By Anu Yagi
The Throwdowns came to my hospital room bearing a blister-packed toy mustache and a white wicker basket stuffed with gerbera daisies. It was November 2009 and the Maui-based band was on Oahu opening for The Fray and Panic at the Disco at Waikiki Shell, while I was at Kaiser Moanalua enjoying fever-induced hallucinations and my first rounds of chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia.
I hadn’t known the band for very long, so there was a tiny tense moment as everyone exchanged pleasantries to the click of the IV drip.
Then, cutely coy, bassist Kimo Clark asked me, “What is chemo, anyway?”
Suddenly, no one had their guards on duty (least of all sickly, mustached-me). Raucity ensued, and my nurses’ stern eyes betrayed their kindly bit tongues. See, youthful jubilance is uncommon in the “Quiet Zone” of the oncology wing; and four spunky band members by my bedside made for a scene that looked decidedly Make-A-Wish.
As a journalist, I have to remind myself that realness is the very reason we like to read—and write—about people because it affords a chance to connect with something in someone we might not otherwise know. And though I’d already seen The Throwdowns’ show—even interviewed and published a piece on the band—it took a toy mustache and a few raw moments for that cherished candidness to crystallize.
Actions being telling, I was moved that Erin Smith, Ola Shaw, Ian Hollingsworth and Clark—on their first whirlwind work-trip to The Gathering Place—would bother to pause from publicity appearances and reading freshly inked features about them in the Honolulu Weekly and (now) Star-Advertiser, just to pile into their rental van and navigate Honolulu highways to my hospital in the hills. And all this for a cub reporter who’d recently penned their consummate positivity as being “a tad insipid” and who anyway might be dead in a few days.
So in a way, it was a wish come true.
As a lover of stories, I was thrilled to experience the best kind of conte: a moment in which I was privy to a very real side behind a public image. They became (if they weren’t already) my friends, and so it’s been with heartfelt interest that I’ve had the chance to peek in on their progress these last few years.
* * *
Two years ago, we put their mugs on the cover for the same reason we’re doing so today. Not unlike most burgeoning bands, they’re big dreamers—with one exception: their keen attention to where, when and how they distribute their finely tuned tunes makes evident their mapping of the road to success is vigilantly paved more with conscientious efforts than passive hope. While “X” may mark the spot, it’s the dotted trail to treasure that matters, after all.
Before their colorful visit during my stay in Cancer Land, I’d only met The Throwdowns a few months prior, on-assignment for my second-ever cover story for MauiTime. Ahead of the release of their debut EP Don’t Slow Down (2009; re-released in 2010 under ADA/Warner), I first got to know the band at Kihei town’s Maui Wave Studio, tucked within the fluorescence of the industrial area above the entrance to Piilani Highway.
Relatively newly formed, they struck me as a fresh-faced group of go-getters who blithely professed they were finally, as Hollingsworth put it, “in the band of their dreams.” We popped a few beers and later munched fried calamari at the South Shore Tiki Lounge (a “second home,” to Smith, who’s long “paid the bills” by gigging solo at Tiki et alia), and they expressed their feeling of how all they wanted to do was make good music—and make it big.
Like most bands, their style bespoke an eagerness to do the pop-culture thing, which has equaled to nothing necessarily cutting edge, but certainly on-point. Though marketing is a fickle, misunderstood bitch, The Throwdowns managed to tame her enough to earn national exposure and seemed to possess the awareness that resting on the laurels of one good thing wasn’t going to win any marathons.
Their Don’t Slow Down release at Wailea’s Mulligan’s on the Blue went on to be a precedent-setting success—a massive, all-ages affair (Maui’s notorious Liquor Commission notwithstanding) with free CDs and goodies for all in attendance—and the band’s gone on to flesh out their resume. In part, of course, by recording and producing their first full-length release, Legs of Our Own, due to debut this Saturday (August 6) at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC).
While they’ve tried to avoid playing-out with too much regularity, The Throwdowns have hopped around the Hawaiian chain—going from the Big Island to the Blaisdell, opening for big acts like Bad Brains, The English Beat, Train and Matisyahu. They’ve even toured Smith’s native Toronto, and team-built by taking an icy “polar bear plunge” (the curious Canadian tradition of swimming in near-freezing water).
“We’ve been really lucky,” says Smith in a recent interview. “We’ve done some really cool shiz. I think notable moments are different for different people in the band; [but] for me, I like to play, so the moments that stand out are the shows. Like, playing with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros [and] Ima Robot—I love those guys, so that was really cool.”
Indeed, it’s cool to tag along with the likes of notables, but with their first full-length album on the eve of release, everything again circles back to the goal: “take over the world.”
So whether you love, hate or are indifferent to their musical style, you have to admire their gumption. And because their (or anyone’s) successes are not mutually exclusive of others, we would do well to cheer for The Throwdowns.
Of course, not everyone does (or arguably should). One curious piece to The Throwdowns puzzle is their haters’ insatiable ire—and how it’s festered since the onset with little give to the release valve. Very little actual critique has come of it, but it’s at least proof that if you’re pissing people off, you’re probably doing something right.
* * *
Shaw’s a madman behind the mixing board. You can see it in his eyes: a dark focus that’s crept up from a well within. It makes sense, producing music is his schooled trade, after all—and it’s a legacy he’s kept up from his father.
Shaw’s quiet zeal tweaking dials and pushing buttons was the most intriguing thing to witness last October when The Throwdowns invited me to sit-in on their recording sessions at the MACC’s Castle Theater.
They wanted “big, concert-style acoustics” for their drum tracks, and though the concept of setting up shop at the MACC had never been done before, true to T-downs style, they made it happen.
