Holy Fuck: “Latin America”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/03-Latin-America.mp3|titles=Holy Fuck: “Latin America”]
It’s already been established: Holy Fuck has a colorful name. And the electro-rock quartet is sick of talking about it. “Thank you for not asking me that question; I really, really appreciate it,” says Graham Walsh, one of the group’s effects/keyboards manipulators. “Literally, everyone asks, ‘So how did you guys think up that name?’”
After six years of touring and three full-length records, the quartet can’t be blamed for tiring of the question, especially when it detracts attention from its music and intoxicating live sets, which often border between performance art and all-out rock show. Unsurprisingly, Holy Fuck’s music defies easy classification and genre stereotypes, though many have described its sound as indie electro created on analog instruments, or instrumental noise pop with dance-punk sensibilities. Regardless of what one decides, he or she will soon come to realize the vast difference between Holy Fuck’s music as it exists on a record and how it is experienced during a live set.
Formed by Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh in 2004 in Toronto, Holy Fuck rotated through a series of drummers and bassists as it recorded two records (s/t in 2005 and LP in 2007) and toured extensively throughout the USA and Europe, including stints at SXSW, Coachella, Lollapalooza, and the Glastonbury Festival, as well as opening slots for !!!, Wolf Parade, and Cornelius and its own headlining tours. In 2008, the group finally locked down its roster, with Brian and Graham manning a series of effects pedals and keyboards, Matt Schulz on drums, and Matt “Punchy” McQuaid on bass.
“For LP, we were kind of doing it in different studios, with different [musicians] on different songs,” Walsh explains. “But for the last couple of years, we’ve had those two guys (Schulz and McQuaid) on drums and bass, and it’s been great having just a solid, consistent lineup where you know where everyone’s coming from.”
But even with a more permanent lineup, writing and recording material for Latin, the band’s third record, proved challenging. “We’ve been touring pretty consistently since LP came out, so there isn’t all that much downtime to sit around and write,” Walsh says. “[Work on Latin] wasn’t necessarily done on the road, but it was done usually while we were touring.”
Released in May of 2010, Latin is perhaps the band’s strongest album to date, packed with the dense, layered instrumental walls of sound and frenetic, driving percussion that have anchored and defined the group’s earlier releases. But the record, as a whole, maintains an aural story arc throughout, with brooding, meditative tracks (“1MD”) that slowly make their way into gorgeous, shimmering melodies (“Stay Lit” and “Silva & Grimes”) before building into a crashing crescendo (“SHT MTN”). All told, it is a sound that borrows from the dramatic tendencies of Mogwai, the tightly honed pop sensibilities of Pell Mell, and LCD Soundsystem’s knack for crafting perfect dance beats.
The artwork for Latin, created by James Mejia and Bjorn Copeland, is also a huge step forward, delivering a striking, cohesive accompaniment to the music. On the cover, Holy Fuck’s name is spelled out in a colorful, all-caps drop shadow over a white background. Inside, the hint of pattern from the drop shadow is given space to breathe and stretches across the gatefold in all its polychromatic glory.
A visual nod to the band’s self-titled album is present in the black-and-white stripes, while the rest is a busy abstraction. It could easily stand on its own in a gallery, but it says a great deal about Holy Fuck’s aesthetic that it lurks just behind the visually restrained cover. As with its music, explosive moments of color reward those willing to look a bit closer.
Holy Fuck’s recorded work merely serves as a pale blueprint to its live shows, when the band works together as a well-oiled machine. Each song develops into an elaborately improvised and embellished version of itself, while Graham and Brian coax a glorious range of sounds from a complicated series of homemade effects pedals, thrift-store keyboards, and a 35mm film synchronizer.
“There’s no rules,” Walsh says, explaining the band’s live-performance (and instrument-shopping) philosophy. “Whatever’s inspiring, whatever gets you excited. There’s sort of a mandate behind our band: any instrument you want to play or anything that sounds interesting or can spark a creative idea, that’s what we’ll want to use. Say you go to the thrift store and find, like, My Barbie’s First Drum Machine. Maybe it’s malfunctioning or something and it makes a really awesome droning sound. Plug that into your set-up and run it through two distortion pedals and a delay pedal and it sounds awesome.”
Walsh pauses for a second. “I don’t know,” he continues, “it could really be anything. I have a cool contact microphone that I made, and when you pound on it, it makes a really cool, clicky, knocking sound, and to be able to use that as a percussion element is pretty cool too. Different instruments all spark different creative ideas, and they all get sent through the same Holy Fuck machine, and we turn them into songs.”
That Holy Fuck machine continues to gain steam, with extensive US headlining tours and an exhausting series of American and European festival appearances. Playing larger venues and festival stages has also given the band a chance to experiment with adding visual elements to its stage show, beyond the band’s own antics, like wrestling a series of keyboards from a giant onstage case.
“There’s definitely room for creativity in the visuals aspect of playing live,” Walsh says. “As much as we want people to come to our shows for the music — the audio and the whole aural experience — there’s definitely something that can be done with visuals, and we have been experimenting with that a little bit more lately. We’ve worked with a collective in Los Angeles that helped us develop a light show for our concerts. If you can find something that really works well, it can actually enhance the sound of the music in some ways and enhance your senses when you’re experiencing it. It makes the experience a lot more overwhelming and amazing for the audience, which is kind of epic.”
The band used its new light show while touring in support of Latin, performing under washes of intense reds, greens, and purples, interspersed with pulses and flashes synched to Schulz’s driving percussion. “We’re still tweaking it and trying out different things,” Walsh says. “Hopefully, it can morph and become a different thing every time, something we can build on and have fun with.”