Rock Climbing

Knolly Moles are Moving Up From Open Mics to the Big Stage

By Tripp Laino | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.04.15 – In the Studio, Lifestyles, Music

Having recently cut his hair to a more close-cropped ‘do, Knolly Moles (think grassy knoll—the name rhymes) bassist Brad Newman shed at least part of his rock star look. But despite the recent change in appearance, Newman is still working hard on his music, with the Moles currently in the studio working on a not-yet-titled full-length album, which he hopes will have about 10 songs.

“We’ve never been able to truly capture what we’re about in a studio setting,” Newman says. “We’ve done demos and did the best we could in the time we get, but it was always either not enough time or not enough money. We’re going to take some time and craft an album—the best foot forward, the best version.”

But it never would have happened if not for a chance encounter six years ago on a night when Newman was carrying a five-gallon water jug through the streets of Frederick—and, no, he’s not quite sure why he had the jug on that fateful night. Lead singer E.J. Atkins and guitarist Matt John were busking on a street corner, playing for tips, when Newman, entranced by their sound, decided to join in and play percussion … on the water jug.

Newman was first in a succession of Knolly Moles percussion players—there’s been five, including one that he jokes “spontaneously combusted,” borrowing a joke from seminal rock comedy This Is Spinal Tap. “We still have that jug,” he says over lunch at Cafe Nola, breaking into a smile. “You can’t throw away things like that.”

The six years have been busy for the band, growing from open mic nights to paid gigs as a cover band to playing their own songs in venues all over the state.

“It’s that [stuff] that makes the goose-bumps come over your body. Music makes me angry and sad and it’s every emotion.”

Newman said the band gradually began slipping in original songs as part of four-hour cover sets, eventually playing enough original material to get booked opening for bands like Blind Melon and G. Love and Special Sauce, in places like the Fillmore Silver Spring and The 8×10 in Baltimore, among others.

Their Fillmore appearance was in support of another Maryland band, Ballyhoo!, and one of the first times the Knolly Moles experienced winning over a big crowd, Newman says. “After the first song we played, our people are cheering like crazy,” he says. After “every song progressively more and more people started paying attention; by the time we hit the chorus of our last song, they were all cheering.”

He broadly grins recounting another of the band’s special moments, playing a show at Ram’s Head Live! in Baltimore. A fan found photos of the band online and enlarged cutouts of the members’ heads, which were hoisted when Knolly Moles began to play. Then they chanted the band’s name as the members exited the stage, a moment Newman calls a favorite.

But despite the bigger venues, and the crowds that come with it, Atkins says it’s not more intimidating to play. “I get more nervous when there are seven people in the crowd than when there are 400 to 500,” Atkins says. “They’re all just numbers. … But playing big stages is a lot of fun—especially not being a rock star but being able to be treated like one, going into the dressing room and having beers.”

Atkins acts the rock star part offstage, too. He arrives to an interview about an hour late, blaming the delay on a dead cell phone as Newman shakes his head. Atkins, his shirt trying desperately to stay closed with just a single button fastened, immediately begins picking scraps off Newman’s plate and orders a cocktail from a waitress, flashing a 1,000-watt smile at her as a follow-up.

His passion overrides his oozing charm when the topic changes from cocktails to making music—Atkins’ biggest motivator. “Music just drives me,” he says. “It makes me want to wake up in the morning. … Music is just a part of you no matter if you’re a player who plays an instrument or a guy who plays a CD. It’s beautiful.”

Both Atkins and Newman point to the addition of trumpet player Joe Hatcher as being the moment when the band finally clicked. Hatcher was invited to rehearse with the band as it was working on Skeezetown Blvd, a song written by Atkins. “I hate every song I write, but there was just some magic that happened when we brought the trumpet player in. I blame the trumpet player,” Atkins says, laughing.

After the album’s finished, both Atkins and Newman are anxious to get the songs out on the road, with their lofty goal to be at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, next year. “I want to do a tour; I want to sweat next to my buddies; I want to unravel myself from the back of a crappy van,” Newman says, laughing.

“I want that, too,” Atkins adds. “I want to get really mad at him—you have to go through the gritty stuff as a band.”

But no matter what happens next with the band, whether with the album or the potential tour, Atkins says he enjoys the process of creating music—he says he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if not for the influence of music in his life.

“It’s that [stuff] that makes the goose-bumps come over your body,” Atkins says. “Music makes me angry and sad and it’s every emotion. It’s so frustrating not being able to complete a song, but I love being frustrated about music.”