On The Radical Compassion Of The Hotelier
Christian Holden will go to epic, often unreasonable lengths to get a good album cover. But they draw the line at getting arrested.
It’s a frigid, not-quite-spring day in early April, and the bassist and singer for the Hotelier — one of the most fiercely beloved and creatively restless young punk groups in America — is showing me the little slice of Eden where the quite memorable cover for their eagerly anticipated third album Goodness was shot last August. On the off chance you haven’t seen it, it’s a photo of eight elderly men and women posing completely nude in a forest in Charlton, Massachusetts, their bodies indifferent to your opinion, their grey pubises wafting defiantly in the breeze. It’s a striking and beautiful image, and it was not easy to get.
“We couldn’t block the trail off,” Holden says. “We talked to the police, because if we didn’t talk to the police, we’d get arrested.” After cordoning off the parts of the forest that were off-limits, officials told the Hotelier that “‘the rest of it is federal property and we basically can’t tell you no,’ And, we were like ‘sick.’
“So we didn’t have to pay anybody to use it, we didn’t have to get any permits,” Holden says, a small smile forming on their lips. “It’s just legal to be naked down there.”
Just the same, says Holden, some local law-enforcement officers happened upon the scene and asked what was going on.
“We said, ‘there’s some nude shooting, and if you want we can escort you through,'” remembers Holden. “And they said ‘oh, no problem.’ And they started forcibly walking away from us.”
Using Craigslist, the band put out a call for nude models in the Massachusetts area, promising $150 for an honest day’s work. The original wave of submissions was overwhelmingly male, but a model named Sal helped them find more women who were willing to participate. The shoot started at 5AM and lasted until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and parts of it are shown in the album trailer that director/photographer Xirin made to accompany the announcement of Goodness‘ pending release.
But before anyone could disrobe, it was a battle for Holden to convince guitarists Chris Hoffman and Ben Gauthier (who, unwilling to tour anymore, left the group shortly after finishing Goodness) and drummer Sam Frederick that a full-frontal nude photograph of AARP members in the forest would best encapsulate the complex philosophical ideas at the heart of Goodness. “It was a huge contention,” Holden allows. “I was gung-ho about it. ‘We won’t know if this is awful until we try it.’ The rest of the band had doubts.”
“I thought it was cool at first,” Frederick says, “and then I had a period of time where I was like, ‘I don’t know.'” He pauses for a second. “Now, I like it.”
Hoffman didn’t like the idea at all, but has come around a bit more. “It’s not offensive to me. It just didn’t make any sense,” he adds. “I still think we could have gotten a better picture, but now I’m happy with it.”
After time in Brighton, Frederick recently moved back home, though he commutes back to his warehouse gig at Newbury Comics. “It’s a mindless job, but they let me go away and come back,” he says. His mother runs an animal shelter, and her home also serves as one in miniature. There are six cats and two dogs in the house, and outside a brown steed greeted us when we returned from an afternoon walk in the woods that peaked with a panoramic hilltop view of the town.
This area of Massachusetts is small enough that several towns have to share one regional high school. Frederick and Hoffman are from here, Holden and founding guitarist Zack Shaw are from neighboring Charlton. It’s largely a commuter area, with most people working in Boston or at one of the nearby colleges or hospitals, though there are plenty of farmers as well. What there’s not is a great deal for kids to do after school, so most days when class let out the members of the Hotelier naturally gravitated to Frederick’s rec room to practice.
Everyone was in different bands at first, but the area was too small for all the music heads not to know everyone and play together. (As sometimes happened in the late ’00s, some of said high school bands were metalcore.) Eventually, Holden tried to form a reconstituted version of their freshman year indie-pop project the Oregon Trail, which eventually turned into the Hotelier, then called the Hotel Year. Deciding that everyone in the band was better at guitar than he was, Frederick switched to drums. After their debut performance at a high school talent show, they played as many nearby VFW halls, community centers and skate parks as possible.
Their 2011 debut album It Never Goes Out was jammed out in a pot-fueled haze after everyone but Holden started getting high all the damn time. Holden has never been drunk or high (and is also a vegetarian) and considers themselves straight edge.
