'High Hopes' Songwriter Sam Hollander Traces His Long Rise to Prominence
"A long project is like a secret houseguest, hidden in your study, waiting to be fed and visited."
So go the words of the writer John Hollander, an honored poet and a distinguished member of the faculty at Yale University who passed away in 2013. Aside from simply being a thoughtful line, its sentiments could also easily be applied to Hollander's nephew Sam, the pop songwriter who grew up with the same itch for creativity and self-expression as John, constructing a career by tending to many "secret houseguests" of his own.
"He was a rock star in the world of poetry and it really helped light a match," says Sam from his Los Angeles studio. "I came from an incredible creative stock; my dad was a dancer and my mom was an artist herself and a writer, among all of these other things. In my family, it was pretty much expected we stay weird at all costs. While my uncle's work was over my head, I did notice his wordplay was extremely sophisticated. I think both his writing and the early days of rap was what really shaped my voice as a lyricist."
Hollander's sharp lyricism is on full display in his latest hit, the anthemic earworm "High Hopes." Rocketing Panic! At The Disco back to chart relevance, "High Hopes" became a top 10 staple on the Billboard Hot 100 and the veteran act's first No. 1 song on the Pop Songs chart (even their trademark "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" only peaked at No. 2 in 2006). Proving its staying power, it's been stuck at that top spot for the past five weeks and counting. "Its success has completely floored me," says Hollander of the track's current ubiquity. "Every time I played the album for people, I noticed 'High Hopes' always got a reaction. It's been mind-blowing in so many ways. I've been blessed to have other songs that hit, but this is a whole other stratosphere of crazy."
The birth of the theatrical-sounding "High Hopes" traces back to the Broadway stage. "Two summers ago I went to catch (frontman) Brendon Urie when he was starring in Kinky Boots and was just marveling at both his talent and his journey at that point. He's 13 years into his career and I've been around for all of it either as a friend or collaborator."
With Urie's creative journey fresh in his mind, Hollander went to Cape Cod for what he expected to be a sunny vacation, only to find the weather had other plans. "It rained every single day, so I locked the door and started scribbling down some narratives based on the evolution of Panic! in my mind, in terms of thinking of Brendon and everything he's been through. We'd have these long conversationa with him and (producer) Jake Sinclair about what their logical progression was." From there, work began on the act's sixth studio album Pray for the Wicked. "At a certain point, we had written seven songs for the record together. For a while 'High Hopes' only existed as a chorus and a bridge with a big hole in the middle and I kept waiting for a shot to crack the code on it."
Akin to his uncle's metaphor, Hollander's passion for wordplay then came into, well, play. "Words hit me aggressively. I love phonetics and I'm constantly bending words in conversation. I wake up every day at 6:30 in the morning and start writing ideas and laying VoiceNotes. Wordplay eats at me all day long. It's what sort of driven me all these years." When it came time to crack the "High Hopes" code, Hollander went to work. "I went off and started scatting some ideas down for some verses, then ran over and sang some ideas to Brendon and Jake. They cut it and it came back and I was like, 'Wow, this was better than what I was singing.' When I sing things, it tends to never live up to the outcome. So 'High Hopes' was Frankenstein'd and it was so brilliantly executed across the board."
Not only signaling a fresh chapter for Panic!, the resounding success of "High Hopes" also marks the latest coup for Hollander, who's had a winding career that's blended genres and enjoyed a distinct evolution if its own. "I don't believe in any certain genre being isolated from anything else," he says of the method to his musical madness. "I just know all of them as one, so my discography tends to take these strange turns and I shapeshift. In general, I can find the musical connectivity between all of it, even though on paper it sounds a little crazy."
Case in point: Hollander's original musical iteration was as a young MC who signed to a record deal while still merely a student attending New York University. "I'd stand outside of Barnes & Noble and read Billboard cover to cover on the newstand, memorizing all of the A&Rs from photoshoots of gold record presentations," he remembers of his humble beginnings. "I'd then stand outside of all of the labels with duffel bags full of cassettes." Hollander's tenacity ("which probably made people uncomfortable") paid off when he was signed to Select Records in 1991, the same label behind hip-hop sensations Kid 'N Play. Despite behind dropped a short year later, Hollander's biggest takeaway resulted from the experience of producing his own album, a skill that'd come in handy later. "I kept this playbook in my pocket of all of the ideas that I'd execute if I could ever get through. It gave me a lot of time to write and write and get better and better. I think that was the luxury," he says. "It took me 12 more years until I really made any dent in the consciousness and during that time I saw so many of my friends succeed while I didn't."
Eventually, Hollander became known for being one-half of the production duo dubbed S*A*M and Sluggo alongside Dave Katz. The two most notably had a large part to do with success of the heyday of a bevy of Fueled By Ramen-era hits during the label's pop-punk heyday. "You'd go to Warped Tour or Bamboozle and have 60,000 kids screaming," he recalls. "Is there a movement today that has the same sort of luster? I love face-tattooed rappers like everybody else, but this was such a different thing." Among the pair's greatest hits was Metro Station's "Shake It." The energetic track, which went gold in 2008, was the first time Hollander ever used the production software Ableton. "I was stoned and tried to create this massive chorus to try to make it an event, and one by one kept layering loop on top of loop on top of loop. When I sent it to the mixer, he called that night and said, 'Are you okay? Because this is the craziest thing I've ever heard.'"
Hollander was also behind Cobra Starship's "Snakes On a Plane (Bring It)" and the Gym Class Heroes' love anthem "Cupid's Chokehold"; he produced the latter solo, and found himself in over his head. "At the time, I'm an amateur engineer at best and somehow I was the recipient of this crazy track that wasn't recorded to a click and sounded like chaos. I sat there by myself with headphones for 14 days pushing things around and adding sounds. It was absolute sonic chaos, but it was a massive hit and opened a lot of doors. That one really comes down to Travie McCoy's brilliance."
With "High Hopes" a continuing success, Hollander continues to live up to his M.O. as a musical shapeshifter. While watching an episode of CBS This Morning, he was intrigued by a segment on the legendary R&B act The O'Jays, best known for a string of classics including "Love Train" and "Backstabbers." Struck by the group, he produced what will be their final studio album, The Last Word, due out Feb. 22. "These guys have been a band for 60 years and Walter (Williams) and Eddie (Levert) are probably the two coolest cats I've ever met. It's the kind of record I can't believe I'm a part of. I pinch myself and get chills because it's so wonderful." Of course, he's also tending to other secret houseguests for contemporary artists. "This is all I ever wanted and I never had a moment where I thought I'd do anything else. It's the one thing I thought I could do as a human."