I caught Holding On To Sound in the summer of 2008 when they played with Underground Railroad To Candyland, Killer Dreamer, and Vlad And The Impalers in San Pedro for the release show of a DVD comp the bands were featured on and was blown away. Months later, I was sent an invite to attend the release show for their second album, Songs of Freedom, but was unable to make the trek from L.A. to Vegas. So, I got a hold of the album and was mesmerized by their latest effort.
At this stage in punk history, it is extremely difficult to scream, “Fuck you, authority!” in a song without sounding inane. But, by the time you get eight tracks into Songs of Freedom, with the song “Bogus,” you have been so incited by the band’s intelligent and poignant rage, that these words are infused with an undeniable renewed power. And as singer/guitarist Bennett Mains repeats the verse in unwavering and rhythmic confidence, you simply cannot help but scream along. From first to final track, Bennett, bassist Zabi Naqshband, and drummer Vanessa Tidwell, bind you dangerously in tense throngs of punk chords and cinematic images of war, oppression, and scorched earth. They then, unexpectedly, release you with sudden swings into playful ska beats paired with lyrics of love, longing, freedom, and personal growth…only to bind you again a measure later. This fluid dichotomy is what makes Songs of Freedom a timely album of both unforgiving discontentment and a loud and driving vision of hope.
I caught up with the band at the Indiepit launch party in Los Angeles where they again traded sets with URTC and Vlad And The Impalers, and they helped me get to the bottom of some burning questions.
Interview by Chris Wicke
Photos by Heela Naqshband
Chris: So, you probably get sick of hearing this question, but how’d you come up with the name?
Bennett: Yeah, this guy we knew made it up…
Chris: Someone not in the band?
Zabi: HOTS used to mean something else back in the day. It wasn’t as…
Zabi: ‑As cool as it might be currently, yeah. Someone just walked into the backyard one day and just said it out loud and it kinda made sense to call the band that.
Chris: Said what? “Holding onto sound”?
Zabi: Well, what it used to stand for…Hand Over That Sausage.
Chris: Oh! [Laughter] The truth comes out!
Zabi: Yeah, but then we changed it to Holding On To Sound.
Chris: You think that was a better move?
Zabi: Yeah, we’re doing it for the kids!
Chris: Even though you guys are a three piece, your recordings sound so full. Was HOTS always a three piece?
Vanessa: No. [Laughter]
Bennett: What’s up with these questions, man? No. We kicked out a guy. [Laughter]
Chris: Ah, so you’re a bunch of jerks then?
Bennett: Yeah, we’re jerks.
Zabi: Hey, shut up man!
Bennett: Sorry, man.
Zabi: But that was before the name change.
Chris: So, “Holding On To Sound” has just been you three?
Bennett: Yeah, for a while.
Vanessa: Like, five years while.
Chris: If you had to pin your sound down, what kind of music do you guys play?
Vanessa: Raggae music. [laughs]
Zabi: It’s too hard. Too much of everything goes into what we play, but if anything, punk I say.
Chris: Tell us a little bit about your experience recording with Ben Kirsten for your second album, including the trek to get up to Seattle from Las Vegas.
Vanessa:Oregon!..Was awesome. [Laughter]
Bennett: It was far!
Zabi: Twenty-two hour drive!
Bennett: We drove in shifts.
Zabi: Dodging deer.
Chris: Who had the most shifts?
All: Zabi. [Laughter]
Bennett: Ben’s cool. He was real nice.
Vanessa: He let us record how we wanted to record, basically.
Zabi: Yeah, he just let us do our thing even though he has such a big name in the independent recording arena. He let us make our album instead of telling us what to do.
Chris: Do you think he was a lot of help as far as how it came out?
Bennett: Oh yeah. A lot.
Zabi: He has a lot of experience recording bands, and he made things real easy for us.
Chris: What was it like hanging out in Seattle? How long were you guys there for?
Zabi: A little over two weeks. It only rained the very first day and the very last day. There are lots and lots of hills and lots of walking. Lots of coffee places. Great record stores!
Vanessa: The fish market!
Zabi: The donut guy was probably the best. Best donuts ever.
Chris: And he was at the fish market?
Zabi: Near the fish market, downtown. What was it called?
Bennett: Pike’s Market. They take care of their hobos out there too. Pretty cool.
Chris: Since Las Vegas is the haven for twenty-one and over bars, are there a lot of house shows or underground parties? How different are the all-ages shows from the twenty-one and over ones?
Bennett: The all-ages shows are usually pretty packed because…
Vanessa: There aren’t that many venues left anymore that are all-ages.
Bennett: So, whenever we play all-ages shows, there are always a lot of kids ‘cause they normally can’t go. Otherwise, the bar shows are good too ‘cause the older people don’t go to all-ages shows. It’s like two different crowds almost.
Zabi: There are basically two reasons for going to twenty-one and over shows: the band and the alcohol. At all-ages shows, it’s just the show then you go home. You can’t really show up early or hang out late.
Chris: Would you say there are more twenty-one and over venues in Vegas?
