Hollis Brown—The Last Great American Rock ‘N’ Roll Band?

Ozone Park: The Queens, New York neighborhood that is the gateway to the Rockaway beaches; where the late Mafia don John Gotti held his annual July 4th block parties and constantly thwarted authorities desperately trying to prevent his illegal fireworks show; and the birthplace of Hollis Brown, the head-turning R&B rock band whose latest, and inevitably breakthrough, LP is titled, yes, Ozone Park.

Although Hollis Brown adopted their name after Bob Dylan’s most depressing song, the band plays an upbeat brand of pure, unblanched soulful R&B and rock that recalls the best of Blues Traveler, Black Crowes, and even Maroon 5 before they were spoiled by former Disney Princesses and sugary teeny-bopper pop sensibilities.

During the weeks leading up to the band’s seemingly endless tour, founding member and lead guitarist Jonathan Bonilla is apprenticing with an acclaimed Manhattan custom guitar maker, learning the instrument’s nuts and bolts. After a long day with the instrument maker, Bonilla decompressed by talking with The Aquarian about Hollis Brown and the band’s new disc.

You were raised in Ozone Park, Queens?

My parents moved there during the early eighties. I was raised near Aqueduct Racetrack.

That was near the infamous “mafia graveyard,” the plot of land along the A subway line, eventually dug up to build a school and unearthing a bunch of bodies.

Yeah. Since the album’s release, I’ve met people who have roots in the area. No one ever seems to talk about [the neighborhood] because nothing else ever happens there.

Why did the band choose the title Ozone Park for the new album?

Although [singer-guitarist] Mike [Montali] and I met while attending Archbishop Molloy High School in Jamaica, Queens and jammed on occasion, we didn’t formerly join forces until college. At first, we attended colleges in separate states, but we decided to return to New York City and form a band.

When I first started playing with Mike, I was living in Ozone Park. We had no money and we didn’t know where we could rehearse. My dad had a garage in our backyard, which he never used. He said, ‘If you guys want to clean it out, you can practice there.’ Me, Mike, and two other friends fixed it up and painted the walls red, purple, and blue—psychedelic colors—because we were really into Pink Floyd at the time. We dressed the walls with posters and Rolling Stone magazine articles. That’s where we started playing music together. We were literally a garage band.

From where did the band draw its initial influences?

At the garage, we would listen to a lot of different music. In addition to Pink Floyd, we listened to The Velvet Underground and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. We would cover those songs. We tried to sound like them.

Why did the band cross the borough to Astoria?

It was difficult finding other band members who would come to Ozone Park to rehearse. So, we decided to move to a rehearsal studio in Astoria, Queens.

How did the band morph from a psychedelic garage band into a soulful R&B rock group?

Maturity, perhaps. We didn’t make a conscious decision to stop or start writing any one type of music… it just happened. We started listening to Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and a lot of Motown. It influenced our playing. Mike became a much better singer and he was able to sing R&B, soul, and rock. Mike’s [vocal dexterity] allowed us to broaden our musical horizons; explore different genres.

Why did you name the band after arguably Bob Dylan’s most depressing song?

We’re huge Bob Dylan fans. When trying to come up with a name for the band, Mike and I thought, ‘The Rolling Stones adopted the name of a Muddy Waters’ song, so let’s pick a Dylan song title.’ We threw around a few names, but we didn’t want to choose [the title] of one of his most popular songs.

Have there been people who have thought Hollis Brown is an actual person in the band?

We get that all the time, especially when we play corporate gigs. The guy who books us often doesn’t really know or care about us; he just needs entertainment. Thankfully, we don’t do many of those type of gigs anymore.

I wonder what Dylan will say after he hears the band?

Maybe he’ll make fun of us.

I think Dylan would like your music and appreciate the band; perhaps even take your out on tour.

That would be a dream come true.

Hollis Brown has joined artists like Rival Sons and John Mellencamp who promote new music through film trailers, television, commercials, and fashion shows.

At one point, designer John Varvatoswas going to sign us to his music label. For whatever reason, it did not work out, but he loved one of our songs and asked to use it at his Winter 2018 fashion shows. He paid us, gave us clothes, and took promo shots of us that came out great. He didn’t put our record out, but he made us look good…. We’ve worked with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and, most recently, with Cyndi Lauper at the Underwater Sunshine Festival at the Bowery Electric in Manhattan.

Videos of Hollis Brown and Cyndi Lauper performing “Money Changes Everything” and The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are on YouTube.

She’s ageless and she’s amazing.

I was shocked by how soft-spoken DMC is. When he raps, his voice is booming.

When both of those artists came to rehearsal, they were professional. They acted like they were performing at the actual show. We first worked with DMC a couple of years ago. It was the first time I met him. His personal trainer had one of our songs on his iPod. DMC heard it and said, ‘I like these guys, I want to work with them.’ When we rehearsed, it didn’t matter that we were in this small, square studio; he acted as if he was on stage. We were inspired. That professionalism changed us for the better.

