Making your mark in music at a young age can cut both ways. Sure, being in your mid-teens and generating indie buzz in Los Angeles and beyond, releasing three albums in three years and getting the chance to collaborate with major stars all sounds great. But it means a lot of eyes are on you when you’re still in the process of finding your voice. When you inevitably make changes, evolve and explore, it will get scrutinized.
Austin Anderson of Slow Hollows has done all the above in only a few short years and has succeeded like never before with new album Actors — which is either Slow Hollows’ third or fourth proper album, depending on whether you count their 2014 debut, I’m Just As Bad As You Are (and the singer-songwriter would just as soon you didn’t). That record’s successors, 2015’s Atelophobia and Romantic, in 2016, represented growth, but nothing like the step-up that is Actors, on which Anderson introduces a new last name, a new band lineup and a genre-defiant sound that segues from neo-soul to acoustic guitar-and-piano reflections to expansive, horn-tinged electronics, all in a compact 38 minutes.
Who’s responsible for Slow Hollows’ remarkable sonic shift, some of which was previewed in singles dating back to last year? At least some of the inspiration goes to go to three modern visionaries Anderson had the crazy fortune to work with and learn from in his come-up: Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Kevin Abstract. A portrait of this artist as a young man, to borrow from Joyce, is already a multifaceted one, and he’s not even 22.
“Should we try the upstairs green room?” Anderson asks. “I think it’s quieter.” We’re at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade, where Slow Hollows are playing a headlining date on a night off from a cross-country tour with The Neighbourhood. The venue is one of New York’s best smaller rooms, but one where conducting an interview only a thin wall away from your support band, who’s mid-sound check, is a challenge. Ten minutes into our conversation, we’re practically yelling to hear each other, so we relocate and continue talking Actors. Austin isn’t necessarily comfortable with calling the new record a “reinvention” of Slow Hollows – a word that rings more calculating than he would ever want to be considered – as he is thinking of it as an evolution.
“They’re songs that I always wanted to make, and really have been making just for myself,” he says. “I would put out that kind of thing under the name Teeks for a long time, just as like, solo music. A lot of that was just like me and a drum machine and GarageBand, and I always felt like it was stupid. It just didn’t feel like it was right, or that it could be anything more than what it was.” On songs like the new “Two Seasons,” “Blood,” “Heart” and “Get Along,” he’s finally leaned into those more nuanced, R&B, pop and even experimental impulses – a long way from the latter-day Pavement vibes of Slow Hollows’ first incarnation. “Growing up in Los Angeles, in the music scene that we did, it’s not that that music was shunned, but I got it in my head that it had to be a four-piece rock band,” he explains. “And that was the kind of the sound that you had to work off of. So for a long time, I just kind of felt self-conscious about doing anything like this.”
Atelophobia was very much a product of its time, made by teenage indie rock heads whose second home became the legendary L.A. DIY venue The Smell and whose seminal influences included Death Grips, Radiohead and masters of irony LCD Soundsystem and John Maus. The record impressively showcased jangle-y deadpan cool, but it left Anderson wanting, as did Romantic, which introduced horns, a new element, but felt “rushed,” he says, on no budget. But something happened on the way to Austin’s getting stuck in a rock rut: the introduction into his life of a new and famous friend and advisor.
“It was like 7:30 in the morning on a Monday,” Austin recalls of one fateful day in high school. “And I got a Twitter message from Tyler saying, ‘I love your shit, but where are your music videos?’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?'” Mind you, this was not the big man on campus getting DM’d by one of the hottest names in hip-hop, in any sense. This is a kid who was small for his age – “a shrimp,” his former band mate Dylan Thinnes used to call him – but with an outsized gift as a musician and songwriter. As Austin, Dylan and drummer Nick Santana generated buzz for themselves as part of L.A.’s artist-run Danger Collective label, a performance video for the song “The Pool,” shot by the YouTube series Stumble on Tapes, is what caught Tyler, the Creator’s attention. “I guess he saw something in that,” offers Anderson. “And so he just reached out, really directly. Then I invited him to a show that we played in this room in Mid-City, and a few days later he was doing Cherry Bomb and I just did some guitar for it.”
