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The Hotelier Is Finding Home in All Sorts of Places

With the renowned emo band wrapping up the first leg of its reunion tour, frontperson Christian Holden reflects on the return to the road, their many entrepreneurial pursuits, and whether any new music is coming

Harrison Freeman

If anyone clicked on this hoping Christian Holden would offer a glimpse into a vast reservoir of material they’ve developed for the fourth Hotelier album, let’s just can the suspense right now. They’ve gotten me up to speed on the dizzying number of projects under the banner of “Princebird Solutions,” such as the “mobile living” bus rental service and the gear-lending library and the cooperative record label Dreams of Field and their involvement with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which reflects Holden’s vision for a more socialist economy in the music industry. “Noam Chomsky says that musicians should be treated like scientists,” they state, which is about as tidy of a summary of the 31-year-old’s worldview as one could hope to find. “It’s the exact same process, except there’s money that flows around to do these experiments in the world of science that there isn’t in music.”

But, more famously, there’s Holden’s slot jockeying and World Series of Poker appearances, lucrative hobbies that use capitalistic greed against itself. Indeed, thanks to all the side hustles that have become their main gig since 2016’s Goodness, Holden offers one of the most deflating boasts I’ve ever heard from a celebrated musician: “I’ve gotten really good at spreadsheets.”

Or, at least it would be discouraging if Holden’s curiosity and near-total disregard for typical industry ambitions weren’t a massive part of their initial appeal and their ultimate legacy. For nearly half a decade, I’d been making some of the most loud and insistent calls for the Hotelier to give some piddling little signal that it was still an actual band. In 2021, the Hotelier frontperson did, in fact, offer to fly down to San Diego to perform at my wedding, though there was a 99 percent chance it was a joke. For one thing, while the Hotelier is, for my money, the single greatest emo band to emerge in the 21st century, it plays a strident, soaring form of it that is … let’s say an “acquired taste.” Its most popular song rests on the hook “I called in sick from your funeral.”

And let’s be real: If the Hotelier were simply reuniting for a 10th anniversary tour of its masterpiece Home, Like NoPlace Is There, I don’t know if there’d be a story here. Plenty of artists from this era—certainly ones that have proved to be more popular or influential—have done the same over the past year or so, fitting, as we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Year the Emo Revival Broke. But whereas nearly all of them, such as the Hotelier’s co-headliner Foxing, have soldiered on in the past decade or started new, pointedly non-emo projects, Holden has provided full disclosure to the public about their many interests, almost none of which have anything to do with making music. While 2016’s Goodness was celebrated as “post-emo” for its earthy spirituality, few would have imagined Holden would apply its principles as thoroughly to their own life.

It’s a few days before the November 1 opener of the tour’s first leg, with a West Coast run slated for early 2024. When we connect, Holden is in a reflective mood about the purpose of their own art. “The best thing you can do in your life is just do something you’re really good at and do it really well, and see the immediate benefit of that,” they tell me from their home in Massachusetts during our Zoom conversation. Again, I’m hoping against hope that they’re starting to recognize the fervent demand for any signs of life, after the Hotelier played a one-off reunion show for Counter Intuitive Records’ Holiday Showcase in 2021 and a recent run in Japan with a trio of bands (Origami Angel, Oso Oso, Prince Daddy & the Hyena) that have weathered the ups and downs of emo’s fortunes in the Hotelier’s absence. Yet Holden is referring to their recent promotion to logistics coordinator at Not Back to School Camp, a bicoastal summer program for unschooled and homeschooled teenagers where they’ve been working for a decade (Holden’s profile photo on the website is taken from a Goodness promo shot). “When I organize an event and people come and they all have a really great experience, … I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I did that,’” they muse. “That’s like writing a record every day at camp.”

I can only wonder whether these Not Back to School performances mirror what fans have seen so far during the Home, Like NoPlace Is There tour; “The devotion of the audience was palpable,” writer Eli Enis reported from the opening show. “I was put to shame by people who unconsciously recited every syllable, the way people sing when they’ve heard a song a thousand times before, and will go on to hear many thousand times more.” Which makes me wonder, of all the albums from this era to generate this kind of devotion, why Home, Like NoPlace Is There? To understand the impact of the Hotelier’s second LP—in some ways their debut, as 2011’s It Never Goes Out was originally released under the band name “the Hotel Year”—one has to understand what “emo” meant in 2014.

Here’s the short version: In the early aughts, you had Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, Myspace and MTV2 representing not just the emo genre but popular rock music as a whole, and “emo” became a fashion sense, a lifestyle, and a pejorative. Then, a bunch of bands from Philly and Chicago and Connecticut decided they wanted to sound like scrappier, less heralded ’90s trailblazers like Cap’n Jazz and American Football. There was a bubbling scene, a “revival,” if you will, that was fostered on message boards, online zines, and Tumblr and that started in about 2008 and generated remarkable momentum without any sort of mainstream press. And then, in 2013, there were too many grand achievements to be ignored: The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s Whenever, If Ever, Balance and Composure’s The Things We Think We’re Missing, Crash of Rhinos’ Knots, Pity Sex’s Feast of Love, and Foxing’s The Albatross, to name a few. If you’re wondering how TikTok has become glutted with SpongeBob and It’s Always Sunny clips overdubbed with twinkling guitars and labeled “Midwest Emo,” it starts here.

