Entertainment

The Life and Death of Hollerado, a Fun Band Who Spent It All

The Canadian indie band is calling it quits after a decade-plus of DIY stunts and lots and lots of confetti.
December 12, 2019, 10:00am
hollerado
Hollerado. Photo by Ryan Faist.

For the past 12 years, Menno Versteeg, Dean Baxter, and brothers Nixon Boyd and Jake Boyd have played together in the Manotick-born, Toronto-based indie band Hollerado. Between draining beers and bank accounts, they’ve become an institution in Canadian alternative rock—a field that’s experiencing a late-decade surge thanks to acts like Pup, The Beaches, U.S. Girls, The Dirty Nil, Chastity, Hubert Lenoir, Partner, Dilly Dally, Weaves, and more. But earlier this year, Hollerado announced that their fourth LP, this year’s Retaliation Vacation, would be their last. This week, they’re closing out their final tour with three shows at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, followed by an ad-hoc karaoke night at the (world famous!) Horseshoe Tavern. It’s as graceful and pressureless an exit as can be had.

Huddled over soups and grilled cheese sandwiches at a downtown Toronto bar a week before the shows, the band—famous for confetti cannons and self-imposed spit-beer showers—were adamant that they’d be going out with a bang and, probably, empty pockets.

“We want people to know that we’re not giving up,” said Versteeg. Baxter noted they’ve “spared no expense” on their final gigs. “We’re not trying to hold back for like, a retirement fund,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we’re in the black after this.”

“But also, what’s the bank gonna do, not give us another credit card?” Jake said. The group spent about 30 seconds debating the pros and cons of declaring bankruptcy. Consensus was not reached, and the topic was shelved.

To be in the orbit of Hollerado has usually felt like that: to be privy to the constant potential creation of some madcap scheme, like a kinder, somewhat more wholesome episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. With straight faces, Hollerado have pitched and executed plans that most people might interpret, with a short chuckle, as a joke. They released their first record in Ziploc bags with bits of confetti. They and their friends painted each and every vinyl and CD copy of their second full-length, 2013’s White Paint. Next, they wrote 111 songs for paying fans (disclosure: I was one of them). To help offset the cost of renting a tour bus on their 2018 tour, the band rented out two bunks on the bus. These aren’t terribly rare strategies—DIY communities around the world pull off stunts like these all the time. But it’s notable (and maybe a bit shocking) for a band as relatively visible and well-positioned as Hollerado to allow people to graffiti all over their former tour van.

This operating style—which has brought Hollerado three JUNO Award nominations and regular airtime on Canadian rock radio—is a natural outcropping of a young adulthood spent living in Montreal squeezing the most out of each penny in the name of fun. (Versteeg quipped, “Montreal is where 25-year olds go to retire.”) The Boyds lived in an apartment with no fridge or stove, storing their food outside in the winter. They practiced in a condemned building and sold bags of weed. It’s a nice punk-ish indie band origin story.

Hollerado throwing in the towel feels like a bummer, especially because they were experts in the business of creating and preserving experiences of joy, fun, and idiosyncrasy via their live shows. Over the course of our conversation, the band excitedly recollects odds and ends from their latest tour: a shitty pizza restaurant venue in Lethbridge, a mid-show coughing fit that derailed the night, unprepared “Eye Of The Tiger” covers, someone always on acid. For the audience, these gatherings and the music are critical and emotional, especially so on this past tour.

Hollerado’s steadfast adherence to principles of pleasure and happiness haven’t gone unnoticed. “They’re the same guys they’ve always been,” said Toronto booker and promoter Dan Burke. “[Menno] comes to shows! He’s still almost like a guy who just started in the business. He’s got that level of enthusiasm.” But in an industry committed first and foremost to frictionless capital and profit, those qualities were often out of place. “Bands who don’t take themselves seriously don’t get taken seriously,” said Versteeg. When they excitedly suggested the now-beloved packaging for Record In A Bag, labels told them to “grow up, enough with the kid stuff.” “We had some people around us who were like, ‘Fuck them, not done with the kid stuff. Do it how you feel.’

“[And] just because we shoot confetti and like smiling in pictures doesn’t mean that our songs don’t have real emotion to them. One of the reasons we were ready to close the door on this project is… people being like, ‘Here comes Ontario’s biggest party band with another record full of party bangers to play at your next kegger!’ Listen, we just made an album about our friends dying.”

Spaces committed solely to exploring ways to build friendship and connection seem harder than ever to come by. DIY venues and community spaces are shuttering and streaming services are increasingly open about their desire to cater to moneyed artists with algorithm-friendly music. Pockets of excitement and true, untainted enjoyment are increasingly encroached upon by the demands and oppressions of capitalism—if not disallowed altogether. The members of Hollerado recalled the first time they felt these things as kids. For Nixon, it was making mixtapes with Jake and their grandfather. (Nixon noted that he tried to eat the foam on the microphone.) Baxter pointed to the first snow tunnels he dug. For Versteeg, it was a babysitter putting on Springsteen’s Born In The USA. Jake said, “It probably has something to do with just like, realizing what friends are, realizing that, ‘Oh, sometimes you get to kind of just hang around and mess about and make each other laugh.’”

Making music has been a means to this end: hanging out with friends. They laughed that their ideal show would involve no performance at all. They’d simply hang out in the green room goofing off together for an hour. “This morning, I was feeling kind of anxious because we’ve been off for a couple days,” said Jake. “I thought about it and was like, ‘No, I get to see the guys today, and we’re gonna go do a bunch of band errands.’”

Indie Rock Isn’t Dead

The band isn’t overly precious about the end drawing near. “It’s like, ‘This is so fun, I’m gonna miss it, and also my back hurts quite a bit,’” said Jake. Versteeg noted they have some Air Miles to divide, potentially via a group vacation. He’ll now be focusing on Royal Mountain—the label that houses Alvvays, Pup, Orville Peck, US Girls and many more— while Jake offers drum lessons out of the label’s office. Nixon is producing records, and Baxter works at Hamilton craft brewery Collective Arts. They’re not concerned about losing touch—they agreed they’ll continue to gather for regular trips to Costco.

As their chapter as a band ends on the precipice of a new decade that will likely continue to radically alter what it means to be an indie rock band in Canada, the four swapped pieces of advice for young bands starting out. None of these suggestions had to do with money or business. They settled on one instructive: on your first tour as a band, use a paper map. “You’re gonna take wrong turns, and you’re gonna fight,” said Baxter. Versteeg grinned: “If you come out still loving each other and having a good time, then you have what it takes.”

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