When someone asks me how I discover new bands, I inevitably draw a blank for a few moments. Sometimes it’s through the magic of Spotify’s Discover Weekly, or other playlists that are supposed to take the music I already enjoy and recommend similar artists—Daily Mixes, artist radio stations, curated playlists like Pollen and Global X. Other times, I stumble across an act at a festival that captures my attention, like Pkew Pkew Pkew at Chicago’s Riot Fest this year, or an opening act stays in my head long after the headliner, such as the enigma that is Joseph Keckler.
Every so often, however, I fall down a “related artists” rabbit hole, following my old favorite bands and finding new, niche acts along the way. That’s how I first stumbled across Hotel of the Laughing Tree.
Hotel of the Laughing Tree began in Long Island in 2009 after the breakup of A.J. Estrada’s old band, the prog rock outfit Rendezvous with the Kidnappers. Estrada took guitarist Brandon Peterson with him, added percussionist Neil Scalesse, and the new band released its debut EP Old Dominion on Aug. 12, 2009. The album was an exercise in genre–bending, beginning with the ballad “Hello World” and ending with the much harder “Lowlands 1887.” The only thing the songs have in common is their compulsive listenability: Estrada’s voice has a unique and pleasing timbre, and Peterson is clearly technically gifted, his guitar work bolstered by keys, drums, and other instrumentation as needed.
Old Dominion was catchy enough to gain some minor attention: Hotel of the Laughing Tree won a fan–voted MTVU Woodie award in 2009 for Best Music on Campus. This in turn got them a record deal with local label Brookvale Records, with whom they released 2011 LP Terror and Everything After. Per their Facebook page, a series of lineup changes and “an overall jadedness” caused the band to split with Brookvale and return to a more DIY approach to making music. They built a recording studio, released Mammoth Skin in the form of two EPs in 2012 and 2014, and put out the LP New World Sundown on Feb. 1, 2015.
“Something for everyone” is often a pithy descriptor when it comes to bands whose work does not fall neatly into one genre or another, but Hotel of the Laughing Tree is as close as they come. A song like “Barnaby Bison’s Blind” or “Weather Maps for Nikolai,” with Estrada barking angrily over Peterson’s shredding, are pure rock, while the danceable, upbeat “Duo” feels ripped from American musical theatre, and the quieter “Electric City Rivalry” and “Winterside (Nikolai No. 2)” classify as straightforward indie rock.
The DIY ethic of the band certainly contributes to their potential for widespread appeal: Estrada, Peterson, and the other band members make the music they want, when they want. This ethic is also seen on their Bandcamp, where instead of having a price attached to any of their albums, EPs, or singles, the page asks you to name your price, with no minimum. The only exceptions to this rule are the two split cover albums with Peterson’s side project Cloud Caverns, Famous People Music, Volumes 1 and 2, both of which are available for free download.
It's Estrada’s voice that makes the band, no matter the genre in which he sings. This is, to some degree, a side effect of genre: The Dear Hunter is made on Casey Crescenzo’s belting, Circa Survive thrives on Anthony Green’s reedy countertenor, and Dance Gavin Dance revolutionized a genre by alternating between a melodic clean vocalist and Jon Mess’s rabid screaming. A.J. Estrada is simply pleasant to listen to, whether shouting out the tongue–twister “You’re fortunate your fortune was erased or misplaced” on “Barnaby Bison’s Blind” or cooing “Something here just makes me sway” on “Lazarus.”
Their real feat, however, is continuing to make music. Most bands in their place would have broken up by now, unhappy with their low streaming numbers and the way they've eschewed record labels both major and minor. Instead, the band continues to develop and release music: although New World Sundown was the band’s last full–length LP, 2017’s Hotel Junk Box contained five new songs on top of fourteen rarities, and Famous People Music is meant to be a yearly tradition. As long as Estrada and Peterson have ideas, Hotel of the Laughing Tree will continue to make music, whether they have 200 listeners or 200 million. So give them a listen—they’ve more than earned it.