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Interview: The Hollows discuss new EP, songwriting, and swapping instruments

by Elise Yablon

New York folk-rock band The Hollows has a unique sound to their music. Made up of Jeffrey Kurtze (basses), Daniel Kwiatkowski (banjo, guitars, vocals), Rob Morrison (mandolin, guitars, vocals), David Paarlberg (keys, guitar, accordion, trumpet, vocals), Erik Saxvik (guitar, keys, vocals), and Justin Aaronson (drums, percussion, vocals), the band’s music finds inspiration in genres as diverse as alternative, bluegrass, folk, and soul.

As interesting as their sound is their live show. Not having one lead singer in particular, the six-piece band switches vocalists, as well as instruments, with every song.

After releasing their debut full length, Belong to the Land, in August of 2011, The Hollows have had a lot of success. The band was named Deli Magazine’s “Artist of the Month” for August 2011, was a Time Out New York critic’s pick, and played the 2011 CMJ Festival.

The Hollows will be releasing their new, self-titled EP on June 26th. In February, the band released a video for their song “Poor Eyes,” off of their full length.

I had the chance to correspond with the band through email to discuss the band’s origins, their sound, the new EP and music video, and swapping instruments during their live show.

How did the band form?

Jeff: I think the best part about how The Hollows came to be is that we didn’t begin with any intentions of starting a band.

Dan: It was mostly a product of a bunch of friends who knew each other for a long time and all played music on various levels but never as a group.

Jeff: Since our college days, DK [Dan], Erik, Dave, and I would gather with friends and instruments and we would just play music into the night. We simply liked hanging out and playing music. When Rob and DK met, the same pattern repeated itself.

Rob: I met DK doing a production of Big River at Goodspeed Opera House — we were both actors in the show. We made a ton of music during our three month stint together. Around the time we got back to New York, the two of us began playing folk music at a kosher steakhouse in Manhattan. (The restaurant erroneously referred to us as “The Rob Morrison Folk Duo.” A little odd to name a duo after one member, wouldn’t you say?) DK had introduced me to Erik, Jeff, and Dave by this point, and our weekly work sessions were becoming the highlight of my creative life.

Dan: Eventually a few of us started meeting regularly, and then more of us did, and before we knew it we had a few gigs.

Jeff: We started crafting and shaping our own songs, and sharing and teaching and learning what the other person had going on inside his head.

Dan: And the more we did it, the more we thought that it was a worthwhile endeavor because we could feel and see the music growing.

Rob: It wasn’t long before we began booking more shows, writing more songs, and finally recording the LP. For 80% of our live shows, we had no drummer. This finally changed when Justin joined us as permanent drummer, starting with our CMJ showcase last October.

Jeff: Now we have a full-length album for sale, an EP about to be released, and we’re talking about Album Two with no end in sight. A lot can happen when all you want to do is play music.

What is the songwriting process like?

Rob: Each song is different. For me, as an individual writer, sometimes songs come out of the ether as a fully-formed beast (“Sycamore”), and others I really have to work at for a while (“Mad as Dogs”). From the EP, the song “August” came to me in pretty much one sitting, which is always refreshing. But the group songwriting process is much more complex. With the exception of one or two pieces, most of our songs are written by an individual songwriter, and then brought into the Hollows laboratory for full-band assemblage.

Erik: For me, I generally noodle around on the guitar until I find a riff that I like. Then, I usually write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness fashion with a central theme in mind… usually three times as many stanzas as will be necessary for a realized song. After that, it’s all about judicious editing to eliminate everything that isn’t essential to the momentum of the tune. As far as the orchestration is concerned, that’s a group effort that usually takes more time than any other stage of the songwriting process.

Dan: Because everyone is a songwriter in one form or another, it can be tricky. Lyrically, it’s usually one person writing the lyrics for any given song, or even coming up with a chord structure, but after that the band as a whole begins to pick it apart. It’s a process that is fairly unpredictable.

Rob: Sometimes the writer knows exactly what he wants from the other members, and other times the picture isn’t so distinct at first. The process is always unique. It can be frustrating pulling something from nothing, but we try to take our time and not put too much pressure on finding an end-product, at least not right away.

Dave: Every new idea receives consideration. There can be a certain letting go of what the song “should” sound like… generally the original songwriter serves as a sort of filter or sounding board for everyone to bounce ideas off, and his judgment usually carries the most weight, but even that varies from tune to tune. Sometimes an idea that works in your head just doesn’t work the same way in practice, or sometimes the majority of the band will say, “Hey man, I know you really think it should sound like this, but what if we try this at least once?”

