"We're terrible interviews," says Hollows bassist Emma Hospelhorn as I turn on my digital recorder. I ask her to elaborate, and she tells me about an in-studio performance the band gave at WHPK last winter. "We ended up committing a bunch of weird copyright crimes," she says, but once I've heard the story I'm not sure the band did anything but dance right up to the edge of the station's rules prohibiting advertising. During their interview they rattled off a list of businesses they claimed were sponsoring the band, but the whole thing was a joke—they'd only been playing since spring 2008, and they've never had a single sponsor. "The DJ freaked out and was like, 'We would like to say that this band is not promoting any specific restaurant, blah blah blah.'"
Hollows is a five-piece now—four women and one man—but it started with just Hospelhorn and organist Maria Jenkins, who are still the main songwriters. Hospelhorn, a PhD student in the learning sciences at UIC, has been gigging as a freelance flutist (most regularly with the local New Millennium Orchestra) since her two-year term in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago ended in 2008, but she says she was "going nuts" playing nothing but classical music. Jenkins, who's working toward a master's degree in women's and gender studies at Roosevelt University, had come up with a batch of garage-pop songs that didn't suit the band she was playing with at the time, the spazzy synth-punk outfit Parsley Flakes. Jenkins posted a Craigslist ad and Hospelhorn answered it.
"I can't remember what it said," says Hospelhorn. "The words 60s, girl group, Shangri-Las, and funeral were all in the ad. That's all I remember. Whatever it was, it was pretty much exactly what the music is."
Their first meeting, Hospelhorn says, "was super awkward, like a blind date." But they hit it off. "You can kind of tell in a few minutes if you can play with someone, I think."
Hollows had a working lineup put together by late spring. Their original drummer, who calls himself Shane Lobotomy, fronts a band called the Empty Heads, and through his drummer, Evan Jenkins (no relation to Maria), he met guitarist Megan Kasten, who works in VIP ticketing for the CSO. "Shane had seen me play guitar in previous bands," Kasten says—she was in a local garage-punk group called the Unpretty Things and, when she lived in Kansas City, the Hot Fruits. "Then he saw me at the Damen Blue Line stop on our way to work and asked me to try out."
"Try out?" asks Maria Jenkins incredulously. "I didn't know we were doing tryouts."
"That's what he told me!" Kasten insists.
Hollows have since replaced Lobotomy with Jason Davlantes, and late this summer they added percussionist and backup singer Hannah Harris, an undergrad in fine art and poetry at Columbia College who's been friends with Jenkins since subletting her apartment when she moved to Chicago. But neither came aboard in time to appear on the band's self-titled debut album, recorded in their practice space in June and recently issued by local label Plustapes in an edition of 100 cassettes. It's due out November 10 as an LP-and-download combo from Plustapes' vinyl arm, Addenda, and their November 9 show at the Empty Bottle is a release party for that edition.
As Jenkins's Craigslist ad promised, Hollows start with a foundation of vintage girl-group pop—they list 60s Indonesian girl group Dara Puspita among their influences on MySpace, alongside usual suspects like Ronnie Spector and the Tammys. But they don't treat any of those influences with undue reverence, dirtying them up with a well-gauged amount of punk sloppiness and aggression to offset the sugary sweetness.
All four women sing, sometimes at the same time, and on the album Evan Jenkins adds alto sax. (He's not part of the live lineup, though, and the instrument is at a pretty noncommittal level in the mix.) Maria Jenkins's garagey combo organ—it's a Gibson G101, but think Farfisa and you'll be in the ballpark—shares the spotlight with the vocals, anchoring relatively rocking songs like "Do the Scarecrow" ("What else can I do / To keep those birds away from you"), skewing the country flavor of "Muncie, IN," and giving a slightly menacing, slightly morbid vibe to just about everything. The mixture of old-fashioned pop tropes and knife-flashing 'tude makes Hollows sound like an alternate-universe version of the Shangri-Las who got to the end of "Leader of the Pack" and decided to start a biker gang of their own.
"We've all played in punk bands, DIY basement parties," says Jenkins, though by "all" she means her, Hospelhorn, and Kasten. In addition to the Parsley Flakes, she played in the Chicago version of Phantom Limbs spin-off the Loto Ball Show, and when Hospelhorn lived in New York she was in a group called the Vandervoorts. Those experiences taught them that a band doesn't have to be unsmilingly serious or brutally tight to be effective. "I feel like sometimes being in a punk band doesn't let you just be silly and fun and whimsical," Jenkins says, "and be a girl group that's not just a 'girl punk band.'"
Hospelhorn has a particularly dim view of the expectations that greet women in punk. "You've gotta be driving hardcore punk all the time or whatever," she says. "There's room for melodies and slowing down a bit and lightheartedness."
When I ask whether they feel that, as a mostly female band, they're held to a different standard, Jenkins gives a pretty restrained answer. "I've thought about it. I know Megan's thought about it," she says. "We both grew up in the midwest in areas that weren't very encouraging. I think for both of us, our families or people around us thought it was a phase that wasn't going to come to anything. I think we're all solid musicians and I don't think we have to prove anything. If people feel like we have to prove something, that's their problem."
"I've seen a lot of shitty all-guy bands," adds Hospelhorn.
Disdain for professionalism used to be a defining feature of punk, but for a couple decades it hasn't been the norm. Once we start talking about that issue, Hollows get animated.
They stress fun performances over polished ones, explains Jenkins, and they liberally toss around the word lighthearted, but that doesn't mean that they aren't serious about what they do. The classic girl groups often had cartoonish, cliche-ridden lyrics, after all, and only somebody painfully short on imagination would mistake them for a true reflection of the singers' personalities. "Just because we allow ourselves to be silly and make mistakes doesn't mean that there's not artistic drive behind what we're doing," she says. "There's definitely the whimsical, fun aspect of it—and referencing 60s girl groups, an era of simplicity—but then there's the lived experience, which is complicated and confusing and messy and painful. And I think what we're doing is right between. I live on a plane—and I don't know if everyone lives on it—that's right in between."