It changed the way Hollis Brown rehearses?

I was speaking with DMC after our rehearsal and he said, ‘You can’t treat rehearsal like a rehearsal and then go on stage and be a great live act. You have to do what you are going to do live in that studio.’ That way, you can work out the kinks and find out what works and what does not. I never thought about it until I saw him do it.

Hollis Brown formed 10 years ago and it’s been a slow burn, but Ozone Park may be the band’s breakthrough.

The album has already charted on the Billboard Heatseekers and a couple of indie charts. I believe this is our best album, which is why we took so long creating it.

Why did the band record at Unity Gain Studiosin Fort Meyers, Florida and not in Brooklyn, as the band had in the past?

We were part of another label, Julian Records. The owner of the label asked us to record and we agreed, but we said, ‘We have to play some shows to build capital for the recording.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I have a connection in Florida. Get down there and I’ll take care of the studio.’

Anthony Iannucci, who also hails from Queens, has a school at the studio where he teaches students how to engineer recordings. He cancelled classes for nine days and recorded our record.

Hollis Brown has strong harmonies.

I sing a little back up, but I would never sing lead. [Keyboardist] Adam Bock is the main backup singer and then there’s me and our new bassist, Chris Urriola. When we did our first record, we didn’t focus on harmonies, but we’ve added that [to our repertoire]. I think it’s another reason why we’re becoming more successful.

How long has Chris been in the band?

He joined in the beginning of this year. We were having problems finding a full time bassist. It seems that every bassist in New York is “for hire.” It is not the same as being a guitarist. You can earn a living playing bass with a million different artists. A good bassist was hard to come by.

One day I said to Mike, ‘Do you remember that guy who used to be in that band?’ I had forgotten his name, so I went through my friends on Facebook until I found him. I hit him up and told him we were looking for a band member and not someone looking to be paid per gig. He said he wanted to be in a band.

Does he appear on Ozone Park?

No. He joined right after we finished the recording. Mike and our producer split bass duties on the record.

Who produced the record?

We worked with Adam Landry [Deer Tick, Rayland Baxter, and Vanessa Carlton] again.

Hollis Brown’s rendition of Jesse Malin’s “She Don’t Love Me Now” could be a big hit.

A few years ago, we toured England with Jesse and we heard him play that song. I said to Mike, ‘That’s a great song, but I think we could do it better.’ I asked Jesse if we could cover it and he said, ‘Go ahead. Do whatever you want.’ When we got back to the States, we started messing around with it and it became a staple of our live sets. If we ever do a show again with Jesse, we’ll have to fight over who gets to play it.

Or you both could join up at the end of the night to perform it together.

That would be perfect. DMC told me that when Run-DMC toured with Aerosmith, they were not allowed to play “Walk This Way.” They would have to wait until the end of the entire show and then Aerosmith would bring them out to play it together.

How did Hollis Brown wind with Mascot Records?

Somehow they heard the finished recording and asked to buy us out of our contract [with Julian Records]. It took a few months for the labels to work out a deal. Mascot is a Dutch-based label and Holland was the first place outside of America to embrace us. It’s fitting.

Hollis Brown are road dogs; always touring. These days, an artist can record a classic album, but without touring, that artist will not survive.

We’re about to head off on a very long tour that will include dates in Europe. It’s been a while since we’ve been on an extended tour, so I am looking forward to it.

You are about to play shows with Thunderpussy.

This is the first time we’re touring with an all-girl band. I’m looking forward to it, because touring with just guy bands gets boring.

Hollis Brown is also scheduled to perform at Woodstock 50, if it happens.

Yes, we’ve been booked and the artists have been paid. The promoters just need to look down a site and sell tickets. Let’s just hope it happens. If you told me 20 years ago, when I first took up the guitar, that I would be playing at Woodstock, my mind would have been blown.

The proposed lineup is amazing.

Some people have complained that there are too many hip-hop and pop artists, but I like that. I would hate to go to a festival where there is only one genre of music.

The original Woodstock lineup was musically diverse with artists such as Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix and Sha Na Na.

Absolutely. A lot of festivals, however, concentrate on one genre. We just did Mountain Jam, which I love, but it’s smaller and concentrates on rock and jam bands. That is why I am looking forward to Woodstock 50.

Although Hollis Brown’s music appeals to a wide audience, are you concerned about being branded a jam band?

We are a rock band that jams, but we’re not a jam band. Being embraced by the jam band community, however, has helped us. If you become part of that scene, they will stick with you forever. As long as get on stage and play, they will follow you. They may not buy your records, but they will come to your shows.

Catch Hollis Brown at The Saint in Asbury Park on August 8 and Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg on August 9!