By Martha Kowalski
A typical Teams chat with Keith Brown consists of a scholarship to post to a student’s financial aid award or a debate on the existence of seemingly infinite “points,” but lately, it has also included a Google Doc for exactly this interview. I recently connected with my Assistant Director coworker by day and bass player for the band Hollow Bill by night to discuss the group’s history, first album and fun anecdotes, with feedback from fellow bandmates Mike Dorrance and Andy Schoenauer – as well as a special link between Keith and WSUM.
Martha Kowalski: Tell me a little about the band’s background and history? How did you form? How long have you been playing together?
Keith Brown: We’ve been together in some form since the summer of 2016, and Mike and Andy have been jamming together for much longer than that. Previously, we were a four-piece band called Dirty Walter & The Fellas – named after Mike’s beagle, Walter – but we transitioned to the three-piece setup known as Hollow Bill in 2019.
Mike and Andy are brothers-in-law – Mike married Andy’s sister – and grew up in the same town, West Bend. I entered the fray upon hearing about this mysterious, uber-talented guitar player from a mutual friend in college and took it upon myself to pursue Mike via late-night voicemails and, eventually, I cornered him in-person in a bar in 2016 and made him start a band with me. We’ve been playing music together ever since!
MK: What are some of your favorite memories? Do you have any particularly memorable or fun stories? How did you come up with the name?
KB: Favorite memories – too many to count. We’ve played some really fun venues over the years: The Wisco on Willy St., the Sconnie Bar on Regent St., the (now closed) Badger Motor Car Co. in Columbus, WI, Working Draft Brewery on the east side and some breweries around the state as well. All of those shows have been a lot of fun, and many come with unexpected surprises. Whether it’s Mike breaking a string on the first chord of the first song at a show and needing 10 minutes to restring his guitar before restarting, Andy losing his voice before his big lead-singing number or Keith being told he had the stage presence of a potted plant, there’s always something to laugh about.
As for the name, we went through about a hundred different options before we settled on Hollow Bill. As our old name suggests, that band was all about having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. However, as we transitioned into playing more original music, looking to record an album, etc., we wanted a name that wasn’t so flippant and silly. Mike created this character for one of our songs called Cowboy Bill, and we kind of started there for a name. From there, Mike envisioned this character who himself wasn’t hollow, but found places and people that were hollow and attempted to fill something that was missing in them through music. If you can follow those mental gymnastics, you arrive at Hollow Bill.
MK: What is your self-described style? You’ve been called “a mix of country, 60s pop and soulful rock, all nestled under a ‘folk rock’ umbrella” – pretty accurate?
KB: I’d say so. If someone forced us into one box, I suppose folk rock would be our “genre.” However, Mike collects his songwriting and musical influences from all over the place – there’s not just one style of music that inspires us or finds its way into our songs. I’m sure every band likes to think that they’re pretty eclectic, but we are – I swear!
MK: You have a newly released album: Poets and Neckties! Tell me about it: what was your process in making the album? Favorite songs? Theme? What do you want listeners to take away from the album?
KB: Like many debut albums, this album is many years in the making – it’s composed of songs that we’ve been playing since our first or second practice and songs from 2020. Despite that, I think that there are some clear themes on the album, most notably storytelling. Mike has a knack for taking the listener on a journey with his storytelling, and you meet some very unique characters along the way. I think that is evident in songs like ‘Bounty for the Boar,’ ‘Indignation Jones’ and ‘Cowboy Bill.’ Another huge theme for this album is memories – shared memories of a family, memories of regrets and chances not taken, memories of familiar places, memories that change over time, etc. I think we tried to pay homage to all of those memories on this album too, and you can hear it on songs like ‘The Bagger’s Blues,’ ‘Hurley’ and ‘When Nelson Met Joanie.’
I think I speak for all of us in saying that picking a favorite song is tough – we each love different things about each one of them. However, I think our sound really comes through on ‘Ode to Ingram’ and showcases a lot about us on that song, including our storytelling and honoring-memories chops. If I had to pick, I would say that’s our best song.
Overall, we just hope people enjoy listening to the album. If it takes them to the same places it takes us, that is fantastic – however, there’s something to be said for a song that you put on in the background when you’re having a good time with friends too. If we can be anything at all for folks that like the music, we’re happy.
Listening to this album myself, I can definitely attest to that kind of feeling from Hollow Bill’s music – the kind of songs you can image as part of the Wild West or sitting around a campfire with friends and a banjo. Songs with a narrative, with a character – possibly Cowboy Bill himself – that you follow through the plotline of the verses, accompanied by great instrumental performances to back up the story.
To conclude, I asked Keith about events Hollow Bill has coming up.
MK: What are your future plans? Do you have any performances scheduled?
KB: Absolutely! Our last show was on July 10th at the Bur Oak on Winnebago St. in Madison, and we could not be more excited to get back out there! Beyond that, we’re trying to plan a mini-tour around the state for later this summer, but it will all be dependent on how soon bars/breweries/venues reopen and start booking shows again. We’ll keep our fans posted on our social media (Facebook and Instagram).
Come fall and winter, we’ll be back in the studio recording our sophomore album, Pony Tales. We hope to release it sometime in spring 2022 and can’t wait to share the new music with our fans.
MK: According to your Spotify, you’re “a small band trying to make it big”: what do you want to be known by? What do you want listeners to instantly recognize and remember about your music?
KB: Great question. I think that there are a couple of aspects of our band that are notable. First and foremost, we’re all regular guys with 9 to 5’s – we don’t play music for a living, but we love to do it and pursue it as best as we can. I think a lot of people can relate to juggling the different versions of themselves: their personal life, their professional life and their weekend life – what really excites them and what they love to do in their free time. Musically, I think that our two vocalists – Mike and Andy – are incredible and the harmonies that they achieve together are really the signature of our sound. Finally, I think that Mike’s songwriting is second to none. Am I biased? Yes. However, I don’t think any music fan can look at Mike’s lyrics and the intricate compositions he puts together and not recognize true talent and vision. Andy and I are both very lucky to have Mike as the leader of our band.
On a final note, Keith shares a personal connection to the station from his own days here.
KB: Shout-out to WSUM for promoting and supporting local artists! I was a WSUM DJ myself in college, and we’re so appreciative of the opportunity to chat with you!
Thank you, Keith, for the time you, Mike and Andy took to respond to these questions; it was great to talk with you and about your band and music – and I’d better be getting 500 points for this!