Given their decidedly vintage-sounding handle, it would be easy to assume that Hollis Brown is a band of weary wannabe troubadours constantly in search of reviving their roots. In fact, while their moniker was taken/borrowed/stolen from a Bob Dylan song of the same name, the group’s sound is anything but archival. Over the course of their various releases, the band has arrived at a style that blends honesty, energy and integrity in such a way that appeals to one’s pop preferences as well as those who possess more cerebral sensibilities.
The band’s latest offering, Ozone Park, makes those intentions clear. Flush with upbeat rhythms, instantly infectious melodies and singer/guitarist Mike Montali’s earnest, compelling vocals, Hollis Brown has made its most accessible effort yet. It may in fact be the record that nudges them closer to the mainstream while also — according to them — the kudos they so solidly deserve.
“We’re always working on new material,” Montali insists. “Constantly writing, recording, releasing. In this era of new music, it’s important to always have new stuff.”
To that end, Montali eschews the notion of abandoning physical CDs for digital downloads, given their belief that their fanbase generally prefers the real deal. “For me personally, I like to hold something in my hand,” he says. “I grew up going to record stores and searching through the crates to find a cool album cover that I could check out. Otherwise it’s not tangible, Vinyl is on the rise. We’re an old school rock band that tours quite a bit, and the merch at the show keeps the gas in the van. I can’t say I haven’t thought about the other, but I do like the physical stuff.”
The fact that early on Hollis Brown offered exclusive Record Store Day releases helped bring them further into the collective consciousness, a fact that Montali and his colleagues — Jonathan Bonilla (lead guitar), Chris Urriola (bass), Adam Bock (keys) and Andrew Zehnal (drums) — have been striving for since they first started recording in 2013. It seemed a natural progression after Montali and Bonilla began the Queens New York-based band a short time before.
“Music heads love their vinyl,” Montali suggests.
Not surprisingly then, Hollis Brown consider themselves an old-school rock and roll group. “We came up the old-fashioned way,” Montali insists. “Practicing songs in the garage, getting out and playing local gigs, then doing regional gigs, which led to national gigs, which eventually led to international gigs. So it’s kind of been a steady growth year after year, climbing the mountain, so to speak. Every year, it’s been growing, and it’s been kind of exciting doing it that way because we’re trying to build following that won’t go anywhere. For us, it’s important to have a core following that loves us, believes in us, and wants to be a part of what we’re doing.”
Naturally, touring has been a key component in that growth, but Montali attributes that relentless regimen to their devotion to the music itself. “We never try to make the same record twice,” he maintains. “People who latch onto the band get taken for a little ride, and that makes it more interesting than groups that have one sound and leave it the same way.”
The group’s evolution, from the garage band-sounding spontaneity of their first album, Ride on the Train, to the more modern sounding approach taken with Ozone Park, recorded digitally using synths and pronounced rhythms, has been, by Montali’s estimation, a decided transition for the band, one that’s taken them from a stylistic stance similar to that of the mid ‘70s, to music more representative of the modern era.
Nevertheless, Montali said that the group is always intent on maintaining an iconic approach that reflects the best of a classic rock tradition. “We want to have our sound compared to the great American bands that we love, not just whatever bands that are coming out today,” he allows. “We want it to hold up and have that timeless sound. With the new record, the question was, how do we maintain that same visceral rock energy and do it in a way that would be relatable to people who are coming up today. We wanted to make a modern classic rock record.”
Indeed, the band has arched ambitions, an assessment Montali agrees with wholeheartedly. “We want to be one of the great American bands,” he declares decidedly.
That, of course, sets a high bar, and Montali agrees that it creates a challenge each and every time out. “We ask ourselves what new ground can we break,” he muses. “How can we all get on the same page to get there together? It’s important to try to get everybody’s sonic voice heard and I think we’ve achieved that. Everybody has an idea of what they want the band to sound like, and we were all there in the moment with what we want to represent and where we want to be considered in the musical conversation. We’re all focused on trying to create something that might remind you of a great Tom Petty record, but also has something that feels like today. How can we keep that anthemic feel, the spirit of great American songwriting, and do it in a way that hasn’t been heard before while still breaking new ground?”
For his part, Montali believes that it all starts with the song, and that things generally evolve from there. However he admits that capturing the connection the band creates in concert and then being able to transfer it to the studio can seem daunting at times.
“I sometimes wish we could bring more of that live energy into the studio and capture more of that visceral kind of noise and that immediate rush,” Montali admits. “It is a challenge for us, and for a lot of people, to capture that live feel. My favorite bands had great recordings and great songs that meant something to people, but they also had prolific touring careers. For us it’s been important to have that balance, to make meaningful records with meaningful songs that have something to say and that can make a difference in some way, But we also want to go out and play live from our audience.”
He cites Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan as prime examples of artists they emulate, those that continually tour and make music, not because they have to, but rather because they continue to be dedicated to their craft. Hollis Brown itself tallies about 100 gigs a year.
“It’s the particular lifestyle we’ve chosen,” Montali says, reflecting on the group’s work regimen. “It’s easier said than done like everything else that gets romanticized. It does get difficult, being around the same people and in the same little box we find ourselves in for a bunch of hours — whether it’s the van or a hotel room or a dressing room where we’re within two feet of one another. We’re always being shuffled from one place to another. You have to learn to do it the right way. We’ve made every mistake you can in learning that. But at this point we all know each other and have the right vibe of knowing how to do it together. In hindsight, it’s amazing all the places we’ve been able to go and all the people we’ve been able to meet — the cities, the countrysides — and if you add it all up, it’s incredible that we can work our asses off but still have such an incredible lifestyle. However it’s certainly not for everybody.”