But if this wave of bands wasn’t taken all that seriously, well, they didn’t seem to take themselves all that seriously either. “Twinkle daddies” became a term du jour referring to the era’s signature ringing guitar arpeggios and embrace of fatherly fashion staples. Even the most ambitious and literary acts of the time were knowingly extra, meeting self-identifying emos on their own terms rather than toning things down to pass for “indie rock.” For all of the commonalities they had with emo’s second wave in the mid-’90s, there weren’t any major labels sniffing around for the next Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional.

There was a faint buzz surrounding Home, Like NoPlace Is There in February 2014, but nothing suggesting that it would eventually be remembered as an “instant classic.” The weekend before the album dropped, I saw the Hotelier top a five-band bill at Bridgetown DIY, a tiny punk venue about 20 miles east of Los Angeles; they were initially scheduled to be in the middle of the lineup, below a solo set from State Lines, a.k.a. Jade Lilitri, who’d go on to join the Hotelier as a touring guitarist in 2016 and release four celebrated albums of emo-inflected power pop as Oso Oso.

Home, Like NoPlace Is There wasn’t as musically inventive as some of the aforementioned class of 2013; one colleague compared it to Saves the Day, and I don’t think they were trying to be complimentary. But the qualities the Hotelier shared with Emo Nite staples—unrepentant shout-along hooks, strategically employed gang vocals, a need for catharsis above all else—offered a way in for listeners who wanted to revisit that era without its more problematic qualities. As Spin sagely noted in its 101 Best Albums of the 2010s list, “Home, Like NoPlace Is There asks its listeners to rethink what ‘emo’ means while simultaneously hitting every one of the genre’s benchmarks.”

Holden’s subject matter indeed dealt in emo’s requisite, explosive interpersonal conflicts, but they applied a more critical, modernist political lens. Home is sometimes about the way people fail each other individually, but most often about how a capitalist society is entirely unsuited to help just about anyone. There’s suicide, generational trauma, gender dysphoria, intractable power dynamics; “Housebroken,” a divisive, loping ballad inspired by Malcom X that uses an abusive relationship with a dog as a metaphor for police brutality, was retired by Holden for years due to its misinterpretation by fans (particularly the lyric “We must keep our bitches in line”). “Housebroken” has taken back its rightful place in the set list, but ever the contrarians, the Hotelier has made audiences wait 15 minutes before it plays Home in full. It’s begun each set of this leg with a handful of cuts from its other albums and, at least for the lucky crowd in Nashville, closed with a cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name.”

To get a sense of Home, Like NoPlace Is There’s impact within the overlapping communities of emo, hardcore, and pop-punk, watch the full-album performance at Gainesville’s Fest nine years ago. Or just watch the room levitate during the climactic “FUCK” of “An Introduction to the Album.” By the end of 2014, the frothing word of mouth eventually caused critics to take notice, even if much of the praise was backhanded. “The Hotelier do about 36 minutes of amateur punk-rock surgery on several tumorous events that they can’t seem to escape, and it becomes macabre and celebratory in the same shout-chorus,” Pitchfork declared on its year-end Honorable Mention list. Meanwhile, The New York Times stated, “In a year with several outstanding emo albums—yes, you read that right—this was the best.”

This was the sort of indie approval that emo bands had been striving for since the turn of the century—and indeed, a common internal critique of the scene at the time was that the increased attention had fostered a state of competition and commercial ambition that threatened what had made the community special to begin with. This was different from the “silent rivalries” that artistically motivated Holden during the making of Hotelier records or their tendency to take other bands or well-meaning journalists (including me) to task. By the time they got to work on Goodness, others had already begun to see the unsustainability of Holden’s intensity. The Hotelier recorded with engineer and producer Seth Manchester, whose CV is almost exclusively filled with abrasive, avant-garde metal and noise acts like Lightning Bolt, Liturgy, and Full of Hell. And still, Holden remembers Manchester telling them, “You might be the most stressed-out person I’ve ever worked with in my entire life.”

This stress didn’t really manifest on Goodness, which felt like the How It Feels to Be Something On to its predecessor’s Diary—sun dappled, spiritual, exploratory, bent on tearing up the emo textbook that the Hotelier helped write. “I couldn’t write another sad album if I tried,” Holden boasted in 2016, and while Goodness hardly lacked for blood-pumping anthems, it became better known for its cryptic song titles, spoken-word readings, elegiac tributes to grandmas and Mother Earth, field recordings from Not Back to School, and … let’s just say divisive album cover. If you insist on seeing the unedited version, do not, under any circumstances, google it at work.

