Local Current Blog

Holly Hansen is Zoo Animal — and so much more

Holly Hansen on the cover of Zoo Animal's 'Naive Enough' EP

“My wife told me not to complain,” Holly Hansen says at the 331 Club. It’s a crisp Thursday evening in Northeast Minneapolis, just cold enough to call for a jacket. Hansen and I are at the dim bar to discuss the return of her band Zoo Animal and the adolescence of t.e.e., the weekly series she runs at the 331. We’re certainly not here to complain.

Hansen and I sit in a back booth, the one closest to the bar’s soundboard. Our conversation is private, at least compared to the laughs flowing from the big group sitting up front and the hollering between regulars at the bar. So fine, maybe we complain a little.

But we also rejoice. We talk about bands, feelings, and people we love. When I listen back to the audio later, I’m struck by the easy rapport I felt with this person who wrote some of the darkest songs in my high-school iTunes library. But of course, an artist is more than their output. Like usual, there’s more to this story.

***

Back in 2008, Zoo Animal’s formative line-up included Holly Hansen, Tim Abramsom, and Thom Burton. Their name alludes to eternal life; like a captive animal’s true home is in the wild, so Hansen said her true home was in heaven. The next year, they placed second in City Pages’s Picked to Click contest.

Over five years, Zoo Animal released three albums, each of which roils with descriptive writing, beguiling vocal melodies, and unsolved problems. Instrument-wise, guitar seems to steer the ship, while workmanlike drums and electric bass round out the spare sound; saxophone, bass clarinet, and a few more instruments make guest appearances. It’d be miserable if the production wasn’t so lush – and if Hansen’s voice wasn’t so lovely.

In 2015, Hansen and her band – by then composed of totally different players, except Hansen herself – gave a farewell show at the Amsterdam. The way I remember it, the room was packed.

That was supposed to be the end. In the years since forming Zoo Animal, Hansen has undergone major life shifts, as Andrea Swensson reported in 2016. Last October, she planned to re-release all three albums via Waxploitation, then make new music under her own name. She said, “A big reason I want to get rid of the Zoo Animal name is [because of] all the Christian stuff […] I’m not mad at that part of who I [was]. But it’s only part of it.”

As it turns out, the branding was too strong. This year, Hansen decided she’d rather resurrect Zoo Animal — very carefully — than market a whole new project. So here we are, fresh off the release of Zoo Animal EP Naive Enough, the first project issued under that name in seven years.

***

“When I started Zoo Animal, I thought of it as Cat Power,” Hansen says at the 331. “When someone’s talking about Cat Power, they’re thinking about Chan Marshall. Cat Power’s just her name.”

As a rookie, she didn’t know how to make that clear, so most understood Zoo Animal as a collective. It’s funny how much of the ink spilled about Zoo Animal centers on Hansen’s former bandmates: a talented group of men who have included Burton, Abramsom, Grant Cutler, Matt Latterell, Josiah Quick, Noah Paster, and Joshua Caro.

This time around, Hansen points out, “If I left the band, it wouldn’t be the band. If anyone other than me left the band, it would still be Zoo Animal.” When she plays her release show at the Turf Club on May 2, she’ll be supported by singer-songwriter Brianna Kočka, bassist Adam Wozniak, drummer Scott McPherson, and possibly, some surprise guests.

For the first time, Hansen’s face is clearly visible on a Zoo Animal album cover — and in “1986 Model,” a new official music video.

***

I’ve only ever seen Holly Hansen at bars owned by Jon and Jarret Oulman. The father-son duo run the 331 Club and the Amsterdam Bar & Hall: two places Hansen has worked, on and off, for years. She lives close enough to the 331 to hang out there often. So where else would she host an experimental concert series?

t.e.e. (or “Tuesday, Early Evening”) is a weekly event Hansen has thrown at the 331 Club since February 2017. She books musicians – anyone from “funk punk” up-and-comers Little Lizard to “the other Sean Tillman project” Sean Na Na – and encourages them to perform whatever they want. Every few months, she’ll step on stage with one of her many projects (which include Zack Warpinski co-act Blawyer, dark/ambient electronic outlet h. e. z., and Holly Hansen solo). No matter who’s on the bill, music starts at 7:30 p.m. and lasts no longer than a half-hour. t.e.e. is a musician’s experimental space; Hansen’s weekly community gathering; and the music scene’s small mercy for those of us with day jobs.

The first night I visited t.e.e. back in June 2018, Today’s Office performed what I believe was a one-time-only set of “corporate chillwave.” I’d never heard of the band, but I recognized all of its members: Camilla Staveley-Taylor (The Staves), Al Church, Alex Schaaf, and Don House (DEM YUUT). Staveley-Taylor sang low-pitched, twinkly songs such as “Prison Mom From Wisconsin,” a “very serious” piece about the judicial system. Church’s percussion implements included drum pads, a saw blade (?), and beer bottles.

The music was fascinating, but it wasn’t even my highlight.  After the set wrapped, people continued to mill about and chat. My mind flew to the sign hanging at the nearby Ideal Diner: “Where regular people feel special and special people feel regular.” Well-known musicians clustered by the bar, and I drank four-dollar beers with my friends.

***

Holly Hansen is a music-community organizer. She’s a guitarist, vocalist, drummer, and bassist. She’s a web developer and self-proclaimed nerd. She produces albums, engineers sound, owns three properties, and cries at standing ovations. “I used to be leery of bragging,” she says. “But I’m ready to take credit for what I’m doing.”

Zoo Animal will perform at the Turf Club in St. Paul on May 2, at Midwest Music Fest in Winona on May 4, and at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 6

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