Simple as that, he played on two songs on Cherry Bomb, then saw his profile truly jump with a cameo on the remix of Tyler’s “Perfect,” memorably featuring alongside the rapper in the song’s absurdist video. That led to appearances on Frank Ocean’s world-rocking back-to-back 2016 releases Endless and Blonde, playing guitar and even contributing vocals on Ocean’s ode to unconsummated love, “Self Control.” By this point, the taste-making press had taken notice of the kid from the Valley whose name was suddenly appearing in album credits alongside the likes of James Blake and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Somehow, Anderson tried to not let the attention faze him. “I tried to think of it like, ‘Oh it’s not a big deal.’ But it was amazing and I was so excited. I mean, fucking Jonny Greenwood did string arrangements on the same song that I was on!” he laughs. “And I’m like, ‘What the fuck?!’ But the way that that came about was real natural and organic and it didn’t feel like a big thing at the time.”
Back on the Slow Hollows front, things were less fulfilling. Even as he appeared on Tyler’s next album Flower Boy, Austin was looking to take his band in different directions, and Nick and Dylan became an increasingly hard fit. “It was really messy,” he admits. “But Nick was like a punk drummer, and you hear him on Atelophobia, we didn’t record to a click [track], and he’s like thrashing the whole time. And I think that’s his real passion. And when we started recording Romantic it was like, ‘Oh we’re using click now…’ and I could feel him pulling away. Which I understood! Because nobody wants to do that, if you’re not involved in the songwriting, why would I make my best friend play to a fucking click, and take all the passion out of it? And then with Dylan, it was just, he really wanted to make his own music and we didn’t really have a falling out or anything; it was just creative differences.”
Enter, gradually, a new lineup: drummer Jackson Katz – it’s his lipsticked face on the cover of Actors – bassist Aaron Jassenoff, and maybe most significantly, horn player Daniel Fox, who first came in to play trumpet on Romantic and has grown into Anderson’s right-hand man when it comes to production. “I produce everything with him now, and he’s just better at running recording programs than I am. I’ve kind of made an effort to not learn how to run Ableton or Pro Tools, just ’cause it would take the fun out of making music, I think. And I don’t need that to occupy my head, I guess. But he’s really good at running them as well as like, just producing and bringing in new ideas. And I just feel comfortable in a room with him, like I’m not being judged.”
Some early songs were made for Actors with producer and engineer Will Van Boldrik (Santigold) – the wistful, “Two Seasons,” “Come Back In,” and the delicate, acoustic “Cowboy.” But there may be no individual more responsible for the R&B-leaning, open-minded approach of the new Slow Hollows than Tyler, with whom Austin is in frequent contact. “Absolutely,” he affirms. “Whenever I would play him stuff, his notes would always be to make it more of a thing that you can like, move to? Just cause that’s the music he likes, and I don’t want it to just be for one audience. And he has such a broad audience that I feel like he has so much a better grasp on what makes people react to music. Not necessarily what ‘sells,’ because I don’t really care about that, but to get a reaction out of a broader group of people, and that’s usually more of an R&B kind of thing.”
It was also through Tyler that Austin met Abstract (real name Ian Simpson). “I met Ian at Trampoline World in L.A., just because Tyler and I would go there,” he recalls. “He had just put out American Boyfriend , and I thought he was really sweet, and so we just kept up a rapport.” Austin sat in on sessions originally intended for Brockhampton’s since-scrapped 2018 Puppy LP, elements of which ended up on “Baby Boy” on Abstract’s solo release Arizona Baby; Abstract directed the video for Anderson’s “transitional” 2018 single “Lessons For Later”; and the two even appeared together in a tender and intimate spot for Calvin Klein’s 2019 Speak My Truth campaign, though that, he’s quick to point out, was “all Ian.” “I mean, I’m happy that it happened,” he explains. “And now people may see it and be like, ‘Oh you got the CK thing!’ but really he just asked me because they needed another person. It was all him.”
Abstract also figures into the history of Slow Hollows’ “Heart,” a standout on Actors with an impressive pedigree. The smoky, funky pop confection would sound perfectly at home next to vintage Spandau Ballet or Lisa Stansfield, and it began life as an early demo with members of Brockhampton: “It was just me and Ryan [Beatty] and a few other people at the house, just kind of making random stuff. ‘Heart’ was really me and Romil [Hemnani], we made this little pop version.” Austin forgot about the song for a while but returned to it before the new album was finished, and took it to Tyler for more creative input. “He was like, ‘This sounds great, but the drums are horrible, let me redo it,'” he recalls. “Because that’s kind of his forte. Like, like electronic drum and bass, poppy thing. And it didn’t feel genuine, coming from me, really. He’s just better at that.”