After spending time in the unnervingly quiet woods near their practice space — still serene and teeming with life even while recovering from a brutal winter — and listening to half of the band wax rhapsodic about the joys of jamming while stoned, I point out that it seems like a cosmic mis-organization that the Hotelier didn’t become some sort of mystical hippie folk-jam operation. Luckily for the fans who use their bloodletting outbursts as a fuel source, the Hotelier members maintain that they are close enough to the main suburbs of Massachusetts to have suburban tastes. They all first bonded over the punk, metal, and emo bands that became popular via MySpace last decade, especially Saves The Day and the Drive-Thru Records catalog, and then moved on to more traditional hardcore punk and emo touchstones such as the Promise Ring and American Football.
Those tastes are reflected in It Never Goes Out. Recorded while they were teenagers, it’s a rushed, brief (“it’s just barely over 30 minutes, I think,” Holden notes, “maybe not even”), but well-made album firmly in the early-’00s pop-punk tradition of Vagrant Records. To support it, they toured with their friends in Born Without Bones in a bus that had a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and shook constantly. It was a short tour.
“A lot of the Never Goes Out lyrics — and even our early demo stuff — was just really optimistic pop-punk,” Holden says. “And then I think I just stopped thinking like that as much.” Instead, they started wondering: “How do we make this more interesting?”
Eventually, the joie de vivre that fueled the first album started to wear off. The band was still fun, but nothing else in Holden’s life was. “When I was writing Never, there was this mindset that the part of yourself that feels the most free and feels the most empowered and ready to take on the world was the most pure form of self,” Holden says while inserting and removing a plug into a multi-outlet strip. “Then, a lot of my friends started…”
Holden pauses for a second and looks down at the outlet, their long brown hair covering most of their face.
“…going through some rough shit. And I felt this sense where when you’re really real with the people in your life, and feel really connected with them… that’s a more desirable state of being.”
The Hotelier’s attempt to reconcile this feeling, and many other more volatile and difficult ones, resulted in their sophomore album, Home, Like Noplace Is There. Released on the Charlotte, North Carolina independent label Tiny Engines (which passed on Never, but agreed to release their second album), Home is an album of nervous breakdown anthems twisted into odd angles and held together with frayed duct tape, with a logorrheic singer that makes Patrick Stickles look like a wallflower. By the time Holden — sounding terrified but determined to go forward — sings “I searched for a way out/don’t we all?” on opener “An Introduction To The Album,” it was clear that this was one of those albums that had to exist. Both for its makers, and for those that didn’t realize they needed it in their lives. Though most outlets ignored it at first, those that found the album greeted it with a response that could basically be summarized as “thank God people still make music like this.” The Hotelier’s tour for the album started at the Brooklyn DIY space Suburbia; when they came back two months later as an opening act, the venue was packed. “It seemed like everybody knew the words, and there were so many people there to see us,” Holden says, still sounding giddy at the memory.
Oh, and that album cover was also an ordeal. Originally, Holden painted the title on the recently foreclosed house of a friend. The cops arrived, but Holden told them that the friend still lived there, so it was fine. But the shots came out “awful,” Holden says, so they had to try again, but this time the cops got in contact with the former owners (which Holden did not expect to happen) and learned the band did not in fact have permission to paint the house, so they just had to do it with Photoshop.
Home slowly established the Hotelier as the alternative to the alternative, rock music for people too old or tasteful to go to the Warped Tour and who also find much of current indie rock to be too vibey, chill, and empty. For this important work, the Hotelier — along with their friends and tourmates in Into It. Over It., The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, and Modern Baseball — were grouped together as part of the emo revival. The narrative here is that these groups and others are out to rehabilitate the genre’s good name after the MySpace-inspired wave of trend-chasing, uber-slick Fall Out Bros ran the once thriving scene nurtured by Thursday, Brand New and the Promise Ring into the ground by the end of last decade.
None of the above-mentioned revivers, all of whom are among the most vital groups making rock music today, are happy with this designation, and are too-forward thinking to be accurately pigeonholed with a term that is, by its inherent nature, regressive. I joked to the band that they are the emo J.J. Abrams, rebooting the genre to get at the heart of what people liked about it in the first place and cutting the embarrassing parts out of continuity. (For purposes of this discussion, consider Sunny Day Real Estate to be Han Solo, the Hotelier to be Finn and, say, Girls Like Boys to be Jar Jar Binks.)
This is not a band that has a problem sharing their feelings and, on this subject, they’re decidedly mixed.
“Us making records has been about showing that this style of music isn’t awful because there’s something inherent about how the instruments are played or how the melodies are done that make it specifically awful,” Frederick says. “I think that a lot of people who make that style of music got lazy. Mostly because they were given tons of money to make subpar albums.
