“At the end of a tour we’re pretty fucked”: On the grind with Holy Holy

Barely a year after the release of acclaimed record When The Storms Would Come, Holy Holy are back.

This time around it’s with new single ‘Darwinism’, marking the first glimpse of their upcoming record – due in 2017. Somehow recorded in the middle of hectic touring schedule, with the band members splitting their time between their numerous other projects, the single marks a shift in the bands previously rock-solid aesthetic. A new reliance on piano and synths, and the introduction of horns as a textural focus point, are quickly obvious.

We caught up with Tim Carroll shortly after the release of ‘Darwinism’ for a long and rambling chat about everything from When The Storms Would Come, their new direction and the impending completion of their new record.

FL: It seems only yesterday that you guys were smashing out of the gate with When The Storms Would Come, and now you released a new single – did you guys just want to capitalise on that momentum?

Tim Carroll: Yeah we did want that – that’s exactly what we decided to do. Some things were going our way – we were really enjoying touring and we’d been getting great numbers coming along to the shows. We looked at maybe releasing a single now, or holding off until 2017. I work on a music festival in Tassie in early 2017, so I am out of the picture for a month and a half. So it was whether we release it this year, or mid next year. So we knuckled down in the studio and decided to put out something this year and tour before we go down for Christmas and so on.

It felt pretty natural, we were writing the next record while we were touring the last one, so we had some songs ready to go. It wasn’t too hard to make it happen.

I get the feeling that you and Oscar are pretty restless in terms of creativity and output, would that be correct?

We’re in the pretty amazing position now that Holy Holy is a big part of what we do – we’ve got the time and energy to put towards it. It has its own momentum, it’s not like we have to slog away at it to make it happen. Songs just come, and demos bounce around between all of us in the different states and so on. We’ve got a great manager as well, so she helps us coordinate – to get into studios where we can, and rehearsal spaces and so on. Our producer has moved to Melbourne, so he and Oscar have a shared studio now, which is really helpful.

I read that ‘Darwinism’ came about while everyone was asleep.

Yeah that’s pretty much how the kernel idea came to be. Often that’s how songs start, a little sketch on an iPhone. We were in Darwin on one of the tours for the last album, and we had a night off so we were laying low. I locked myself in the bathroom and was just having a bit of a play and trying a few different sounds, and I stumbled across that opening riff. I busted into Oscar’s room and went ‘hey, check this out – what do you think of this, could this be a song?’ And he basically went ‘yeah it could be!’ We kept it on file as something to try. I think we were in Brisbane in the studio, and we fleshed it out with drums and horn parts and so on – and it came together pretty well.

You’ve mentioned in regards to the horn parts, that you wanted them to reflect The National, and to give the song texture. How did they come together?

I’m not exactly sure when, but I think we were talking about the endless hours spent in tour vans – about just spending hours and hours just listening to music and talking shit – and The National were a big inspiration, but also Midnight Oil. So basically rock bands that use horns in interesting ways. I guess we knew what we didn’t want the horns to be – we didn’t want them to be funky or soulful, we wanted them to be textural and orchestral – more like a soundscape kind of thing. Originally we in a pretty simple rehearsal space in West End and our producer just had a little horn patch on his keyboard and we were just trying a few different progressions over it, and Oscar took those recordings and programmed a horn part. We went back and forth on the computer and tweaked it, then contacted a couple of guys who play with a bunch of different people – but their main thing is being the horn players for The Cat Empire.

They came into the studio and we had a full day of them just playing horn parts. We had two different variations – two trombones, and then a flugelhorn and a trumpet – and we laid down layers and layers of horns. I think it ended up fairly subtle – I’m not sure people would even notice it.

In your music there’s this great balance between authentic, acoustic elements, with the very sophisticated electronic and production parts.

Well Holy Holy is a funny band because there are a lot of producers involved in the project. We’ve got Matt Redlich who’s Holy Holy’s producer. Then Oscar is also a producer – he does Ben Wright-Smith’s stuff, and he worked on Alex Lahey’s latest release. When he’s not in the band he’s flat out working on other people’s records. Then Graham Richard, who plays bass, is a producer as well – he’s in Airling project and Japanese Wallpaper. Then our tour manager is also a producer [laughs]. So a lot of thought does go into how the songs are going to finally be.

“Our development has been about removing parts.”

Our development has been about removing parts. Because I was a songwriter before, there was always this rhythm guitar part across a lot of our work. But on the next record that’s not really making much sense, so we’re often removing that part, and either having nothing at all – just bass and drums, just more of a soundscape – or replacing that rhythm part with a synth or piano part. That’s really changing the dynamic, and making it feel a lot better and fresh. It does mean that on the next tour I’m not going to have the guitar to hide behind as much; I’m going to be doing a bit more singing and no guitar.

