Thursday, September 20, 2007

Feature Interview: The Happy Hollows

One of the more endearing traits of the bands who regularly play the east side of LA is that their members often aren’t the complete egomaniacs you normally expect musicians to be. It’s not The Me Show with them all the time, they probably don’t wear eyeliner or have haircuts that are smarter than they are, and they seem more about sharing songs than propelling their personalities to superstardom.

And rarely is that more apparent than with The Happy Hollows: drummer Chris Meanie is easily one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, bass player/vocalist Charlie Mahoney reminds you of that semi-quiet, friendly guy from your advanced history class in high school, and lead singer/guitarist Sarah Negahdari is kind of magic… a grinningly happy median between spiritual and silly. Or as Vonnegut would put it, a "wampeter."

The band and I met at Dusty’s on Sunset for brunch a few Sundays back to discuss the state of the things for them right now, where they’re going next, and what it’s like making a home halfway between art and pop. (Haven't heard them? Imagine if The Pixies were more experimental or Deerhoof attempted to be listenable.)

Sarah: I think we walk a fine line between a pop band and an art band. We really do. We’re right in the middle. People on the art side say “You’re too pop” and people on the pop side say “You’re too arty.” So we’re sitting on a fence – and if you sit on a fence, your butt hurts.

I wish I could be one type or the other, but I can’t. I love those pop hooks. I love pop songs. But I also love pure creativity and things that haven’t been done before. It’s a hard place to be.

How do you define your music? What are you trying to do with it?

Charlie: Well, I think the thing about us is that we try to hit a wide range of topics and issues… Basically any topic is up for grabs. Vietnam on the last EP was about how the US government using fear in different eras to promote wars.

Then on the new album, we have A Man A Plan A Canal. I took a palindrome and tried to imagine a situation of being on a boat with no Panama Canal and having to go all the way around Tierra Del Fuego at the tip of South America. So, it’s kind of a comedic song in a way.

Sarah: I think our band is very playful... I don’t like anything too prettied up. I just like the experience of it in its raw form and just the joy of making music and the joy of being alive.

Every person has a lot of layers and music doesn’t have to just be about woes. Because there’s so much to say. Life is so joyous and sometimes people think that if you’re in a rock band you have to be filled with [sadness or] just talk about your relationships. There’s so much of the human spirit and I just want to address like the silly part and the raw part and the angry part and the complete absurd part.

Charlie: People may say that because we have a lot of different songs and different sounds, it’s not coherent, but I don’t think the human experience is necessarily one of coherence. We have a lot of different sides to us and sometimes we act differently around different people and in different situations, so it’s kind of like whatever comes to mind.

Sarah: I just think that music’s so joyous and when we get together and we play, my joy is just out of the roof. I hope that comes through and I think it’s okay for it to come through.

I think rock 'n' roll exists because every generation recreates it in its own way. You have to do something different. To repeat something that someone else has already done, that’s absolutely not rock 'n' roll. For me, it’s like, maybe you don’t get it. Not everybody has to get it. That’s okay, but for me, I’m doing rock 'n' roll because even though it’s silly, actually for me it feels fresh. And the music we do, I try to push it into something different and something that hasn’t been done.

You can take things from the past that influence you but let’s sing about something that hasn’t been sung about or let’s turn an anti-war song into a silly song. Like how can we take rock 'n' roll and keep it alive and keep it fresh by regenerating it every generation. That’s how I feel.

We’re somewhere on the bleeding edge of it where not everyone’s going to understand what we’re trying to say, not everyone’s going to like it, and that’s fine, they’re not supposed to. Every artist that tries to be on the cusp of something gets that.

Some people like it and some people think that’s stupid or I don’t understand or that wasn’t traditional verse chorus verse and we say it shouldn’t be, because rock n roll should always have a generation questioning what that was, you know?

I think even if listeners don’t pick up on the subtext or understand the unconventionality, they latch onto your enthusiasm. Because you’re a very enthusiastic band live.

