It’s not a tour, exactly. But these days, it’s about as close as you can get.
The Queens, N.Y.-based band Hollis Brown will go on the road for two — count ’em, two — shows in a row, performing for socially distanced crowds at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., April 9 at 8 p.m., and the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, April 10 at 7:30 p.m. Both shows will be live streamed as well; visit st94.com or mayoarts.org.
The show will feature The Rolling Stones 1966 album Aftermath (featuring songs such as “Paint It Black,” “Under My Thumb” and “Lady Jane”) in its entirety, as well as Hollis Brown’s original songs. In February, when the band — whose name is derived from the Bob Dylan song “Ballad of Hollis Brown” — performed at The Vogel at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, it did the same with a different album: The Velvet Underground’s Loaded.
I talked recently to frontman Mike Montali:
Q: There isn’t much opportunity now to see live music in New Jersey, so I’m glad you’re out there still doing stuff.
A: Yeah, it’s been a strange and wild ride these days, but we’re doing the best we can.
Q: Do you just feel it’s important to keep on going out there, playing in some form, even if it’s just small shows?
A: We’ve been playing outdoors; we haven’t been doing that much indoor stuff. But yeah, I think it’s important to play. It’s therapeutic for me, speaking selfishly (laughs), and for the band, I think. And it’s hopefully it’s therapeutic for people in the audiences. Hopefully it’s just sending good vibes to anybody who wants to have ’em, at this time. I think it’s important to, also, find a way to do it the right way, these days. I think it’s important for a band like us to be not just playing, but making sure it’s in a responsible way, and that everything is socially distant and all that, because you don’t want to be having people out there doing this the wrong way, and making things worse.
Q: What was it like for you playing at The Vogel? Did it feel different from a pre-pandemic show?
A: The thing about our band is, we have been put in front of so many … we’ve played every shithole bar to some of the biggest venues and prestigious places on the planet. So we’re kind of used to playing all types of gigs. I think we were more happy just to be able to be playing on kind of a big stage, with good sound, and with an audience there were who into it. We didn’t really think too much about the potential strangeness involved, in terms of people wearing masks. Looking at a crowd wearing masks: It’s not what you picture when you start a band, when you’re 17, 18 years old. So we’re persevering, and if that’s the only way we can be on that stage, then that’s what we gotta do.
Q: Have you been vaccinated yet?
A: I’m fully vaccinated, yeah.
Q: So have you been doing a lot of songwriting or recording, in these months? Have you been trying to make good use of the time?
A: Yeah, absolutely. In 2020, we were gonna be on tour all year, promoting our record from 2019 (Ozone Park), headlining in Europe and America. But when that got scrapped we pivoted, and it gave us an opportunity to write material for a new record. So we wrote a whole new record and demoed all the stuff. We also recorded this tribute record, for Aftermath, for a small release, maybe a Record Store Day release or who knows what.
We’re working out how and when to release new music. So, yeah, we just did a bunch of recording and a bunch of writing, and we did some live streams and some backyard gigs. We, compared to most, stayed pretty busy, and tried to just make the best use of the time.
Q: I imagine when people start doing regular shows again, you’re also going to see an explosion of new music, because everybody’s been working on new music but waiting to put it out until they can tour again.
A: Yeah, that’s kind of the boat we’re in, too, where it’s like, we could just release some stuff, but without the touring, especially for a live band like us … we’re not 23-year-old YouTube stars, we’re a working, touring live band. So the live component has always been important to us, and very important to our releases. So we’re trying to figure it out, like everybody else.
Q: So, regarding Aftermath … why that album? What is it about that album that drew you to it?