“And in the same way that shoe-gazey thing that was happening, or is maybe still happening, is eventually going to be seen as annoying again. So I don’t think any genre is inherently awful,” he continues, “we have a bunch of friends that span different genres. And they say the same things.”
No one in the band wants to disassociate themselves from the groups they loved when they were younger, and no one has any illusions about how that wave ended or how it is viewed today.
“I feel that what talking about the emo revival always does is it finds a way to make us separate from other indie rock that’s happening,” Holden says, “when I don’t think that’s purposeful or needed, except that some people think that it’s not as cool or something.
“What is annoying about it is that it just creates a situation in which there’s always some sort of excuse to set us apart from other music that’s being made and other contemporaries that could just be our contemporaries,” they continue. “We didn’t go to some art school and then make a band at art school. I don’t mean to bash it, but someone from an art school can make something that has much less content in it and is somehow seen as dense and it’s cooler, and that’s just confusing to me.”
“I don’t like how a lot of people do spoken word with music,” Hoffman says. “Sometimes it feels lazy. Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to make something really grand. And poets that I like, I don’t like listening to them read their poems.”
But as with the cover, there’s always a purpose behind Holden’s more off-beat ideas, and it’s integral to the evolution they wanted the Hotelier to make on Goodness.
“With Home, I wanted to force the listener to have to get into this place where they’re sadder or deeper, to get to their darker core self, where they keep all the stuff that they pushed down,” Holden says. “And then on this one, I wanted to force people into a place of being calm and a little bit off balance.
“I wanted to make something that wasn’t dark and wasn’t heavy, but was sort of lighter, and had a sort of more holy feel to it.”
Again working with producer Seth Manchester, the Hotelier have created a rich, layered album that honors both the hook-centric suburban emo-punk of their childhood and the placid, eerie beauty of the woods that surround them, creating a form of pastoral punk rock.
“Here it’s slower, and there’s a lot more room for silence and spreading stuff out. And that’s sort of what I was kind of trying to channel into this record,” Holden says. “I was messing with silence, and messing around with keeping certain parts of songs missing on purpose, both structurally and instrumentally. I was literally thinking for some of the songs ‘how do I make this feel more natural?’ And then fucking with that.”
At one point, the album was going to be a joint release between Tiny Engines and Collect Records, the label run by Thursday/United Nations/No Devotion frontman Geoff Rickly. The band and Rickly talked for a year after meeting at Florida DIY festival The Fest and eventually worked out a deal. But after news broke last fall that the label’s silent investor, hedge fund manager and former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals Martin Shkreli was jacking up the prices of a drug prescribed to patients suffering from AIDS, the band asked to be let out of their contract, as neither they nor Tiny Engines wanted any association with anything Shkreli had been involved with. (Rickly, who says he didn’t know about the price gouging, severed all ties with Shkreli the week the story broke.) “It was funny that we owed $20,000 to the most hated man in America,” Holden says. “That was very entertaining to me.”
In the family area is a cupboard full of games and a bulletin board with upcoming Starship activities such as “Self Care Daze” and “Family Trip To Drive-In.” There was a house meeting earlier, and now Holden, myself, and some of their bandmates and housemates are currently listening to ‘00s-indie playlist heavy on the Killers and MGMT and playing a dystopian roleplaying card game called Coup. To win this game, one needs to have a strong poker face and the ability to quickly differentiate between the powers and limitations of dukes, ambassadors, and contessas. Hoffman is excellent at this game. He assassinated me several times.
Holden first met the members of Starship in 2010 after hitching a ride with them to a mountaintop removal demonstration. “I had just graduated high school and was trying to hang out and link into things,” Holden says. “I don’t know if you can tell by the giant squid in the hallway, but everyone is sort of a goofy punk with radical politics.” Holden kept hanging around and learning more about anarchist politics, and once an opening was available (the actual location of the collective’s house has changed a few times), they were invited to apply to move in.
“The application ranges from questions like, ‘What is your interest in collective living?,’ to ‘How do you identify?,’ to ‘Draw us a picture of a submarine.’
“Worcester sort of has a laid-back vibe in all aspects of subculture. The activism is a lot less identity-consuming.”
