Hospital Bracelet break out while locked down | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Hospital Bracelet break out while locked down

The pandemic separated the members of this Chicago emo trio almost a year before their thrilling debut album made a splash in the scene.

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ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTINE KOS

  • Illustration by Christine Kos

In October 2019, Manae Hammond hopped in a car and drove from Chicago to Akron, Ohio, with her friend Eric Christopher. They'd known each other for a month, and they were heading to the first show by their band Hospital Bracelet. It'd been Christopher's acoustic solo project for three months, and would end up operating as a live band for just five more before the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to concerts indefinitely. But though Hospital Bracelet had played only around 20 shows by then—including the 14 on their sole tour, to the east coast and back in January 2020—they swiftly sold out vinyl preorders for their debut album, South Loop Summer, ten months later.

The album was released five weeks ago by Counter Intuitive Records, a key player in the current underground emo ecosystem. It's the only full-band Hospital Bracelet recording since a single that dropped in January 2020. But that single has racked up nearly 600,000 Spotify streams—a startling number for a brand-new band in a niche scene—and the album is outpacing that success already.

Hammond joined Hospital Bracelet in September 2019 after Christopher used a Columbia College student social app to recruit a drummer. During the first full-band rehearsal (the group's original bassist only lasted till that first show in Akron), Christopher heard from emo cassette label 3rd Row Records with an offer to release their solo material. The label was tiny, but this was still big news—it had already worked with several stars of the genre's insurgent fifth wave, including Worst Party Ever (Seattle), Guitar Fight From Fooly Cooly (Chattanooga, Tennessee), and Commander Salamander (Washington, D.C.).

"At that moment, I was like, 'Oh shit, I guess I'm in this—I cannot turn back now,'" Hammond says. The Akron gig where Hospital Bracelet first played as a band was at Bless This Fest, a daylong DIY gathering that also included crossover phenomenon Dogleg.

"I hadn't gone somewhere else to go play a show in a long time," Hammond says. "I was like, 'Oh yeah, this was kind of a lot to do, but I don't care. This is so much fun.' We drove seven hours there and seven hours back over the weekend. We played the show, came back, and just immediately started practicing more and more."

In November 2019, Hospital Bracelet brought on a new bassist, fellow Columbia student Arya "A.J." Woody. Christopher's solo material, packaged as the Neutrality Acoustic EP, came out that month on 3rd Row, which also released the full band's first single, the sweaty and unvarnished ballad "Sober Haha JK Unless."

Hospital Bracelet released the single in January 2020, at the start of what's still their only tour. The trio's time on the road helped them work out the material they'd written together as well as the arrangements the new members had built around Christopher's older songs. By the end of February, when they began recording South Loop Summer with engineer Adrian Kobziar, they were a tight unit. "Halfway through recording, we were like, 'Oh shit, oh no, COVID,'" Christopher says. "We haven't actually all been in the same room together since March."

The pandemic also delayed the release of South Loop Summer, which they'd planned to drop late last year. Counter Intuitive didn't get involved till the fall. Label founder Jake Sulzer had kept an eye on Hospital Bracelet since noticing them on bills with Counter Intuitive bands. Ryland Heagy, guitarist and vocalist for hyperactive D.C. duo Origami Angel, is one of Hospital Bracelet's earliest champions.

"I wasn't the biggest fan when I first listened to them," Sulzer says. "I did enjoy the acoustic songs, but I didn't love the sound of the original single for 'Sober Haha JK Unless.' I wasn't that big a fan of the production value on it. My opinion didn't really change until I heard the mixes of their new record. Then I was like, 'Oh, they're the real deal.'"

Counter Intuitive has worked with some of the underground emo scene's most popular acts, including Mom Jeans, Prince Daddy & the Hyena, and critical darlings Oso Oso. Hospital Bracelet are in a position to build on their precedents. "The first era of bands that got the label off the ground, some of those bands have moved on, some of them have been quieter over the last few years," Sulzer says. "I've been consciously thinking, 'OK, I hope that I have another era of bands that can not only participate in the community that first era built, but also have one of their own.' And I feel like Hospital Bracelet really helped me solidify, in my mind, that there's a new era of the label happening right now."

