The Holland Brothers are working well together. The end of their longtime popular roots rock act, Jennyanykind, is several months behind them and they are concentrating on details for a new release in 2013. They have been gigging as soloist for the last few years so leaving their old roots band behind is merely cursory. Ahead of them lie more solo gigs, but also something new: a record, tentatively titled Dueling Devils. This is designed to help showcase both their solo acts, and also their duo the Holland Bros. I caught-up with Mark over-the-phone at his home in Pittsboro, NC.
Why did Jennyanykind decide to call it quits?
The main thing is that we weren’t playing live anymore and neither one of us had any interest in writing more songs for the band. Both Mike and I got into a solo gigging thing that pays well and offered more flexibility and ease of travel. Michael’s guitar and vocal style have changed, too, and it took a lot for us to perform as Jennyanykind, doing those songs. Whatever we do in life, we both want it to be fun and easy and it wasn’t either one anymore.
Who brought it up first?
We both did, really. We did a show in SC this year and afterwards it was obvious it was the last one. It was a mutual decision and it felt good to both of us. We will still continue to do a lot of solo shows because they are easy to do. The duo is going to perform on special occasions. Tom, our friend and bassist, is performing with a great act called the Radials, so he hasn’t missed it either.
Both of you have done a lot of solo shows around the Carolinas region. How did that come about? What is different when playing as a duo?
Money has been the main motivator. As a solo, you maximize everything in your favor. Artistically, it is also a plus because you can try different stuff all the time without having to worry about a partner or band. I have done so many solo shows now I cannot remember exactly when it all started. I had a duo with Peter Waggoner called Applesauce and I think I began going it alone when we broke up. And, here I am again in a new duo with Mike! (laughs) But things are different with the Holland Bros. We only do it for special occasions. Our solo stuff will remain our main gigs. The record we are working on is designed to work for both the duo and solo acts.
The record is very minimalistic. You told me that the recording reflects your live set. What are some of your influences? What is a favorite cover?
I am not a fan of muscle blues. There are some songs in that vein that I like, but I am not out looking to give or get blues power ala SRV or Anders Osborne. I want my writing and song choices to reflect early blues, or blues with a direct line to the Delta style or country-blues. Charlie Patton is my all-time favorite. I love Howlin Wolf, too, and he learned from Patton. Hooker is a hero of mine and I do a lot of boogie at times. I also love Jimmy Reed and that has a lot to do with my harp playing. Skip James is another….so original. I walk around my house practicing falsetto all the time.
What about your brother?
While I play mainly slide, Mike plays a 3-finger ragtime style that is closer to Piedmont blues. He loves Charlie Poole, Doc Watson, etc. The guitar he plays is a 12-string that used to belong to Guitar Gabriel.
As writers, when you have a song idea, how do you make it sound fresh, especially when writing blues or folk? I listened to your NPR interview and Frank Stasio commented that he thought you always sounded fresh with your songs.
I am not sure what Mike does. I really don’t know his writing process, but it is probably similar to mine. I think, in those genres, you have to allow the lyrics to keep the song going. When I write a blues in I-IV-V, the lyrics will have to propel the music forward. For instance, if I write, “Graves in the church-yard, bones underneath the stones. Graves in the church-yard, bones underneath the stones. I got to keep on movin’, if I stop I’ll soon be gone”, you have learned a lot in 2 distinct lines. You know you have a narrator with a worried mind, rambling to avoid death. The beauty of Patton, lyrically, is that his verses never matched-up. They were never linear. Each verse was its own entity and that is how I go about it. It gives you more freedom to use lyrics to set the tone, mood, atmosphere, etc. So, the next verse written for this song could speak to a totally different thing: “I took a shovel, dug myself a hole. I took a shovel, dug myself a hole. When the rain started falling, went and hid my soul.” It still conveys the mood of the song, but it has nothing to do with the first verse.
What are your goals for 2013 and what can we expect from the Holland Bros. next year?
I would like to take the blues art form to another level for me. I would like to improve on my songwriting so that I keep with some tradition but couple it with originality. There are also things that I would like to improve in my playing. I have made great strides as a guitar soloist. When I play electric or acoustic, I like to keep my sound in the past. I want to mimic guys like Hubert Sumlin or even the Wolf’s playing. Charlie Patton’s acoustic playing is something majestic, and I would like to incorporate more characteristics of his playing into mine, especially working an acoustic slide. On harp, I have been trying to improve my tone and throat vibrato. I play with the harp in a rack so gaining either is a tough challenge. But, I am getting better at it. As far as Mike and I playing together as a duo, that will happen occasionally. Playing solo across the region and nation at times, will remain my bread and butter.
You mentioned earlier, before we started, that Mike and you have been playing with the Music Maker artist Ironing Board Sam at a weekly gig in Chapel Hill. What has that been like?
It has been a dream gig. It's at a place on Franklin St. called the Crunkleton. The owner, Gary, is a big supporter of blues and r&b and a big fan of our music. Sam will show-up and play for a while by himself and then our blues combo, the Bright Mines, will join him for a short while, usually 30 to 45 minutes. I am on electric guitar, Mike is on bass and Marvin Levi is on the drums. Mike and I will do backing vocals as well. It’s really amazing to play with him. He is 73 years old. Doesn’t look like it or act like it. One of the best performers I have seen and playing guitar behind him is like going to school each week.