If there was any question whether the state of music in South Florida was malingering, Paul Holland just blew it out of the water.
Paultergeist, as he's known, was relegated to sideman accordion player in popular Lake Worth act Viva Le Vox. With his new project, Que Lastima, he has unsheathed a full arsenal of honorifics: composer, arranger, frontman, pianist, organist, guitarist, singer, hellraiser, and false prophet.
The band's live shows don't convey music so much as reach out, grab your throat, and force-feed an epiphany of experience akin to a tent revival. As if the performances weren't enough, there's the album. Fever Dreams isn't just a standout for local recordings; in the humble opinion of this writer, it is among the very best albums of 2014.
Holland creates a dreamy world of knife-fight circus church music that's part punk, gypsy jazz, New Orleans swing, and sinner's swagger. He's taken fuzzy guitars and made them feel right at home with horns and waltzing pianos and saxophone solos. He manages to make his accordion sound like a Parisian bistro one moment and a tool of Satan's hellfire the next.
Of the 13 songs on Fever Dreams, he makes each unique and vital, partly thanks to a revolving cast of band members but in no small part due to the one constant musician in each of the songs, drummer Sean Chesal.
Que Lastima brings its barn burner set to Propaganda in Lake Worth this Saturday, December 13, for its album release party. We spoke with Holland about God, the devil, recording at Pompano's Power Station Studios, playing in an eight-piece band, and, of course, Fever Dreams.
New Times: Tell us a bit about your musical background. When did you start playing music? When you start writing music?
Paul Holland: To be honest, I never played music until I joined Viva Le Vox, and that was my first band.
I don't know how it happened or why, but a few weeks before meeting those guys, I just started collecting obscure instruments and trying to figure out how to play them. I had a pump organ from the '20s, a Russian balalaika, a mandolin, and a resonator guitar.
Then one day, I saw an ad on Craigslist for an accordion, and something just clicked. Scarecrow Jenkins [of Viva Le Vox] took me to my accordion lessons twice a week because I didn't have a car at the time. If it wasn't for that, I don't think I'd be here doing this interview. I'm still grateful for him doing that.
I later found out my mom grew up playing the accordion in Uruguay as a missionary's kid. It was so surreal. I wrote my first song on the accordion, and watching [former bandmates] Tony Bones' writing process helped me discover my own. I owe a lot to that guy. Antoine Dukes too.
I know the recording process was protracted over the past two years. Was it a conscious decision to do a little bit here and a little bit there? Was the idea to do a full-length all along?
Yeah, I planned to do a full-length the whole time, and I wanted it to be a kind of collaboration with some of the amazing musicians I had met during my travels with Viva Le Vox. I wanted each song to be different from the next.
It took a long time because I had to wait for some of these guys to pass through on their crazy touring schedules, and secondly, because I had never written and produced an entire album before, there was a lot of learning involved. Sometimes a song would just change direction, and we would explore it.
You recorded at Power Station Studios, instead of on a four-track in your bedroom or garage. Did you know what kind of production sound you were looking for ahead of time? How did you settle on Power Station?
I had an idea that some of the songs were gonna be large and multifaceted and were gonna need more than I could make happen with a couple of Shure 58s. I knew this guy Evan Eade who was interning there, and he knew me from Viva Le Vox. I had actually started to record some rough demos in my house, and he just kinda fell in my lap like, "Hey, I work at this amazing studio -- record your album there." It felt right after a tour and meeting the engineers, so I went with it.
God and the devil seem to have strong footing in the album. Did you envision one side exerting a little more influence than the other?
The rabbit hole goes deep on this one. But for brevity's sake, I'll say that the darker the shadows, the brighter the light seems.
Where the hell did this album come from? You don't live in the Delta, and South Florida is a far cry from Bourbon Street. There are no religious tent revivals or snake-wielding fortunetellers that I'm aware of nearby...
[laughs] Again, it was all Viva Le Vox. Before, just as a guy who loved music; I listened to a lot of punk and metal and a fair amount of traditional European Romani music.
