Crossing the Line

Lost in Holland’s new album describes war’s gritty truth

Oct 15, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Mention September 11, 2001, and rooms become quiet. A gaping quiet. Hit by a thought bullet, people freeze. Then eyes look down, around. We remember the moment we heard. Eyes look up. Up.

That day, musician Josh Hisle signed up for the Marines, entering “The War on Terror.”

Now 26, Hisle relaxes at Curtis, Inc., a Cincinnati sound mecca that rests in the shadow of Union Terminal. Everything at Curtis is new — the spotless wood floors, the polished recording equipment. Hisle kicks back in a modern black chair. A Cincinnati native, he wears a loose Ohio State Jersey. Number 28.

With light brown hair and a carefully trimmed beard, Hisle speaks quickly. At 5 years old, he played drums. Guitar at 13. His passionate voice is firm; each word snakes into the next, firing out. Personal and rough around the edges, Hisle leaves a tough impression, but within his well-shadowed, deep-set eyes, there lurks a haunting sensitivity.

In Iraq, as the hostility escalated, Hisle turned to his acoustic guitar, writing humorous songs for distraction. But on his second trip there, his mood and music changed.

“I was a squad leader and you’ve got 12 idiots to worry about and they’re all 18, and it’s stressful. It sucks,” Hisle says. “One of them gets hurt and it’s like it’s one of your kids. It made me start to wonder, how necessary is this bullshit? What’re we getting done? So I started playing guitar alone to get it out of my system. I didn’t want to do it in front of the guys.”

In 2005, Hisle returned home again, facing violent memories. He explains, “Coming back, it’s hard at first … some guys don’t snap out of it.” But then he met Michael Ronstadt, Linda Ronstadt’s nephew and a cellist from Arizona who received his master’s at Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music.

Hisle remarks, “This kid’s got music in the blood. And he’s all about the cause. He’s amazing. He changed everything.”

Named after Hisle’s son, Holland, the duo Lost in Holland was born.

Meanwhile, in 2006, filmmaker Mike Cerre, a former Marine who was embedded in Hisle’s Iraq unit, collaborated with Neil Young on the documentary film, CSNY: Déja Vu. Viewing Cerre’s footage of Hisle in Iraq, Young became intrigued. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was on tour in Columbus, Hisle’s miracle phone call came through.

Wide-eyed, Hisle explains, “I was playing in a comedy band with some buddies. I was about to go on stage when Neil Young called. I thought someone was fucking with me.” His laugh is smoky. But Hisle was concerned: “I thought, I dunno, I’m writing these songs and I agree with the guy, but do I want to take it to the next level andput it out there for everyone to hear?”

On meeting Young in Columbus, Hisle says, “I was really nervous. I walk in the door, and he just gives me this scowl. Neil said, ‘I heard you got this song.’ He fucking listens to the whole song with headphones on and just mad dogs me. Then he takes them off and goes, ‘Let’s jam it, dude.’”

Hisle grins and says, “He was cool as shit.” Hisle was on stage for the first half of the show.

In January 2008, Hisle played The Sundance Film Festival with Graham Nash and Young. What did the troops think?

“I got some jabs about being a hippie,” Hisle says. “Whatever. They still love me, and they’re all proud of me.”

From others, though, he says, “I get some pretty low blows — treason, blah, blah, but that’s someone’s opinion. I keep crossing the line with lyrics. I get shit for it. I don’t care. That trauma could change a person’s life.”

After performing at several film releases, Lost in Holland was booked for an upcoming California show with Young and ZZ Top. Despite the rising success, Hisle shrugs, admitting, “I was wondering when they were going to cut me loose and say, ‘Thanks for your help on the film, that’s a hell of a start,’ but they don’t stop calling.”

Recently, Young’s label, Vapor Records, announced that they’ll distribute Lost in Holland’s albums. The new one, The Last Great Loss, is in the recording stages. Attacking loss and trauma, last year’s Hearts and Minds is straight-shooting and natural; Hisle’s voice leaves the throat with a slight Springsteen rasp. Hisle can be quiet and he can punch it out, but it’s not claiming to be perfectly slick. Rather, he sounds instinctively gritty with frequent turns from emotionally strong to subtly reflective. Particularly moving, “Purple Hearts” mixes quiet vocals with an ironically raging message: “A box to fill a grave/And statues for the ones we could’ve saved.” Calling for a peaceful return from aching lands, Hisle’s softer delivery meets hard-hitting lyrics, drilling his message to heart.

And his message? Hisle’s brows knit together, newly alive. He responds, “No matter what the fucking reason for this fight, it’s going to result in pain, loss, death of thousands. It’s horrible. I don’t wish it upon anyone else. I know these things, I’ve done these things, I’ve seen these things. Let me tell you about it so you can reflect and relate and maybe learn something. If I were to change one person’s mind, I’d feel like it was all worth it.”

For the next two years, he could be called back to war at any moment. But he says he’s not worried. Suddenly, his shadowy eyes become fully visible, free from the dark camouflage. Sitting back in his new black chair, lost and found in the new sound room, it’s clear that Hisle is truly at home.