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The five-piece band Hollis Brown may have started as a “scrappy New York outfit,” but since 2009 they’ve slowly solidified their place as one of America’s most irresistible rock collectives. With an adventurous, multi-layered sound and raw, honest lyrics, it’s no wonder they’ve collaborated with legends like Bo Diddley and attracted the attention of Rolling Stone, Spin, American Songwriter, and more.
Trust us–you need to get to one of their live shows, and if you’re in the New York area you’re in luck. Hollis Brown just began their hometown May residency at the venue Berlin, on Avenue A, where you can find them every Wednesday night. BTRtoday caught up with guitarist and lead vocalist Mike Montali, to chat about the upcoming shows and their build to success.
BTRtoday (BTR): Why don’t we start with a little music background about yourself and about how you guys all first came together?
Mike Montali (MM): Sure, I’m the guitar player in Hollis Brown and lead singer. We started in New York… Me and Jonathan Bonilla, who is the other main songwriter and guitar player in the band, we went to high school together in Queens, in New York City. We formed the group a couple years after that and started playing in 2008, but it was really just an us-in-a-garage, kind of thing. We started gigging out in 2009; playing weird clubs in New York City on like Sunday nights and no one was there, then moved to Monday and Tuesday, and eventually up to Friday, and we started bringing people out to all the shows and they started getting pretty packed.
Then we started going to Philadelphia and Washington and moving out that way. It took a while before anyone really cared about us in the industry sense. Then in 2013, that’s already three or four years into us just playing together, we signed a record contract with Alive Records and we put our debut album out called “Ride On The Train,” and it did pretty well in the indie-scene. We started going to Europe quite a bit and touring out there. So we started really locally and in the last three years especially it’s really grown a little bigger and better, and we’ve been able to travel and see the world and play music all over.
BTR: You guys did a Velvet Underground tribute too, which was awesome and did really well on the indie-scene.
MM: Yeah, it was one of our couple of Record Store Day releases; the other one we just put out this Record Store Day called “Cluster of Pearls,” which was six songs we did down in Nashville. We have two albums of original songs and a couple of Record Store Day mini releases, and now we’ve just been on tour nonstop.
BTR: At the beginning, you had a lot of different people coming in and out, but you’ve been with the same five people since January of 2014, is that right?
MM: I don’t know, it’s kind of weird. I’ve never compartmentalized it like that. We tour a lot, so the truth about musicians and touring… It’s tough to keep a group together on the road a while. There’s a big romantic kind of thing attached to being a musician and everybody thinks “Oh yeah, it’s so great you get to go everywhere.” We were just on tour with The Counting Crows and Citizen Cope for like three and a half months in America, and then we went to Europe like a week after that and did another five weeks in Europe, so we were on the road for four and a half months straight with not much breaking.
It’s a lifestyle that people think they wanna live, but when you’re actually living it, you know, the money’s not that great and the hours are crazy and you’re in a van with the same people for five to six hours a day. It’s hard to have a band, I can’t think of many that don’t have interchangeable parts. But it’s been myself and Jon, Andrew Zehnal has been our drummer for the last two and a half years, and he’s really our guy. It seems like drummers and bass players are kind of the hard ones. But Andy’s been with us and I feel like he’s the heart of the band. His drumming gives us the sound that we have, so it’s great that he’s as enthusiastic and as into the band as he is. I really think, hopefully, we’ll stick together for a while. Everybody’s so good at what they do. We have Adam Bock is a keyboard player and vocalist, he’s also another song writer. Scott Thompson is playing bass with us now and he’s another great songwriter. This is the first time in the band that we have a lot of great songwriters, because everyone can write songs instead of just playing.
BTR: With all of the great songwriters is your writing pretty collaborative? Was it for “Cluster of Pearls?”
MM: Well the songs on “Cluster of Pearls,” we recorded with Adam Landry in Nashville, and me and Jon wrote most of the songs. I think I wrote a couple of them just myself. Me and John always bounce ideas back and forth, so we are the principal songwriters on those songs, but you know how it is… When you’re with a band or with a group of artists around, it can start with me just with a vocal melody in my head, then you match some chords to it with Jon, and then we have an acoustic skeleton, then we take it to the band and we have a cool sound that we think works, then you get it to a producer and you try to produce it a little bit and get the song a certain way, and then you take the song on stage in front of different audiences all over the place and then it changes again. Songs are just constantly evolving.
BTR: So your weekly residency just started in New York! What part of it are you guys are most looking forward to?
MM: It’s kind of weird that we grew up in New York but it’s something we’ve never done before. We’ve been on the road quite a bit especially last year and even earlier this year, we toured with Jackie Green and it was great. So we have a couple months now where we’re really in album cycle, we put this “3 Shots” album out, and in album cycles there’s a certain journey as a band; you write, you record, and then you tour. Then after touring you have to get new material out. So we’ve been writing a bunch and we really want to take a chance and try to play some new songs and just set up shop and work on the band’s sound and just have fun and have our friends come out and hang out.
It’s not a really big place, so it’s kind of cool that we’ll just have people who we think are kind of our core people of support. The thing about being on the road so much is we don’t get to play New York as often as we would like. There were times when we were playing it a couple times a week for the first couple years, and now last year I think we only played like three times in the city. It’s just fun for us to get out there and stretch our legs as a band and try some fun covers and just make it exciting for the fans too, hopefully people will come out, and we have an open bar from 9-9:30 and it’s just fun. We just wanted to have a party every week and try some new songs out and hang out with whoever wants to come and hang out with us!
BTR: You have done so much touring and played so many shows, what’s one of your favorite memories from being on the road?
MM: Well for me, it was probably playing at Red Rocks. That was the most amazing thing. There’s so many things…so many things I can’t even say. But definitely Red Rocks stands out to me as the wow-factor, especially on stage where you just can’t believe what’s happening.
BTR: Red Rocks is incredible! How’s the sound from the stage?
MM: It’s amazing in Red Rocks… Honestly, I don’t even remember it, it was so great I don’t even remember what it sounded like [laughs].
BTR: So after this residency what do you guys have coming up?
MM: Yeah, it’s every Wednesday in May in New York at a place called Berlin which is 25 Avenue A in the city, it’s every Wednesday so the fourth, the 11th, the 18th, and 25th, and then we’re playing Firefly Music Festival in June!