Touring was the biggest part of developing myself as a songwriter. I met so many different people, experienced so many different regions, and just played a lot. Tony and Antoine are in love with jazz and showed me a lot about swing and how the genesis and lowest common denominator of all music is rhythm. We toured through New Orleans a lot, caught shows at Preservation Hall, that kind of stuff. I wrote a lot of the songs in California right after quitting Viva Le Vox and polished 'em up when I got back to Florida.
Where did you collect the musicians you worked with on the album?
Well, I saw Sean play with Brain Chips four or five years ago at Monterey in Fort Lauderdale, and I was blown away by him and Andrew both. I liked the way Sean complimented Andrew's dark and creepy style. They both struck a chord with me. Andrew loves gypsy jazz and swing but also straightforward punk and American rock 'n' roll and doo-wop, and Sean could follow it all.
When I got back to Florida from California after leaving Viva Le Vox, I knew the right drummer was gonna help make this album come out right. Everything needs a foundation, a spine, and Sean and I just clicked. A lot of this shit just fell into my lap, it's weird. Fast forward, I saw Brain Chips play in West Palm, and I asked Sean if he wanted to work on an album with me, and he said yes right away. He's a jazz cat, so he helped me find some of the brass; so did Andrew. Other than that, bands like the Sawyer Family, Filthy Still, Viva Le Vox, and various friends of my own helped record the album.
What was your writing process for the album? Did you compose each of the parts and come to the studio with complete demos? Or was it more of a jam once you got the musicians in the studio?
I'd say I had the arrangements, chord progressions, and about 90 percent of the melodies in my head and worked out with Sean before we went in. There were some on-the-spot rearrangements, and some of it I purposefully left open for that. The jazzier stuff that has solos I just gave the guys a number of measures to play and would do a few takes until the feeling was right. But there were a number of times I had certain notes that I really wanted to convey the feeling, or a melody I wanted to layer, and the guys were all supercool, not an ego in the group. Totally open-minded and willing to try whatever I had in mind.
You seem particularly adept at constructing bridges in your songs with tremendous grace. In particular, the sublime piano interlude in the waltz "We're Already Dead" and the organ break in "Psalms." They seem to come out of nowhere but fit so seamlessly. Can you tell us how those came about?
Thanks for those kind words. Man, to be honest, it was all organic. I wrote most of those songs on guitar, the rhythm and the chord progression sprouted the melodies, and it's more like the song wrote itself. I can get all weird and try to explain to you the colors and shapes and vibrations while tapping into a song, and as a songwriter yourself, you know it would look like a schizophrenic's diary trying to put words on something spiritual like that. So instead of talking about ectoplasm and streamers and roots and myrrh, I'll stick with organic. [laughs]
Why did you wait until you had the album in the can to play out in public with the band?
To be honest, I wasn't even going to do a live band at first. I just wanted to record a quality album and maybe look into putting some of the songs on a soundtrack somewhere or a compilation. Halfway through, Sean was like, "What the fuck, man. Let's play this shit out." Having the album almost finished made it easier to find musicians and teach them arrangements.
Is being the ringleader of an eight-piece live band any different than being the talent wrangler inside the studio with all those musicians?
Yeah, a lot different. It's easier in the studio by far, because it's a lot more fun playing with the gear and the outboard and ordering Indian food and talking shit and having fun. It's a more relaxed environment where you have more room to explore creativity and experimentation.
Rehearsal is a bit different, because you're trying to dial in a show and get a tight set. I really didn't wanna hold the reins on a train this big; it's a lot to manage outside of an already busy life. But I'm lucky to have a bunch of musicians with a lot of background playing live music with a full band, and they share my vision for the songs. That definitely makes things easier.
It's just a big machine, and every machine is made up of a bunch of smaller parts, including myself. We've got a lot of shows booked, and nothing forges iron like trial by fire. We're stoked, for sure.
Que Lastima album release party with the Royal Tinfoil and Jangle Leg. 8 p.m., Saturday, December 13, Propaganda, 6 S. J St., Lake Worth. $10 cover includes a copy of Fever Dreams. Visit quelastimamusic.com.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!