New album Poets & Neckties out Friday, April 2
Hanging with Hollow Bill: A Madison Trio We Could All Use Right Now
Debut studio album Poets & Neckties hits Spotify, Apple Music this Friday
After hanging out with enough bands you get a knack for reading the collective camaraderie within, giving you a decent shot at predicting the groups that will last and those that won’t. We’ve all heard the relationship comparisons: communication fits, egos, etc. And it makes sense, right? Relationships aren’t easy; candid communication is hard. We each have our own experiences that create unique perspectives and merging different viewpoints–especially today–can be challenging, to say the least.
Now, place those complexities in a relationship that solely exists to create an artform borne from individual talents that is meant to be shared publicly. In a live setting. That’s tough. And the truth is, a lot of bands just don’t last. Now, that’s not to say they don’t create beautiful art while they’re together (see The Beatles), but it’s rare for bands to last more than several years and if they do, chances are it’s not with the original lineup.
So, when I meet Mike Dorrance (lead vocals, guitar), Keith Brown (bass) and Andy Schoenauer (percussion, guitar, vocals) as they prep the April 2 release of their debut studio album Poets & Neckties, at a local alcohol-serving establishment, one of my first observations is that they’re comfortable—both with each other and their respective roles in the alternative, folk, bluegrass, garage-rock bar band, Hollow Bill.
Even their positions at the table are reflective of the band’s friendly confines: Mike at the front right of the table, closest to me, Keith and Andy flanking his left, equally positioned toward the back across from each other. Even ground. While observing seat positions as I settle in with my spicy Bloody Mary and the fellas sip beers, I realize why this band actually works: all three members have a deep appreciation and love for music.
First things first: the guys in Hollow Bill are talented, which certainly helps a band thrive. Mike is the frontman and creative leader of the trio, often bringing mostly-fleshed-out songs to practice sessions in his basement for Andy and Keith to fall into. A great guitarist and equally-talented songwriter, Mike also has the voice that every man who belts out songs out in front of their bedroom mirror wishes they had. Whether it’s his low, grungy howl or a high-pitched, folksy falsetto, Mike’s range is impressive, to the likes of late Soundgarden frontman and Seattle legend, Chris Cornell. Couple that with his songwriting chops and you have a whole new brand of grunge-indie-Springsteen. This also allows Hollow Bill to pursue a myriad of melodies while gracefully switching from genre to genre during any given live set.
Meanwhile, Andy’s renaissance-man skill set offers another layer of complexity that essentially gives Hollow Bill a unique identity. Whether it’s his contributions on guitar, backing vocals or stomping percussion, he takes the band to another level. A gravitas also comes through Andy’s Cajón, a rectangular box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru that is played by drumming on the sides with your hands or other percussion tools like a mallet or brush. (Beyond the Cajón’s distinctive sound, it’s also just super cool to watch get played.)
Rounding the entire operation out is the backbone that is Keith’s bass guitar, settling in alongside the other two with bluesy, rock-and-roll riffs, effectively giving the band its heartbeat with steady-yet-nuanced, groovy bass lines.
From a few favorite covers to original titles like the thumping soulful rocker “Indignation Jones,” the mercurial harmony of “Hurley” or the Elvis/CCR hybrid “Cowboy Bill” (three standouts on the new album), the trio’s live performances are equal parts Springsteen, Nirvana Unplugged, Graceland-era Paul Simon and Lumineers. And that’s to say: whatever kind of music you prefer, you’re going to be impressed by the band’s sound on Poets & Neckties.
The group originally formed nearly five years ago as a four-piece (called Dirty Walter & the Fellas) when Andy and Mike, who is married to Andy’s sister, started regularly jamming together, eventually finding the ever-ambitious Keith to seal the deal on bass.
“After realizing I had a brother-in-law who was a hell of a musician, we started jamming a few covers and some of my original stuff,” explains Mike. “Meanwhile, I kept getting calls from this Keith guy who had a mutual friend and wanted to play bass and we eventually became a band.”
Keith’s persistence in the band’s formation story reflects his role in the band today, as he serves as quasi manager and is largely credited with getting the band out of the basement and onto the stage.
“We all knew it was Keith’s life dream to play in a bar band and he’s been the driving force pushing us the entire way,” says Mike. “There’s no doubt without him I’d still be in my bedroom or Andy and I would still be in the basement.”
The sleeves-up, don’t-stop-believing attitude behind Hollow Bill’s formation is what makes them an authentically-Madison band. And the act of pursuing a passion with people you enjoy being around has Madison written all over it. You’ll see it the next time you walk by a protest on the Capitol lawn, buy produce from a local farmers’ market or even share a pitcher at the Union Terrace. (It’s also worth noting that none of the Hollow Bill members are from Madison, but it’s where they came together as artists and ultimately formed a band.)
There’s a warmth in this city that helps people bring their best-selves out into its streets. It makes sense then, that Hollow Bill’s first live-act was on the stage of a Madison community event. Aptly called Make Music Madison, the city-wide festival allowed area bands to sign up to play a slot at any participating venue throughout the city, free of charge. If that’s not authentic Madison, I don’t know what is.
From there, the band booked their first official gig at The Wisco on Willy St. and have been playing bars, parks, lawns and halls throughout the area ever since. In August of 2019–a short six months before the coronavirus hit the states–they even booked a full weekend of gigs in the Milwaukee area, playing a Friday-night set at Sheboygan’s 3 Sheeps Brewing Co., followed by a show at the Milwaukee Brewing Company the next night.
As our conversation winds down, I realize I haven’t asked the band how they landed on Hollow Bill as a name. Mike explains that in addition to giving their band an identity, the name also helps identify what we all hope to get out of music, giving a major part of the band right back to their hypothetical and ever-growing audience.
“Bill is not hollow, but we think the places he ventures to are, so he’s there to help people find whatever it is they’re looking for,” says Mike. “It’s really this idea of giving people the freedoms they want or need. Bill wants you to be yourself in the truest form.”
As I mulled this over on my drive home, I came to the personal conclusion that essentially Hollow Bill the name is the personification of the power of music and Hollow Bill the band plays to share a warmth with people that brings out their best- or most-loved self.
The combined spirit and energy that drives the entirety of Poets & Neckties is reflective of that exact notion. Not only does the album sound like Dorrance, Schoenauer and Brown are three college buddies giving you a private live set in your living room, it makes you proud. Proud that these creative forces came together to express themselves in such an honest, intimate and impassioned way.
If that’s not authentic Madison, I don’t know what is.
Poets & Neckties will be available to stream on all major streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music beginning this Friday, April 2. Look out for the band’s live performances throughout the Madison area later this year.
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CD: Poets & Neckties