“House is our pop music”: Exploring the hybrid sounds of South Africa’s electronic scene
Butlins in Minehead is full of geese. They’re everywhere this Saturday morning, preening feathers and hissing at the bearded boys and eyelinered girls who filter past in search of greasy resolve to last night’s excess. It’s day two of The Breeders’ curated All Tomorrow’s Parties and spirits are high, despite the hangovers. In a chalet behind the Pavilion, half of Holy Fuck are hunting for teabags while we wait for the other two to return from a game of Frisbee. Tonight is the last European date of their tour before the Toronto group head back across the Atlantic for the American leg. Actually, since the release of their Can-via-LFO-referencing debut album LP on Young Turks in October 2007, they’ve not really stopped touring. In the process they’ve steadily built a reputation for intensely visceral, largely improvised, live performances, including universally praised sets at Glastonbury and Coachella, and caught the ear of Lou Reed, Michael Stipe and Thom Yorke. But today they’re more excited about heading to the beach. With the promise of a stroll down to the sea after we’ve talked about their as yet named new album due in September, they happily sink into the chalet’s sofas, making jokes and proffering herbal tea.
You wrote LP while on tour. Is that the process you’re going through at the moment, writing live?
Brian (Borcherdt – keyboards, effects): We enjoy writing on the road but for the new record we had about half of the material already written. We came up with some new ideas in the studio, which was fun in a different way because the four of us got to sit down and build something with it, almost like a fun puzzle. On the road it’s more of a process, an evolutionary process.
Your sound feels very much about the live experience – about everyone being in it. What do you enjoy about the recording process?
Graham (Walsh – keyboards, effects): I personally enjoy the alchemy of combining sounds in the studio, of putting things together and seeing how they react, if that makes sense.
Brian: The stuff that’s born out of the live shows has a certain kind of pace to it. With some of the stuff we come up with in the studio, we’ve realised the pace is invariably a little slower, a little groovier. When we’re on stage, it’s more like this frenetic energy that’s really like Whoooah. Like we’ve got to make this as crazy as possible, as wild as possible because there’s an audience there that’s feeding off it. That’s exciting but sometimes you need to sit back and let something simmer a bit, approach it a bit more calmly.
When you’re doing stuff on stage and it is all improvised, do you have little signals or is just reacting to one another?
Matt (McQuaid – bass): We definitely communicate both ways. Whatever works best, sometimes it’s also unintentional…
Brian: Yeah, sometimes a signal we’re giving back and forth is more like us laughing at something that just happened, like What was that?
Foals are playing ATP too. I loved your ‘Balloons’ cover. What did you think of their version of ‘Super Inuit (Live)’?
Graham: I really liked it.
Brian: It sounded like the Foals! I think that’s cool. We haven’t actually talked about it. They might be surprised with ours because we had some funny ideas. We were little apprehensive about how we were going to do it and some of the ways we approached it might have surprised them. I’d be curious to find out what their inspiration was.
Graham: We saw them in Oxford the other day. It was nice to hang out. Great guys.
Can you tell me about the new album? I hear it’s awesome…
Brian: It’s definitely been interesting for us – and interesting is an optimistic way of saying it – having to finish an album on the road. It’s been challenging. We did as much as we could before we left but we still have people mixing it, mastering it, doing all these things. We’re right in the middle of all that while also being in the middle of this tour. It’s been kind of funny. We’re getting it mixed and we’re sending revision notes and we’re listening to on our iPods in the van and it’s crazy. Right now we’re at that stage where it’s hard to even know what it is. Until we have it in our hands and we put it on the record player, we haven’t got that perspective on it.
Graham: We don’t even know what’s going to be on it yet. We’ve got 14 songs, but they’re not all going to be on there.
Brian: What I like most about this album is that the four of us are truly a band. When Graham and I started doing Holy Fuck we had all these wild ideas. And it was very open-ended to allow for all those different ideas. That was exciting for a while but there’s been an even greater reward in doing this now as a legitimate band. This will be the first record that from beginning to end is this band. Graham engineered it all at the same studio so it’s gonna have this continuity to it.
How did the two of you become four?
Matt (Schulz – drums): We met years ago when I played a show in Hamilton. Graham’s girlfriend worked there and we ended up hanging out. I didn’t hear from him for a couple of years and then got this email asking if I was interested in jamming sometime with a band called Holy Fuck…
Graham: I was coveting him for months before I contacted him. We really needed a drummer and I was like, Brian, we gotta call Matt S.
Brian: He sent us some jams and I had a long goatee at the time [miming stroking beard]…
Graham: …and a monocle…
Brian: …and I was like, I don’t know about that. That’s a pretty good skill he just did there. [Everybody cracks up.]
Graham: And then we needed a bass player and I started coveting Matt M…
Brian: Matt M and I grew up not too far away from each other. We had mutual friends. In a way, it feels like we’ve known each other for longer than we have. Oddly enough his high school band came to my place one time and we hung out in my barn and wrote songs. Years later we realised, Hey, that was your band! It’s so strange. They met my mum!
Your instruments are infamously quite temperamental…
Brian: I still have moments now when I’m like, I’m such an idiot. The room is packed, everyone’s like Yeah, let’s see what this band is all about and I’ve forgotten that the battery’s died in that keyboard or this one is still held together with tape. I don’t want to refine everything to the point when it gets to be too slick because then we lose a bit of that danger. Coachella was a great opportunity to play music in front of people and our stage manager put my stand together upside down. My table kept falling into Graham’s table. It hit his mic stand and he kept looking at me, like what are you doing to me?! I was like, I’m not willfully trying to sabotage the set!
Graham: Before that we were waiting because Brian had to go to the car to get another keyboard but we were parked a mile away…
Brian: I was running, all out of shape and sweaty. There was a big build up and I was really excited by the time I got there. I hit the pedal on the key really hard and it rattled the tape and the batteries fell out. The song just stopped. It was so funny but in a way it shouldn’t be happening at this level.
Your first album, Holy Fuck, was largely improvised but it feels like there is more intention with recent work. How do you feel your sound is evolving?
Brian: It’s not like we got together and said ‘let’s improvise!’, like people who go to jazz school to train themselves how to do that. It’s more because of the instruments we play and the way it comes together. Because it’s sort of random, it’s hard to recreate things. It made more sense to do it while pressing record. It also made sense to do it in front of an audience, so you get that interaction. It’s not like sitting down with an acoustic group and writing a series of chords and then replicating them. It’s more, ‘I’m going to run this through this and it’s going to make some wacky sounds’. Then the more we went out on the road with it, the more we did it in front of an audience, the better we got at it and the easier it was to replicate. What maybe initially started out as an accident started being ‘let’s do that again’ and we could actually do it again. We’re almost getting to the point where we can write songs within the madness and that’s fun.