Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It’s not easy to pin down Holy Other. Not only is it nigh-on impossible to find a starting point in his diffuse layers of sound, you can’t even get a handle on where it’s from. He’s been reported as splitting his time between Manchester and Berlin, yet mentions of London, Gothenburg and even Osaka (the latter turns out to have been untrue, after a planned journey fell through and resulted in him moving to Gothenburg instead) have helped to build up an image of him as an impossibly transient figure. Where is he, right now?
‘I’m in Manchester, in a flat in Deansgate. Basically, the top floors of this hotel are shitty, grimey apartments, so I’m just in a small room in here. It’s quite funny, overlooking Manchester. I’m living here now. I moved in yesterday. I didn’t have a permanent place here before now, I’ve just been sort of around, back and forth, crashing with people basically. I’m from Manchester originally. I’ve lived here pretty solidly, and I lived in Birmingham too. I’ve been traveling around ever since.”
Such constant traveling has had an effect on his music. It has the edge of something that never stays in one place too long, the sound of dissociation, alienation, a lack of place. While the steady pulsing beat of first release Blissters hints at a propulsive techno, the sample-mangling atmospherics atop it soon push the track practically into another dimension, like a train from A to B taking off and ending up in X. It’s the same on EP closer Feel Something, which mulls on a beautiful, twisting motif that gradually builds into a poignant climax of stunning, tearjerking intensity, yet throughout sounds like the collective product of a feeling of absence, loneliness and loss.
“I think so, yeah. I feel like I don’t really have… like my aesthetic is shifty. I’ve usually been doing it in some bedroom somewhere, wherever it is. I haven’t written any music in Manchester, any music in the UK really at all. I’ve just been abroad the whole time. There hasn’t been a solid location. I can’t really say I’ve been holed up in a studio for months, because it’s just not true. So I guess it’s that I’m moving around, and that I’m influenced by things that are happening around me, rather than just staying in the same location, having the same themes about everything.”
“I was only there a few months. I did like the place, but it was just bitterly cold. I was there throughout the winter months. It’s very quiet as well, everyone just stays indoors during those periods and basically hibernates. Events are pretty thin, so I didn’t get out much when I was over there. But that was sort of a welcome change from Berlin, where I was pretty much going out all the time. I think both of them situate themselves a bit too on the extremes of things, really. I love both places, but they both appeal to different sides of my persona. Rather than there being a place that 100% suits me, there were aspects of Berlin that I loved. Like with all the partying, it’s a great city but I don’t find it a productive one. In Gothenburg, I did get a lot done but on the other end of the spectrum, it was more me locking myself in my bedroom.’
“I think the amount of time I spent on the internet, it’s more like a sort of non-location. My bedroom was sort of like a vortex, some sort of abyss.” – Holy Other
If, as he argues, he’s influenced by what surrounds him, are the tracks on his forthcoming release marked by specific moments in his European experiences in definable, recognizable ways?
“I don’t feel like either place altered my aesthetic too much. I think the amount of time I spent on the internet, it’s more like a sort of non-location. My bedroom was sort of like a vortex, some sort of abyss. There doesn’t have to be a sort of place that informs my aesthetic that strongly, because if you spend that long in a place it stops being a place. I do think a lot of producers are actually sort of operating like that. It’s a liberating thing and a restricting feeling at the same time.” When the internet is your portal to a world that was so recently in your hands, and replaces face-to-face contact with friends and family, it’s understandable that your perception of what surrounds you at that moment would change.
Holy Other’s production began around a year ago: “I was studying in Berlin, and just felt like making some music, because I hadn’t really done it before.” First track Blissters [listen to the MP3 below] was made just a few days before it found its way online, and as a first release, did a pretty good job of predicting what was to come: an almost gothic vibe, soulful pitched-down vocals, and an upturn into gentle euphoria come the final minute. While it appropriates a similar imagery and atmosphere to the recent brooding likes of Salem (whose pitch-shifted vocals and religious/spiritual imagery smothers their work in layers of ambiguity and alienation), through its drones and slow rhythms, the primary touchstone is uplifting.
“The thing is I don’t have a depressive personality. I’d be sort of lying to myself if I was making ostensibly dark music. It doesn’t feel dark, to me. Other people might not really get that impression. I do work with pitched-down vocal, some slowed-down samples, but that’s just because I like things slow rather than I like things dark. If I was making music that was ‘dark’ it would just be fake.
