Here’s How Holy Fuck Changed Music Using Garbage Instruments
Brian Borcherdt talks about how six years between albums helped the band learn their own language.
Brian Borcherdt's ready to move on. He's packing up his house in Toronto when I call, as anxious from the stress of moving as he is enthusiastic to join his wife at their new home in rural New York state. "It feels like now’s the time for a clean slate," he says. "I love it in Toronto, and I’m always going to be connected to this place, but it feels like it’s time for a change."
New beginnings could be a pattern for Borcherdt. On May 27, his band Holy Fuck will release Congrats, their first album since 2010's Latin. The group's sound — an off-the-cuff electronic bliss generated with burnt servos — has received acclaim from the start. And it's a noise still unreplicated, in part because of its tactile production: Holy Fuck works with non-traditional instruments like old toy keyboards and a 35mm film synchronizer.
After three albums and five years of almost nonstop touring with Radiohead, M.I.A., and others, the group took time off for a much-needed diagnostic. The newfound freedom gave each member—Borcherdt, Graham Walsh, Matt McQuaid, and Matt Schulz— time to work on different projects. Eventually, they returned to Holy Fuck at a pace and perspective that just wasn't possible before.
Holy Fuck's sound seems to exist in a space and time by itself. Do you have any strategies for creating music that doesn't get attached to a given trend?
I do, actually. It’s something I think about all the time. We went into making [our sound] with a plan. We wanted to limit ourselves in terms of what we could do with our instruments and how much we could will each choice, each thing that we wrote. We thought that maybe by subverting our ability to affect every aesthetic choice, we were going to make something outside of its time. It’s a hard thing to convey, but it wasn’t pretentious. It was an experiment.
I listened to our first record that we made 10 years ago and, to my ears, it doesn’t sound like a record from Canada in that time. I really think that’s important. Every night when I go listen to my record collection I just love listening to old records and hearing things out of place.
I’m always trying to predict a reaction. I don’t want to say it’s because I’m jaded, but that’s sort of what I do. If everybody’s using trap hi-hats, i want to figure out a way of using no trap hi-hats. I’m inspired by a reaction against something, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I’m thinking about pop trends, so it influences what i’m doing. I just enjoy trying to subvert it somehow. It’s really cool to be able to unplug and limit your technological means and just sabotage what you’re doing, and pull yourself entirely out of what everyone else is doing. That, for me, is where the reward is.
“I listened to our first record that we made 10 years ago and, to my ears, it doesn’t sound like a record from Canada in that time.”
What's the most unusual instrument used on the new record, Congrats?
Well, the most unusual to us would be usual to other people. While touring our keyboards and toy Casios that we were using to make beats were breaking. I remember landing in New Zealand and seeing a whole case broken open on the luggage conveyer belt, with all these loose cable and batteries. It was a this disgusting pile of garbage running down the belt. Dan Deacon, who we were playing with, said, “Well, I guess I’m not the only freak on this tour!”
Things like that are pretty heart breaking, but they’ve forced us to move away from the beats that were generated on previous albums and do something a little more hi-fi. The punk rock energy is there, but yeah, we’ve actually changed the core processes.
This time around we had the opportunity to come into rehearsal with something, which we hadn't been able to do before. Graham would bring in an idea and each of us would do what we do over top. I actually demoed a lot of my song ideas on a 4-track cassette player, which was really fun to use because you can produce big bass sounds and drones. I would do a live performance at home and bring it to Graham and he could sample it. Now we’re able to show up to the rehearsal with pre-made ideas. Those became the core to most of the songs.
Were you ever nervous that coming in so prepared would lose some of the impulsivity that's defined Holy Fuck?
We really liked what we were coming up with. Being in a band for so long, it was actually reassuring to know we could go in with more of a structured body of material and it still felt as exciting and frenetic as anything we’d done before. And in a way, it was almost more powerful. We were walking away very excited.
There was this worry of, are we gonna lose the essence of band? But the answer is no, because we now know how to incorporate these failsafe modern technologies without compromising what makes us unique: live drums, all the noise I’m making, and a commitment to using our ears to think for us rather than some software or MIDI thing.
It’s not something we could have done on something like our second record. But after 10 years, we learned the language. We came up with our own alphabet, and now we finally know how to form structures and sentences and convey tropes and ideas within that. If anything, it was a relief to know that we could do this.
Are there any contemporary trends you've followed?
No, not really. I haven’t heard any vaporwave but I heard of it after I did these Chipmunk Punk records. I played these old Chipmunks records on a 16 speed turntable, and put those up online. That went kind of viral.
How did it feel to go viral?
It’s not really the first time, but it was very rewarding. It was an idea I'd wanted to do for 10 years and just kept putting off because my 16 speed turntable was broken. But when we had a break from touring I just set it up. I always thought people were going to like it, I [just] didn’t know if it was going to be two million people or 10. It would be great if you could make money off [going viral] somehow, but that thought doesn’t kick in till two months later or something. You should go into things very, very excited about it—because you can’t wait for people to hear it.