Nine Songs: Holy Fuck
Holy Fuck are that most curious of bands. A collection of change agents with a love of nostalgia.
Renowned as much for their energy as skilful use of analogue and digital technology, Holy Fuck have altered the conventions of modern electronica. The artists and songs they love embody a similarly relentless inventive musical expression.
The Canadian band are at heart musical mechanics. They continually reassemble the parts by which the band works - it’s the same car, but this time it’s got a different engine, next time it’s new brakes, the time after it’ll be underglow neon lights. In short, they’re constantly experimenting with what they’ve got.
Brian Borcherdt has recently moved to a secluded town in Nova Scotia and tells us that describing Holy Fuck to his new neighbours is best done in layman’s terms. "It’s noisy but its fun and you can dance to it.” Preserving their own take on how music should feel to the listener as well as themselves has always been paramount, and as Graham Walsh puts it “We don’t want to sound like another band, we just want to keep building on what we do”.
Talking with two of Holy Fuck’s founding members, I’m struck by how radically their musical influences diverge from their own signature sound. Their pivotal song choices flit between Enya’s unfairly maligned but ultimately excellent “Orinoco Flow” and Grandmaster Flash’s bombastic classic “The Message.”
Borcherdt explains that he and Walsh have both chosen their songs in a linear fashion, an autobiographical collection of music that simply appeared in the right place at the right time. “Often I’ll have that sensation. I walk into a store and someone’s playing some weird, piano record and you think “Oh shit, is this going to open up a whole new portal or memory.”
It’s a sensation I recognise and consistent with my own experiences of listening to Holy Fuck’s music - whenever I hear “Tonebank Computer” I’m reminded of being asked to leave an English class at college for aggressively drumming it out on my desk. That infectious energy is consistent across Holy Fuck’s back catalogue and is found in spades on their latest record Deleter.
Walsh explains Deleter saw them exploring the world of trance, “It’s a good example of how diverse we are in our musical influences and it’s a relief when I hear people feel there’s a connectivity through our records. It means we’ve not lost something.”
Holy Fuck wanted Deleter to provide a map of their musical influences, whilst also preserving the dancey heart consistent across their oeuvre. It’s also their first album to feature external collaborators, with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and Pond’s Nicholas Allbrook along for the ride. Yet collaboration was something they were resistant to for a long time. Borcherdt says “maybe we were nervous about what would happen if we gave someone else the steering wheel, but it was a really rewarding experience that we’re definitely going to do more of.”
As with their favourite artists, Holy Fuck are consummate music fans, and besides, what’s in a name? As Walsh explains, “It’s never been an artistic expression for us to have F-U-C-K printed. We encourage people to censor it and put it out there however they want to; it’s always been more about the music. Holy Fuck is a joyous term and that’s all we’ve ever felt about it.”
From Boards of Canada to Talk Talk, Holy Fuck wear their influences on their sleeve. They’re a joyous band, focused on their fans and craft, who seek to move forward in new and engaging ways. In that way, Holy Fuck represent the greatest qualities of the music, artists and songs that led them toward their status as one of the very best electronica bands we have.
Graham: “I remember when Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children was released and it was like nothing I’d heard before. It’s was one of those early ones that changed my ears a little bit, and this song in particular was one of my favourites.
“The sounds that they got with the synths and how they put it all together always amaze me. I really love texture and melody, so ‘ROYGBIV” really resonated with me when it came out. I loved that whole record and I was trying to figure out which one song I’d choose from it, but I remember things like being in high school, listening to it in my car and being really excited about getting to hear it. It’s one of those special ones that I’ll always enjoy.”
Graham: “I remember being very, very young and hearing this on the school bus in elementary school. Our bus had radio speakers in the roof of it and “Orinoco Flow” was probably one of the first songs that I’d heard where I became consciously aware of the presence of production. I remember distinctly feeling ‘Woah! A song can sound like this?! This is bonkers.’
“I didn’t really listen to that much music when I was growing up, other than really popular, typical stuff, but this was an early one where I thought about production and making sounds and songs. It’s amazing, because the guy who produced it only did Enya records, and it still sounds so distinct.
“Orinoco Flow” is a song where as I’m getting older, I’m realising there are some influences and things that are just simple guilty pleasures, where I’m ‘Who cares anymore?!’ I’ll talk to other musicians and friends who are ‘quote, unquote’ “cool” and they’re all ‘That song rules!’ and I’m always ‘Yes! Right? It’s fantastic!’”