“I am influenced by dark music – industrial, and things like that – but I don’t really feel like it comes out that strong in my music. It is more uplifting, rather than dark, vocal house sometimes, but at other times more like dreampop. I don’t like trying to pin it down, I guess.”
Indeed, a good example of his influences is the gloriously placed drum pattern of Yr Love, which sample Grace Jones’s Pull Up To The Bumper, in a similar manner to how so many recent producers of deep, soulful house have filtered the 70s dub disco and used it to underpin their sounds.
“I love that song, and the track sounded a bit hollow without that sort of off-beat sample, so I sort of appropriated that a bit. I’m quite a neophile so a lot of influences that I take are quite contemporary. I’m obviously influenced by a lot of new sounds. I do like the old stuff, but I just don’t listen to it half as much as the new stuff.
“I do like listening to a lot of different types of music. I do mostly listen to dance and electronic music, but I’m so heavily influenced by R&B producers and things like that, which tend to take different aspects from different types of music anyway. It’s all re-appropriation anyway.”
Now prepping his first EP, ‘With U’, for release on Tri Angle records in June, he’s able to present a handful of those numerous influences. While it’s a good representation of where he’s at musically, it also serves as a time capsule of a year of fragmentary sessions, split up by his day-to-day life.
“I have been fairly busy recently with other things so it hasn’t been a solid production period. There are newer and older tracks that I’ve been working on since last year. I just haven’t had enough time to sort of sit down and produce, it has been a stretched-out process, basically.”
A victim of circumstance?
“Yeah, precisely. This is not a money-making enterprise, by any means, so it’s the other things in my life that dictate what I love doing. It’s hard to be limited by that, but it’s also necessary.”
The highlight of the EP is perhaps Touch, the most immediate, pop offering from a release that regularly dips into ambience [download the MP3 above]. Another, and perhaps the best, example of his divergent sounds, it’s the sort of track you’d be desperate to drop in a DJ set, but never be sure when to; the sort of track that draws you to the dancefloor, and then leaves you concrete-footed. Where dubstep tracks effortlessly remove a bass kick, effectively halving its BPM from a body-shaking 140 to a head-nodding 70, ‘Touch’’s drop takes it from 120 to a stumbling, blurry 80, spiraling into an end-of-the-night ambience where it once recalled a half-speed take on XXXY or Becoming Real, glitching over downbeat two-step.
“I can appreciate those comparisons. I love both of those producers. It does sort of have garage vibes at times, but it’s not totally garagey, and there are tempo shifts and things like that. That’s the most recent track I’ve made. I just felt like doing something that would be a bit… I don’t know, I just wanted to make a pop song that would be interesting. I guess it’s sort of conceptual at the same time. In the other tracks, I have sort of drowned the beat out a bit to have a bit more of an ambient vibe. In terms of production techniques, I did want to focus on the drums and turn it into more of a pop song. It’s not really a pop song but…”
But the vibe of a pop track remains, when compared to its ambient counterparts on the EP?
Having started out at Transparent, a diverse and multi-faceted label with no distinct aesthetic or sound (try drawing a straight line between Emil and Friends’ Downed Economy, Perfume Genius’s Mr Peterson and last month’s Purity Ring 7’’), Holy Other has decamped to Tri Angle records for June’s EP release. Tri Angle Records’ collection of ethereal, smoke-clouded acts like oOoOOO and Balam Acab has given it a recognizable image. Does it feel like, in Tri Angle, he’s found a home?
“I’m just so excited by everything which is coming up as well. I’ve never been excited about music more than right now, I think.” – Holy Other
“[Transparent] are really cool guys. They were very flexible with everything I wanted to do. I had no idea about releasing music, and they were very helpful. I do love the fact that their label is so varied, it’s insanely eclectic. It does seem to bridge the gap between indie rock and modern electronic music.
“I do feel like Tri Angle is the best label for my sound. It was so lovely when Robin [Carolan, Tri Angle’s manager] approached me and asked me to be on Tri Angle, it was great. I’m really happy to be there. The other artists there are amazing, I’m just so excited by everything which is coming up as well. I’ve never been excited about music more than right now, I think.”
Where plenty of his coverage has discussed his music as almost secondary to his faceless persona, we were here to discuss his EP. I was in two minds whether to ask about his enigmatic aesthetic at all (in these times of visual overstimulation, a void of aesthetic manages to warrant as much of a debate as the contrary, whether necessary or not), but it was something that warranted questioning, even as our conversation drew to a close.