Hospital Bracelet are beginning a new era too. Christopher plans to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, in June, to be with their partner, which will break up this version of the band. Hammond and Woody will remain in Chicago, and Christopher is recruiting new musicians in Charlotte.

"It's stinky, because I know that if we weren't in a pandemic, we'd probably be able to do this a whole lot easier, and record something real that we want to do together," Christopher says. "But we want to do something before everything comes to a close, because we all really enjoyed our time together and like this band."

Hospital Bracelet founder, guitarist, and vocalist Eric Christopher - ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTINE KOS
  • Illustration by Christine Kos
  • Hospital Bracelet founder, guitarist, and vocalist Eric Christopher

Christopher, 19, had already been a touring performer for a few years before starting Hospital Bracelet. At age 14 they became a fan of indie wrestling and began training to enter the ring in their native Indianapolis. Known professionally as Arc Williams (and nicknamed "the Teenage Bottle Rocket"), Christopher traveled as far as Florida to throw themselves at opponents.

"There are a lot of states in the U.S. where you can't wrestle until you're 18," Christopher says. "But I would travel to Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, New York—all over the place." In September 2018, Chicago promoter Kaiju Attack Wrestling hosted a tag-team match that Christopher considers a career highlight—the opposing team included Shotzi Blackheart, who went on to join the WWE.

Three months before that match, though, Christopher had been involved in a career-altering car crash a mile from home. At their mom's behest, they paid a visit to a chiropractor. "I went and I was like, 'I have this really big important match next week,'" Christopher says. "'Do you think I can still do it?' They were like, 'Absolutely not.' I was like, 'OK, cool. I'm still gonna do it.' Then I went, and I had the match, and I couldn't move my body the next day. I was like, 'OK, I have to go back to the chiropractor now.' They were like, 'You can't move your arms above your head right now. You need to take a break.'"

According to the chiropractor, Christopher had early-onset arthritis in their neck, either caused or aggravated by the crash, and it seriously complicated their wrestling aspirations. "It turns out that you're not supposed to fall a whole lot," Christopher says. "That's bad for your body."

Christopher moved to Chicago in summer 2018 to study acting at Columbia College, and initially resumed wrestling training as well. But that only lasted till halfway through their first year of college—they decided to take a longer break from wrestling, which allowed them to spend more time with an earlier love.

Christopher had started writing original music at age 12, and around the same time had begun volunteering to work the door at an Indianapolis all-ages venue called the Hoosier Dome. "I lied about my age, so I was allowed to volunteer," Christopher says. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'm 15, I promise.' I was not 15, I was 12." The Hoosier Dome gave Christopher free admission to concerts, and before wrestling took over their free time, they saw tour dates by Mom Jeans and Modern Baseball.

Chicago quickly reignited Christopher's love of music—the spark was a show at suburban DIY space Panda Palace. "I immediately fell back in love with going to shows all over again," Christopher says. They made friends with a few people from the local scene, including indie singer-songwriter Nayla Jungheim, who'd later record the material on Neutrality Acoustic.

"Because of those people, I got on Twitter and got into the DIY community that's online," Christopher says. "I've been not nearly as involved as I'd like to be in Chicago shows and the local scene, but really, really involved with bands from all across the country and the friends I've made because of being online." The Web is where Christopher met their partner and connected with Heagy from Origami Angel.

In June 2019, Christopher answered a call for performers from Panda Palace, sending in old solo demos. They got a gig and had to come up with a stage name. Just days earlier, they'd gone to the hospital after being sexually assaulted, and they hadn't removed their wristband since the visit. "I realized that it's really hard to play guitar when you have a hospital bracelet on," Christopher says. "I was still thinking about names. And I was like, 'This stupid little hospital bracelet has been the only thing for the last four days that has kind of kept me from going insane, and I have to take it off now.' So it only makes sense that the only other thing that seems to be keeping me from losing my mind is named after it."