Erik: We try to work as a bona fide ensemble, leaving no man behind… also leaving no man out of the collaborative process; of helping to make a song blossom.

Dave: We try to say yes to everything (at least initially), or “yes and” each other, which I think is a phrase with roots in improv theatre, essentially meaning “accept what someone gives you, and give them something back that adds to or builds on that gift.”

Dan: Some songs come together after two rehearsals and others take months.

Rob: The song “Josephine” took barely two weeks to work out, and was a brand new song when we recorded it for Belong to the Land. “Jepson Creek” from the new EP was more elusive, with a long process of working out harmonies and roles for each instrument.

Dan: The process itself is one that is still evolving, and hopefully will always be evolving as we become better players and better listeners.

Jeff: People say, “this is how the song goes,” then I say, “This is how the bass goes,” and it’s sweet.

What is the band dynamic like without having a lead singer? Are there ever creative differences when everyone is writing songs?

Erik: There are creative differences all the time, but that’s the beauty of healthy tension and trust in your fellow collaborators… it’s usually a recipe for greatness.

Rob: The Hollows is a complete democracy. Everyone’s voice and vision is factored in equally to all decisions, both artistic and business. This kind of collaboration is exciting, and is unlike anything I’ve experienced before in artistic relationships. It also means that decisions can sometimes take forever!

Jeff: Usually any conflict that may arise is about pretty minute details. How long we stay on the bridge, what the transitions are like, who comes in when… that sort of thing. That being said, we have spent hours, sometimes, deciding those things. The beautiful part about the whole process is that everyone is so incredibly invested and cares so much about what others are bringing to the table.

Dave: We’ve been working on a new song called “Pioneers” that we’re all really excited about, and in today’s rehearsal we literally spent over an hour debating and dissecting a single guitar chord that E plays in the bridge– what the root should be, what kind of chord it should be, when and how many times the chord is played…

Dan: Sometimes it’s hard to strike a balance in terms of who’s leading the charge, regardless of who the original songwriter is. It creates a necessary tension that allows organic discussion and experimenting. “Hey, I love this part, but it needs completely new chords,” or, “You really think that sounds good? Because I think it sounds like mud,” and so on. Honesty is the best policy. It can bog a rehearsal down, but in the end when everyone’s opinions are heard the outcome is stronger.

Rob: I find it helpful to accept other opinions and really consider them from every angle, because sometimes another band member is seeing a song from a totally different light, one that I may have missed. In the end, it’s never personal… all criticism is for the betterment of the band as a whole, not a critique of an individual. This democratic process ensures that our music is a shared creation of the group, and well-rounded by all of our aesthetics.

Erik: The dynamic is one of an old-fashioned ensemble. Theatre companies work collaboratively in this way all the time. It’s a very old lineage in the theatre: to have a company or troupe, traveling from town to town. Every night a different actor plays the lead role. It helps keep everyone on the same page and focused on the group as a whole. Ideally, the goal for us is achieving an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where the mysteries of art are hidden. It’s about dialogue.

How did you develop your sound? Who are some of your influences? Where did the bluegrass influence come from?

Rob: It’s funny when people ask about our bluegrass influence– I’m always secretly thinking, “Bluegrass? We have a bluegrass influence?”

Dave: Plenty of people say that, so I guess it’s true! I guess we have a few tunes that could be considered bluegrass– “Old Brown Dog,” probably, and maybe even “August” off the new EP has a sort of haunted, gypsy-bluegrass thing happening. But I think it’s more that a few of us play instruments sometimes associated with bluegrass– banjo, mandolin, upright bass. I don’t know if I’d say we use those “bluegrass instruments” to make bluegrass music, though.

Rob: Right, because really, traditional bluegrass doesn’t sound like the music we make. I wouldn’t consider myself a bluegrass player, instrumentally speaking… those guys play fast! But I do think the concept of a musical ensemble, with a strong emphasis on “passing the ball”, came from bluegrass music. DK and I cut our teeth playing weekly jams with bluegrass musicians when we did that production of Big River. Later, when The Hollows first formed, we did a lot of extended jams, and what I think this accomplished was a really safe environment for all of us to feel comfortable taking risks. None of us (I don’t think) had given much thought to playing a solo in a song before, but in the group we kind of all just accepted the fact that hey, now it’s your turn to solo, doesn’t matter what it sounds like, just have fun with it, and then it’s your turn to lay down a solo, and so on. That sort of taking a form and running with it, and challenging ourselves to play better and better each time the ball was passed to us, was born out of bluegrass and folk music.

