Original Americana: An Interview with Christopher Holland of The Boiled Owls
Unique folk/bluegrass band The Boiled Owls is hitting the festival circuit this summer with a sound that is at once steeped in American tradition and completely original. Check out banjoist Christopher Holland’s answers to some essential questions before you catch them at an upcoming show!
Sensible Reason: The Boiled Owls is certainly a unique band name. What’s the story behind that?
Christopher Holland: It’s our favorite pre-show snack…
SR: How has the band developed or changed since first coming together in 2012?
CH: It’s surely been quite an interesting development the way the entire band came together. I (banjoist) met rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist, Chris Murphy, at an open mic in Allentown, PA. He was an avid folk artist and I was a banjo player looking for the right group of guys to play with. We instantly clicked and from there sprung forward collaborating on a lot of Murphy’s original songs. That same night we also met a percussionist (whose name I won’t mention because he’s no longer playing with us) and we started focusing on putting an actual band together.
Murphy reached out to an old friend, Jerome McCaffrey, who is an exceptional upright bass player. McCaffrey started coming to our practices and after a few short weeks we felt comfortable enough to move forward in the next phase—developing a band name and starting to look for places to play out.
Our initial lineup during our first gig consisted of myself, Murphy, McCaffrey…and our percussionist. A few months later, McCaffrey recruited his longtime friend Mike Spillane to join us on mandolin. McCaffrey and Spillane have a long history of playing together in a band called Painted Blue, which still plays together today.
After Spillane joined the band as a full-time member, we started to see our primary focus shift to being strictly a stringed quartet. It was a difficult decision, but we ultimately let our percussionist go so we could focus on the direction we wanted to go in.
Over the past year we’ve been playing out quite a bit, getting on festival lineups with bands such as Cabinet, Tea Leaf Green, The Heavy Pets, and several others, and also playing a lot of bar gigs throughout Eastern Pennsylvania.
Most recently, the guitarist and vocalist from Painted Blue, Tim Dodson, has joined us. Dodson is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and is an avid acoustic and bluegrass guitarist. He also teaches music full-time in the Greater Philadelphia area.
Also, occasionally we have our good friend, Josh Kanusky, sit in with us on drums. It ultimately depends on timing and what kind of show we’re playing. Kanusky is the full-time drummer for David Bromberg, a true legend in the music industry…so he’s out touring the country quite often.
Dodson has been the most recent addition and we’re really looking forward to having him with us this summer as we take on the festival season!
And I should note that as a band, we span Eastern Pennsylvania between where we all live (although we’re based out of the Lehigh Valley):
Christopher Holland – Banjoist (Jim Thorpe, PA)
Christopher Murphy – Guitarist, Vocalist (Emmaus, PA)
Jerome McCaffrey – Bassist (Hatfield, PA)
Mike Spillane – Mandolin (Ambler, PA)
Tim Dodson – Guitarist (Ambler, PA)
SR: Tell me about some of the bands, sounds, people, places, or otherwise that inspire the music you make.
CH: One artist that everyone in the band agrees has had an influence on each one of us in some way is Jerry Garcia. We’ve all been inspired by the Grateful Dead and the catalog of work that Garcia has created throughout his lifetime.
Some of our other musical inspirations stem from Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Trey Anastasio, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, and others alike.
We all have very eclectic tastes in music and I think that gives us the ability to collaborate and blend different genres to create something unique.
I personally believe that inspiration sometimes comes from the places we least expect. It’s not something that can be forced, but it’s something that you know when you feel it…and that’s when your creative juices really start to flow and things start pouring out. It’s an incredible feeling.
Oh yeah, myself and Murphy are HUGE Phish phans…he and I get a lot of inspiration from Trey Anastasio. The other guys in the band, I don’t think you could pay them to go to a Phish show, haha.
So, that’s another example of how we all have different tastes…
Murphy also calls himself “weird” so he’s creating things all the time, whether he is sitting down with his guitar or staring out his office window at the birds. He always has creativity flowing through him.
SR: I’ve heard that you do the occasional cover song. What are your favorite or most unique cover song choices?
CH: Yeah, we do the occasional cover—mostly when we’re playing bar gigs. Festival gigs are more focused on strictly original material.
Some favorites and unique choices we like to do are “Take on Me” by A-ha, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (this song is from 1931 and was performed by Frank Sinatra, as well as George Harrison), and “Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon. We are currently working on “King of Wishful Thinking” by Go West, and we can’t wait to play that one out at our next gig!
