In spite of having a handle that can't be said on radio or printed in newspapers, Toronto outfit Holy F**k have made quite a name for themselves. The instrumental, experimental project of Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt, Holy F**k specialize in a rhythmic, electronically-driven form of post-rock; recalling acts like Trans Am and Battles in their dynamic, synthified jams. Using an array of toy instruments, analogue loop-pedals, archaic synthesizers, and even film in a celluloid synchronizer, the pair have presided over three untitled releases —2005's Holy F**k, and 2007's EP and LP— whose dancefloor-friendly explosions refuse to be hemmed in by the usual crispness and precision of straight electronic productions.
Interview: 6 October 2008
Being an instrumental band, do you find that your music —unbound by language, lyrics, subject-matter— has more of a sense of 'universality' to it than a more lyrically-driven band's does?
“I think so. You could make a case that any music is like that; that even music with lyrics can transcend barriers of culture or language. I listen to a lot of music from other lands; just the other day I saw Shugo Tokumaru play. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and amazing acoustic guitar-player, but he sings entirely in Japanese. And just the music itself, regardless of the lyrics, speaks to me on a really meaningful level. Who knows, maybe I do look at the music differently for someone from Japan, who can understand the lyrics. But I like to think that good music is good music, and bad music is bad music, no matter where it’s from.”
Did you always have it in mind you wanted to be an instrumental outfit?
“We just wanted to start something that was different than what we were normally doing. Brian and I are guitar-players, and we’ve played in rock-n-roll bands, or alternative bands, so we saw this as a way of indulging ourselves, in being an experimental band, in a sense. We wanted to make electronic music, experimental music, but doing it in the only way we know how to. We had very limited knowledge in samplers, and neither of us owned any sequencing programs, or knew how to program techno or anything like that. We just had to use what we had: guitar pedals, old keyboards, little mixing-boards. At the time, I was listening a lot to people like DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow, Boards Of Canada; composers like Bernard Hermann, John Carpenter, John Cage. Just because it’s instrumental music created with electronic components doesn’t mean it’s quote-unquote ‘electronic music’, as people know it today.”
If not as electronic act, how do you think of Holy F**k?
“I don’t know what we think of ourselves. If other people heard our record, and thought [of us as electronic act], or if I saw us filed, in a record store, in the electronic section, I’d understand that. I guess we’re an electronic act, even though most of the stuff we use is analogue. Sometimes we get called post-rock, which I can understand. However people want to interpret us, that’s fine. We’ve toured with Mouse On Mars, Cornelius, !!!, M.I.A., Wolf Parade, and that’s the beauty thing about music these days. We went over well with all these fans. I think people these days are very open-minded; there’s no longer genres, there’s just good music and bad music.”
How unexpected has your success been?
“Very. We try to have as little expectations as possible, especially in this industry. You never know what’s going to catch on; why some bands will ‘make it’ and other bands won’t. You can’t really expect anything to happen. The main thing is just to try and do it for yourself, create something with your friends that you can all get into. Then anything else that comes after that is just icing on the cake. At the start, we'd just go play the indie night at the local bar in Toronto, opening up for friends’ bands. Eventually, we started getting more and more gigs, more and more showcases, and then, lo and behold, this side-project we started has turned into our main band. Everything else is now a side-project to this.”
Has your band-name been help or hindrance to this growth?
“I’m sure it’s a hindrance, in some ways, because maybe some magazines might think twice about you, or some radio-stations won’t be able to play you. But, if you think about it, we’ve come farther than we ever would’ve expected to come. And we still get played on the radio, and do interviews; it’s just that we’re referred to as ‘Holy F’. So, even though there are all these restrictions in place, it hasn’t stopped our music getting out there, getting heard all over the world. So, I guess the short answer is: yes, it’s been a hindrance, but, no, it hasn’t been a hindrance.”
Was it a name you gave much thought to?
“No. This whole thing started as a fun, funny side-project. We had to come up with a name for it. When Brian came up with it, he just thought it’d be a funny thing to see on a flyer. He thought it could crack our friends up. The more and more we started doing things, we got into the situation where we couldn’t go and change it.”
Have you changed much, as band, since those beginnings?
“We’ve definitely change, and I hope we continue to. When we first started out, all of our sets were completely improvised, we didn’t really have any songs. It was very much just an experimental performance, and some nights, for the audience, we were probably just formless noise. Eventually, out of all this touring, we’ve refined all that, and started creating songs —well, quote-unquote ‘songs’— and we’ve sort of evolved that way. Looking into the future, I think we’d like to change up the way we write songs, try different ways, and keeping with the concept of the band, looking at different ways of music creation.”
What do you mean ‘the concept of the band’?
“Our whole direction, our whole idea, is to look at creating music, as a band, through unconventional means. I think that will continue to evolve as we go along making music, and sound. Our very nature is to try to be different, to sound different. One day we might not be instrumental, and we day we might not be electronic.”