Analogue Music | Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors

Drew Holcomb

By Matt Conner

The Neighbors have been working against the word 'strangers' for quite some time.

The new album from Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors is entitled Strangers No More but the label feels a bit misleading given how community-oriented the band has been since their inception in the mid-aughts. With a communal approach to both the music and the entrepreneurial initiatives that have grown up and out from Holcomb over the years, it feels a bit odd to have ever referred to anyone as a stranger around them.

If you've ever listened to much of Holcomb's music, you'll recognize a disarming undertow at work within it—an interesting and almost subversive way of drawing the listener in. It's an unexpected arm around the shoulder, as Holcomb sings about our better selves in such an earnest way. The band's all-together-now melodies only further serve its hospitable posture.

What makes Strangers No More such a striking album is that the band members themselves have drawn closer together to make what Holcomb calls "the most Neighbors record yet". As close as the band has felt to their fans for years, there's always a distance to bridge, and Holcomb and the Neighbors are sharper for having done the internal work on this latest set of songs.

Analogue: Your music has always felt like an “arm around the audience” in a way, and this album more so than ever. But I want to start with the bigger picture because that feels also true of your various business ventures—the music festival, the vinyl club. It makes me wonder if there’s a mission statement written somewhere or tattoos on the arm or something that has some mantra of what you are intentionally about. Or is it just more organic than that?

Drew Holcomb: I think it’s both intentional and organic. We’ve been doing this for a relatively long time now, so I kinda know what the ingredients are that have made us successful, and a big part of that is the community—on our team, in the band, and within our fan base.

I mean, we made our way one person at a time for many years in the first decade we were doing this. So I have a healthy perspective on the fact that our fans have been a part of the conversation for a long time because that was the only way we were able to find an audience for a long time. So we don’t have a mission statement or tattoos on the arm, but it’s certainly an ethic of being responsible to each other and for each other.

"We don’t have a mission statement or tattoos on the arm, but it’s certainly an ethic of being responsible to each other and for each other."

In a lot of ways, that’s a learned thing. For a couple of my heroes, that’s the way they’ve run their operations for many years. I can speak to three of those in [Bruce] Springsteen, [Tom] Petty, and Willie Nelson. Those are guys I’ve idolized for a long time, and they’ve always respected their band and their audiences—from the jump all the way until the end. Obviously, two of them are still going.

This album in particular is the most Neighbors-oriented album we’ve ever had. How that manifested itself is that two of these guys have been with me nearly the entire time. It’s 2004 for Nathan [Dugger] and 2006 for Rich [Brinsfield]. So on this album, while we’re releasing an 11-song record, we actually recorded about 24 songs and some of those will see the light of day in the future. But this album made the most sense because it spanned the most sonic territory and it was just us having fun in the studio as a band.

Even with Dragons, we had a clear vision of what it was even before we got into the studio. Whereas with this one, we knew what songs we’d record, but we didn’t know which would reveal themselves for the record. A song like “On a Roll” is pretty new territory for us. I didn’t even write it. So there’s been a collaborative ethic to the work and we’ve always tried to respect the audience as not only consumers of our music but participants in the experience that music is.

Analogue: So when it comes to the entrepreneurial part, how much of the ethos of the music is—and having the audience as part of the “conversation” like you said—key to deciding what you take on there?

Drew: Yeah, that’s certainly a big part of it. When we started Moon River, it was a couple of things that were driving that for me.

One was that I love playing music festivals. I love the discovery piece of that, both for fans and bands. I think fans find new music and bands find their audience playing at festivals. I can remember seeing Bon Iver at Outside Lands the first year they had that or seeing Ben Folds in the ninth grade in Memphis and becoming a lifelong fan.

So I loved that piece of it, but I also wanted to share my hometown of Memphis with the world. We had it there for three years, but some circumstances changed and we had to move it.

But honestly, a sharper-edged reason for me was that, at that point, we weren't getting a lot of festival looks and I was bummed about it. I loved the experience of music festivals, but we just weren’t getting the nods at the time. It was just the reality of the time in 2013 when I started Moon River. So I thought, ‘Well, if we’re not going to get invited to play all these cool festivals that I’ve loved, then let’s start our own and I’ll at least get to play one great one a year.’