Bennett: Yeah. There’s a bar every block in Vegas. Plenty of venues.
Chris: As far as house shows, how does that usually go?
Bennett: There’s not that many. I mean…birthday parties.
Zabi: We used to play more house shows than bar shows early on. But then once we got comfortable with the bar scene, it was bar shows forever and ever. We only play occasional all-ages shows.
Chris: Is it occasional by choice or circumstance?
Bennett: By circumstance. All the all-ages venues are closing down. They don’t really want too many places in town that cater to all ages, so they hike the rent way up and prevent those kinds of places from existing or starting up.
Chris: Speaking of twenty-one and over shows, your 2009 CD release show was at the Hard Rock Hotel with you guys opening up for NOFX and Smoke Or Fire. Is it true that there has never been a local Las Vegas band to ever open up for a touring act there, let alone play there at all?
Bennett: We don’t know!
Zabi: We don’t know 100%.
Vanessa: We heard that though.
Zabi: We heard that there weren’t any. And if there was any, it was a very, very long time ago. Big venues in Vegas don’t really give local bands much of a chance to open up for national acts. We got on that show without using the venue. We went through our own resources and went to NOFX’s label. They told the venue that we were going to open for them. If we went the other way and tried to go through the actual venue or promoters, it would have gone to whomever they already love the most. And, usually, those are the bands that always play those kind of shows.
Chris: I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, but I really wanted to! How did the show go in the end?
Zabi: It was fun. Great response.
Vanessa: Awesome! Yeah!
Zabi: Real scary in front of all those people, but we just went out there and did our thing.
Chris: How many people do you think were there?
Vanessa: It was sold out. I know that.
Zabi: It was, and I think they can fit about 2,000 people in there. I think we played for most of the crowd.
Bennett: Yeah, it was a lot.
Chris: What was your first out-of-state show?
Vanessa: Was that Arizona?
Zabi: Yeah, when we drove back in the middle of the night?
Vanessa: And it was cold!
Zabi: The coldest desert in the world!
Vanessa: It was like a hundred and ten degrees during the day and like forty at night!
Bennett: Yeah, Phoenix, I think, was our first out of town show and it sucked.
Chris: The show sucked?
Bennett: Nah, the show was cool. We ran out of gas at the Hoover Dam. And there is no where to get gas.
Vanessa: We had to get a cop to get us gas! [Laughter]
Zabi: The cop helped us out and hung out for a while. Our friend Devin drove us in his van.
Bennett: It was very nice for him to do so. It would’ve also been nice to tell us he needed to fill it with gas.
Vanessa: Or, that it needed air.
Bennett: We should have all pitched in to fill it with gas though, too.
Zabi: We were just so excited to get out of town we didn’t really have time to think of that stuff.
Chris: So the Chemical X DVD featured your first music video. Any plans on filming another?
Zabi: We were talking with Spike Jonze, and Spike Jonze is probably going to help us out with Guy Ritchie. [Laughter] And Tim Burton is probably gonna help us out. Quentin Tarantino wanted to do it, but we turned him down. We said, “No, you already get enough press.”
Vanessa: And he wanted us to re-enact Death Proof and have Bennett be Kurt Russell. [Laughter]
Bennett: Ah, dude, I’m down for that.
Zabi: Yeah, we have a song called “Kurt Russell,” so he was all upset when he found out about it. He said, “That song has nothing to do with any of my movies!”
Bennett: We’re currently in a lawsuit battle with Kurt Russell for that song.
Zabi: I think we’re gonna win just because there were a bunch of crappy movies he made.
Bennett: Ah, dude, I can’t believe you would say that shit!
Zabi: We gotta help out our case, though! [Laughter]
Chris: Both of your full lengths have Macro-Fi logos on them. Is Macro-Fi a Las Vegas-based hip hop label? How did you sign to them since you are technically not hip hop?
Bennett: Well, we’re not signed to them.
Zabi: We’re not signed to anyone, so let’s get that straight!
Vanessa: Not signed!
Bennett: Get your claws out my ass!
Zabi: They started out as a hip hop thing and they asked us to play alongside some of their acts.
Vanessa: Well, we’ve also had people come up and do spoken word with us up on stage.
Zabi: Yeah, poems in between stuff. We’ve even had a freak show, like a side show in between bands where the acts would be putting nails in their noses and hang things with their nipples.
Bennett: It’s just like different artists, music and visual art, supporting each other by representing the same thing. Trying to build camaraderie in Vegas, ‘cause everyone is always going on about how there is no good scene in Vegas and the camaraderie between the artists helps us make our own scene that has solidarity and support. Really, all that label means is that we are with these other artists who represent us the same way we represent them, and they all have the same logo on the back of their releases.
Zabi: When we play shows, we keep them in mind and vice versa. We sell their merch at our shows, and they do the same. We kind of just help each other out. If you’re not Macro-fi, usually bands, or whoever, hang out first and play one or two shows, and then the more often you play with Macro-Fi acts, the stronger the association in the end.
Chris: Has adding the help of Geykido Comet Records helped you guys out in any way?
