The name of the band Hollis Brown comes out of the golden age of the protest song: It’s taken from “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” from Bob Dylan’s 1964 album, The Times They Are a Changin’ — a fictional but politically charged song in which extreme poverty leads to insanity and violence on a South Dakota farm.
The Queens, N.Y.-based indie roots-rock band Hollis Brown does not make protest music, per se. But there is an element of it in their songwriting.
“The last record that we put out, 3 Shots, was a very socially conscious record,” says singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Montali. “It just wasn’t overtly that way. That song alone (‘3 Shots’) can be taken politically: It’s about violence in America, and how this is the first time in history where you can go to a movie theater and watch a movie, and you might get killed.
“3 Shots has a lot of these things. ‘Cathedral’ is like a prayer, and ‘Death of an Actress’ is a song about Hollywood excess, and how a lot of these actresses and people in general are overdosing, and there’s a big drug epidemic in this country. So I prefer to explore the political side of socially conscious stuff that way, as opposed to releasing a song that’s like, ‘Fuck this’ or ‘Fuck that.’ ”
Hollis Brown will perform at the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival in Tappan, N.Y., June 24 at 1:50 p.m. (The festival itself runs from the night of June 23 to the night of June 25). It will be an acoustic set, featuring Montali, guitarist Jon Bonilla and keyboardist Adam Bock. (Drummer Andrew Zehnal and bassist Brian Courage will have the day off.)
“When you play so often, sometimes it’s nice to switch it up and hear the songs in a different style, or a variation you might not otherwise get a chance to do,” says Montali.
“I was just talking to somebody about this: The songs … you can dress them up in all different kinds of ways, depending on how you want to produce them. You can make a song happen on an acoustic guitar or a piano, or you can do it with a funk band, or a rock band, or a dance band, or an electronic thing. But the thing that needs to shine through is the song. So sometimes it’s fun to try to reimagine the songs a different way. Getting a chance to play acoustic can do that, sometimes.”
Hollis Brown has played some big festivals recently, including the Tom Petty-headlined Mountain Jam at the Hunter Mountain ski resort in upstate New York. Montali, though not referring specifically to Mountain Jam (which hadn’t even happened at the time of this interview), says that at bigger festivals in general, “oftentimes it’s a little sterile.”
Smaller events such as the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival, he says, “are really cool because it’s more of a family thing, and people are all really nice, and want to have a good time, and they’re also really fans of music, just like me. So, it’s important that we have these kinds of things.”
The band’s latest single, “Run Right to You” (see video below), is a bracing garage-rock song, and has been honored with the Coolest Song in the World designation by Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage radio network.
“You know, we’ve put out two albums of original songs, and we’ve really elevated our band to a certain place where we’re receiving pretty good recognition,” says Montali. “But that single seemed to get more traction than our whole albums have.
“I don’t know whether that’s because of the modern music industry, or how people are digesting music today, but it seems like putting singles out is an idea we’re flirting with, while we’re building and building and building to where we have enough material for an album. It’s a strange climate in the music industry: There’s no rhyme or reason for how people release things. Some of the biggest artists in the world will drop an unannounced album at midnight.
“So, we’re definitely planning for a release (of an album), but we’re still discussing the best way to release (the songs). But we’re always writing and recording.”