Graham: “Their record Bee Thousand was another one where the spirit of the band was really exciting to me. The whole album is made up of songs that would be perfect for this list, in fact there’s a really good playlist you could make just of Guided By Voices songs, they’re catchier than anything.
“Hot Freaks” was on a mixtape my brother made for me when he was in college and it was the first Guided By Voices song I’d heard. I think I really liked it because I’m realising that I like beats and “Hot Freaks” has got a really good beat, a good cruising vibe to it. I love the sound of it; that spirit of the song.
“I’m also in awe of their ability to create so much music. Bee Thousand comes together to form this amazingly rich tapestry of songs, all recorded in these different places at different times with totally diverging sonic qualities to them. It was really inspiring; it totally changed my views on what you could do in and with music.”
Graham: “This is another song that reveals I’m not a particularly lyrical person. Not that I don’t appreciate good lyrics, I just really like sound and being placed in these spaces where I can easily react synesthetically to the music.
“When I first discovered Spirit of Eden it was another indication of the power of the performance. It’s a well-produced record, but more importantly it’s a well-performed record. The playing on it is incredible and restrained, and there’s not much studio trickery going on. The power of the performance that they captured here is immense - everything is played so gently and yet it sounds fucking huge.
“However, it’s the ebb and flow on “The Rainbow”, the intensity that they build up and then bring back down that always stuns me. There’s so much emotion conveyed in the performance and for me that’s the most potent indication of the power of a really good performance on record and how it can affect the listener.
“The problem is that nowadays records like this are harder to make. When everyone is on Ableton and locking everything to the grid, where things are made to be perfectly in tune, in pitch and in time, then you definitely lose something. That’s what makes “The Rainbow” such a breath of fresh air to listen to; you’re ‘Wow, listen to the humanity in this.’
“Mark Hollis did a solo record which is pretty much the same deal, he took that concept onto another record and it’s so good. We’ve done interviews about ‘Artist’s Artists’ and people like The Cure and Talk Talk pop up in them. I think it’s their performances across their work that keeps them at the front of people’s minds.”
Graham: “Brian and me both love this song, so we’ve decided to share it. When we first met there were a few songs that we bonded over and this was definitely one of them.
Brian: “I grew up in a very rural setting and some of the sounds I hear on this track remind me of being a kid in the woods. There’s this synth sound that reminds me of a thrush and it’s like I’m eight years old again.
Graham: “I grew up in an upper-middle class suburban neighbourhood in Ontario, just outside of Toronto. I wasn’t exactly living on the streets, so “The Message” was one of my earliest introductions to classic hip-hop.
“I remember the video was always on and I thought it was badass. The sounds were so cool - it was like a completely new genre of music was opening up in front of your eyes. There was stuff later in the ‘90s that we loved, but this was an immediate shock to the system. It’s almost spiritual.
Brian: “It was one of the first songs that my brother turned the volume down on when my Grandma was in the room, and that gave the song this forbidden quality. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why this new music of hip-hop, Rap - whatever you want to call it - wasn’t going to be for everybody. I remember thinking ‘Let everyone hear it, it’s great!’
“I remember asking my brother ‘Does it have bad words?’ As a kid I was mystified by it and I still don’t know why he turned the volume down, but whenever I hear “The Message” I have the feeling of realising there’s this new world that represented our generation, but it wasn’t for an older generation.
Graham: “We played at a festival in Florida years ago. KRS-One was on one of the stages and it was one of the best hip-hop shows I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve seen that many. Seeing him was what I imagine it would be like to see Grandmaster Flash live, that concept of giving a sermon from the stage, where it’s just one guy with a microphone dropping beats. That’s what made ‘The Message’ so engaging when I first heard it.
Brian: “Even just picturing the song I’m getting goosebumps and it’s cool how music can be like that. We grow up with certain sensory experiences that shape our understanding of our world - sounds, nature, rain, wind and different feelings - but music becomes part of it too because it’s always there.
“Depending on when we were born, certain songs have always existed. They become part of the ingredients of who we are; part of our genetic makeup almost. It’s interesting, but it’s also why it’s so important, whether its Beethoven or Grandmaster Flash.”
