The day before Quiet Hollers released Amen Breaks, a stylistically-ambitious album that lyrically revolves around mental health struggles, the band was setting up their instruments at DeadBird Studio in Germantown to run through their Forecastle set. Somewhere in between plugging in and sound checking, they showed me their new music video for “Pressure,” featuring them in a WWE-style wrestling ring with Kongo Kong, a mountain of a human who tosses the five of them around in the minute and change that the punk-leaning song runs.
“I felt his warm embrace, like he was my own father,” singer Shadwick Wilde deadpaned as he plugged in his guitar.
“That second time he dropped me, I think I got a little concussed,” bassist Jake Hellman said.
The band is easygoing and usually joking around, and those lighthearted sensibilities definitely carry over to the video, but like the lyrics of “Pressure” and the rest of Amen Breaks, there’s also a thoughtful, heavy darkness about it that gravitates toward life’s anxieties.
“Kongo Kong’s character represents the pressures of being on the road, and the pressures of the exploitative nature of the entertainment industry in general,” Wilde said. “In the video, both our manager and Kongo arranged, this, not fight, but slaughter to take place — unbeknownst to us.”
‘It’s about struggling with existential issues’
Amen Breaks isn’t a concept record, just more or less a reflection of what’s impacted the constellation of people around Wilde, the band’s primary songwriter.
“It’s kind of an amalgam of things that have been in the forefront of my mind, about mental health and mental illness — these things that have touched the lives of virtually everyone I know, myself included,” Wilde told me a week earlier about the themes on the band’s third LP, which was released on July 7. “So that’s been on my mind a lot, in the last year or so, when we were writing this record.”
These issues are scattered throughout the record, since they’ve been omnipresent in Wilde’s life for the past few years. His wife has panic disorder, while he struggles with depression. One of his longtime friends, a military veteran, had post-traumatic stress disorder, which led to alcoholism, and then suicide.
“As a songwriter, we write a lot of things about our relationships, one way or another — sometimes literally, sometime allegorically,” Wilde said. “It’s about struggling with existential issues through the lens of mental illness or religion. Or more of an absence of religion, in my personal case.”
But, even though Amen Breaks is inspired largely by his personal life, his songwriting is a lot more ambiguous and widely applicable these days — less driven by a narrative in which he’s the central character, and more focused on sweeping events and issues that have infiltrated his bubble in life, and are central to society in general.
“My writing, it’s not autobiographical so much anymore, because I think it’s more interesting to look at the human condition through the freedom of fiction,” Wilde said. “There are a lot more questions than there are answers on this record, but these are the questions that have been keeping me up at night. My music is the way to deal with that stuff.”
Unique people and parts
It is obvious on Amen Breaks how unconcerned the band was about falling into a certain genre or sound, compared to their first two records. There’s some of the alt-country sensibilities of the first record, and there’s some of the post-punk, indie-leaning type stuff that frequents the second record, but there are appearances from hip-hop style drum machines, swirling synths, string quartets and harmony-laden choruses.
And yet it still has continuity.
Their first record, 2013’s I Am The Morning, sounded like they set out to make a roots record, while on its follow up, 2015’s self-titled, they found their own little corner, sounding more like a band with a bunch of unique people and parts that bring a conglomeration of ideas together, shooting the songs in multiple directions. Amen Breaks builds on that, except it takes it two steps further.
“It’s more interesting to not put limits on yourself,” Wilde said. “Personally, some of my favorite records are the kind of records where every song sounds different, like London Calling or Born To Run. If you can do whatever you want, why not?”
The more I listen to the songs from Amen Breaks, and the more I talked to the band, the more I’ve realized that the reason that the album sounds quite a bit different, but still definitively like a Quiet Hollers record, is that each member made these incremental adjustments, taking a chance or making a small change that resulted in the record being twisted in so many different directions. Multi-instrumentalist Jim Bob Brown started playing synth because he used a wider-ranging keyboard when they toured Europe for the last record, and when he got back to the states, he bought a similar model.
“It has a completely different bank of sounds than I was used to,” Brown said. “Piano has a very definitive sound. Synth is a little more warm, and has more room for things to build on top of it.”
Aaron West, who plays guitar and violin, conducted a string quartet for a few songs, adding layers of depth that creates these big symphony-like moments that run well alongside Wilde’s voice, which mostly holds a calm delivery, but has the capability of exploding into something more emotionally driven.
“I feel like it’s really epic sounding and cinematic, with two violins, viola and cello,” West said.
Hellman, who plays bass, added a pedal, giving his parts more range.
“I got to use bass distortion for the first time — the first time anyone let me record it, anyway,” Hellman said with a laugh. “My favorite thing about this album is we get to play so many styles and really just have fun with what we’re doing. We’re not really locked into anything.”
Dave Chale, the drummer and the newest addition of Quiet Hollers, is also the owner of DeadBird studio. Chale, who was the technical producer of Amen Breaks and became a full-time member during the recording process, said that, while a band’s mutation is dependent on its members, it’s also kind of random.
“People like to corner everybody into a genre, but really it comes down to what instrument that you picked up that day, what idea you had in your head, a melody line or whatever,” Chale said. “If you pick up an acoustic, it’s going to sound a little more Americana and rootsy. If you pick up an electric it’s going to sound less like that. It’s kind of accidental almost.”
While there are obvious benefits of taking a few left turns for a band that’s a couple of records in — since essentially recreating the same thing over and over can weigh down any kind of evolution — there’s also a good chance that it’s going to take an audience a bit to get used to it, especially live.
“We have one song that starts with a drum machine and a synthesizer, playing this ambient sort of beat — a rolling 808,” Wilde said. “It’s not exactly an unfamiliar sound to a music listener’s ear, but actually a few times when we’ve played that song, people heard the drum machine beat and either gasped or laughed nervously, and then one guy made a joke about R. Kelly, which was very distasteful. We took a lot of risks with this album, and people are going to react.”
