Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ryan and Hays Holladay of Bluebrain

Washington, DC

Hays Holladay (left) and his older brother Ryan collectively form the duo Bluebrain. Photo by NEA staff

Brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay, who collectively form the musical duo Bluebrain, grew up in Arlington, Virginia. After stints in New York and Seattle, the brothers returned to DC where they have developed a reputation for collaborating with a range of arts partners---such as the Smithsonian Museum of American History and Urban Artistry, to name a few---to create one-of-a-kind music events. I caught up with the brothers a few weeks ago.

The brothers who play music together keep playing music together.

HAYS: Ryan started playing piano early on . . . .At some point we both started to play guitar and bass, and from there, we got really into recording music. So that was around 10 or 11. But we were always doing it together. That?s probably one of the main reasons we stuck with it---because we always had a musical partner in crime.

RYAN: Interestingly, neither of us studied music, it was just kind of a hobby. At one time we were playing in a band called The Epochs, and got really serious about that band and all moved out to Seattle together from New York. So we jumped around quite a bit and have only been back in DC for the past couple of years now.

Music shows are fine, but music events are even better.

HAYS: We play traditional shows, but we?ve gotten more into doing one-off events. We did a cherry blossom boombox walk where everybody brought boomboxes, and we brought tapes with different tracks on each one. Everybody hit play at the same time, and we walked around the mall. We?re into that kind of thing these days more, organizing events, which are usually interactive and have interesting locations and are fun to go to and are---ideally---free.

When Ryan was in high school he used to organize a lot of concerts so I think it?s appealing to think about every side of the event, instead of just showing up at a venue like we did with our past band and jumping on a bill. This way we get to choose artists and musicians that we really like in an area. It?s fun to think about all different facets of a show or event.

RYAN: We?ve gotten into discussions about if we?re doing too much on one side and not enough live performance. Over the next month we have so many things coming up and, for the most part, none of them have anything to do with us playing a traditional show. For me it?s cool because it keeps things interesting, it keeps things fresh. And it?s a way to engage DC and the people here and the creative side of DC that often gets neglected.

And another thing about doing nontraditional shows in nontraditional venues . . .

RYAN: One of the reasons why we seek out these different kinds of venues or locations for what we do is because in this city, unlike other cities, unlike New York at least, there?s definitely a partition between the public space and the people who live in this city. I think there are people who consider the National Mall a tourist trap and rarely use it. While in New York, it?s not unusual for people to go to the Natural History Museum or go to Central Park. I?ve always been attracted to the idea of changing the way people think about our own parks and taking them back a little for the people who actually live here.

The DC arts scene's no Baltimore, but it definitely has heart---and potential.

RYAN: The arts in DC have a lot of heart. People here are really passionate and excited about the possibility of things getting better in this city creatively, artistically. You can definitely feel that sort of electricity with every artist, every musician. I don?t know if that?s amounting to making DC as thriving as Baltimore---I don?t think we?re there yet. But it?s kind of exciting to be in a place that has the desire to be that.

HAYS: DC is the nation?s capital, and so it?s supposed to showcase art from around the country and the world, and sometimes it?s almost an afterthought to think about what?s going on in town. It?s something that all of these institutions have to juggle, while in other cities it?s not that much of an issue. I think it?s cool that there are smaller art spaces championing DC artists, and it would be cool to see that happen with the Smithsonian museums.

The arts in DC could be even better if people would just . . .

RYAN: Stick around. I think that?s such a big part of it. It?s such a transient city, and it felt like the most creative people would leave because they didn?t believe there were the good opportunities artistically here. I see that happening less now, which is great. I hope that that continues.

I think we probably have our own personal list of things we would love to do here, one of which I should probably say because it would be cool if someone who could make this happen read this. I?d love to do something in the I.M. Pei National Gallery building, the new modern wing. I think that?s a gorgeous building, and it would be exciting to do something---I don?t know exactly what---in that space. That?s on a wish list for me.

HAYS: We?ve talked about doing a festival that was unique to DC and was really in the city in a great location.

RYAN: Yeah, that?s an aspiration for the city too. And what?s great is there are a lot of people who?ve been talking about doing a music festival that I?ve heard chatter about. I kind of hope we don?t have to put it on. I hope that somebody else does it because it would be fun to just go to it.

The best things in life should be free.

HAYS: To me, this idea of free events has always been ingrained in DC culture?in the past, growing up, we used to go to shows by Fugazi, which is one of the seminal DC bands. We used to go to free shows on the Mall, and I?ve always sensed that DC has this feeling that these kinds of things should be free, like the Smithsonian is. Here it?s really incredible what you can do for free. It?s nice to carry on that tradition.

You know you?re an artist if . . .

RYAN: I think I?ve always taken a very liberal or elastic view of what it means to be an artist, to the point of saying everybody?s an artist. And I don?t mean that in a flip way, like anybody can do anything. I think that people who create who don?t have a background in music or painting can come up with something that?s much more interesting than people who?ve studied those arts for years. Unfortunately I don?t think DC has that mentality as much. There are artists and then there are people who are totally not artists is the way they see it. I wish there was a little bit more of a crossover there.

We played a show recently at the Fridge gallery. We made it interactive ourselves by having members of the audience control components of the music with their cell phones. We also had a visual artist there named Arijit Das, and he was doing a large-scale drawing on the wall while we were playing. What was cool was that he invited everybody in the audience to come up and contribute to the drawing he was doing. That kind of thing is really exciting to me, and the fact that he did that really tapped into what we feel in that what we?re doing isn?t anything special, and anybody could do this kind of stuff.

HAYS: I think that being an artist is something that you sort of just do intuitively. To piggyback on what Ryan said, it?s something that everybody has in some sense. You could be a chef or do any number of things that people might not always call art in a literal sense, but there?s a sort of force that takes you over and you just have to do it. That?s the only way I can think of being an artist. It?s almost like it?s not really a choice, it?s just something you?re really passionate about and however you channel that force, it?s up to you. I think that it?s something that everybody has.

For more on the arts in Washington, DC, check out the newest edition of NEA Arts.

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