So drummer Hollingsworth was positioned at center stage—banging unabashed—then shouting on an intercom to Shaw, Smith and Clark producing from a backstage green room-turned-makeshift studio.
Nope. Try it again.
Yep. Next song.
The band had just returned from a big show on Hawaii Island (where Shaw grew up), and had shipped home a vintage mixing board that belonged to Shaw’s father. While Hollingsworth mopped sweat between takes—and Smith and Clark talked story with an intruding reporter—Shaw remained relentless.
I left with a feeling as big as the percussion they were capturing, and couldn’t wait to hear the results.
I didn’t see The Thowdowns again until their Legs Of Our Own listening party early this summer; a swanky poolside event in Launiupoko. The guest list of close friends and industry peeps were there to have an advance-listen to the album, give the band feedback (on a worksheet) that would later determine track order and singles—and to party. No holds barred, from the invitations to the table decorations (lime green gems anchoring white lilies in water; a precursor to the marketing campaign) to the open bar, they nailed it. I again felt a feeling of grandness—their music was everything you could hope for—and witnessed the emergence of a meticulous and matured T-downs.
At the Aug. 6 release, we can expect the live set to sound very close to book.
Fans of Don’t Slow Down will be pleased to see that the hit song “Kihei Town” is back—this time as a remix—as is “Stolen Car.” While relying more on electronic engineering and loops, Legs Of Our Own also incorporates more island-style reggaeish rhythms than we’ve heard of their previous efforts (for example, the track “Stay HI” features Marty Dread), and tracks like “The Way We Walk” and the robotic syncopation of songs like “Warrior” show the band’s exploring new stylistic territory.
“We tend to play live with a lot of samples and stuff,” Smith says. “There’s sort of a modern edge to it.”
“We’re experimenting with sound,” adds Hollingsworth.
The press has continued to take note. Even Los Angeles’ KROQ—the station responsible for breaking bands like Sublime and No Doubt, and “a barometer of what’s happening in LA,” as Smith says—has been plugging the upcoming CD release on-air.
* * *
Aside from drums recorded the Castle Theater, Legs Of Our Own was made in the band’s studio, on the ground floor of the Westside home Hollingsworth built with his own hands. Painted purple and splattered with neon from drumstick brushes, the band’s practiced a few times a week for the last year in the space, and the walls echo its well-loved wear.
Last week, I sat down with the band for a little catch-up, in the sitting room outside their studio. Again, The T-downs are on the cusp of a big CD release bash and—while I’ve had myriad mustache-moments with the band these last two years—I wanted to find out what has or hasn’t changed.
The answer? Not much. They are, as we all are, just a little further down the road of their journey.
Again, we pop a few beers and the band tells me their mantra, how “it’s all about making good music,” and their hope for successes that would follow.
They’ve returned to indie producing because, Hollingsworth says, “We can do it better ourselves.”
“It’s interesting,” says Smith of the traditional record deal route. “There are big dogs we know who are telling us, ‘You don’t want a record deal. Everyone we know is trying to get out of record deals right now.’ That’s the time we fall into. It becomes up to us to pave our way. Which is cool because we’re smart kids—creative and innovative, I think.”
Regardless it’s work, and it isn’t always easy or glamorous—they’re still folding their own band T-shirts and tacking up their own concert posters.
“We just try to get it to as many people as possible using the team that’s available to us,” says Smith. “Who? Lawyers, social media people—then us, rolling up T-shirts ourselves with elastic bands.”
We continue to talk about a mercurial record industry in flux, about surfing and parenthood and who of the bunch has the worst B.O. (Clark, which kinda surprised me, but okay).
A half-eaten red velvet birthday cake sat on a primary-colored keiki table belonging to Hollingsworth’s little girl. It celebrated Shaw’s and Hollingsworth’s marking of another ellipse around the sun, and could perhaps be a tasty testament to how all our faces are tauter with age.
With knees to my chin, I assumed a seat at a stool made for the child’s table, so I could stay within help-yourself distance. I’m messy like that. I think (at least, I hope) we all are—even if just a little.
Shaw’s off to catch some shuteye before a 6am paddle to Lanai (I find this apropos because last time, he was training for the Honolulu Marathon). Clark, too, has to leave to get home to his wife and son. The rest of us stay up talking about typical band-interview stuff. Influences. Songwriting. Challenges.
Smith’s lounging in a swiveling, circle-shaped microfiber recliner. Cheetah print, cowl-collared dress, a red wine glass bending back her wrist in a thoughtful way. Hollingsworth’s in a T-shirt and board shorts plucking effortlessly at a guitar.
This scene stands somewhat in contrast to their latest marketing campaign: a highly scrubbed visage of the band in a clinically all-white room augmented by lime green accessories. It’s the trappings of pop-stardom-seeking and I get it, though it doesn’t speak to the band I’ve come to know.
Don’t mistake me—it’s a fine collection of imagery—and I get the concept. Visually, I can see how it’s meant to represent their act—one that’s so well-thought-out it borders on being overwrought.
“Look, we just wanted to wear a lot of white and some green shoes—that’s all,” Hollingsworth says, laughing.
His sentiment is exactly the thing I like—and like about the T-downs. They do what they like and like what they do, on legs of their own (if you will).
But over the years, what I’ve found most winning about The T-downs is when they’re stripped-down to the real, hardworking people behind the music. Instead of lost to the whitewash of pomp and fancy, their raw aspiration’s revealed and saturates them in color; with the taste of birthday cake, a twinge of hard-earned B.O. and the knowledge that sometimes serious business requires the lightheartedness of a toy mustache.