The following month, Christopher debuted the solo version of Hospital Bracelet at Downers Grove instrument shop Evolution Music, booked by the promoter at Panda Palace. Detroit band Dogleg shared the bill. "Dogleg played at Hospital Bracelet's first show ever," says front man Alex Stoitsiadis. "We also sold them their first distortion pedal. It's awesome to see how far they've come from just playing by themselves."

Hospital Bracelet drummer Manae Hammond - ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTINE KOS
  • Illustration by Christine Kos
  • Hospital Bracelet drummer Manae Hammond

Manae Hammond, 22, grew up around dance music—her mom is popular Chicago house DJ Lady D. For years Hammond resisted music's call, but in middle school she got hooked on jazz and rock. As a seventh-grader, she enrolled in her school's band class; she wanted to play drums, but that wouldn't fly in her family's 800-square-foot apartment. "I chose the trumpet, which makes no sense, but my mom was like, 'OK, yeah, that's more acceptable than the drums—you can mute a trumpet,'" Hammond says. "I did that for a year straight, and got my basic music education that way."

In her free time, Hammond taught herself how to play an acoustic guitar she'd owned since childhood and toyed with recording on GarageBand. While she was in high school at the Latin School of Chicago, a spot for a bassist opened up in the jazz band. "I really wanted to play guitar," Hammond says. She'd never picked up a bass before. "I was like, 'I guess that's the only spot I have open.' I ended up being an all-state bassist for the last three years of high school. That was when I really, really learned jazz, and really got my footing in that. And at night, I would go and play bass in any band I could get into."

Hammond had her introduction to the DIY scene in January 2014, when she went to a basement show to see pop-punk-flavored indie band Parasol. "It was a religious experience," she says. "I could touch the ceiling with my head if I stood on my tippy-toes. This loud, loud band was playing, and I was like, 'This is amazing! How did I not know that this existed?' I was hooked forever—it was a done deal."

Now that her feet were wet, Hammond dove in with the aid of the DIY Chicago Facebook group. Within a few months, she'd joined a noisy art-rock group called Vaguewaves; by 2015, she was playing with Oxford Comma, a cheeky indie-rock band active in Evanston's teen emo scene. She also had a solo project, Jyant Steps, but she put it on the back burner after a fried computer lost the files of her debut album. "At that point, I was like, 'Oh, so maybe this isn't meant to be,'" she says. "'Maybe I'm supposed to be a supporting musician for the rest of my life.' I took it really heavily."

In fall 2016, Hammond moved to Los Angeles to attend Whittier College. "I immediately realized that if I was gonna be a musician in California, I needed way more money than I had," she says. "I lived that year by the seat of my pants, financially." Near the end of her time there, she was living in a closet off campus because she couldn't afford room and board.

California wasn't a total wash for Hammond, though: she met her romantic partner, Indigo Finamore. Together they formed the experimental electronic-pop duo Oux, and they both transferred to Columbia College.

After returning to Chicago in 2018 (Finamore would follow later), Hammond got right back to juggling multiple musical projects. She joined postpunk group Blush Scars, but Oux increasingly took precedence in her creative life. "When it's just two people in the band, half the work is on you and half is on the other person," she says. "If you want to make great music, you have to put your whole foot into it. And that was something I just needed more time for, especially being in school at the same time."

Hammond dropped out of Blush Scars but continued gigging as a support player when she could. She contributed to a few Columbia College jazz ensembles and backed rapper Mykele Deville in concert. She started taking drum lessons too, because she still had an itch to scratch. "I was like, 'I just want to do something really loud, energetic, and fun again," she says. "I just missed that." Then she saw Christopher's call for bandmates. "I was like, 'Oh, an emo band,'" Hammond says. "'They need a drummer? Sure.'"

