Familial ties brings
the North Carolina
combo some major label love.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Family bands haven’t always had the best track records when
it comes to mining rock ‘n’ roll. Brothers tend to do better – the Allman
Brothers and the Avett Brothers come immediately to mind – but once the
ensemble is expanded to include various siblings, things tend to go south. Look
no further than the Jonas Brothers, the Cowsills and the Partridge Family when
it comes to separating the pap from the pop. Consequently, ties that bind and a
cozy connection don’t always make for music that really matters.
Fortunately, that stereotype may shattered with an initial
introduction to Delta Rae. Hailing from Durham, N.C., and recently inked to the
legendary Sire Records (original home of the Pretenders, Madonna, the Smiths,
the Ramones and the Talking Heads among others), the sextet consists of
brothers Ian and Eric Hölljes, their sister Brittany and fellow bandmates
Elizabeth Hopkins, Mike McKee and Grant Emerson. In fact, there’s nothing
stereotypical about anything having to do with this band, if their debut disc Carry the Fire is any kind of
indication. (It’s due out June 19, and meanwhile the band will be embarking on
a national tour, including an in-store appearance this Saturday, June 9, at
BLURT’s business partner, Schoolkids Records in Raleigh.) Flush with four-part harmonies, a
riveting, anthemic sound and a down home appeal that befits their rural environs
and humble origins, the group sounds well equipped to take America by
storm, and perhaps the rest of the world shortly thereafter.
We recently had an opportunity to speak with Ian Hölljes,
who was all too happy to share their early origins, their inspirations and
their unlikely audition for one of the biggest names in the biz…
BLURT: Let’s start
out by first getting your back-story.
HÖLLJES: My brother and I have been writing music together
since we were ten and twelve years old respectively. We went to college
together at Duke. I graduated in 2007 and he graduated in 2009, and once he
did, we decided to do the thing we always dreamed of doing, which was to start
a band, and have these huge harmonies and this epic feel. That was always our vision
for the music. We always wanted to do that with a few singers in particular –
our sister Brittany, and Elizabeth, a very close friend of outs who we’d been
singing with in California.
We all convened in Durham,
in a house I bought out in the middle of the woods, and we just started this
In a lot of
ways we didn’t know what we were doing, but we booked a couple of shows
starting in September ’09, and by
mid October, we had put together a set of songs long enough to keep us playing
for an hour. That was really the genesis of things. We were together about six
months when we decided we really wanted a rhythm section, and Eric had Mike’s
phone number from about two years earlier when Mike had been running sound. So
we gave him a call, and Mike came over for an audition/meeting type of thing
and we really hit it off. Then about six months later, he introduced us to
Grant and that really felt like the line-up. So we went with it.
And then you got the
deal with Sire, right?
We did. We were playing for probably about a year, the six of us, and then had
an opportunity to go up to New York
and meet Seymour Stein (Founder and president of Sire Records). We were really
psyched about the company and about Seymour
and his vision for the band, and so we signed with him in January of this year.
impressive, especially considering the fact that Seymour Stein is really a legend in the music
business. How did you come to his attention to begin with?
It was absolutely mind-blowing for us. Our manager, who is a
very close friend of mine from college, was friends with a classmate of his at
Duke whose father happened to know Seymour.
So he introduced us as a favor and Seymour
took the meeting as a favor to his friend. So we went to his office and took a
brief meeting — all of us pretty nervous but really excited — and he said,
“Why don’t you sing something for me?” So we jumped into this song and about
ten seconds into it, he says “Stop, stop, stop!” We thought we blew it that quickly! But then
he hollers, “Bryan!”
And this guy who was standing in the hallway, comes tumbling into the office
and says “Yes, Seymour?”
says, “You got to hear them… they sound so beautiful!” Then he brought in a
couple more people and we sang for the next 45 minutes. A couple of weeks after
that they contacted us with the first draft of the deal. It was really
exciting. We had no idea what to expect with the industry being in the shape
that it’s in, and with our inexperience, how it would all go down. But it’s so
Given the state of
the industry, did you have any qualms about going with a major?
