Knuckle Pups is a new pop-punk project from Denver singer and guitarist Oliver Holloway. The group's synth- and guitar-led power ballads not only make for catchy tunes, but they've empowered the other members —drummer Tomas Campos, guitarist Clark Walker, bassist Chello Aguirre, and synth player and vocalist Olivia Hendrick — to take control of their own creative process, regardless of whether they've worked with Holloway in the past or have experience in previous bands.
Ahead of Knuckle Pups' cassette-release show for the four-track San Panino at Larimer Lounge on October 27, bandmembers spoke to Westword about encouraging one another to explore their own creativity within the context of the band's music, putting San Panino on cassette, how the band came together, and why new musicians deserve the chance to contribute to projects just as much as music veterans and professionals.
Westword: How are you feeling about the San Panino cassette?
Hendrick: We're pretty excited. We’ve been working pretty hard for a long time, but the past month we’ve been chugging away to get it finished. A little nervous.
What was the writing process? How did that shake out?
Holloway: I’ve been writing these songs for a long time. I take a long time to write songs and always have something in the works. Tomas, Clark and I started playing them a couple years ago already.
Walker: Some of these songs are two years old.
Holloway: At this point, I’ve written all the songs, but Olivia takes lead on one, and Clark also has some songs he’s written but we haven’t played quite yet. I like bands where everyone contributes to the songwriting, and I think that will happen more and more as we grow older.
Tomas was really, really helpful in the process. I had a time where I went through some bad writer’s block, and he was there to encourage me to just continue through, keep trying. I was just miserably stuck and couldn’t figure it out. He was just like, "It doesn’t matter. We keep trying." And now it’s come together, and it’s really because of the people we have in this band. I probably would have given up without Tomas.
What about this band works so well for everyone in it?
Campos: I have worked with Oliver for about seven years, and he’s been one of the best writers I’ve worked with, musically. For me, he’s been able to offer a lot of creative space on the drums, and helped me develop as a drummer.
Working with Oliver and with Knuckle Pups, I think we all give each other space that allows people to do their thing. Oliver gives some direction here, but he also is willing to take direction and allow you to develop yourself.
Walker: We have space to be creative. We’re all good friends, so we’re able to help each other develop musically, as well.
Hendrick: As someone who’s never been in a band before but has a little bit of background in music, I felt like this was extremely collaborative for me. Feeling a bit like a newbie, but feeling very welcomed and heard. Like Tomas said, being able to explore creatively without any judgment.
Olivia, as the only full-time female bandmember, what about working with these guys has made you feel comfortable and encouraged to be a part of Knuckle Pups?
I went to elementary school with Oliver and got babysat by his mom when we were really young in Denver [laughs]. We ran into each other at a bar last fall, and he was like, "Hey, are you interested in being in a band?" and I said, "Yeah!"
Obviously there's more detail to it, but pretty much just like that, I was in a band. It was pretty much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision, and then it became more and more serious. As time went on, I realized this was real and I needed to commit to this. It started off as like a fun and playful thing, and slowly became more and more serious.
Holloway: I really like playing with new musicians. I like to find people who aren’t super-jaded and in a million bands or professional musicians. I feel like people in that area are so much easier to work with. Less ego, and it’s important for me to have a lot of different voices, both demographically and musically, and having people with varying skill levels and viewpoints.
I also think one thing for me, on a political level, is that I want to create spaces where lots of people feel welcome, because in music, there’s an insane amount of elitism, and I want to challenge that.
Aguirre: I recently moved to Denver, actually. I always played music in Miami, but I wanted to move here and join a band and experience playing music with a group of friends. I was really lucky to find these guys here.
Primarily a guitar and synth player, I tried bass for this band, and it worked out perfectly. I’ve really enjoyed playing with these guys. It’s been very fun.
How did you connect with them?
Aguirre: I posted an ad on Craigslist just to start playing with people in Denver, and Oliver contacted me. Turns out I live close to the studio we practice in, and since the first day that I came to play with Oliver, we had a great chemistry and really enjoyed playing with one another. After meeting the rest of the people in the band, I can say it’s been a really great experience. That’s probably one of the best things to happen to me since I came to Denver.
It sounds like this band is an exploration of untapped talent and creativity.
Aguirre: I would agree with that. For myself, I always felt that music was something that I wanted to get into. This band has given me a chance to explore my creative self in music.
Holloway: What he’s saying really resonates. For me, in many ways, especially writing lyrics, I really try to allow space to explore meaning for anyone listening rather than dictating the meaning and deciding where that comes from, and I think it’s similar, sonically.
I write simple chord progressions, and I want the song to involve and change and become what it needs to become, outside of my creative control. I’m big on creating a space where everyone contributes and throws their ingredients into the soup, so to speak.
What’s the big difference between Knuckle Pups and Mega Gem? With Oliver, Tomas and Clark all being members of the now-defunct band, I'd imagine there are still many elements that remain the same from one project to the next.
Campos: For me, the big difference is the maturity level. Mega Gem was very fun, an extremely fun band. It had an immature quality to it in a way, and I think Oliver, when he was talking about writing the last two years, he had gone through some stuff and was just in a funk. As he was saying before, he was thinking, “I don’t know where this music thing is going,” and I was just playing with him and encouraging him for us to keep going, keep trying.
It’s been a maturity level, in a way. It’s still a very fun band, we are very fun people, but I’ve been here for a while and seen the band evolve and mature a lot. That’s the biggest thing.
Walker: I think we’re much better than Mega Gem [multiple people laugh].
Hendrick: Don’t mention that name [laughs]!
Noted! What was the most fun y'all had with San Panino?
Holloway: Probably naming it [laughs]. But really, we threw out a lot of random names. We thought about naming it after some Blink-182 songs. We were just making shit up. Long, hilarious text threads.
Aguirre: That’s one of the best parts about playing in this band. Every time we’re together, we’re having fun. The whole process of recording this album has been fun.
Holloway: I mixed it with Rich Goldberg of The Ghosthouse, and he’s the best. So great.
Why did you decide to put San Panino on cassette?
Holloway: One, I think they're just cool. It’s nice to have a tangible thing in this day and age. Everyone gets their music online, so it’s nice to actually have something when you’re collecting music. And tapes are also making a comeback.
I think the other thing is that we want to eventually re-record these songs, so in a way this is kind of a demo. It just made sense to put it out on a cassette, because it’s actually more than a demo, but less than an EP, if that makes sense. We wanted that sweet spot in between.
These are some of our favorite songs, and when we do a full-length, it will probably include at least some of these, if not all of them. If it's released again, it will make sense, rather than releasing an EP and not being able to include these songs in something else later.
We recorded all these songs in our practice space, so it’s pretty lo-fi.
That’s always fun, though, because you get to look back on it and wonder how you pulled that off.
Holloway: It’s also a really good way to write. Chello and I wrote and re-wrote while making this, and it’s nice to be able to write and change things during the recording process. That’s another reason we’re doing it this way.
This is the most important question, and I’ve been saving it for the end of our conversation: The show is supposed to be a costume party. What do you have planned?
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Holloway: That’s a secret.
Can you at least tell me and trust that I won’t tell everyone?
Holloway: Oh, yeah, right, dude! You’re the press!