A Decade on All Fours: A Conversation With Hands and Knees

Hands and Knees are four friends from the Boston area: Joe O’Brien, Carina Grunam, Scott Hoffman, and Nick Brannigan.

Since 2003, they’ve been putting out americana-tinged songs with an endlessly positive spirit and funny, non sequitur album titles like 2009’s Et tu, Fluffy and last year’s Count to a Million Pineapples. Their upbeat acoustic songs capture the spirit of friends looking to proudly pay homage to classics like Chuck Berry and The Beatles, leading O’Brien to dub their sound “old-school indie rock.”

Although the band have remained loyal to Boston through the years, O’Brien’s history with Hands and Knees starts with a friendship born out in the Southwest.

“I met Carina out in New Mexico. She was out there for Americorp,” O’Brien recalls of the band’s beginnings. “A few years later, I moved back to Massachusetts, Carina moved back, and Carina was friends with Scott. We started hanging out and writing and recording music.”

Hands and Knees’ fateful first practice happened fourteen years ago this year. Since then, they’ve made six albums, all of which were recorded locally at studios such as Ghost Town in Shelburne and The Soul Shop in Medford. O’Brien is the main songwriter and creative force in the band, but he insists it’s always been a team effort when the band finishes songs in practice.

“It’s better when all the musicians have creative input in a song, but I respect my bandmates’ rights, so I leave parts blank,” explains O’Brien of the band’s process. “In earlier records, my favorite songs are the ones we wrote collaboratively. I think we are super strong songwriters when we collaborate.”

On their aforementioned earlier albums, Hands and Knees’ music has a carefree vibe, verging on becoming blissfully aimless. O’Brien and Grunam’s vocals never exactly mesh in harmony, but their duets result in campfire-y chants. This chemistry is the result of a group who truly exemplify the mindset of being friends before bandmates.

“I see them all more than I play music with them,” says O’Brien. “There’s no type of professional musician relationship here.”

The self-image of an unprofessional band hasn’t always been a positive for Hands and Knees. In earlier years, O’Brien mentions that the band was unmotivated, which might have kept them from reaching larger audiences.

“I think we’ve always been a band that moves kind of in slow motion. I think if you’re in a band in your early 20’s and you’re starting a band… it’s probably good to be ambitious in a certain way,” says O’Brien. “Not ambitious as an artist, but ambitious in the sense that you want people to hear your stuff.”

However, O’Brien believes that Hands and Knees’ presently laid-back mindset gives them endurance.

“I think we’ve always been a band that moves kind of in slow motion.”

“We all get along and whatever, it’s worked out generally speaking for this long,” says O’Brien. “The band thing is like a relationship type of thing. I think that we will keep going as long as people want to do.”

Their long-term relationship certainly contributes to the band’s longevity. While some bands are more aspirational, O’Brien remarks that “probably their bands don’t last 10 years.”

“We’ve certainly outlived a lot of bands that we’ve been playing with,” says O’Brien.

In discussing the band’s longevity, O’Brien intentionally cites Boston area acts who stick around for decades as his inspiration. One group he admires are the hosts of MIT Radio’s “The Scene,” who, for decades, remained bandmates as well as good friends.

“On Friday mornings on WMBR, there is this show with members of the band Bevis Frond. They’ve been around since the ‘80s and they’ve made, like, twenty records. [It’s] so heartwarming to listen to these old chums cracking each other up,” says on O’Brien.

Also among O’Brien’s recent inspirations is a relatively younger band to the Boston scene: The Monsieurs.

“They’ve been in a bunch of bands, they’ve always been sort of rock and roll people, [but] the Monsieurs have only been around for a few years or so. It’s just inspiring to me for them to start a new project with so much energy… that’s so awesome and fresh to me ‘at their age.’”

Along with an ever-shifting scene of bands, O’Brien’s been around long enough to watch the many changes to Boston’s DIY venues. They recently played an LP release show for Count to a Million Pineapples at a private Somerville house show, but kept the info on the down low in the wake of the Oakland GhostShip fire.

“We’ve played a bunch of house shows,” says O’Brien, “but we aren’t promoting [our next] house show publically because the Boston police have cracked down on house shows a lot.”

Despite the police’s entanglement in house shows over what O’Brien calls the “DIY issues of the time,” Boston house shows been a mainstay of Hands and Knees’ career.

“The small club/shitty sound/basement show is where we’ve been at,” says O’Brien. “I like the DIY non-profit type of thing rather than the bar thing.”

As the Boston scene has changed, so too has Hands and Knees’ mindset for touring in the interest of their ever-growing families.

“Three of us now have children, so we’ve not been touring as we once did. We played in New York last year or something, but we typically have been booking shows recently because we just sort of wait and play shows we wanna play.”

While O’Brien says having kids means he sees Grunnam surprisingly more often (their children are around the same age and friends themselves), it also takes up time.

“I think that once people have kids, because your time gets reduced quite a bit, you tend to prioritize what is important to you,” says O’Brien. “We pretty much just stick around town. Maybe when our little children get older, we’ll go out again. That would be nice.”

As for Hands and Knees’ future, there is no end in sight.

“I think that we will keep going as long as people want us to. I will continue to write songs because it’s important to me,” says O’Brien. “I think that as long as the music and the making of songs is still important and moves you, I don’t see why you would stop.”

Hands and Knees will be playing the Lilypad in Cambridge on March 11th.

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