It’s always fun taking songs that don’t originally incorporate the instruments we play and giving them a twist. You never know how it’s going to sound, and sometimes it’s quite amazing what you can make of it. … We love the 80’s! Haha.
*We’re all between the ages of 27 and 34.
SR: If The Boiled Owls could play a dream show—venue, opening act, crowd, you name it—what would it look like?
CH: I think one place that we could all agree would be a dream venue would be Red Rocks in Colorado. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play there!? … Also, Bluegrass Underground in the Cumberland Caverns of Tennessee would be pretty awesome, too!
As for an opening act we would love to open for bands like The Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Del McCoury….
Red Rocks: Dream venue!
SR: When you create new music, what is the songwriting process usually like?
CH: It varies. Majority of the time Murphy is the primary songwriter. He’s constantly writing and it’s at pretty much every practice we have that he proposes to the band a new original composition. We test it out and if we think it could be a good fit for the Owls we start breaking it down collaboratively. All of us in the band are educated musicians (I studied Music Theory and Performance [classical guitar] at Kutztown University; McCaffrey and Spillane both studied Audio Engineering and Music Theory at Full Sail University in Florida; Dodson studied Music Theory and Composition at Berklee College of Music; and Murphy took music courses at Mansfield University), so it’s really nice to be able to talk music theory and come up with ideas together when composing.
One person might make a suggestion about a transition into a bridge, and another might say, “Hey, let’s add a three-part harmony to this part,” and another might say, “I think this 7th chord could work well here,” so we all work together to build the structure of a song. Usually by the time we’re happy with the song it has come a long way in its development since Murphy’s original writing. And we think that’s how it should be. If we didn’t collaborate, talk and share ideas and utilize our knowledge, it wouldn’t be as fun of a process as it is.
Since Dodson recently joined we’re going to be adding a lot more of his originals (as well as Spillane’s) that they have written together over the years.
There’s a lot of new material in the works and we’re focused now on getting our EP recorded and pressed.
SR: For the brand-new fans (like me!), what are a couple of must-hear songs, and what should we expect when we go to a show?
CH: Unfortunately at this time we only have a few demo tracks recorded. We all have busy schedules working full-time jobs so it’s tough to find time to get in the studio, and we play out a lot on the weekends so that also takes some time away from recording.
A lot of the gigs we get come from word-of-mouth. Everywhere we’ve played to date has been a big success, and the talk around town even landed us a gig back in November at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA.
But, by the time we start hitting the festivals this summer we should have a 5-6 song EP recorded and ready to go. We have A LOT of ideas of what we want to do, we just have to buckle down and get in the studio.
Usually what to expect at a show is a laidback, friendly environment. We’re all easy-going people, but we know how to put on an entertaining show.
From Spillane’s jazz-infused mandolin licks to McCaffrey’s tasty bass runs to Murphy’s impressive vocal octave range to Holland’s rather untraditional banjo melodies to Dodson’s well-educated and structured guitar riffs, we bring out a very unique and original sound.
I couldn’t tell you the last show we played where people weren’t dancing and having a good time.
Our most notable original songs to look out for at a show would be “Eventually Conform” and “Lucky,” both upbeat, foot-stomping songs penned by Murphy.
SR: You’re on the lineup at a lot of festivals this summer. Congratulations! What plans and goals do you have for the future of the band?
CH: Thanks! We’re really looking forward to the festival gigs this year. I think the one we’re looking forward to the most is Musikfest in Bethlehem, PA. We’re stoked to be a part of this great event. We were invited to perform at Musikfest after our very successful show at SteelStacks. We’ll be playing the Main Street Stage on Wednesday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m., right before the rocking jazz outlet, Steely Dan, headlines the Steel Stage on the SouthSide.
I think going forward in the future we have a lot to accomplish. Even though we’ve been playing together for about two years, we still have a lot to work at and I think we’re going in the right direction. Now that we have a pretty solid lineup of musicians and have a better focus on where we want to go, I believe these next few months are really going to bring out the best in us all and start building our reputation even stronger.
Ideally we’d love to be as successful with it as we can. We play for the love of creating music, and sometimes all it takes is seeing one person in the crowd dancing or smiling that reassures you that you’re making something beautiful that you and others can enjoy.
We love what we do, and I don’t think we’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Bigger and better things surely are on their way. I think some of these gigs we have booked already this year will open even more doors for us.