Monday, December 2, 2019

I Want My Medicine: (The Music of) Hollerado & Me

When I first heard the music of Hollerado, it was in the form of the opening riff to their single, "Juliette."

It was January 2010 and I was 22 years old. The song was playing on the in-store radio server where I was working in music retail, selling Katy Perry CDs and Borat DVDs. It hit me like a bolt of lightning, at once old and new, classic and innovative, fresh and familiar.

I was at a point in my life where I, extremely misguidedly, was under the impression that I had already heard everything I was going to like. Music had always been a part of my life but my tastes hewed toward bygone eras and nothing being made in the 21st century was holding my attention. Hollerado was the first indication I was wrong. Hearing that riff was like hearing "Satisfaction" in 1965 or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991, a true gamechanger the likes of which only happens in your life two or three times if you're lucky. And if you think that seems like excessive praise, I do believe Hollerado to be the Nirvana of bands from Manotick, Ontario.

I bought their first album, Record in a Bag, as soon as I could. The quirky packaging (it literally came in a Ziploc baggie packaged with little trinkets and treasures) signalled exactly the kind of raggedy, fun, up-for-anything music inside - music that was curious, inventive, heartfelt, enthusiastic, expressive, daring and fun. A lot of fun. Even "Americanarama," which seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic world where the cities of America have crumbled, was fun to shout along to in a way few songs were at the time.

It was not quirk for the sake of quirk, it was genuine inspiration, and quite substantial. I was hooked from the opening distortion of the second track (the first track was a cutesy acoustic curtain-raiser.) Before they exploded onto radio full-time, I was sampling that music for customers interested in hearing something new, and almost all of them walked out with that CD.

This album was one of a small number I heard that year that made me want to know more. In trying to suss out what was so magical about this or that album, and find that experience again and again, I started a music blog, which I ran for the better part of my time in music retail. Through that project I exposed myself to hundreds of albums that made up the soundtrack of my twenties and proved that I was not done growing, and may never be.

As a music blogger, I tried to hone my philosophy to only describe what I was hearing and what I liked, to buildup and not tear down. I wanted to be good for a recommendation, not try to dictate what was or wasn't cool.

Their second album, White Paint, managed to out-do the first by taking their homespun sound and weaving epics like "So It Goes," "I Want My Medicine" (one of a rare class of songs that never fails to choke me up) and best of all the dark, funk-tinged "Fresno Chunk (Digging With You)." All of these songs are smart and heartfelt and crafty as hell, bristling with the energy of the stadium and the soul of the garage. Every one of them could be adapted into a feature film, too - this is a band that could write.

That album was packaged in a paper sleeve covered in white housepaint - each unit was unique and hand-painted. I made a minor contribution to the lore of Hollerado by scratching the image of a dinosaur into one in the store and selling it. It was a little like putting your initials in cement, outside a famous landmark.

This summer, when my fiancée went on an extended work trip and we had to spend our longest time apart since meeting five years ago, my soundtrack was their latest and final album, Retaliation Vacation. Knowing that this is meant to be the band's swan song made me afraid to listen, feeling that if it was in any way a letdown it would taint my perfect memories of the band, but I had nothing to worry about. It's smoother and more grandiose than the band has been before, embracing the arena-sized hooks they've grown into, but the playful, imaginative soul of the band remains well intact.

When the band announced earlier this year that they would be retiring, it was bittersweet for me. I am very bad about going out to see live music even though seeing bands in person is the very best way to support them. They were on the list of groups I wanted to see again, but I didn't feel like I would have an opportunity because this year has been a little busy - I'm getting married in two Saturdays, and this has taken up a lot of my spare time this year (also just generally being old and tired.) Their final show is the night before my wedding, so I'll have to appreciate the symmetry from afar, the last echo of a life I've left behind as I start my new one.

The one time I did see them play, it was at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. I was ballsy enough to mill around afterward with some of their regular fans as they packed up their gear. Drummer Jake Boyd indulged me in some talk about the Replacements and Big Star. I've always appreciated bands that would shoot the shit with the people who come to see them, when the opportunity arises, and I bet hundreds of people out there have the stories just like that and better.

Throughout the history of Hollerado, there's a thread of honesty and hope amidst despair. I remember them balking when their third album, Born Yesterday, a disc rife with political agitation, was described as "upbeat." It's easy to mistake what they have for blithe upbeatness because what they really do is hope for the best while knowing that the world is sometimes a frustrating shitshow. Witness the brilliant hook in the title track of their third album Born Yesterday: "You make me feel like I was Born Yesterday / Like I've never been broken" - where they use the cold hard reality that we've all been broken at one time or another to make the good times feel that much better. They write songs about pondering the universe and songs about dying of cancer and songs about digging through trash and songs about road trips and songs about inequality and songs about the frustration of being in love (or how de-si-re, is just a chemical, it comes and it goes and it comes and it goes) maybe with someone who doesn't treat you right or love you back. They've also written songs I've probably broadly misinterpreted but they mean something to me that means something to me.

Maybe I'm reading into it but Retaliation Vacation seems very much to be an album about how it's Hollerado's last album, and all the conflicting feelings that go along with that - on "One Last Time" and how they need a little "Touch of Madness" or how all they've got to give us is their "Time on Earth" or how they quote their own first album on "Get Over It" (or how they're telling us to get over it! It's right there all along!) Leave it to them to find the bad in the good, the good in the bad, and the things nobody even thought to look for.

I don't review music anymore for complicated reasons of inner conflict, but Hollerado has still been there for me and well continue to be there for me as long as there is recorded music (much like the narrator of "I Want My Medicine.") It's very daring and very in character for what I know about this band, to spend ten years building everything up and then deciding that this is no longer what you want and finishing the work. It seems liberating, and right, even if it means the end of something great.

There used to be a line about The Clash that they were "the only band that matters" because they sang about war and politics and police brutality and stuff you hear about on the news. I've come to think of Hollerado as "The only band that cares." Not only about the world at large, but about the world around them as people, and what they put into it. Few bands ever seemed to interested in what goes in both in the human heart and mind, but also the world we live in and its possibilities. And I've heard them all. But what's more, every sound on the record is unmistakably theirs, every flight of fancy and brilliant instinct, but also how they promoted and positioned themselves in the world. You can tell so much care went into everything they could possibly do for their music, from the chords and instruments they played, to the packages they were served in to the frequently brilliant music videos. They even used their business to be a force for good, instituting a no-questions-asked mental health stipend for all artists as founders of Royal Mountain Records.

What the world is losing here is a band that, I think, got big by being good and having fun. There aren't many acts in entertainment that seem to succeed wholly by being themselves, but Hollerado, I think, is that. I lament what we are losing, but I am very interested to find what happens next. After all, you've got to lose love if you want to find love.

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