We had the privilege of interviewing Brent Holloman from the band, Beta Radio. Beta Radio in an American folk band out of Wilmington, North Carolina. Brent does vocals, guitar, banjo, piano and yes, even the glockenspiel. Benjamin Mabry makes up the other half of this dynamic duo and is responsible for the writing, vocals, guitar, banjo, and you guessed it, glockenspiel. The PH team has been listening to these guys for quite a while (would we be pretentious hipsters if we hadn't?) and it was a treat to be able to pick their brain.
Who makes up Beta Radio and how did it form?
Well, me and Ben have known each other since we were about - since ’98. We were probably 15 years old when we met, and we met at a camp. When we got back from camp, we found out we lived in the same city and we just kinda started hanging out. We realized that we both like music and he had a band that he was in, and so I joined the band as the bass player. After practice we would go back to his house and just play acoustic music. So ever since then, we’ve always written music together. We’ve been playing and writing together for 15 years now. Never really went anywhere with it. What we would do is write, ditch all those songs and write some more and then ditch those songs. It was just me and him in his house writing, we didn't really play anywhere, just wrote songs and then trashed them. It wasn’t until around 2005 that we started recording and actually getting them down. We would go off to different colleges and when we came back for breaks we would write some more. During this time we would go through all these different iterations of our sound. In 2009, we started to write songs that we were actually happy with like yeah, this is good. So we decided to start recording from there to try and make an album. That’s kind of how we got started.
So that was how you came up with your first album Seven Sisters?
Yeah 2009 is when we started writing for Seven Sisters. We were just writing for fun and realized we were starting to like what we were getting down. That year I actually went to Ireland and bought a banjo there. And I came back and added that to our sounds. Adding the banjo definitely helped us get our sound to where we wanted it.
Colony of Bees, your new album, has a slightly different sound than Seven Sisters. Can you tell us how that came about?
Well, we definitely did not want to do a Seven Sisters part two. I mean there’s a lot of bands we listen to and it’s kind of like once you hear an album and they release another one that sounds exactly like the first, you’re kind of like “meh, I already heard this.” For Seven Sisters, we recorded half of it in a studio and half of it we recorded ourselves. We didn’t really know what we were doing when we were recording it ourselves. I just borrowed an Mbox from a friend and he let me borrow his pro tools and we just experimented. It was more of like, “I have no idea what I’m doing but we’re gonna plug this mic in and just record something.” It was mostly recorded on a sf57. For Colony of Bees, we had a lot more time and we knew the software better. We had already recorded three Christmas albums by that time. I think it was just that we knew the software and were more comfortable with recording. We were just trying to write stuff that would last; stuff we enjoyed listening to. We definitely added more layering to our sound. The band is Ben and I, it always has been, we do all the writing ourselves. We also had a better budget for this album. We were able to hire a guy to do all the violin and orchestration stuff for it. I think we just had more time and tried to focus on songwriting and a lot of it was actually experimenting to develop the sound. The track “Kilimanjaro” kind of came about when we were just trying to sit down and try to write ourselves in a corner and work our way out. We knew we wanted a tempo change, and a time change, so we just started with one thing and built from there. So a lot of it was just experimental.
Yeah, “Kilimanjaro” and “Sitting Room” are actually my favorite tracks of the album.
Oh yeah? “Sitting Room” was actually one of my favorites, and a song that actually grew on Ben. It was one of the first songs we wrote for the album. And we actually wrote it 5 years ago, right after Seven Sisters was released. We recorded it and were like, “Let’s just see what happens with it.” It wasn’t going to make the cut for the new album, but we sent it off to a guy to add some violin parts and we just fell in love with it.
What does your song writing process look like?
Every song is completely different. Like I said with “Kilimanjaro”, we just started writing to see where it would go. But, with some of the songs, I’ll write a guitar part and send it to Ben to listen to. We actually record parts on our phones and send it to one another to listen to. He’ll get it and try to write a melody to it, or vice-versa. Sometimes we’ll have a song idea done with the structure completely and all that’s left is the melody and music. But it varies; every song is written different. We kind of like it that way; we don’t want to get into writing all the songs the same way.
There are some references, like in the song, “Brother, Sister” to Christianity and we see echoes of that imagery in some other songs. Does Christianity influence what you're writing?
Yes it does. Ben and I are both Christians. We don’t consider ourselves a “Christian band,” whatever that is. And that’s not the kind of music we listen to. I grew up listening to Christian music until I realized there was good music out there.
Can you give us the story behind Sitting Room? It’s such a mysterious song.
You know what, Ben and I are best friends and most of the time I don’t know what’s going through his head. He’ll write some lyrics and I’ll be like, “What is that song about?” I can’t touch on the meaning of really any of the songs because I really don’t know. Ben usually doesn’t like talking about the meaning of the lyrics much because the way he writes, he wants it to be interpretive. You interpret what it means to you. He writes a majority of the stuff off of feelings. That’s kind of how I see it. He’ll want to convey a feeling above meaning.
“Sitting Room” definitely has some feeling to it.
Amongst so much negative media surrounding streaming services, it seems like you guys have embraced it. How did streaming services affect you guys?
Yeah, we are big fans of streaming services. Pandora and Spotify especially. Now when we wrote Seven Sisters we wrote it for friends and family and whoever would listen to it. We didn’t know if anyone was going to listen to it. We put our own money into the first album and we were like, “Why are we spending so much money on this?” When we put the money into it, we had no idea people were going to actually listen to it. We thought it would be fun for friends and family to listen to it and if other people listened, that would be awesome. But we liked it and believed in it so we tried to get it to different places, including Pandora. Once it got on Pandora it actually took off. We were seeing a lot of people find out about us through the service and we were shocked that people all over the world were discovering it. People that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. We don’t play a lot of shows, our passion is more writing and recording. So to have a service out there for finding new music was great. And Pandora paid for itself just for that. People would find us on Pandora and go back to us and buy our album. And the same thing for Spotify. At that time, when Seven Sisters came out, iTunes was the big thing, it wasn’t Spotify. We actually saw the switch take place. We were making more from iTunes than Spotfiy early on, and we saw it transition to now, we’re making more money on Spotify than iTunes. It’s wild. Ben was saying that that was coming but I didn’t think it was going to happen. Also, I don’t know why, but somebody at Spotify is looking out for us because they found our music and right when Colony of Bees came out, there were about seven songs that made it on to good Spotify playlists and so that really helped us out too. As far as pay goes for streaming, it’s not great, but we also aren’t in the same category as the bigger people like Coldplay and Taylor Swift, these people who are used to making millions. So when we get paid at all it’s awesome. If people were buying the album instead of streaming we could probably make more, but we probably wouldn’t reach as many people. We need Spotify; we couldn’t survive without it.
Who are some of your musical influences?
Ben and I have mostly the same influences. We both like bands like Sufjan Stevens, which is one of our favorites. Seven Swans and Illinois are our favorite albums from him. Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty, Iron & Wine, and Wilco are the main bands we’re influenced by.
What’s coming up for Beta Radio?
The summer or the fall we’re going to plan a tour. We’re thinking about doing the Midwest. But we’re still making decisions on that. It will probably be another house-show tour. We did that in February and it went well and we had a lot of fun with it. .