Tuscon, Arizona, native Juan Holladay came to Asheville as a student at Warren Wilson College. He played music at Warren Wilson while getting a B.A. in Global Studies with a concentration in Latin American Studies. After graduation, he wanted to try music as a career. He left town for a while to go write songs. He returned ready to form a band.
Shane Heather (bass) and Robin Tolleson (drums, vocal harmony) emerged as bandmates and the three played a good show as a trio. The foundation for The Secret B-Sides was set. Eventually they found Jeff K’norr (keys), and band solidified a bit more.
Juan he says he came in with a batch of songs that the rest of the guys just knew what to do with. They then picked a few covers as a band, which deepened their collective direction. Robin says he was immediately attracted to Juan’s songs and despite a generation in age difference, the two shared a lot of common influences. Two albums soon resulted: Live on the Mothership, a live album, as the name implies, and Flowers & Chocolate, the first studio album for the band. The Secret B-Sides also started booking as many live performances as possible.
Live on the Mothership offers a great glimpse into the on-stage sound of the band, which actually can vary depending on the venue and circumstances. Juan says that for financial and logistical reasons the main band is a quartet, but for bigger shows the band often adds horns and has special guests. The group plays a mix of neo-soul, funk, and hip-hop, all of which could be found on the first two albums.
Juan says the group is currently working on a new album called Easy Magic. He adds that Flowers & Chocolate comes across a bit more like a mixed tape while Easy Magic will have a more unified sound. The new album will come out sometime in 2013. Juan says the initial phase of putting the album together was easy but “it’s like herding cats to get musicians in the studio to finish it.” That said, Juan and Robin both say they are excited about the progress on Easy Magic and about the local musicians who will appear on it.
Band member Jeff K’norr is owner of West Asheville’s Collapseable Studios, which is somewhat of a blessing and a curse. “It’s great to have the easy access,” says Juan, “but it probably leads to less organization. If we knew we had a limited time booked to be in the studio we’d probably be able to settle in and finish something. As it is, it’s kind of hard to restrain ourselves. We want to keep putting in little flourishes here and there.”
One of the songs on Easy Magic is ready for listening on the band’s website. “Thin Blue” was written by Juan after an incident in 2011 when he was arrested in downtown Asheville while handing out flyers for a gig later that night and charged with resisting, delaying, and obstructing arrest. Juan says it was partly his fault. “The police had a few folks detained and I thought, ‘I should probably stay clear of this,’ but I went up and handed out some flyers anyway,” Juan says. The result was a policeman using excessive force to take Juan down with an arrest following. But he says he didn’t get completely jaded by his unfair treatment. “The judge was great in my case,” he says. “I ended up making friends with some officers and lawyers. And now work in the juvenile court system.”
Overall, Juan says the message of the band is positive but he says there is a fine line to walk there. “We want people to come to our show and have a good time and forget about their problems. So we do have some fun, carefree music. We know that if we sing about all our problems, then you have our problems and yours. At the same time, we want to talk about things that are important to us. Take Bob Marley, for instance, the political stuff he talked about worked because it was real to him. It mattered to him. So we try to walk that line between message music and just having a good time.”
The band has had several highlights and has opened for some impressive acts, but Juan and Robin cite this year’s Downtown After Five performance as one of their favorites. “It was just a special thing,” Juan says. “We had a great response. We had lots of friends on stage with us. It was really a great show.”
Band members hope similar shows lie ahead. In fact, “more of a show” is one of the goals of the band. “We want to go big,” Juan says as he describes a stage show with dinosaurs, flying saucers, and costumes. “We want the stage show to be fun and memorable.”
For more information about The Secret B-Sides, visit the band’s website, www.thesecretb-sides.com.