Dan: I think I was drawn to the banjo because of its sound, not because I was into bluegrass at the time. To a certain extent, bluegrass is something we are still gradually learning– it’s an extremely challenging genre of music. So we’re sort of evolving into a hybrid bluegrass outfit, or stealing bits and pieces from it, and that has led to a great appreciation of it. As for other influences, with different songwriters in the group there is a constant shift on what is influencing the band. We can agree on certain influences: The Band, Neil Young, Dylan, a lot of classic rock…

Rob: … some of my biggest are CCR, Radiohead, a lot of 80s alternative bands from the States…

Dave: My girlfriend always laughs about the fact that over half my record collection is soul and gospel LPs from the 60s and 70s (Aretha, Lou Rawls, whatever). I don’t know how that makes its way into The Hollows, but it’s in there somewhere. Plus David Byrne, Tom Waits, Willie, Joni, Ry Cooder… in terms of piano players I really like Mose Allison, Billy Preston, Joe Zawinul… I don’t know, everyone’s influences are all over the place, really.

Dan: As you move forward in time, all of our influences spread out… and though you may not always get someone’s specific influence in a song, you still try to understand and interpret it to the best of your ability.

Could you tell me a little about the new, self-titled EP?

Rob: The Hollows EP captures three distinct sides of our sound. It begins with a minor folk song called “August”, which conjures up a lot of eerie woodland images. “Jepson Creek” is super bombastic, a really layered song. Erik growls through a tale of sacrifice, DK scorches out some tasty guitar licks. The last track, “Carried Away,” is probably the spaciest song we’ve worked on so far. It’s almost indescribable; very shimmery, and with a pretty unique structure.

Dan: All three songs are, in one way or another, an attempt to show our listeners that we are interested in moving forward what is still a love for Americana and roots music, but also a deeper commitment to rock and roll and finding where our contemporary and non-contemporary sides meet. For me, it’s also a continuation in exploring how I put my personal life in song form in ways that are unpredictable and surprising for me.

How does the new EP differ from your full-length, Belong to the Land?

Dave: I think Belong to the Land has this sort of vast, bildungsroman concept behind it– we didn’t write the collection of songs as a concept album at all, but in terms of sequencing we tried to suggest some kind of thematic journey or story. The fact that it’s over an hour long probably adds to that feeling, too. The Hollows (which clocks in at about fifteen minutes) exists in more of a dream world to me: everything’s a little darker and deeper and more fantastic, and the rules are a little different. My brother-in-law, David Kvam, designed and helped us conceptualize the artwork for both releases and he did a really great job distilling and reflecting the different themes and changes in mood.

Dan: It’s a much wider sound. Both in the instrumentation and in the genres we cover in just three songs. The songs are more specific as well, in terms of lyrical content and how that is married to the music. Drums are way more present now that Justin is with us and that’s very exciting too.

Rob: The songs on Belong to the Land were each an epic tale unto themselves. We put a lot of work into structuring each song, creating sections, intros, etc. The end product was great, but for my part, I wanted the next project to have a sense of immediacy, maybe even simplicity. The songs on The Hollows are a little more direct than Belong to the Land; they each have a feeling of being boiled down to their essential elements. It’s also of course just a much tighter sound, the band having had another year of playing together since the album.

Jeff: Belong to the Land is such a complete journey, with many twists and turns. The EP is more of a statement. It’s very to the point. The three tracks depict where we are as a band. It shows that we are growing and fine-tuning many of the ideas that we brought to the table with the first release. The two are very much different chapters in the same book.

You released a video for the song “Poor Eyes” in February. Could you tell me a little about the video? How did you come up with the idea to use a marionette?

Dan: The video was definitely a labor of love. The way it all came together was purely based on the kindness that friends (and people we didn’t even know) gave. We had an incredible crew that worked for free during the shoot, as well as the invaluable help of my brother Patrick, who went to film school and served as our director. The band also played a crucial role in developing the look and feel: Erik designed lights, Jeff was in charge of art direction, and I came up with the concept and directed Doug, our puppeteer. The idea just came to me one morning while I was sipping coffee. I had been doing some woodwork and was staring at some sawdust. I thought about the lyrics of “Poor Eyes” and had a visual for a sawdust snowstorm, and then I thought about an old man walking through it, and I thought about love, and the loss of it, and how you carry it with you always. I also knew Doug was an incredible artist and I knew he had an old man puppet that he had built. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, and the more exciting it became to think that we could also create a whole world for it and do it ourselves. Six months later, we had our first music video.