Holden first became exposed to activism and anarchism through the CrimethInc collective while in high school (“it was based around not accepting the life that is planned for you”), which also introduced him to the unschooling philosophy. Anarchism, specifically in the form of the DIY educational collective the Greater Boston Free School, later introduced Holden to the Eastern philosophy of acceptance Taoism, which was essential to the making of Goodness. “I think that things should be left alone and they should be left to sort of just see what they do,” Holden says. “I think that I’m in it for a spirituality and a philosophy that is just less violent to the world.”
“Emo” is a loaded term that automatically gives detractors plenty of unfair stereotypes to work with. That’s true times about a thousand for the term “anarchist punk.” And as with emo, Holden doesn’t get too worked up about it. I told them that, if one felt like being unfair, the term instantly brings to mind images of angry teenagers with Crass patches on their jackets and a worldview that amounts to “fuck my dad,” and they just chuckled, shaking their long hair back and forth for a second.
“I guess what anarchism means to me is I think that all humans are trustworthy to self-govern, down to the smallest group, like a collective like this. I think that we are a group that self-governs and self-organizes, and the world that I would like to see is a federated way of humans interacting with each other, where different collectives meet and decide within themselves. That actually is what people call true democracy, where people are able to have control over their own lives and not have other people with more resources determine how people with less resources are going to live.
“It basically means that I’m mostly anti-government, I’m one hundred percent anti-cop, I’m against all forms of suppression forced by the existence of the state, and I’m also anti-capitalist. That’s basically what it boils down to.”
Hoffman is also into anarchism, while Frederick is apolitical. “I feel like no part of his being is consumed by politics,” Holden says of his bandmate. “Not even the current election. Sam could care less.”
Once the topic of elections was raised, I asked Holden if there was a candidate they could support, or if it was all just too tainted for them.
“Bernie Sanders is alright, but I don’t glorify him in the same way that a lot of other people do,” Holden says. “I would probably vote for [Green Party candidate and activist] Jill Stein before I would vote for Bernie. I think she’s actually an anti-interventionist in a way that Bernie isn’t.” Holden voted for Stein in the primary and plans to vote for her in the fall, and is completely unmoved by the argument that the left needs to fall in line and support Hillary Clinton, whom Holden dislikes nearly as much as Donald Trump.
Say what you will about these beliefs, but Holden works very hard to put them into action as much as possible. Every fall, they go to Vermont to volunteer for the month-long unschooling camp Not Back To School as an advisor and “emotional point person,” checking in with the kids to make sure they have what they need. One time Holden instructed the children about how power “flows from the top in ecosystems and the nature of politics.” They’ve also had the Hotelier support causes “that we find very reasonable to care about, but… that maybe are going to be hard to digest,” ranging from helping transgender artists who’ve been robbed to supporting people who are arrested for rioting in Ferguson.
The Hotelier has examined depression, self-care, feminism, toxic masculinity and police violence (Home’s alpha male lament “Housebroken,” Holden tells me, is an anti-cop anthem inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X). Listening to Holden talk or sing, it’s very hard to doubt their sincerity, and Holden says they surround themselves with smart activists who keep them in check and up-to-date. But still, they know their efforts could be misconstrued as some kind of gimmick, as though the Hotelier were crowning themselves the title of The Most Woke Band In Rock.
“It has to be some sort of paradox that I can’t solve, because I literally can’t solve it. If we are marketing ourselves as political, we are both using a struggle to market ourselves, as well as helping these struggles, using our influence and our voice and our money,” Holden says. “Or, we stay quieter, we don’t sell a struggle, and maybe we influence less people who care about a particular struggle.”
Sincerely or crassly, there’s still the matter of a self-proclaimed anarchist making money singing about the struggle. “It’s not a thing that I spend too much time thinking about,” they say. “If you’re an anarchist, the first question you have to answer to family or any naysayers is ‘Well, you’re doing all of these capitalist things.’
“‘Yeah, because we’re living under capitalism.’ That’s why I’m mad. That’s why I’m an anarchist!”
The members of the Hotelier discussed online poker so often during my time with them that at one point I told them I felt like they were daring me to name this piece “Guitar And Video Games,” after a classic Sunny Day Real Estate song. They’ve made some decent money, but after my visit was over I began to suspect the reason they played was so they’d have something they could all talk about and participate in as friends that wasn’t just music.
Friends, and the bonds they have with them, are everything to Holden. The darkest period in their life was when they watched the people they care about begin to harm themselves and each other, and they had no idea how to help. These were the experiences that led to the creation of Home, Like Noplace Is There.
