Hollow Boys keep it short

Ali Jaafar, Liz Elton, and Monica Coleslaw: "We're not Can, and I'm okay with that!"
Ben Innes

It never takes long to know where Ali Jaafar stands on — well, just about anything. And chances are, you won't always agree with him. But in his band, avant rockers Hollow Boys, Jaafar's ideas pay inarguable dividends. They eschew bloated songs and setlists, and distill the music down to its succinct essence. Not solely for artistic purposes, mind you — it's imperative to avoid what he calls his "existential boredom with the pageantry of music."

"I'm gonna roll my eyes so hard," drummer Monica Coleslaw quickly responds. Everyone in the room erupts with laughter. "I was gonna say that I get bored really easily and don't really believe in excess."

She and Jaafar sit at the dining room table of the orange house they share in south Minneapolis. Joining them is bassist Liz Elton, who also plays in the scrappy punk act Kitten Forever. The trio display a casual comfort suggesting they've had countless conversations in this very spot. (The room next to them was where they filmed a music video for new single "Hater," and they record upstairs in Jaafar's attic recording space, Ecstatic Studio.) Garage rock plays in the background, and the group sips Corvette Summers — grapefruit juice and tequila — on a chilly day in late May.

"It seems like nobody really is editing themselves or trying to present something concise anymore," says a visibly exasperated Jaafar. "Even punk or hardcore bands get up and they play for fucking ever. Or there's all of these guitar solos and extraneous parts. I don't understand the purpose." His bandmates agree, but note that epic noise-rockers Swans are an exception.

The group's new album, It's True (Modern Radio Record Label), presents 10 songs in under 27 minutes — a risky endeavor in some hands. But for Jaafar — who finished mastering it last New Year's Eve, watched a Tony Hawk documentary, and then went to bed — it comes as a response to the overthinking and over-long songs from one of his old projects, Zombie Season. Album closer "It's True" is devastatingly concise, and builds off Elton's bass line from a soft lament to a brutal guitar attack — and then abruptly ends shy of three minutes.

"The first few times we played it, people told me, 'That song should be longer,'" Jaafar says, almost proudly. "When you look at a song, the length is part of the structure. You wrote a song with two and a half parts and it's five minutes? That means that there's a lot of repetition of that one part. That doesn't work unless you're Can. And you're not Can. We're not Can, and I'm okay with that!"

Hollow Boys, who solidified this lineup configuration at the beginning of last year, also aren't an R&B band. Jaafar makes his guitar screech right along with his spiteful lyrics, Elton's bass lines are equally raw, and Coleslaw admits that she was once so upset before a performance that she played hard enough to make her hands go numb. Yet Jafaar is quick to profess his love for the twisted '80s soft-soul of Sade. (Her fifth album is titled Lovers Rock, and there's a song of the same name on Hollow Boys' 2012 release, When You Think of Us, Pray for Us.) Citing the strangeness and emotion in her work, he explains that it's not Sade's sound he wants to recreate, but her emotional honesty.

"You're talking about really intense disillusionment, or suicide, or just things that you really wouldn't talk about to more than one person — if that," he says. "I think '50s music tackled it, using a smaller vocabulary. It seems quaint to us now. When the Everly Brothers say they wanna die, they probably were like, 'Yeah, I could just go out in the rain and jump off this bridge and kill myself.' When we listen to it now, it's just jumpy guitars and standup bass, but it's like 'Bye Bye Love,' I'm gonna fucking kill myself."

Modernizing that ethos honestly in the cantankerous hands of Jaafar makes for lines of Morrissey-level proportions. Among them, "I was born 1,000 times, and each one was painful" from "Temptation," off When You Think of Us, Pray for Us, and the reverb-drenched kiss-off "Hater" from It's True. The latter could be the most beautiful expression of "I hate you, and I don't care if it makes me cruel" ever set to tape. It's melodramatic, sure, but never dishonest. "It's all emotionally based in personal experience," says Jaafar, who refers to his hometown of Eden Prairie as "that horrible place." "Maybe the language or the structure used may not be personal. It's not all literal."

"So you weren't born 1,000 times?" Elton says with a smirk.

"I wasn't literally born 1,000 times," he says, letting a tiny bit of amusement show. "And they weren't all literally painful."

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