Obviously, in the decades since then, we’ve gotten a lot of invitations. I think that’s become we’ve become known as a festival band in the last 10 years. Some of that’s because of the music we’ve put out in the last 10 years and some of it is because of the growth in our fan base. But that was a big motivating factor in the beginning.

Another part of this is that I get bored. I’m not a songwriter who sits around and tweaks and tweaks. There are a lot of songwriters with that patience and gift, but that’s not me. I’m more of an extrovert and love new ideas and get bored easily. So some of these things stem from that.

The record club, that was something I’d joined through Dualtone Records, which was run by a good friend of mine. It was really cool but it was almost all stuff from Dualtone’s label. I just called him and said, ‘Do you mind if I copy your idea?’ He gave me his approval on that and I started and it blew up into this whole other thing where we’re able to share unique new releases for people who’d joined that community.

The problem with these entrepreneurial ideas, however, is that no one told me when I started writing songs and touring and playing that I was starting a business. So I learned the hard way over the last couple of decades that the things you start, you’re actually starting a new business. Even during COVID, I realized I wanted to focus back on the music, so I found ways to offload the responsibility of those endeavors to other people. So we sold the festival, although I still have a small interest in it. The record club ironically sold to Dualtone.

So I’ve stepped back from those entrepreneurial things in the last 3-4 years because what I found out during COVID is that the main thing I love to spend my time on is also the most fruitful. And that is writing, recording, and touring music. I felt like that ability to make music about community and to share whatever my perspective is that comes out in different songs has been the most creatively fruitful three years of my career because of that choice.

Analogue: So the growth of the tribe can get in the way of the tribe?

Drew: Yeah, absolutely!

Strangers No More cover art
Strangers No More cover art

Coming out of that, there were all these weird pod shows, but it didn’t matter because we were on-stage together. I think all that time away gave us all a really fresh appreciation for what we get to do for a living and the music we get to make. Honestly, I feel like those were the best shows we’d ever played. The band was just really firing on all cylinders.

In light of that, we’d started a monthly gathering in my office which has a living room in the middle. We set up in a circle and once a month for probably a year, we'd get together and I’d play any new song that I’d written. We had it set up with a tiny little drum kit, a keyboard, a couple of acoustics, and a bass—as simple as it could. We were kind of inspired by Wilco’s rehearsal set-up on the road that you can see videos of, and I’d play through all the songs I’d written that month.

So every time we did that, songs would either take on these new characteristics or the arrangements would change. A prime example was “All The Money in the World”, which I’d written in 2018. I’d shelved it because I didn’t feel like it fit, and the original version was very slow—almost this ‘90s R&B slow jam. I couldn’t wrap my head around how that would fit into our Neighbors framework.

There was one month where I’d not been very productive, so I dug deep and found a bunch of songs that I hadn’t visited in a long time and that was one. Immediately the drummer said, ‘Let’s speed it up a lot and see how it feels.’ All of a sudden, that song that had been in the dustbin rose to the top because of these monthly creative sessions.

Because of the nature of that, we went into the studio with very little roadmap. We were arranging on the fly. We were trying new tempos. It just allowed the band to have a much more organic recording process, and that came out of just how well we were playing together out of COVID and those monthly creative sessions.

Analogue: That’s great you mentioned that song because you even have horns and everything going on that one.

Drew: Yeah, it’s very satisfying for me to listen to that song. I think there are parts of my voice and even me putting the guitar down and just singing—being front man without hiding behind the guitar. There’s a lot going on there for me stepping out of my shell. I’ve even shed the hat for this cycle. I’ve turned 40. I’m bald. Everybody knows it. Why hide it anymore? It’s been fun and I’ve been set free by the creative process. That song is a great microcosm of that.

Analogue: The way you’re talking right now makes it sound like this album could represent a line of sorts, a before and after sort of album. Does it feel that way to you?

Drew: Yeah, it does in a way. I think so. I mean, I’ve had a couple of those. Every album is a chapter in the story, but this one feels like an opportunity to really look at before and after. Whether or not that pans out from a practical perspective is to be determined, but it definitely feels like our way of doing things will be before and after for sure.

VISIT: Drew Holcomb

Photo: Ashtin Paige