Goodness was met with nearly universal critical acclaim, and in 2016, the Hotelier was the first emo band to play Pitchfork Music Festival. One could argue that Goodness was the album toward which the entire emo revival aspired, and indeed, by the end of 2016, there was a real sense that the end of an era had arrived. “There was a DIY scene [years earlier], and then all the music media was like, ‘We love this kind of band,’ but they’re going to look for something new,” Holden says. “And I kinda blame the Hotelier for this part.”

The band was hardly alone in presenting a more measured, mature version of itself that ultimately became its epitaph. Pity Sex released White Hot Moon, and then Britty Drake went to get a PhD; You Blew It!’s forlorn Abendrot dropped the week after the 2016 election and preceded a phenomenally dispiriting tour that broke the band. Frontman Tanner Jones took a graphic design gig and eventually formed a lap-pop duo named Couplet with Evan Thomas Weiss, the usually prolific frontman of Into It. Over It., who went silent for four years after Standards. Modern Baseball broke up to preserve the members’ mental health, after which Jacob Ewald focused on Slaughter Beach, Dog, a wry, character-driven singer-songwriter vehicle. Title Fight’s Ned Russin went to Columbia University and started the minimalist post-punk project Glitterer. Balance and Composure signed a regrettable major label deal for the Radiohead-influenced Light We Made, after which Jon Simmons linked up with GothBoiClique and started making trap and electro-pop with CREEKS.

Meanwhile, Holden felt so beaten down by the Hotelier’s touring regimen that they stopped even listening to music, shifting their attention exclusively to podcasts and NPR. Reflecting on their mind state after the Goodness album cycle wound down, Holden sums it up thusly: “I’m tired of eating chips and hummus. I’m tired of my relationships ending because I’m not home to sustain them. I’m tired that my back hurts.” The Hotelier never announced a breakup or even a hiatus; “We had all this built-up resentment and we had this loss of momentum, and then we were just like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re not going to do this anymore,’” they sigh.

Holden didn’t necessarily think of online poker as a proper plan B when they picked it up during the making of Goodness. If the opportunity presented itself, they would find a nearby casino after finishing a show and, oftentimes, have a more lucrative night at the poker table than at the merch table. “How is it that I’m considered an expert in this field and I’m not getting paid nearly as much as I am where I’m not an expert?” they joked in a 2020 trend piece titled “How Quarantine Got Me Hooked on Online Poker.” Most of the interviews Holden has done since the last Hotelier tour appear on podcasts like Thinking Poker and websites like World Poker Tour, though that might overstate how deep they are in the game; if I’m to trust the “largest live poker database” on the internet, they’ve made a little over $2,000 in total live earnings. Their interest in poker actually began to wane during the pandemic, and by the time games became live again, Holden found themselves as disillusioned as they were with music: “I am so glad that I’m not sitting next to these people because I spent so much of my life sitting next to these people … and just, like, dealing with some of the worst people I’ve ever dealt with in my entire life.”

When Holden turned 30, they claim to have “made an intentional decision to not long for any piece of what was in my 20s”; they cut out poker, cut their hair, moved out of the anarchist collective, and sorta, kinda started doing drugs. They had never taken substances during a Hotelier show before their performance at the Counter Intuitive Holiday Showcase, and though they had been experimenting with microdosing mushrooms before then, “I took too much that day and definitely went overboard,” they laugh. When I watched it on livestream, the Hotelier sounded loose and reinvigorated, perhaps because they knew they didn’t have a grueling tour ahead of them. “I lost my voice for a couple days after,” Holden admits. “And in reflection, my partner was like, ‘Yeah, you did some stuff onstage that was kind of weird. You should not do that again. You should chill out.’”

Holden believes they have indeed chilled out as they enter their 30s, largely because they view it as distinct from their 20s. “There was like a period where I cut off music and I cut off poker because I was like, ‘I will introduce these things back to my life if they exist, if they need to exist, in my 30s,’” they explain. “But I will not do anything that is like longing for that period because that is only a recipe for, like, your own bad time.”

But really, what about new Hotelier music? Should that come to pass, make sure you dig a little deeper than usual when donating to A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH, Boston’s local NPR affiliate. Holden credits this program with single-handedly getting them back into music, which led them to attend a live performance. “I was like, ‘Ben would like this, I wish Ben was here to listen to this with me,’” they say, referring to Ben Gauthier, the Hotelier’s guitarist and co-vocalist. Turns out Gauthier was actually in attendance, and the two had missed each other. This led the duo to jam together, share some ideas, and, ostensibly, conceptualize the Hotelier’s fourth LP. You know, if Holden can find a place for it within the Princebird Solutions umbrella. “I know what the next record would be, but it just is a matter of me shuffling some stuff around in my life so that I can only work on music for the two or three months that I feel like it would take me to write it, and then the month that it would take us to record it,” they muse. “Like sometimes when people ask me, I say, ‘Oh, I have an entire new record. It’s just not written.’”

An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of the Hotelier’s guitarist and co-vocalist. His name is Ben Gauthier, not Ben Hoffman.

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.

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