There is a behind the scenes video for “Poor Eyes” on your YouTube that shows the band making the entire set. How long did that take? What was the experience like?

Dan: The set construction was really spread out, because at first it was just gathering materials. I found an old washboard and that became a bed. I found old planks of wood and those became a door. We also gathered as much burlap as we could. As the shoot date came closer and closer, things really sped up, which is when Jeff swept in and really took over. Because he and I have a lot of experience with scenic carpentry, the rest went really fast.

Jeff: I guess once we decided when we were going to shoot, we spent every free moment having design meetings, doing tests for color palette, lighting, camera movement… talking, talking, talking about what we wanted to see. When we weren’t doing that, we were putting talk into action and making the pieces to create the whole. Most of us have a thick history in the theatre world– having gone to school for acting, dancing, singing, carpentry, lighting, and design, we dug deep and put all those hats on to create this world that we had conjured in our minds.

Dan: Jeff carved the female figure at the end, Erik had designed lights in college for theatre, so naturally the task of lighting went to him, and it turns out Dave is a master at building tiny trees. And then we also had our friends, some with prop construction experience and some with none, but there were so many little tasks and details that we were able to get a lot of people involved. The experience was definitely one of the most rewarding things I have done with a group of people I love and respect.

Jeff: We are so blessed to be surrounded by friends that are professionally working in that industry, and believe in us enough to lend us their genius and creativity to heighten the stakes. Together, Together.

Dan: We learned a lot about how to work together in a new medium– and now that we’re about to shoot our second video, for “August,” we have an idea of what we can accomplish when we let our imaginations run wild. Not too wild, but… wild.

What can people expect from your live shows? I hear you swap instruments a lot.

Dan: Yes. There is a lot of instrument swapping.

Rob: Each time we head to a gig, it’s like packing for a two-week vacation.

Dave: I still can’t believe how we carted all our gear around on foot before we had a vehicle, or a centralized rehearsal space– we’d jam either up in Sugar Hill or way out by the cemetery in Bushwick, so we’d be dragging everything from Harlem to Brooklyn to whatever gig we played every other week in little rolly-carts or whatever, in the middle of a heat wave, or a blizzard… it was a circus.

Jeff: It’s not that we decide to swap instruments, per se. Usually the songwriter will play the instrument on which he wrote the song. Then we all fill in the blanks. We treat each song as its own unique entity. If a song would be totally sweet with a trumpet part, then Dave plays trumpet. That clears up the piano for Saxvik, and so forth.

Rob: The variety of instruments and songs keeps our live show fresh and interesting every night. We like to mix up our setlists, and since we have easily another album’s worth of material floating around, even our regular fans are surprised by a new song or reworked old song that we sneak into our set from time to time.

Dan: I think you can expect six very committed performers who believe in the material they are presenting. The shows are usually very high-energy, and we hope that our affection for the music and for each other jumps off the stage and invites you in. There will also be dancing, hooting, hollering, and whiskey. We try to put on a good show that is unpredictable. You’ll get rock, rockabilly, country, folk, bluegrass, Americana, blues, and whatever else we’re feeling that night.

Rob: You can expect a lot of boot-stomping, over-the-top toasts to death or religion, and a lot of sweat.

Jeff: We’re basically throwing a party and we want to have the best time, and we’re inviting you to join us. It’s all about the energy and just letting loose. My favorite part is when we hit our first song and all the worries and thoughts of the day, week, month, just melt away and we are off and running. It’s just the best.

What do you enjoy most about playing music in New York?

Erik: I feel thankful that I get to create and perform music with my greatest friends in the world… and having New York as the backdrop for our work sets the scene for one heck of a love story (Or a Woody Allen movie).

Dan: I love carving out a space for this band in a place that is so saturated with great music. Nothing beats NYC music.

Jeff: New York is built for the music industry. There are amazing bands to share bills with. There are amazing sound techs to run our shows, and there are amazing fans who can just hop on the choo-choo and slide into the party. We’ve had the pleasure to play a spectrum of venues, from a 20-person room with a quiet acoustic set to a 500-person venue with special guests and a light show. New York has a bit of everything.

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