The music of Toronto group Holy Fuck is getting a lion's share of attention right now. Gigs with Wolf Parade, !!!, Clinic, M.I.A., an invitation to revered U.K. festival Glastonbury (which garnered them a nod as one of the top three new acts of the fest)--these guys are seemingly everywhere. Not bad for a renegade live "electronic" music project that had just as much potential to be maddeningly self-indulgent as it did to be thrilling.
Holy Fuck was born of the union of two under-the-radar Canadians, Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh. Borcherdt was a vet of a few bands, including By Divine Right (whose members also once included BSS players Feist and Brendan Canning). He also had a pair of excellent solo releases (The Remains of Brian Borcherdt Vol. 1 & 2) released on his own imprint, Dependent Records. Walsh meanwhile was an ex-member of Hamilton shoegaze-pop act Flux A.D., and a busy producer working with A Northern Chorus among others.
How these two parlayed their collective knowledge of DIY guerilla tactics, a soundman's ear for gadgets, and an improv stage show into one of the country's most talked-about bands is a matter of happy coincidence and guts. Basically, the duo planned to take the stage with a bassist and drummer, make noise with their toys, and see what happened. In fact, one of the band's first shows was a Pop Montreal slot with a last-minute rhythm section and no structured songs. The resulting onslaught was so impressive that Brooklyn MC Beans immediately asked Holy Fuck to be his backing band at that year's Coachella Festival in Indio, California.
Since then, the ride has not slowed a bit, and given how good-natured and overlooked Borcherdt and Walsh have been in their indie careers, it's hard not to feel anything but pride at these events. Now with their second full-length album, LP, just released, the more difficult task of rendering such live, kinetic music to a permanent record comes into the picture. Graham Walsh speaks with us about just that, as well as their onstage communication, and learning to ride the waves of hype without getting pulled under.
Soundscapes: When you're recording these songs, how long does it take for you guys to get that vibe, that feeling of, 'OK, this take is working for us'? Because, you don't have live energy of the crowd to feed off of which I imagine is the engine...
Graham Walsh: Oh yeah...
SS: ...that drives the improvisation--of knowing whether something is working or not. What sort of barometer do you guys have to know that what you're doing in the studio is how you want the band to be represented?
GW: That's a good question. It's hard. It's really hard. Basically, a lot of the stuff on this record we wrote live, we wrote on the road. And then refined it and got it into a state where at the end of the tour, like, "OK, let's go into a studio and try to lay this stuff down." And yeah, it's really hard to--it's still this struggle--really hard to get it, to make it come across. 'Cause in the studio, where you've got the headphone mixes and I mean, it's such a pain in the ass to get it overall happening. To get the right mix in (your headphones).
Yeah, the whole "no audience" thing, I think that we're aware of it and we try a bit harder--me, personally anyways--I just try a bit harder to, y'know, rock out a bit more and go crazy, as opposed to just sort of very calmly going through the motions. But yeah, it's a hard thing to know. Basically we just jam it a whole bunch of times and when you lay down a take, sometimes you just know that was the one. That's kinda how it goes.
GW: Recently, I've started bringing my ProTools rig on the road, and I have 16 inputs in my ProTools rig, so I hook up my snake to the mixing board and I've been recording our live show a lot. There's the first track on the album ("Super Inuit") was recorded live in Philadelphia. So that's sort of another way to get around (the problem). But, essentially, it's just sort of keep trying it. I don't think it's ever going to sound like live, but then again, maybe I'm gonna kind of embrace that and make albums that are really good, and then when people see us live, it'll hopefully be better. I dunno.
SS: Right, right. Are you satisfied with the records? I know that listening to them, it sort of reminded me of what a lot of jazz players would say about their records--that the record were always more of a moment in time, an interpretation of a theme rather than a definitive version of the song.
GW: Yeah, I think so. I think that's exactly it. That's sort of the way we approach it. What we're gradually realizing as a band is to have that free jazz approach of it. And we're no longer totally, crazy-off-the-hook improv, where we don't know what we're going to do when we jump on stage. Now, we're sort of like improv jazz guys. We have themes and semi-structures to go on...
GW: ...and then that's just it. And the beauty of that is that every show is different and the album is just a like a snapshot--one version of the song that can change every single time we play it. I like it. It makes it more fun for me anyways.
