Maybe Hollow Boys didn't fully exist until Cole Benson came along. "With every other bass player that we had, we were trying to shoehorn them into our music," says Ali Jaafar. Clad in all black, the band's vocalist/guitarist relaxes in the living room of his south Minneapolis home, joined by two other dark figures: Benson, and drummer/vocalist Monica Coleslaw.
While on tour last year, Coleslaw and Jaafar were at their wits' end. They telephoned Benson to offer him a spot in the band, replacing their existing bassist. Benson, who had long been a friend of Jaafar's and was familiar with the band's situation, was more than happy to accept.
"A day before they got home I learned all the parts," Benson recalls. "We started playing, and right away it felt a lot better."
After being forced to cancel so many shows, the band were bent on finishing out the tour. They drove six hours straight to Omaha with their new bassist.
"I had an awesome sandwich," Benson recalls. "First band starts playing, and Monica starts coughing. My face started to burn. We all ran out of there. The place just cleared! Someone had pepper-spray bombed it!"
They laugh loudly. So much for that. Back at home, Benson again prepared for his first appearance with the band, this time at the 331 Club, but the door guy wouldn't let him in. At the time, Benson was not yet 21.
"We just sat outside in the car until we had to play," says Jaafar, grinning. "When it was time, we were so mad that we basically just played a noise set."
Benson is now of age, and that initial bout of bad luck serves as comic relief for a tight-knit trio of musicians who are preparing to release Believe in Nothing, the Hollow Boys' third full-length album. The work is a reflection of collective revelations. Even Coleslaw, who has so far remained quiet in favor of letting her bandmates do most of the talking, speaks up when this transitional period is being discussed.
"We hit a point where we were getting taken advantage of by a lot of people around us," she says, visibly upset. "We were being used."
"In a place like Minneapolis, there's a huge pressure to be a part of this thing that's happening," Jaafar explains. "It makes people sweep a lot of shit under the rug."
Rather than perpetuating the cycle, the three made a collective decision to stop playing poorly planned shows and made the changes necessary to avoid further exploitation.
"When we started writing the record, the title meant a really negative thing," Jaafar continues. "By the time we finished the record, the name meant something really positive. No political, religious, or ideological viewpoint is really worth what it does to your life. None of it really rings true to your experience as a human."
Holding on for too long can easily backfire. The band made a clear break, putting all of their focus into the future.
Believe in Nothing is noticeably darker than previous Hollow Boys material. Its first single, "Melted," is propelled by a menacing guitar riff that is eaten by a glimmering patch of distortion, only to be spit back up again to lurk ominously beneath the rest of the song. Coleslaw and Jaafar's vocals emerge hauntingly from the fog, weaving a strange, imaginative tale. Even the music video is somewhat disturbing. The trio are poorly lit, mouths moving disjointedly to the song lyrics. There are masks and mysterious forms moving beneath fabric. The overall aesthetic is somewhat jarring, like that of the album.
"It is a lot more aggressive and less friendly," Jaafar says of the new sound. "I think it's also true to our live show in the sense that a lot of the songs bleed together. There's a much stronger element of ambient music."
In the past, Jaafar and Coleslaw handled most of the writing themselves. Since they brought Benson into the band, composing has become a fully collaborative process shared by all three members. "There are crushing moments on the record," Benson says, "with so much intensity, and then relief. We push it a bit, and then pull it back."
It is difficult to believe that just last year the Hollow Boys were hanging on the verge of extinction. With responsibility sitting equally on the shoulders of all three members, Jaafar and Coleslaw are now free to spend less time worrying about the band and more time enjoying just being a part of it. They both smile easily, waving goodbye as Benson heads out the door to a performance with his other band. All is well.
At least, "Until you Thurston Moore me," Coleslaw warns. Jaafar laughs. The possibility is far from here.