Sometimes there’s nowhere to go but up, and this reality isn’t lost on Hollerado singer Menno Versteeg as he reflects on the last time his band played Vancouver. The details are, for good reason, indelibly etched into his brain.
“Not this past summer, but the summer before that, we played a free show in downtown Vancouver,” Versteeg says, on the line from a Lethbridge, Alberta, tour stop. “Absolutely zero people showed up to see us play. And I do mean absolutely zero. It was kind of embarrassing—people were walking by, and we’d be like ‘Hey, do you wanna stop and watch for a second?’”
Hollerado found itself on the street in front of Canada Place as part of a promo tour put together by Coca-Cola. The band quickly discovered that cruise-ship tourists and the kind of well-heeled folks who can afford to stay at the Pan Pacific Hotel aren’t necessarily interested in genre-splicing rock bands from the alternative side of the playing field.
Luckily for Hollerado, the quartet has attracted plenty of attention elsewhere over the past couple of years, including Juno nominations (best new group in 2011), opening-slot invitations from Dead Weather and Billy Talent, and tours of countries that most Canadian acts never see (China and Brazil).
Along the way there have been numerous cross-Canada swings. If a 2009 debut, Record in a Bag, didn’t exactly turn places like downtown Vancouver into a scene out of Woodstock, the recently released White Paint has helped boost Hollerado’s profile, and not just at home in Toronto. Consider that the band’s upcoming Straight Series double bill with the Zolas at the Commodore not only sold out but did so weeks ago.
Still, Versteeg says the build has been a slow one for Hollerado, which includes bassist Dean Baxter and siblings Nixon and Jake Boyd on guitar and drums respectively.
“This is like Canadian tour number seven that we are on,” the frontman says. “The first time, there was, like, nobody there, the second one maybe five or 10 people, the third one 25, the fourth one 75. It’s just now that we’re getting to where rooms are finally sold out.”
Making this doubly gratifying is that Hollerado has in many ways done things the way folks used to in previous decades, building a following by hard work and word of mouth.
“We’ve never been a buzz band, a super-hyped band,” Versteeg says. “We’ve never been an Internet thing, or the cool band of the moment. When that stuff happens, you jump right into sold-out rooms. We’re doing it the old-fashioned way by just playing shows.”
What fans are getting at those shows, and on White Paint, is a group that’s determined to avoid being pigeonholed. Hollerado often gets filed under power-pop, which doesn’t begin to describe the sonic territory the band covers. Consider the way that the new album draws on everything from thunderstruck metal (“Don’t Think”) to space-cowboy alt-country (“Lonesome George”) to ’90s-issue alterna-pop (“Thanks for the Venom”). Nowhere is the refusal to be pinned down more evident than “Fresno Chunk (Digging With You)”, which starts off sounding like Bob Dylan doing shots with Jr. Gone Wild, and then finds Hollerado pulling on the Afro wigs and platform boots to channel their inner Sly Stones.
“I don’t want to be one of those silly bands that goes ‘You can’t fit us into any genre,’” Versteeg says. “We’re a rock band, no doubt. But we’ve been called pop, power-pop, punk-pop, alt-country, and even ‘folk’ in some reviews, although that reviewer didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
“So, given all that,” he continues, “when we were writing this album we had no constraints on ourselves, no feeling like we had to achieve a certain sound. That’s the beauty of not having had some huge hit that you have to replicate.”
As much as White Paint’s appeal is in its double-barbed hooks, there’s also a depth to the lyrics that’s not often found in earworm rock. Consider the picture that Versteeg paints with lyrics like “That time we walked down to Mount Royal Metro Square you asked those French kids to score/You talked the whole way there, bout how you’re such a good listener and how you drink your wine through colored straws in mason jars”, from the candy-swirled “Desire 126”.
The singer notes that he’s always stockpiling song ideas, taking notes of everyday encounters for future reference. Asked to relate a recent inspirational moment, Versteeg happily obliges. And what sticks out when he shares the story is the singer’s empathy.
“Yesterday, I saw something that just made my heart burst,” he relates. “We were in Brooks, Alberta, a small town in the middle of nowhere. We went to Wendy’s, which was a terrible mistake. We were sitting there, digesting our heartburn, and at the table next to me was this guy who was, like, super-nervous, tapping away on the table. It was, like, ‘What’s up with that guy?’ He was my age and looked like he was Vietnamese.
“Eventually, the manager of Wendy’s came by—he was obviously about to interview him,” Versteeg continues. “My heart totally went out to him, that he would be so nervous about an interview for Wendy’s in Brooks, Alberta. You could tell that he had a family that he had to support. The wave of emotions that I felt made me think ‘I really have to pull a song out of that.’ It make me feel really, um, guilty isn’t really the right word, but maybe lucky or grateful.”
Consider this proof that there are far worse things than playing to no one on the streets of Vancouver for a multinational soft-drink company’s promotional event. Not that, in hindsight, it was really all that bad.
“Damn right,” Versteeg says with a laugh when asked if Hollerado was at least paid well for the show. “We don’t whore ourselves to Coca-Cola for no money. Some things you just don’t do for free.”