SS: So, have you and Brian worked out any kinda of James Brown/Miles Davis communication logic on stage? If one of you gets an idea in the midst of a show, how easy is it for you now to turn the band around when it's in full motion heading in the other direction?
GW: Umm... that usually doesn't happen. I think the extent of our hand signals and cueing, it's pretty much to the rhythm section and mostly just like, "Let's bring it down." I think that's the only thing that really happens, because when you're jamming, the tendency is to go all out...
GW: ...and you sort of forget that you can actually stop playing and the music will still happen because of the other guys, so maybe tell everybody to tone it down. But other than that, there's not really any, there's no real defining things, like, "Hey, Let's stop and then start the beat on the 'and' with this half time thing." It's more to the drummer. The drummer is more able to do whatever he wants.
GW: And God knows, the drummer and the bass player are the ones basically driving the train. They're the ones that can just say, "Hey guys!", and then totally change the feel and then Brian and I will follow suit.
SS: I find that in any music that is similar to what you guys do, the danger that happens is that the people who are in charge of making "the noise" have that one mode of application, where it's layer, layer, layer, layer and then it just becomes dense, but there's no sense of subtlety. How do the two of you work to make sure that it's not something that's always going up. Do you know what I mean?
GW: Yeah, I know exactly, well that's just, that's hard. It's basically just in... I just try to always have it in the back of my head: "Just listen to what everyone else is doing," because it's hard. You get stuck in your own little world and you think you're the one, when there's all this other stuff going on. We're always just trying to look at each other on stage and trying to reinforce the communication thing, and that's where the subtlety comes. And even still when we're going balls out and it's total chaos, it's nice when you can have that chaos be, what's that word? It's intentional and it's completely, it's finesse. Even though it's just an utter, big wall of noise, it all has purpose and it's organized.
SS: I know that you have a pretty strong history as a producer and sound engineer. I wonder how that prepared you to be in a band like this? Especially because in the best live bands, often the soundperson is as important, if not more important...
SS: ...a member to making sure it sounds good. What do you take from being behind the (sound)board? Is being in Holy Fuck similar?
GW: Yeah, sort of. I definitely realize when I've done sound, I know, for me anyways, what makes a band sound good and what makes things easy for a sound guy. Therefore, I can do things on my end to make things (easier), y'know, we've got our system really, really streamlined down so that we have not very many inputs on the board. And just things like, I even thought about hooking up a delay on my signal and splitting it and making a psuedo-stereo to make my track sound super-huge on the PA, or...
SS: Yep, yep.
GW: ...I dunno, just neat little tricks like that. But the main thing that I've come to realize is that it's hard to find a good soundman, and I get frustrated because I feel like we need a sound guy, we don't have one, and the potential is there for a soundman to be the fifth member of the band.
GW: And, you know Marty Kinack (superb soundman for Broken Social Scene, Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts, and Apostle of Hustle to name a few), right? Obviously!
SS: Yeah. He's someone I'm definitely thinking of here. Marty's someone who anytime he does sound for someone, he gets right in there.
GW: Yeah! Yeah!
SS: It's amazing to hear.
GW: Yeah. He did sound with us once and he said he had so much fun, and I was like, "You see? C'mon! Come out with us! Be a part of it, get involved!" But, obviously, y'know he's like, well above where we are right now.
SS: I don't if I'd say that! But, it's definitely an example of an imbalance in music. Y'know how every kid wants to be a guitarist, so if you're young and you learn drums, you'll always have work?
SS: I don't think people realize how needed really great soundmen are! (laughs)
GW: Yeah, yeah.
SS: Like a really great soundperson is such a rarity. I think it's why someone like Marty Kinack is never not on the road!
GW: Yeah, no, for sure. I often thought that if I wasn't doing this, I'd want to be a soundguy for a band. I've worked in, I've done the club thing (doing house sound for clubs), and I've never really been on the road with a band and that would be amazing. I guess the only way that the sound engineering transfers over into Holy Fuck is that I get to play with all my toys, and nerd out on technology, even more so than if I was in a (normal band). Well, I guess everybody (in a band) does in a way but, I feel like I have been more so. But I would love to be on the road with a band, be their soundperson, for sure.
SS: I was just interviewing Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals...
GW: Oh, cool!
SS: --another band who merge electronic and live band aesthetics and try to mash them up--and he was talking about, for him, one of the major difficulties of trying to merge electronic music into a live setting...
