak Out, the Frank Zappa record. Obviously The Beatles. [The Rolling Stones’] Exile On Main Street was my favorite album. Coming from New York definitely plays a part in being able to identify with what Lou Reed was trying to say in his music. … And it kind of happened by accident, that Get Loaded thing. It wasn’t something we planned. … But I’m glad we did. It’s weird. Some people [think of 3 Shots] as our third album but to me it’s our second album.
Was it always guitar for you?
Probably vocals. I love vocals. I love bands that can really sing. The guitar was the way for me to get out the song. It always starts on the acoustic guitar for me. Or maybe piano and then I transfer it to guitar. I can’t get around the piano as well as I get around the guitar. I’ll be playing piano and I’ll have a verse and a melody. Then, when I want to … put in a bridge or change the key, do this or that to it, I can’t really work it out on the piano so I always move to guitar.
I’d say it’s guitar first, in terms of an instrument. But I always loved vocals and that’s something we’re starting to do with this band, now, that I am really excited about. I think it’s a direction we’ll probably move toward, more so, really nice, pristine, really great vocals, like The Beach Boys, Eagles, and stuff like that, those great singing bands. We want to up our game. We have great players and we, finally now, have great singers who can … go in that direction.
Hollis Brown has been described as an alt-country band, a roots-rock band, an Americana band. How do you feel about labels?
I don’t like them. I don’t really care how they describe us as long as they describe us as a great band. You can put us in whatever bubble you want as long the bubble is positive. I think [labels] are … in a weird way, about a demographic base. It’s like, “We need to cater to our audience who is mostly a fan of … this, or we’ll describe it as … this so we’ll get to our people and they’ll give it a shot.” It could be alternative, folk, blues … It’s really just an American sound.
But when you’re writing with Jonathan, are you imagining the songs getting radio airplay and which acts would play before and after your songs? In other words, where your songs might fit in?
Certainly not in the initial phase of songwriting where we’re trying to get our ideas across and get our feelings out, the energy that we’re feeling at the moment. But I think as it goes on and evolves, when we start recording, that does come into play. We want to be able to contend when you hear us on the radio.
Along the same line, on what kind of radio stations do you see your songs getting played? Country? Americana?
I try not to think about those things. … I just try to create and let the chips fall where they fall. We want to be the biggest thing in the world … playing stadiums … and be on every pop radio station, rock radio station, whatever. We want to be out there and have the [largest] amount of people hearing it and liking it.
When some of the songwriters you mentioned – Lou Reed or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – were just beginning their careers, there were limited outlets for their music – live shows, radio and some TV shows. But now it seems as if a young band might first get airplay on an Americana station or an alt-county station and only reach a small fraction of the total music audience.
I think it’s become where there are so many genres that, when you’re first starting out, you get thrown into a certain niche. Then the cream of the crop in that genre have a chance of spilling over into the pop world, into mass access. Even if you’re an indie hip hop guy, if you get to the top of the hip hop genre, you get a chance to reach a big audience. Or country, rock ’n’ roll or R&B. It’s your little niche, your little genre that you position yourself in. You got to ride to the top in that world, almost, and then you have a chance of being heard by more people.
3 Shots is the band’s first album on Jullian Records. What does this label bring to the table that was absent on your previous recordings?
Jullian Records [gave us] the chance to make the album we wanted. They’re basically a boutique label out of New York City. The deal was “You guys can make the album you desire. We won’t interfere with any song selection, production, mixing, artwork, anything. You have 100 percent creativity.”
They also gave us the opportunity to hire everybody we wanted on the team from P.R. to whomever is doing radio … We were able to choose anyone we wanted to work with. They’re very artist friendly and they put the ball in our court in moving our career in the way we wanted to go, not in the way that might sell the most records. We want to elevate our game in our own way.
How did you land on the Counting Crows tour?
Adam Duritz and Ryan Spaulding, who runs a blog called “Ryan’s Smashing Life” out of Boston, did something called The Outlaw Road Show twice a year – once during CMJ and during SXSW. We got invited to play the one in New York during CMJ. We headlined it and it was a really great night. Duritz was in the front row during the entire set and was really digging it. We just played our asses off and got to hang out with [Duritz] for a couple of days. We became friends and started sending each other music. “I wrote this song. I really want you to hear it.” Kind of kept in touch. Then we got the offer [for the tour].
Duritz likes to mix it up and not play the same set every night. Do you and your Hollis Brown bandmates like to switch gears in the middle of the show and perhaps play off of the vibe of the room instead of follow a pre-ordained plan?
We played a show where we didn’t write a setlist out. We just shouted it out, how we felt. That was couple of days ago in Columbus at a place called Double Happiness. We said, “Let’s get up there and feel the mood of the room. Bring it down when we feel we need to and crank it up when [feel it].
Jon has that, it’s not really jazz, but his style of guitar playing is different with every solo. He doesn’t really like solos and repeating them every single night. Our drummer, Andrew, is a jazz drummer originally. If you see us night to night, even if it’s the same song, it won’t necessarily sound the same.
Did you enjoy making it up as you went along in Columbus?
It was pretty cool. Sometimes it gets a little … it’s like organized confusion. But it’s cool. It lets you grow, too.
Where do you hope to be five years from now?
On a beach doing nothing.
With a few hit albums under your belt?
Exactly. Able to not be on the road all year. Five years from now we want to be making the best record of our career up until then, playing the biggest tours we can and playing for the most people. We want to be more and more successful and reach more and more people and not have to sell out. We want to do it our way. I think bands like Jack White and The Black Keys, those are the type of bands I respect most. They’re creating their sound their way and they’re playing stadiums and doing it their way. That’s where we want to be.