Charlie: (Laughs.) Yeah, we are.

I don’t think I’ve ever come to one of your shows and not had a lot of fun.

Thank you. I just think I got so bored of going to shows and seeing people miserable. That’s fine if that’s what you want to express.

Charlie: There’s a place for sadness…

Sarah: Yeah, it’s not that we’re trying to sing happy songs, it’s that (laughs) I have some really sad songs too, but experience is so varied. I just think that the fact that I have fingers and hands … you don’t understand … I’ll be playing and I’m just like oh my god, some people don’t have hands and they don’t have fingers and legs.

Charlie: Don’t write that… (Laughs.)

Sarah: No, write it! Write it! Because it’s a joy. It’s a gift that I can do it. It’s a joy that I can do it. I mean, I’m telling you, I’m filled with gratitude that I can do it.

You guys are very sincere on-stage. Whenever you play, you’re always thanking all the people in the other bands for having and it’s obvious you really care about every opportunity and people coming out to see you and I think sometimes people take that for granted.

Sarah: Well, they’re from DC and I’m from San Francisco and when we came here, we didn’t know anybody in LA, let alone in music. When we started, we were playing The Cocaine for a year to five people every night. We never expected that we’d be so embraced by the bands in Silver Lake. It’s a dream that we’ve been embraced by something more mainstream than anything we ever thought we’d find ourselves in.

How did you guys meet?

Chris and I knew each other from DC. And we were playing together and kind of trying out a bunch of different guitarists and people around town. We’d been playing with these two guys for about a month or so and that didn’t work out, so we started again. We put an ad on Craig’s List and Sarah answered the ad. So, it was good ole Craig’s List.

You’d since moved out here?

Charlie: Yeah, we’d been out here for six or eight months. We moved out from DC, but not together. We knew each other in DC but we moved out here separately by chance.

So the first practice, Sarah walked in with her guitar and knee socks up and we didn’t really know what to make of her. She took forever to set up her gear.

Like most people, when you first meet them, everyone’s kind of nervous and you just plug in and start playing and see how it goes – but Sarah wanted to talk for like an hour before we even started playing. And we were in one of those hourly rehearsal places, so it was costing money. She took forever to set up her pedals… (Laughs.)

Sarah: (Laughs) I basically had auditioned so many bass players and drummers… At that point, it had been a year… I’d been playing under the name The Happy Hollows by myself and so I had a ton of questions – I wanted to make sure that no one was republican. (Laughs.)

So, I set up my guitar and we played through Tambourine, which is a song I’d had already, and I just had said play along and we played through once and I totally knew they were the right guys for me. I totally knew. So, I was like, “Alright! Wanna be in my band or what?!” After an hour of talking and one song, I knew.

Charlie: You were playing a show already that night.

Sarah: Yeah, at Zen Sushi by myself.

Charlie: So, Chris and I thought it was cool that Sarah was already playing shows. That’s why we started playing shows after about two weeks of practice. We didn’t have everything totally perfect. We just went out and started playing.

How long ago was that?

Two years... Around two years now. But since we started playing right away, it’s been a big transition from where we are today. When we first started, we hadn’t even written our songs. Sarah had written a few songs and I’d written a few songs and we were just playing songs we’d written separately.

Then over the next six or eight months, Sarah wrote new songs, we wrote songs together, so… there’s probably just one song from our first days that we still play. One or two.

Which ones?


The first song you played together.

That’s going to be on the new album, too.

Sarah: But, yeah. That’s my just my style… [She puts her hands out.] Here’s us in process. I don’t need everything to be perfect. I think art is about the imperfect a lot of times. [Charlie laughs.] I really mean it. I find it so charming when bands play and they make a little mistake and they all laugh.

Like at the Earlimart show in Santa Monica when the sound went out and Aaron came down into the audience and started to chat with everyone.