SS: ...is that (electronic music) is essentially a solitary pursuit. There's so much about knob-twiddling--even if you're not on a laptop--and dial-fussing. So what did you guys do to get over that hump? I know that you're not two guys sitting with a pair of laptops, but still, how do you make things kinetic live?
GW: Yeah, well... I don't know. I guess, it all happened so organically. I don't think Brian and I really thought about what we were putting together, we just kind of did it. It just came about, and often, like someone just asked me a question about that recently and I was just wondering if it's because we, like, all my life I've played in rock bands, and maybe it's just that's me translating it. I don't know. I'd feel kind of weird up onstage just sorta sitting there, even if I had an MPC and a couple of synths and stuff, not really doing anything. And I think the main thing that helps--and I think this is how we got out of the knob-twiddling thing--is having a rhythm section. I mean, I just look back and watch--we've had the good fortune of playing with some amazing drummers and wicked bass players--and that's what gets me into it. Brian's playing this techno beat and the drummer's just laying it down to it. You can't not get into it and sort of freak a little bit and start doing stuff to it. So, that's just what drives it and hopefully it translates to the audience and they see me freaking out and pushing on and off my DD-3 (both laugh) to the music. That's how it works I guess. I think it's just the live drummer and bass player that probably helps.
SS: Considering that both you and Brian have a lot of experience finalizing records--with production, mixing, and whatnot--what led to working with Eli Janney (ex-Girls Against Boys) and Dave Newfeld? What do these people bring (when you can do it all yourself)?
GW: Well, it's just good to have outside input. I've worked on some sessions where I've played on it and engineered it and it's just too much. I like dedicating myself in some ways, y'know, just being the engineer or just playing on it. With Newfeld you know you're in good hands, and Eli was a recommendation from our drummer Matt (McQuade), who had some records made by Eli, so he came highly recommended.
SS: And certainly, with Girls Against Boys, he'd understand at least a good chunk of what you were going for, I would say.
GW: Oh yeah, for sure, for sure. And yeah, just having outside input, I like it. With my own stuff, I have no idea and I take it as far as I can, then I like to hand it off. I have ambitions of one day I'll be able to do everything, but I don't know. I always dream that I'd like to one day have a Holy Fuck record that I'll record and mix, but maybe that's not the best thing to do. It's not good to burden yourself with too much work. I'll just focus on the music part of it and let somebody else handle all the recorded, technical stuff.
SS: OK, I know a lot of this is just the nature of how any band--particularly a band like yours--is gonna be talked about, whether it's PR people trying to make things exciting or the NME talking about what you do...
SS: ...but I wonder, does it ever strike you as amusing when what you're doing is being described as so revolutionary?
SS: I don't mean this as a put down or a backhanded thing, but...
GW: Well, no, it is funny, I don't take it that way at all, because it is silly. I just take everything as it comes. I'm just happy to be here. I didn't expect that this would happen. I don't really pay too much attention to what people say because more often than not you read stuff and it's negative and that stuff really weighs on you, and then the positive stuff... I don't know, hopefully it doesn't go to my head. I don't think so. There's just so many bands out there that have done stuff like this before, y'know Suicide, and This Heat. I'm thinking of examples from way back...
SS: Yeah, for sure.
GW: ...who did this sort of thing. But I don't know, if we can pull one over on some people, then that's pretty cool, I guess! (both laugh) I like foolin' some people, sure! It is kind of funny, though. It is silly, but...
SS: Well, the way you're reacting to it too, it almost feels like there's this part of Canadian indie culture where--even given the number of acts who have broken out over the past five or six years and you know that it's not impossible anymore to think that a band from Toronto or Halifax or Vancouver or Montreal can be known around the world--when it happens, it's still like, "I didn't think that was going to happen!"
GW: (laughs) Yeah, yeah.
SS: Like, it's in our generation. Maybe the next generation will be expecting (success).
GW: Yeah, you're probably right. I think our modesty, our crippling modesty in some ways. (laughs) But over the four years, three and a half years we've been a band, I've just really started to realize that you can't get excited about anything. We've had so many opportunities fall through and so many great opportunities come out of nowhere--just stuff like, "I never would've guessed that!"--so you just sort of jump on the rollercoaster ride, and get in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and just take what comes--"Whoah! Here we go!"--and hopefully the car doesn't fall off the tracks and we can make it to the end. I think it's a good attitude to have, for me personally. Like I was saying, I'm just glad to be here.