The label has offered us total artistic freedom. We had
already raised the funds to record the album ourselves on Kickstarter, so we
had pretty much finished the album by the time we signed. From that moment
until we determined the release date, they’ve given us total control over the
music and they’ve been lending us their support. It’s really been counter to
the impression I had about how bands work with major labels. It’s been very
fulfilling and nourishing to us as a band.
It really sounds like
a Cinderella story.
Yeah, it felt that way to me.
And when you have
someone like Seymour
Stein looking out for you, obviously you’re in good hands.
It feels that way. I think for me, it’s a mixed bag. The old
way had a certain romance to it, the idea that people with these golden ears
would hear something powerful and bring it to the masses. There is something
romantic about that model in the sense that it has a potential that’s very pure
to the masses in an unblemished way. On the other hand, it has the potential to
mess up something that’s very fragile and underdeveloped. For us, the big concept from the beginning was to tour and develop
something that we thought was a really powerful ambassador for what we were
trying to do. We had done very little recording since starting the band, so for
whatever reason, the chemistry has felt great for us. We were prepared to do it
live, and our model started out with Kickstarter, and that’s how we made our
record. People donated money for us to do it – the people we played for on the
road months and years before actually starting the band
That fact that you
were able to walk into someone’s office and perform spontaneously certainly
indicates you were already adept.
We’ve been singing together a long time and that’s really
what we love to do. My brother and I love to write songs, so yeah, it does feel
at times like a Cinderella story; it has a real serendipitous element to it.
Yet, at other moments it’s been very unglamorous and very trying. But that
happens with any band’s story. We’ve been very lucky and we’re doing what we
love to do.
Do you and your
brother write the majority of the material?
Yeah, pretty much all of it.
Can you give us an idea of your
It’s definitely a wide array of influences. My brother’s primary influences are
Billy Joel and George Winston. We grew up as a family listening to James Taylor
and Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon… There were also a lot of musicals we enjoyed
listening to, like Les Miserables and
Phantom of the Opera. We were always
struck by big, emotional storytelling. It’s something that’s so gratifying to
create. I also really love a lot of artists that are around today like Coldplay,
who have a really amazing dynamic with what they do. I think the hip-hop world
has a lot to offer too. We listen to everything. Like a lot of our
contemporaries, we’re an interesting byproduct of the various genres in the pop
world today as well as the artists that came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s that our
parents played when we were kids. That’s been our strategy – to take some of
the melodic elements and some of the lyrical elements from those artists out of
the ‘60s and ‘70s because that stuff was so beautiful and so strong. And then
merge it with a modern sensibility where it stands up alongside Kanye West and
Coldplay and Adele. I think it’s sort of a merger of the old world and the new
Your name conjures up
the image of something a like a swamp rat.
(Laughs) I think
we have some swamp rattyness about us. It’s interesting… the name is sort of a
weird, serendipitous adaptation. My
mom was writing this book and the main character was this girl who invokes the
Greek gods. So she came up with this name that was southern and yet also had
this Greek influence. The Greek letter “Delta” and the Greek letter “Rae.” And
we thought it was appropriate, because of our merger of the old world and the
new, and of the sort of pagan idea and the very older influences. Not to
mention the Southern environs where we grew up and where the band started.
You wrote a song,
“Chain On Love,” in support of marriage equality. (View the video, below.) That seems especially noteworthy now in
light of the fact that your home state, North
Carolina, just passed a constitutional amendment to
bar same sex marriage.
It was a song that I wrote when the decision to accept Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage,
was approved in from California.
It was sort of a stunning defeat in the fight for equality and against
discrimination. I really took it pretty hard because it was a reminder of where
we are in this country. I tend to think we’re beyond these petty squabbles, and
when North Carolina
was facing a similar situation, we thought the song could be an ambassador for
eventually got it right, but it was disappointing that North Carolina went the other way. However,
I think eventually history will be on our side. While I think it’s sad that we
can’t rally more quickly to this cause, I think that the ultimate evolution in
our country is towards non-discrimination and towards equality. So I’m hopeful
about it. There are isolated communities in North Carolina that did rally to support gay
rights and that’s very encouraging to me as well. All’s not lost yet!