Concerts

Why Are Knuckle Pups Songs So Good? It Can Take Months to Make Just One

Knuckle Pups knows slow and steady always wins.
Knuckle Pups knows slow and steady always wins. Courtesy of Knuckle Pups
Oliver Holloway sometimes writes about a specific topic when he pens lyrics for the Denver band Knuckle Pups, but he’s more interested in the way words sound and the rhythm of syllables fitting together.

“Sometimes there’s not a direct meaning,” the vocalist/lyricist says. “I end up finding my own meaning in the songs later, like, ‘Oh, that’s clearly what I was writing about.’”

Knuckle Pups is formed by Holloway, drummer Tomás Campos and multi-instrumentalists Coco Martin, Olivia Hendrick and Chelo Aguirre. The band, which sprang in part from the orchestral punk band Mega Gem, has been playing around Denver for close to five years. It's releasing a full-length album, TV Ready, on Friday, July 15, with a show at the Mercury Cafe.

The bandmates think of themselves as an indie rock band mixing the lyricism of Modest Mouse with layered vocal harmonies, ’80s guitar leads, catchy synths and driving drums a potluck for the ears. Holloway has always found Modest Mouse, the Mountain Goats and Nana Grizol to be influential, particularly in his writing, but the members look to a wide swath of music — alternative rock, punk, new wave, singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov and music theory — to inform their songs.

“We have these really broad influences,” Holloway says. “We all just kind of find the song. My goal when we write is to create something I couldn’t write by myself. The sum is bigger than the parts.”

Holloway is a caretaker for his terminally ill sister, and that relationship has become a recurring theme in his lyrics. But in general, he thinks of the songs as vessels for whatever meaning listeners need. “Anyone listens and says, ‘That’s what the song means to me.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, that’s amazing,’” he says. “I love to hear that type of stuff, because then it hits home.”

Campos, who admits to making fun of Holloway’s lyrics on a constant basis, also contributes lyrics for an occasional track, including “Lil Bit,” the final song on TV Ready. He has a somewhat different approach to songwriting.

“I do the same thing he’s talking about, but with comedy,” Campos says. “I like the way words work together to be funny. Sometimes I’ll misconstrue one of his lyrics for another lyric. You know how people can mistake [lyrics] when they know a song for a long time?”

He cites Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” for one. Apparently, people often say “Pour some syrup on me” during the chorus.



Holloway suspects Campos’s placement behind the drum kit limits how well he can hear the lyrics. Either way, Campos seems proud of his perhaps unintentional misreading of Holloway’s lyrics.

“I tend to write really serious shit; it's always heavy,” Holloway says. “And then I listen to the album and I’m like, ‘Goddamn it, Tomas’s joke song is the best song on the record.'”

In addition to his Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” approach to songwriting, Holloway brings stripped-down compositions to the rest of the band. Once a Knuckle Pups song is complete, it can sound strikingly different from the original.

“I grew up listening to punk music,” he says. “The best songs you’ve ever heard are three chords, three or four chords, not a lot going on in terms of weird, fancy jazz chords. Simplicity is the thing.”

He looks to artists like Bob Dylan as an example. Dylan became a huge star, and in general, he’s playing three chords.

“There’s something magical about what he did,” Holloway says. “It’s simple. It’s elegant. It’s like he just cut through all the shit.”

Knuckle Pups’ songwriting technique does not always constitute a fast process, Holloway adds, but it's worth it, because he never wanted an album that holds only his ideas. The point of a band is collaboration.

“When I write songs, I tend to go for very basic chord structures,” he says. “We spend a lot of time writing arrangements. Sometimes it’s like months or weeks, and we just keep going and going and trying stuff out. We try to make it more interesting than the three chords I wrote.”

Knuckle Pups, 7 p.m. Friday, July 15, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $12. For more information, visit mercurycafe.com or knucklepups.bandcamp.com.
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