Many of Holden’s friends in their tight-knit social group were suicidal during the time the Hotelier started writing the record, and it got to the point where friends felt they had to choose one person over another to try to help on any given day; Holden’s girlfriend at the time would get jealous and hurtful when they went off to listen to someone who needed their help. “I was in this abusive relationship with somebody who was suicidal and I couldn’t get out of because I felt like I would be responsible for her death if she were to kill herself.” At the time, one of Holden’s closest friends was harming his girlfriend, and Holden, horrified at what their friend was capable of, did what they could to stop it. When the friend later heard the song “Life In Drag,” which was written about the experience, he stopped talking to Holden entirely.
The youthful, teenage optimism that drove the scene that created the first Hotelier album was fading fast. “It was just this super lonely, alienating feeling where we all were just realizing that even though we all cared for each other, none of us really knew each other, none of us really knew deep down who each other were or how to care for each other in a way that worked for each other,” Holden says. “There was that youthful spirit, of ‘We can take care of each other, we can do this,’ and then it came to a head where we were all just like, ‘Damn, none of us are actually ready to do that.'”
Holden admits that they felt it was their responsibility to try anyway, but “I think that my own trying to save everybody was also causing harm in itself.”
Eventually, the only thing Holden could do was write. Home is filled with references to suicide, abuse, regret and helplessness. “I was making a record that I would have wanted that I didn’t feel like I had.” It’s a record designed to unnerve and change the temperature of any room it’s played in, jagged guitar shards interrogating the listener, Holden castigating themselves. It hits an almost unbearably emotional high point with “Your Deep Rest,” a portrait of the survivor’s guilt in the wake of a suicide. Turns out it didn’t actually happen that way in real life — Holden and said ex are still friends — though Holden wasn’t so sure at the time.
“It didn’t ever feel too much like fiction. It felt so real when I was writing about it that it [felt like it] was going to happen,” Holden says. “I understood fully where her suicidality was coming from … and the end of the song is about this idea that if you invalidate the experiences of your friends long enough it’ll be engraved on their stone.”
Eventually, things got better for Holden and their group of friends. Home earned the Hotelier a rabid following that screamed their lyrics back to them every night. But eventually, another one of Holden’s relationships ended, and it was time to write another album. Holden wanted to try something different. The songwriting on Goodness feels less wired and more grand and open, recalling at times the mystical beauty of early R.E.M. and the surreal humanism of Neutral Milk Hotel, while still retaining the Hotelier’s essential burning need to connect. While Goodness has pain and heartbreak in it, the ultimate goal of what Holden calls the “Taoist love record” is something deeper.
Goodness is packed with recurring and mirroring phrases (“you in this light” behind the most prominent) and images, and several references to the seasons passing. “Piano Player” is a impressionistic story of an elderly woman near the end of her life, immortalizing herself in song; elsewhere, a couple realizes the love they thought would last forever won’t. Death and renewal and the Taoist idea that “things happen in sort of this forever cycle that just continues to happen over and over again and that’s what foreverness is” are also connecting themes. “Opening Mail For My Grandmother” is a very direct portrait of Holden’s grandmother, who is currently in a nursing home. On the next song “Soft Animal,” inspired by the naturalist poet Mary Oliver, Holden reflects on the interconnectedness of the universe. “You can presume that my grandmother dies, and then there’s this rebirth with this deer that I feel uniquely connected to in some way,” they tell me. “It’s the beginning of this Taoist way of interacting with the world.”
“Settle The Scar” was written before the rest of the album, but the theme of trying to remember who you were and how you saw the world before a relationship fits right in. Emo has a well-deserved reputation for too many songs wherein dudes just lay into their ex-girlfriends, which makes the Hotelier an odd choice to revive the genre, as their status-solidifying album is ultimately a hymn to forgiveness and healing, and making peace with the chaos and uncertainty of life. The album’s thesis statement, “You In This Light,” revisits a painful break-up from earlier in the album, but this time “from a more spiritual understanding that… ‘this all feels good, this all feels like this death of our relationship is part of this natural cycle and that feels okay.'”
This might be a hard sell for those who want another dose of Home‘s bloodletting, but the Hotelier had to heal and move on, and they’re doing their best to help others do that as well.
“I think that if people are looking for anguish, that’s fine and they don’t need to get that from this record,” Holden says. “This isn’t Home #2, this is a transition. You have to find a way out.
“You can’t live in anguish your whole life.”
Goodness is out 5/27 via Tiny Engines, but we’re premiering the album in full now. Listen below.