Hospital Bracelet bassist Arya "A.J." Woody - ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTINE KOS
  • Illustration by Christine Kos
  • Hospital Bracelet bassist Arya "A.J." Woody

Arya "A.J." Woody, 20, went to their first DIY concert in September 2019, shortly after moving to Chicago to go to Columbia College. Woody says they suffer from social anxiety, but they wanted to see the show badly enough to get a ride with another student they barely knew. "When we got there, it was a house, and the whole entire place seemed to be, like, just for music, which I hadn't thought of as a concept," Woody says. "Everything was new on top of new. It had a really nice community feel."

Woody grew up playing in school jazz bands in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. "I was playing bass," Woody says. "I started on upright and then moved to electric. I used to be in my school orchestra from third grade until, like, the middle of high school." They briefly attended Nazareth College just outside Rochester, New York, before transferring to Columbia for its more robust arts education and diverse student body.

Woody met Hammond and Christopher shortly after moving here, Christopher just before that first house show and Hammond in a music class that had started in late August. Woody ran into Hammond and Christopher in late September and asked when Hospital Bracelet would perform next. "They mentioned that they might need a bassist for the show," Woody says. Woody joined the band soon after Bless This Fest in Akron and began helping write what became South Loop Summer.

  • The January 2020 single version of "Sober Haha JK Unless"

Some of the songs on the album are material Christopher wrote before they met Hammond and Woody—a couple also appear on Neutrality Acoustic. But the rhythm section quickly learned where to apply muscle to powerlift Christopher's raw songs. "Eric's songwriting is very tight, so it's easy to follow structure and feel where momentum is supposed to be going," Woody says. "And Manae's drum parts are insane."

Hospital Bracelet have evolved a nimble, sprightly sound that foregrounds Christopher's galloping, mathy guitar riffs and powerhouse voice—they sing in a higher register and with more confidence than most emo vocalists. Hammond and Woody ratchet up the songs' intensity with focused, hyperactive energy. You can hear that the three musicians get along well. "It's been fun," Woody says. "It's felt like I've known them for a little bit longer than I have, which only happens occasionally for me."

Pittsburgh booking agent Alex Martin manages Hospital Bracelet and books them through their collective, You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania. Before the pandemic hit, Martin was booking 30 acts, including Origami Angel, whimsical LA band Glass Beach, and mathy Pittsburgh group Short Fictions (in which they play bass). "With Hospital Bracelet, we were getting tour offers before the record was even finished—people were going after the band just because Eric is so captivating as a human being," Martin says. "They have taught me that there's not one way to do things. There's not one way to book a band, there's not one way to make it work."

Christopher is extremely online, with more than 17,000 TikTok followers, and genuinely enjoys promoting Hospital Bracelet. This helped a lot once the pandemic made it impossible for the band to play shows.

When Illinois entered its first statewide lockdown last March, Woody returned to Richmond. Christopher then went to North Carolina to live with their partner for a few months. The bandmates dropped out of touch for long periods. "There were plenty of times where I just had to fall off the earth for a little bit, because I was going through a shit-ton," Christopher says. "And then there were times when both of them had to do that too. In the end, we've always come back to being like, 'Yeah, we're a band. Right now we're a band and it rocks.'"

Christopher returned to Chicago last summer, and in July they went back to the studio with Kobziar to wrap up their contributions to South Loop Summer. "All there was left to do was guitar, vocals, and harmony," Christopher says. "We were like, 'Oh shoot, we don't get to do gang vocals now.' But I would rather not have gang vocals than have a virus."

In December, Christopher broke the news about their upcoming move to North Carolina to Hammond and Woody. Christopher no longer had school obligations keeping them in Chicago, having dropped out of Columbia after two years—in September they'd begun taking online classes toward a teaching degree from Grand Canyon University.

Christopher intends to put together a new band once they get settled in Charlotte, but the bond they formed with Hammond and Woody will endure in Hospital Bracelet's music. "With those two, I was starting to make music that I always wanted to make that I didn't think I was capable of," Christopher says. "Manae and Arya both helped me make the kind of sound that I've been wanting to do for a long time. And I'm really thankful for them."  v

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