Not a bad creative process, if you can swing it. And Austin is well aware he’s in a rare position to be able to call on such talented friends. “It’s really, really nice to know that it’s there,” he admits. “And I don’t want to ever take any of it for granted. And I also want to make sure that something feels genuine. I mean I wouldn’t ever want to just take a song from Brockhampton to Tyler just for the sake of it. It just happened naturally.” “Heart” even got another reworking: the spacious, piano-centered “Heart (Reprise)” that closes Actors and is the work of Grizzly Bear auteur Chris Taylor. “That was some weird thing where we just got really lucky. Our manager Dave just reached out, and was like, ‘Is it possible to do a session with Chris?’ And Chris saw the early ‘Heart’ video, and called me and was like, ‘This is so cool! I want to help you do this!’ And I was just like, ‘Yes, do whatever you want to it!’ Not that he just took it and did it himself, but he brought some textural thing to it that we weren’t able to do on our own.”
“Heart” and “You Are Now On Fire,” the record’s most danceable track, represent the album at its most upbeat, and they were the two songs that most interested record companies when Anderson and his manager took meetings for a potential label release. “They were kind of the selling point for the album,” he says. “I mean, everybody kind of heard ‘Fire’ and ‘Heart’ and were like, ‘Okay, so let’s do like a pop thing,’ and then they didn’t really give a shit about the other songs.” Ultimately, Slow Hollows decided to self-release on his Not Another Word, via an exclusive license to AWAL, sparing Austin the need to figure out how to position himself – not an easy feat for a principled 21-year-old averse to anything forced or “not genuine.” “For a while, I was really pitching it as, ‘I want to do like a [The] 1975 kind of thing’,” he recalls. “Not sonically, but when I would talk to labels, I would be like, ‘I want to be something like that. I am comfortable like, playing that kind of part.’ But then when it comes down to it, and you get a major label offer, and they expect you to do that, you realize – ‘I can’t do that! That’s not what I am.'”
Once unconstrained by radio-friendly considerations, he and Fox came up with two of the more intriguing tracks on Actors – propulsive highlight “Blood,” and the quietly unassuming “Posture,” which Austin considers “more like a little Logic demo” than a real pop song. They cast Slow Hollows in a vulnerable, left field faction of indie populated by Perfume Genius and Sufjan Stevens.
From the jump, names, titles and what’s behind them have bedeviled Austin. Slow Hollows as a name came about because the project’s original name, Hollows, was being used by “about five other bands,” the singer says. He no longer uses Teeks for solo projects because “some fool in New Zealand” started using it and won’t give it up. The album title Atelophobia – the fear of not being good enough – was itself a tell about its creator, who can often be his own toughest critic. And as for Actors, the name refers in part to “the idea of, like, people being actors,” he says. “I know that sounds like a really 9th grade philosophy, I read The Stranger once kind of thing, but it’s something that I think about, that kind of makes me feel better in my personal life, because it makes it so things aren’t as serious, I guess?”
And then there’s his own surname, which has recently changed. Through Slow Hollows’ emergence, and on those high-profile guest spots, he was Austin Feinstein, using his father’s last name. But because his relationship with that side of the family is, in his words, “horrible,” he opted to legally take on his mother’s name, becoming the more alliterative Austin Anderson. He initially didn’t even tell his dad, which made for at least one awkward moment. “I don’t see my grandparents on my dad’s side very often,” he explains. “But one of the last times I saw ’em, my grandmother was telling me about how she was coming out of a doctor’s appointment, and one of the nurses putting her in the wheelchair was like, ‘Oh, are you related to Austin Feinstein by any chance?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah that’s my grandson!’ And she told me that story like the week after I changed my last name! And so I just kind of didn’t say anything.”
“All you got to do is try” is the barely-detectable coda lyric of the shimmering, excellent “Blood,” one of the songs on Actors of which Anderson is most proud. It’s also not a bad mantra for the place this newly liberated young artist is in. His gifts are clear – never more so than on Actors – but it’s taken him a minute to stop his chronic second-guessing and make an artistic leap, heeding the advice of his friend and mentor Tyler: “If you don’t get out of your own way, you’re going to regret it.” Like the old Voltaire aphorism about perfect being the enemy of good, Austin says that to some extent he’ll always long to do better.
“A hundred percent,” he admits. “I mean, I love this album and I wouldn’t change a thing, but also I would change every single part of this album. I even thought about that today, like, ‘Oh I wish I did that with that song,’ or, ‘I wish I did that with the drum sound.'” But he’s learning that there are times to let things be. “I am just trying to embrace the moment in the way that things happen,” he explains. “All or most of the vocal takes on the record ended up being first takes. We just left it because the intention was there, rather than getting it to be a perfect take, where the intention would be lost. So yeah, my whole goal now is actually that quote – it’s ‘don’t let perfect get in the way.’ It’s like – just get your intention out, and it will come across. You might not think it will come across, but it will.”