Exactly! I don’t like it when everything is just perfect… I like it more organic and real and raw.

Charlie: Yeah, we’re not too… scripted. We usually play songs after we’ve practiced them like… Sarah will write it or we’ll write it together and we’ll learn it real quick and we’ll play it. Cause it’s good to get it out and see what people’s reactions are.

That sometimes results in us flubbing a note or two when we play, but I don’t think it’s because of the musicianship… It’s just because we really want to get the songs out there, you know, as fast as we can. And that makes us write more songs. In two years, we’ve written forty or fifty songs.

Sarah: We have a gazillion gazillion now.

How did your first EP come together?

Basically, our friend Rob from Death to Anders, the lead singer, he worked at a recording studio and he was just, like, “Just come in overnight and I’ll record you.” And we’d been together two months so we quickly wrote a bunch of songs… Meteors, Trick or Treat… We wrote them all in a couple weeks.

Charlie: They were probably all written within three weeks and recorded.

Sarah: Yeah, we went in overnight one weekend. We did it just to book shows… to have something to send to promoters. So, it was crazy that people ended up liking it. (Laughs.) We got three or four videos from it. It was insane.

Charlie: It probably wasn’t ever intended to be a real EP. It was more like a demo. But Rob did a really great job in the amount of time we had to do it and it’s a credit really to him for bringing the songs together in a pretty good form… and not charging us too much. So, it ended up a lot better than we thought it would.

The songs stand out and the production was good, but it was definitely quickly put together.

I’ve done a few radio shows with Octavius from KXLU Demo Listen and I remember him playing an early recording of one of the songs of the EP.

Sarah: That was right before I met the guys. Rob recorded me one weekend and it was just me and my guitar. We just had a drum machine. That’ll be on the album, too.

Tell me about working with Dave Newton on the new album.

Charlie: We met him back in January and we really liked him, but we needed a little more time to get all our songs together. Then we went in with him in June and it was really amazing.

He’s just like the perfect producer for us. He really gets our music and gets really excited about music when he’s recording it. He played air guitar on a few songs and you know when you like do a take and it’s really good, he jumps around the room.

Sarah: He was so positive. When we were interviewing producers, we had to be able to be in a room with somebody for twelve hours a day and we had to vibe with them and if they were at all serious, it just wasn’t right for us. But Dave is silly and crazy and we knew we could be in a room with him.

Charlie: He’s really great too because he really takes every band project personally. He puts in so many hours and he’ll talk to you on the phone for a long time about the recordings and what you want to do and the edits. He’s not just in it for the business, he really loves it.

That’s why the bands he records, a lot of them go back to him. Like The Little Ones are doing their full album with him and The Henry Clay People are going back to him. A lot of new bands are hooking up with him too, like Death To Anders.

And he’s working with The Movies and he recorded The Blood Arm.


A lot of bands he’s recorded with have gotten signed.

Yeah, that’s true.

So when’s the album coming out?

Charlie: We have a four-song [preview] for the residency. It’s DIY with stamps and homemade art on the cds. We’re just doing it to get some of the songs out, so we don’t have the same old songs representing us.

We’ve done thirteen songs and we’re going to do four more, so we’ll have seventeen songs. Everything will be done by the end of October then we’ll just have to see what happens then.

So you’re talking to labels?

We’ll have to see what happens. We’re probably not going to put it out ourselves because it’s hard work. All the promotion… It can be done these days, but you have to basically make it your full time job.

Yeah... Ohmygod...

The food arrives and we stop talking to eat. It's literally the best French Toast I’ve ever had.

The Happy Hollows have one more show in their Monday night residency at The Echo. It’s free and Lo-Fi Sugar, The Movies, and The Transmissions join them.

After that, they and Midnight Movies will open for The Silversun Pickups at The Filmore on October 19th up in SF and then in LA at The Wiltern on October 20th.

Photo by Simon Cardoza.


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