A: Well, we did a tribute album for the Velvet Underground, a few years back. We did the Loaded album, for Record Store Day. And we’ve kind of always said we were going to do this once every few years, or every once in a while: Just kind of re-create the records that influenced or inspired us when we first got together in Jon’s (guitarist Jon Bonilla) dad’s garage, and started writing songs and trying to play together. And some of those records were the Loaded record, Ziggy Stardust, this early Frank Zappa record, and the Aftermath record by the Stones. …
It’s just a record that really influenced us and inspired us when we first started getting together and learning how to write songs, and trying to figure out what kind of band we wanted to be. Hopefully it will be in a series, at some point, of other albums. But it’s just a record that we loved, and we had this time on our hands and we’re like, “Well, what can we do?” “Let’s learn these songs and get in the studio for a couple of days and record ’em, like we did the Velvet Underground one.”
Q: Thinking about Loaded vs. Aftermath … I think of the Velvet Underground as an album band, because their singles weren’t hit singles, so you learned the music by listening to the albums. Whereas the Stones, for me at least, I know all the singles, but I haven’t listened to all of the albums as albums. So, for me, it’s a fresh experience to listen to an album like Aftermath in its entirety, because I don’t know all of the songs well.
A: Yeah, that’s something that we thought of, because Aftermath in particular has “Paint It Black” and “Under My Thumb” but we didn’t want to sound like a karaoke band doing one of the records that has six songs like those. So we chose Aftermath because it’s one of the early ones and there’s a lot of little gems on there that a lot of people don’t even know, and that the Stones haven’t played live since the ’60s. And there are a lot of bluesy, raw … it kind of turned us on, in that regard. Like, “Hey, we can do 10 of these songs, and nobody’s ever heard these songs” — in terms of a mass population. Obviously, it’s a massive record and an important record. So doing the Stones was tricky, in that way, and that’s why we didn’t want to do, you know, 40 Licks — the big hits. We chose this one, which has a lot of great back wall material.
Q: I assume you’ll be doing the U.S. version (of Aftermath), not the British version.
A: Yeah. You know, we haven’t done it too much, so it’s kind of a unique show for us. We’re kind of excited about it. We’ll play the album from top to bottom, then we’ll do a set of original music as well.
Q: You mentioned a Zappa album before. Which album was that?
A: Freak Out!. That’s a good one. It’s weird, going back now. I’m 36 now. From being 22 and getting stoned and listening to those records, to hearing them where I am now, it’s interesting, you know. Albums evolve as you get older and look back.
Q: Will the material on the next original album you’re working on reflect the experiences that everyone has been going through, in the pandemic?
A: I think it will, in some ways. We’re definitely writing more aggressive music. Kind of harder rock music. I don’t know if that has to do with the anxieties and the fears of “What are you going to do for money?” and having to be home in the same apartment for six months. Maybe that comes out, subconsciously. I personally wanted to stay away from the pandemic-rock that we’re going to hear: A million songs coming out about loneliness and isolation and disease. I think there’s going to be enough of that written and created by other people during this time. So we’re just trying to stay more in the bluesy, American rock genre, with a little bit of positivity and a little bit of sexuality, but definitely, I would say … the music, more than the lyrics, there’s a little more angst and a little more edge than some of the other stuff we’ve done. It’s more rocking and a little more fierce. Maybe that comes from being home and wanting to get out.
Q: And the dread of not knowing if you, or someone you love, is going to get the disease. There’s a lot of free-floating dread in the air.
A: Absolutely. Especially … I live in Queens, so that was a very intense time for a while there. We all know people who have gotten COVID — and have died from COVID, even. Stuff like that. So it was an intense period in our history as humans, literally a plague that we lived through. But as I said, I’m sure a lot of other singer-songwriters will be dealing with it lyrically. We wanted to keep it a little more positive: a “let’s get back” kind of thing.
That’s kind of our outlook on it, and that’s what we’re trying to spearhead, doing live music and doing these shows. We don’t want to get in this rut that we can’t get out of. Let’s try to get back and find some type of way to enjoy music and art and entertainment, and get out there.
For more on Hollis Brown, visit hollisbrown.com. Here are the songs from the United States edition of “Aftermath”:
“Paint It Black”
“Under My Thumb”
“Doncha Bother Me”
“High and Dry”
“It’s Not Easy”
“I Am Waiting”
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