Does that scare you a little?

It’s definitely nice to have the guitar, because it’s something to hide behind; it takes concentration to play it; and in the instrumental breaks it gives you something to do. So I’m a bit unsure as to what it will be like if we’ve got a bunch of songs in a row – we’ve got some big instrumental sections. I was thinking about stage diving, being carried around in the audience for 16 bars.

Work out some dance moves?

Yeah I was thinking about dance moves – about getting some dancers to come dance with me.

If you get the horn section going you can have synchronised dance moves, David Byrne style.

Yeah I’d get amongst that. Luckily we’re doing this tour in Europe before the Australian tour, so I’ll work it all out then and by the time we get back to Australia hopefully we’ve got something happening.

Speaking of tours – it’s something you guys seem to do constantly. Does it ever exhaust you?

Sometimes. At the end of a tour we’re pretty fucked. Touring is this weird dichotomy of hours and hours of nothing – of like driving to the airport, unloading the gear, waiting for the plane, driving, flying, get to the venue early, wait wait wait, then people come in. Then there’s like this hour before the gig when you get flooded with all these different feelings – excitement and nerves. Then there’s the show itself which is a whole other experience, which is hard to describe – kind of like a trance. Partly because music is a bit trance like, and partly because you’ve got all these things to remember like lyrics and melodies and changes. You’re so focused on that, then there’s all the energy coming off the crowd.

That moment goes by quickly, and then there’s relief after the show. It’s pretty exciting and it can be really addictive. So I guess that’s why we just keep doing it.

You’ve played the songs from When The Storms… a lot now. Have they taken on new meanings for you?

I don’t know if they take on new meanings, but it feels different to play them. There’s a song called ‘If I Were You’, that I’ve been playing for years. It took me a long time to get it to a point where I was happy with it – it took years of playing before we found an arrangement that worked. Now I really love playing it, and we’ll continue to play it – that’s one song we will keep in the set. There are some songs I’m looking forward to not playing every show as we have new material, but there are some songs that always feel good to play.

How far are you through the next record?

We’re about three quarters through. Because we all live in different places and we all have different commitments and so on, the approach we’ve taken is that we’re doing it in three blocks of about four songs a block. So we’ve done two of those and we’ve got one to go.

Have any themes began to emerge?

As I mentioned before, the removal of a lot of the rhythm parts is one thing. There’s a bit more synth, in general – we’re using a Moog synth, which has a really nice sound. There’s this big long outro on one which has this big rubbery feel. There’s more instrumental outros which feel really good – louder and louder and bigger and bigger which just feel really fun. It is good and it does work live, but in a way we wanted to push through that, and not just have outros that are written and sculpted, and the interest comes from how the rhythm and melody interact, not just turning up the intensity.

It’s been cool to push ourselves a bit harder, and make sure the parts are up to it. I’m looking forward to the not-single songs, the album tracks. I think they’ll be ones that people can enjoy.

After the success of When The Storms, did you feel a sense of freedom when it came to the next record – like ‘cool, we can take more risks now?’

I had always thought that the second album would be really hard, but it hasn’t been. I haven’t stressed too much, the songs have just kind of come together, ideas have floated around. When we play them with the band they just feel good. It’s all just happened in a very natural way – but I don’t want to curse it, I’m just touching wood because we’ve got a few to go.

We have taken some risks and we have changed the sound quite a lot. But that has just felt right. We haven’t really double-guessed it, the band is always like ‘oh man this is so different’, and then you play it for someone and they’re like ‘mmm yeah it sounds the same.’ We feel like we’re really developing a lot, and changing a lot. We’re moving away from the ’70s singer songwriter elements and moving into a clean slate of what’s possible in the studio. We’re not recording on tape for this one we’re doing it through the computer, which gives you more freedom to try different things and layer different things. So it’ll be interesting to see what people make of it.

Does it have a title yet?

It does.

Are we not allowed to know?

[Laughs] I don’t think we can say it just yet. My manager would not be happy with me.

‘Darwinism’ is out now. Holy Holy are on tour in November, dates below.

Thursday November 3  – Fat Controller Adelaide, SA

Friday November 4 – Prince of Wales, Bunbury WA

Saturday November 5 –  Amplifier, Perth WA

Sunday November 6  – Mojos, Fremantle WA

Friday November 11 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC

Saturday November 12 – The Workers Club, Geelong VIC

Sunday November 13  – Karova Lounge, Ballarat VIC

Thursday November 17 -Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW

Friday November 18  – Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW

Saturday November 19 – Uni Bar, Wollongong NSW

Sunday November 20 – The Basement, Canberra ACT

Thursday November 24  – Miami Marketta, QLD

Friday November 25 – Solbar, Sunshine Coast QLD

Saturday November 26  – The Triffid, Brisbane QLD