“When we play ‘Pressure’ people don’t know that it’s over,” Hellman added. “They are just waiting for the next part.”
“There’s a synth ballad on the record, and there’s a one-and-a-half minute punk song on the record and there’s an acoustic psychedelic folk song,” Wilde continued. “It’s full of just what was rattling around the rehearsal space.”
Road from punk, hardcore
Wilde, who is 30, has lived in Louisville for 15 years. He was born in Boston and moved shortly thereafter to San Francisco, where his mother was working as a documentary filmmaker. They stayed in San Francisco until he was 13, not including the year they spent in Havana, Cuba. Next, they moved to Amsterdam to be closer to his maternal grandmother. His grandparents got divorced in the ‘60s, so while his grandmother, who is Dutch, stayed in the Netherlands, his grandfather, who is from Kentucky, moved home, which is what brought him to Louisville at 15.
In Louisville, he joined an Oi!-style band called Straight Laced, which eventually led him to playing guitar in other punk and hardcore bands such as Lexington’s Brassknuckle Boys and Iron Cross, a D.C. group that formed before he was born. In 2010, Wilde started playing solo acoustic under his own name, and as he started to add more members to his live show, he decided to just start a band. So, they went by Shadwick Wilde & the Quiet Hollers, but as the band started to round out, and he realized that their name was too long, it was dropped down to just Quiet Hollers.
“The project as a band was much more exciting than just me singing sad songs with a guitar,” Wilde said.
Wilde put one record out under his own name, Unforgivable Things, which is now out of print. The first Quiet Hollers record, I Am The Morning, was released in 2013, an album that very comfortably falls into alt-country. For only being four years old, it sounds a lot different than the band’s music does now. Wilde and West are the only two remaining original members, and, while you can hear the base of what they still do, going back and listening to that record is an instant reminder of how much the band has changed in just four years. 2015’s self-titled was when they started tearing down genre barriers, but Amen Breaks is the one that really diverts from the initial path.
“It’s a departure in some ways for them, as far as the songs go, but in that, I thought all of the songs were brilliant,” said Jaxon Swain, who is vice president of SonaBLAST Records and signed the band prior to this record. “There’s a lot of diversity on there — I like that kind of record personally — but it still makes sense. It all fits together in a narrowly pretty way.”
‘Oh my god, who are you?’
While their sound has expanded, so has their audience, and in a strange and serendipitous turn, Quiet Hollers have a Dutch following that has nothing to do with the fact that Wilde lived their for two years. Last year, a group of Dutch booking agents discovered Quiet Hollers online, and reached out to the band to bring them over.
“We didn’t know what to expect in terms of places we’d be playing, or who we’d be playing to, if anybody knew who we were even, but we ended up selling out a bunch of shows, which was a huge shock to us, going to a different country and playing sold out rooms,” Wilde said. “My grandmother, who always had a causal interest in my music, she got to come and see us play in one of these sold-out shows in Amsterdam, where she lives, and they had a two-page spread about us in the newspaper that she gets brought to her house, and she was like, ‘Oh my god, who are you?’”
One of the venues that the Quiet Hollers played was next door to a bar that Wilde frequented half his life ago, back when he was in high school in Amsterdam, which ended up being one of those circular moments where the present has a nostalgic visit from the past.
“After school we used to just go to the bar, which I know is a really funny thought for most Americans to think about,” Wilde said, referencing that Amsterdam’s drinking laws are more liberal. “But, that place was a stone’s throw from the place that we played. It was a strange thought. Music has done some really strange things in my personal life. I’m sitting here on the same patio at 30 years old that I did when I was 15 years old. Instead of listening to music, I’ve just gotten done playing music. And it’s music that brought me here.” •
Quiet Hollers play Forecastle on Friday, July 14 at 4:15 p.m. on the Port Stage.
More Louisville Bands At Forecastle
Friday at 3 p.m. | Mast Stage
A whirlwind of psychedelic experimentalism that sends its folk base into indescribable territory, Twin Limb is a stormy, yet dreamy band that ventures all over the genre map. With dark and melancholy lyrics that are also airy and ethereal, a minimalistic, trance-inducing core structure and a bunch of wild ambient things happening in the background, this trio somehow keeps expanding its sound.
Friday at 5:45 p.m. | Port Stage
With an ominous, brooding sound that for some reason always reminds me of Glanton’s gang riding through the desert in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Jaye Jayle has a Nick Cave-like coolheaded evil going on, a calm and calculated anger that’s just beneath the surface, and makes no attempt to be hidden, like a litany of dark clouds on the horizon that announces it’s not above fucking your day up. When punks cross the border to more traditional — a word I’m using loosely in this case, but you know what I mean — states of singer-songwriter, weird and wonderful things happen, and this is one you should be paying attention to.
Teddy Abrams and Friends
Friday at 9 p.m. | Port Stage
The Louisville Orchestra overlord’s variety hour, featuring members of the local music community and beyond, backed by a symphony. Who knows what to expect, but last year saw 1200 and James Lindsey performing “1200 Roses” and Matt from Houndmouth covering The Boss. It’s a miscalculation by Forecastle to schedule this set at the same time as Run The Jewels, since most out-of-towners will already have their minds made up, but remember that this is a one-time set that won’t be reproduced.
Saturday at 3 p.m. | Ocean Stage
An up-and-coming rapper with a smooth flow and clever wordplay, Jack Harlow distributes a fast and sharp scattershot of ambitious and confident bars. Not far out of high school, he’s already been turning heads and stacking up tracks for a couple of years now, and he’s marked a place in a Louisville hip-hop scene that’s extremely strong.