Brian: "These songs signpost different moments where I was inspired or something gave me a new insight that led to further discoveries or changed the way I think, and Sun Ra was a big one.
“I like “Angels and Demons at Play” in particular because it’s an easy first song to play someone if they don’t know his material. Its moody, kind of spooky and it has this otherworldly quality to it.
“When I listen to him it’s hard to put on anything else afterwards, it’s like ‘Oh, that was a great Sun Ra record’ and then I go to my record collection and everyone else sounds so uptight by comparison. There’s a languidness to it that’s really rare.
“I like putting on Velvet Underground after Sun Ra sometimes; it isn’t the obvious choice of where to go next and I think that has a lot to do with the dimension of space. I love the idea that we can be behind or ahead of the beat in the way that we play - that’s what ‘feel’ is - but when we have everything on the grid or everything is on a click-track I think we’re missing something; that humanity.
“Sun Ra is one of the best at that. In the synaesthetic process of listening to music and picturing the sounds, three-dimensional shapes are hard to envision when everything's on a grid, because it loses that other side, it’s like looking at a square versus looking at a cube. Sometimes that other dimension comes from a rhythm that’s a little out, a little bit behind the beat or a little ahead of it, because there are these different spaces and times, that in my mind at least, create a larger environment that’s really soothing and comforting.
“Sun Ra had a lot of things to say about being from space or from a different planet! And while I don’t think that that’s true, I like that there’s a transformative effect in his music. It’s great that music can have that transformative quality whilst it’s also transporting you somewhere.”
Brian: “I get this warm feeling when I pull this song out of my record collection. I see that I bought it for five bucks, and that’s one of the advantages of being Generation Y - at least we had cheap records!
“It’s taken a long time for people to really gravitate towards this song and the record in general, maybe because people have mostly been interested in Journey to Satchidananda, but I think this is one of Alice Coltrane’s most beautiful pieces. It has that transformative quality to it. It feels very lush and real, it’s like a garden of sound and it’s a very generous song.
“I remember when I got it for $4.99. I put it on a crappy turntable - probably half-destroying it in the process - and I ran it through a bunch of effects and recorded it onto a track on my 4-track. This was before I had a band and before I had Holy Fuck, but it was when I wanted to have something like that.
"I was trying to figure out how to make electronic music and I was very naïve; growing up in Nova Scotia, I didn’t have a lot of people around me who could show me how to do this stuff. I was trying to figure it out on my own and that’s all I could think of - to play a record really fast through my 4-track on the highest speed - so I could grab a sample for my delay pedal, pitch the cassette down as low as it goes and see what happened.
“I like “Radhe-Shyam” for that reason. When I hear it, it reminds me of that piece of music that I was trying to experiment with and draw inspiration from.”
Brian: “All of my friends liked Broadcast. I had certain songs I liked, I would always play "Pendulum" - that song is awesome - but I wasn’t a super fan until Tender Buttons came out. I remember being floored by it.
“Hearing it with fresh ears, what I liked was the austerity of it. I hear it now and it sounds perfectly full but at the time I think some people didn’t like it, because they thought the record sounded kind of broken, that the sounds were a little nasty and it didn’t have the groovy drumming. Tender Buttons was an odder record maybe. It’s hard to remember what it sounded like when we first heard it fifteen years ago and explain it that way now, because everyone is so used to it and it’s become a masterpiece.
“Any song from Tender Buttons is great, but I thought of “I Found The F” because that was the song that really brought me on board. I think Trish Keenan was one of the absolute best songwriters and singers of our time and it’s a tragic loss. I just wish that we had more.”
Brian: “I took an autobiographical approach when I made this list of songs. What was a song I heard when I was a kid? What was something I heard when I was a teenager? What are the different things that I look for?
“I picked “My Back Pages” because I’m a bigger Byrds fan now than I ever was, although of course I grew up with their greatest hits on The Wonder Years every night. I thought that this song would be a nice way to round things up, because lyrically it’s talking about nostalgia, memory and growing more youthful as we grow older.
“I think it’s encouraging that we’re going to keep discovering music our whole lives and we don’t know what’s next. We don’t even know what some of our future favourites are going to be, but we’ll always have this relationship with music. This song makes me feel that way. It feels like a summer day and I’m driving. It feels good.”