Bennett: Yeah, definitely with our distribution. With online distribution, they’ve helped out a lot. They hook us up with great shows outside the Vegas area. In the Vegas area too, actually. It’s been good. Good people over there at GC Records!
Zabi: Dot com.
Chris: Awesome. The lyric sheet of your new album omits some parts of the “Song for Children.” Can you shed some light for us and tell us what language that’s in, who is singing it, and what in the hell you’re saying?
Zabi: That would be my department. I sing that song, the beginning of it anyway. I sing it in a language indigenous of the Afghan region of the United States…uhm…oops. [Laughter]
Chris: Northern California or Virginia? [laughs] Which region?
Zabi: Of Afghanistan and it’s called Farsi. I don’t speak Farsi that well. I had to get a lot of help from my parents to write that one. It’s just that a lot of our songs are stories.
Chris: So, what’s the storyline on that one?
Zabi: It’s a father in Afghanistan talking to a son, telling him to shut up because he’s being too loud and wild while the family is trying to quietly have a religious holiday party. In Afghanistan, a lot of people are not allowed to celebrate too many things, including religious ceremonies, whereas people in the U.S. can do whenever they want for whatever holiday they want. They can choose to celebrate it or not celebrate it, but at least they have the choice to celebrate the hallmark holiday if they want to instead of being banned from celebrating anything at all.
Bennett: And, if you know that, then you can see how the lyrics in the song tie into the rest of the song where I sing. That part was the first part we had for the song. Then the rest came later.
Zabi: Then Bennett comes in with the second verse and does like the American version.
Chris: So, the English version is also a father talking to a son?
Zabi: Right. Different scenario, though. Not a translation of what I was singing about but an American perspective of what’s going on over in that region, and then we come together and sing the chorus.
Bennett: The world is uniting!
Chris: Whose knuckles are pictured on your new album with the tattoo “HOTS CREW” on their knuckles? Is there a HOTS crew?
Zabi: First rule of HOTS Crew, you don’t talk about HOTS Crew. And second rule is that we stole everything, the whole idea, from Fight Club.
Bennett: Actually, it says Hot Screw.
Vanessa: And that’s Elizabeth Castanera, by the way.
Bennett: It just happened to also say HOTS Crew also.
Vanessa: Hot Screw and HOTS crew.
Zabi: Hot Screw was her nickname when she was in construction. She’s a really good bass player and very good friend. And she’s been amazing to us and…
Vanessa: She has a HOTS tattoo.
Chris: Not only is she Hot Screw, she also has HOTS tattoos.
Zabi: She IS HOTS Crew. As far as I’m concerned.
Vanessa: HOTS Crew president.
Bennett: It’s just her and us.
Zabi: She’s the unofficial fourth member of HOTS. Comes in occasionally on certain songs and sings along with us. We totally allow it. It’s awesome. It’s fun.
Vanessa: Sometimes she plays bass for Zabi.
Zabi: While I sing.
Chris: She’s not only the president, she’s also a member.
Chris: What are all the positives and what are all the negatives about the Vegas music scene as of 2009?
Bennett: Well, there are a lot of really good bands in Vegas right now. Negative, though? Well, the bar is set pretty high in Vegas it seems like. It’s hard for a band to get noticed.
Chris: Why do you think that is?
Bennett: I don’t know why. Well, as far as the city sees it, all of the attention should be focused on the Las Vegas Strip. That’s why there are so many bars because you’ve got gambling and alcohol, and they don’t want any of the attention attracted away from the strip. So, all the bands feel like they have to step up their game another notch to compete with the strip.
Zabi: If you’re playing a show at a bar, even if it’s in downtown Las Vegas, you have to compete with whatever enormous act came in to play The Joint or House of Blues. There are always so many people in town who wanna go see a concert. And they can see a local band they’re not one hundred percent sure about, or they can go see Rancid for forty bucks somewhere, and they’ll probably do that.
Chris: How do you think a band in a city like Vegas should go about trying to set themselves apart if it is so hard?
Zabi: I hate to use the term market, but sometimes there just isn’t a market for a certain type of music. You know, if you’re trying to be a hardcore polka band then…
Bennett: Aww, man. That would be sweet! Hardcore polka!
Zabi: I’m just saying. Maybe you and two of your other friends might go, and that would be it. But if you had a cookie cutter emo band, or a radio-friendly band, of course you’d get more play. Most bars work like that, unfortunately. They book certain bands who are like that only.
Chris: Book only the bands that’ll bring people who will then buy more beers.
Zabi: Right. Exactly. But, then again, you can use that to your advantage. Book certain nights at bars with certain bands to help the venue out and get in good with them then get to booking more shows and more nights. A lot of promoters, venues, and publications in Vegas act like we need them. But if it weren’t for the bands, they wouldn’t have a job, wouldn’t have anybody bringing the bodies to come in to buy that beer they need to sell. Some people in the music scene are incredible, but others are only doing what they do to make money off of someone else’s art project. And so that makes it difficult. All you have to do is have a really good attitude and be easy to work with. People like that.