After all, musicians have always written and performed anonymously. That anonymity is often an integral part of their identity as a musician and performer. Conversely the more or less you know about an artist, the more your perception of their music is altered. It’s why so many of us hang around outside venues after gigs to share a few words with the artists whose music we care about – that brief meeting, and the chance to uncover something human and personal (even if it’s just finding out that there’s a nice personality behind the stage persona) can make music come to life in an entirely different and more real way. But from the position of the artist, sometimes that divide between public and private is for comfort and protection rather than anything else.
When Will Bevan decided to produce anonymously as Burial rather than share his real identity, it wasn’t a marketing ploy, rather the understandable logic of someone who was shy, and wanted their music to do the talking. Whether planned or not, it suited his sparse, gritty urban music down to the ground – he was a soundtrack to night bus journeys and threatening walks down darkened alleyways. On those occasions, a lack of human contact is perhaps more frightening than an abundance. Bevan’s faceless narrator of the post-club journey home was, as an aesthetic, as much of a no-brainer as Kraftwerk’s robots, or the facelessness of Drexciya’s cold, often brutal rhythms.
For Holy Other, it works in much the same way – the blank canvas we’re given perfectly reflects his atmospheric, ethereal tracks. The press image that has done the rounds – a dark cape, and nothing more – is his otherworldly charm, to a tee. Tracks like ‘Feel Something’ twist and contort vocal samples out of all recognition, practically stripping them to the barebones of what makes them human. The void that we see as its producer is the same alienated other of his music. Yet, like Burial, it was initially a decision of more pragmatism than art.
“It’s not like a marketing strategy or anything like that. I’m not living in some sort of post-Burial world where everyone needs to be anonymous. I’m just… shy! And I just don’t want images circulating on the internet of me. I’d rather just have the music do the talking, and the aesthetics can be shadowy. I guess I just wanted to be blank, plain, so people can judge for themselves.”
But it’s fair to say it works quite well as a visual cue?
“I would agree with that. It is sometimes tainted when you realize someone really isn’t understanding how to present themselves. Like when they have visuals that totally contradict the sound. It does seem to work for a lot of people. I guess for the most part, it isn’t marketing, it’s just people being shy. A lot of these people are bedroom producers that have aspirations to make music that they like, rather than be Tiesto.”
Holy Other’s introverted personality is visible in his studio methodology too. Self-critical and resolutely individual, he’s found a winning formula in relying on his own instincts rather than ask for advice.
“I think the most interesting producers have found their own sound through trial and error. I’m a little bit neurotic about not wanting to retread the same material and re-use the same synth sounds and things like that.” – Holy Other
‘I know quite a few people like to send around and test how other people feel about things, but I just prefer to be self-critical about it. I’m not sure if that’s the best approach if you’re uncertain about things, and shy about what you’re doing, but that’s just how I operate. I do feel like self-criticism has really helped. I don’t really have this sort of community of producers that help me along and tell me how to produce things, so I’ve sort of developed my own methodology. I think the most interesting producers have found their own sound through trial and error. I’m a little bit neurotic about not wanting to retread the same material and re-use the same synth sounds and things like that. But it hasn’t been that difficult because I’ve been writing stuff over such a long period of time.”
Departing from the bedroom to the stage is a pretty daunting move, from the sound of it. With an appearance scheduled from Tri Angle’s Sonar showcase in June, can we expect more regular stage shows? And what can we expect from them?
“I will be playing some live shows from around June, but I’ve got nothing completely confirmed right now apart from Sonar. I’ll definitely be playing live around that time. [Holy Other has since been confirmed as support for How To Dress Well at XOYO on 22nd June]. I have thought about it, but there’s a huge difference between playing songs live in my bedroom with an audience of 0 to playing Sonar. So I’ll see how that goes.”
That phrase crops up time and again as we speak. For the time being, there is no grand plan – everything just seems to be falling into place without much deliberation. For music that’s so otherworldly, it’s a surprise to see the backbone of it based in such a human emotion – excited ambition. Talking to Holy Other is like grabbing a word with a lottery winner before they’ve spent their cash – a mixture of trepidation and fresh optimism.
“I would definitely like to dedicate more time to making music. I would love to start work on an album, but at the moment I just don’t have the time. And I would prefer to write it in a different way to how I wrote the EP, so rather than stretching it out over a long period of time, having more of an intense session on it. It does sort of depend on personal circumstances, but I’d just love to get started on it!”
Will Orchard interview Holy Other in Manchester