“It’s better than Mr. Tambourine man, right?” Hollis Brown guitarist and co-founder Mike Montali quips about the name of his five-piece, New York-based band that is starting to get an international buzz.
Keyboardist Adam Bock, though, gets to the heart of how the band got its name: “We all love Bob Dylan’s music and thought we could take a page from the Rolling Stones and name our band after one of our favorite songwriters’ work. ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ doesn’t contain anything that we wanted to reference specifically. It’s just an incredibly well-written song. It allows us to reference Dylan without being too obvious, and [it] has a nice ring to it.”
Hollis Brown, which opened for Counting Crows in Oklahoma City last night (Oct. 11), released its most recent album in May – the highly acclaimed 3 Shots – and now heads to Europe for live dates in 27 cities.
3 Shots ”is a bit more mature,” says Montali while comparing the release to the band’s 2013 indie album Ride on the Train and last year’s Hollis Brown Gets Loaded. “It’s a weird time in society. This record touches on a lot of important things that are going on – issues that people seem to care about, like gun control, racism, redefining gender roles, the excess of fame and celebrity. It’s a very social time, and I wanted to reflect that in the different characters on the album and their stories.”
Bassist Dillon Devito calls the new effort “a much more refined album” than Ride on the Train. “Especially when it comes to production,” he says. “Ride on the Train was live and straight to tape, giving it a very raw and almost garage sound. We wanted 3 Shots to be more radio-ready.”
The band’s aims “are pretty simple,” adds drummer Andrew Zehnal. “Just make good, rocking, honest music. We want the audience to be able to relate to us, so we try to use pertinent and viable subject matter. Couple that with good melodies, harmonies, and groove, and that’s basically the formula.”
Last year’s Hollis Brown Gets Loaded covered the Velvet Underground’s 1970 tour de force Loaded.
“Loaded was one of the first records that [guitarist] Jon [Bonilla] and I bonded on when we started this group,” explains Montali. “We wanted to do something fun while we were between writing and recording 3 Shots, and we performed the record at a Lou Reed benefit show in New York City. Hollis Brown Gets Loaded kind of just happened – it wasn’t the most intentional thing.”
When it comes to live shows that have influenced Hollis Brown, Zehnal says he has attended many great concerts, but one that really stands out was a Jane’s Addiction set at the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991. “I just really like that band, and that was their prime.”
But it was a jam session by Wynton Marsalis at the Dell in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid-1990s that he calls the most influential concert he has seen.
“Wynton Marsalis was in town doing his Blood on the Fields tour and [he] blew me away,” says Zehnal, about Marsalis’s jazz oratorio that won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “It was an intimate, tiny club experience. Marsalis and his band played all night long, and I was right up front. They were so versatile that it made me really want to get serious about playing music. It was one of those magical musical experiences.”
Frontman Montali says it’s difficult to choose the best show he has seen. “My first arena concert was AC/DC at Madison Square Garden when I was a kid, and it blew my mind,” he remembers. “My favorite concert was probably the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the PNC Bank Arts Center [in Holmdel, New Jersey]. It was the perfect blend of how a live band can be spontaneous but also have a reverence for songwriting. Plus, the energy and stage presence were through the roof.”
Montali adds that it was a Symphony Metallica concert that was most influential for him. “It’s weird, but I can remember it vividly,” he says. “I went to see Symphony Metallica at Madison Square Garden when I was a kid, and I was way up in the boondocks seats. Kirk Hammett [Metallica’s lead guitarist and songwriter] pointed up, and I swear he was pointing right at me, which obviously he wasn’t. And, I thought, this is what I have to do.”
The Symphony Metallica show “showed me there can be a greater connection,” Montali says. “It was a spiritual thing – there were 20,000 people, and we were all on the same wavelength.”
For Bock, a Punch Brothers show last year at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on New Year’s Eve was the best concert he has seen. “They’re just so, so good,” he marvels. “The band has everything: fantastic harmony, great songs, outstanding ensemble and solo playing. Plus, it was an acoustic show – in a venue that’s large enough to feel like you’re at a big show but not so huge that you feel disconnected – on a night when everyone is excited to be there and having a great time. It’s basically everything I want out of music.”
But the show that influenced him the most may be a surprise for Hollis Brown fans.“This is probably a pretty odd response,” Bock says, “but the most influential was seeing my first Ambassadors of Harmony Christmas concert.”
The Ambassadors of Harmony is a St. Louis-based men’s a cappella chorus of more than 160 voices. Its repertoire includes Broadway classics, barbershop, jazz, pop, and holiday songs.
“It was the first time I heard barbershop harmony live – choruses and quartets. Being involved with barbershop has had a huge impact on the way I hear, write, arrange, and perform music, and I’m very lucky to have grown up near such a great group of guys.”
Bassist Dillon Devito adds that “a very big influence” was a Strokes concert at the Agora in Cleveland in April 2006. “I was a freshman in high school and was just floored by them,” he recalls. “They embodied everything cool in rock and roll. After watching them, I remember thinking that I wanted that to be me up there. I also remember it being the first time a light show really affected a show for me. It brought it to the next level.”
Devito says ‘the most prolific concert” he has watched was Willie Nelson’s show at his ranch outside Austin this past March, during South by Southwest.
“It was so great because he really seemed to be an ambassador of peace,” Devito says. “Not only is he still an amazing performer in his old age, but he had this amazing ability to seem to unite everyone together. It was magical.”