Amid the excitement of Australian band HOLY HOLY’s sophomore album release, we caught up with guitarist/producer Oscar Dawson, who refuses to exhale fully until PAINT comes out on 24 February. We discussed the band’s rolling creative process, their relationship with paint and the evolution of HOLY HOLY’s sound.
Before diving in to the music side of things, we explore the visual art and how acclaimed expressionist painter James Drinkwater‘s work came to feature on the album cover.
Oscar tells me that James is an old friend from a long time ago, a time when he and Tim got together in Europe to start making music. James was also living there with his wife, painting and creating artworks. Dawson says that Drinkwater’s art always stayed with him, and that when this album started coming together, he felt that the artist’s work summed up the feeling he hopes the band can get across on the new album, PAINT.
“I love James’ use of the texture of paint. He’s an abstract painter, there’s nothing figurative in his painting. I mean, there probably is to him, but it’s hard to find figurative elements. That’s what I like too, that they kind of represent meaning without obviously doing so. For me it just encapsulates the sense of trying to be controlled yet not in control, at the same time.”
I point out that it feels much like an assembly of old friends, too. That it’s an artist’s way. He says, “It is actually lovely, that side of it, too. When I got in touch with him about it, I thought oh GOD I’m about to ask James, hey mate would you mind? What do you reckon? Do you mind if we use a piece of your art for our album cover? He’s quite a successful artist. I was thinking he’s probably gonna get this email and think, “Oh fuck, here’s another fucking brand trying to bloody rip me off..but he wrote back a one line response – Yep, love to – so, it was easy, and it just makes sense. People have really responded to the artwork too.”
On how they arrived at this point, Dawson says, “Album cover artwork is always a really hard thing to do, to either discover or create. We named the album first. Tim had the title PAINT floating around for many months, so in a way we had that in the back of our minds… this Paint title… as we were writing and recording the record. Sometimes it’s cool to have a title before you even have the content, you know? You hear those stories about some songwriters who have a title before they write their own song, and they write to the title. I’m not saying we wrote deliberately to the title PAINT, but it definitely affected the process that we went through.”
“For a couple of singles that we released last year, we actually used some paint smears that were done by Tim’s two-year-old son Johannes. There was something I liked about them because it was sort of unplanned, and unconsidered and they were just, you know, by a two-year-old.”
I muse at their brilliant simplicity, and that by comparison James Drinkwater’s artwork is far more complex. Oscar agrees, “yeah, I wish I could say that the album was that simple and unconsidered. It probably isn’t actually, we thought about it pretty hard. Like, what the songs are, how we’d record them and how they’d sound. That’s not to say that this whole concept of PAINT is chaotic and unbridled, because in many ways the sound that we created is quite controlled. But, I think of what we did allow ourselves – which is where the title Paint comes in – we allowed ourselves a bigger palette of sound, to extend further into what is kind of an unchartered territory for us, using different textures and moving away from just being a band in a room. Expanding with synthesizers and sometimes drum machines, things like that.”
“Where the [album] title Paint comes in…we allowed ourselves a bigger palette of sound – to extend further into what is kind of an unchartered territory for us, using different textures and moving away from just being a band in a room, expanding with synthesizers and sometimes drum machines, things like that.”
On the Painting to PAINT project
To coincide with the album release, HOLY HOLY have collaborated with James Drinkwater on the Painting to PAINT Project, where Drinkwater and a selection of artists put to canvas an artwork based on four songs from the album, soon to be released as beautiful short films by award-winning director, Charlie Ford.
The first visual, That Message, was done by James Drinkwater (watch below, it’s amazing), who also chose the other featured artists in the project.
The other films will be rolled out from next week – Willow Tree painted by Lottie Consalvo (a brilliant artist who does fine art painting and performance art. Also Drinkwater’s wife), Shadow painted by Chris Horder (Horder lived in Germany at the same time that Tim, Oscar and James lived in Europe) and Send My Regards painted by Ben Kenning (a Newcastle artist who combines drawing with paint and mixed media).
On touring & writing new songs
I mention to Oscar that I when I spoke to vocalist Tim Carroll at the end of 2015, the band was solidly touring the first album, WHEN THE STORMS WOULD COME, pretty much non-stop for 18 months. I ask how much they’re looking forward to hitting the road again. He says, “I’ve been enjoying the last few tours we’ve been doing, whether in Australia or overseas. They’ve always been great, both in terms of the crowds and audiences we’ve been lucky to play to, but also, within the band has been fun. So just for that reason, I look forward to touring.”
I ask if they exhaust themselves by finally touring a new album only to start writing new material, or whether that’s just how they work. Oscar tells me that he finds touring exhausting anyway, but not for that reason. He explains, “We don’t consciously endeavour to do that. It just sort of happens. And most of the time we want to keep writing, just because it keeps things fresh on the road. So, if anything, it has the opposite effect.” I offer that instead of mindlessly checking Instagram (like most people), that they’re busy writing new music, and he says, “Well, look, we find time to do both, actually. [laughs] Things being the way they are, there is still plenty of time to sit around in the tour van, unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I don’t know, I mean there is a good side to all that stuff as well, I s’pose.”
“Occasionally we sit down and say “Let’s write now”, and we consciously do it, but often that doesn’t work as well as when we’re just dicking around or maybe having a soundcheck and fooling around. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but sometimes you just need to be open to the fact that things can just flow from seemingly nowhere. So often it happens when we don’t consciously set out to do it, and it happens quickly. If it’s quick we say “ok that was good”, but if we have to hack away at it for days, weeks or even months it tends to die, actually.”
On PAINT, the new album
I share with Oscar my obsession for their new single That Message, and my keen interest in the fact that after listening to artists like Queen and Solange on the road, their influences, however unobvious, actually infiltrate their own music, especially the songs on PAINT. I tell him (gasp) that it’s almost a little bit disco. To which he responds, “Really? Oh wow. I’m too close to it. I don’t even know. It’s interesting. A couple of these songs, including That Message we have been playing live, and people have responded well.” And I bet they’re robot dancing to it.
“I think any person who puts out something that they’ve created, whether it’s music or anything, they have a little bit of terror before doing so. At the very least, a little bit [of terror]. And so there’s definitely that feeling of Oh man, what have we done?”
There’s a love song on the album called True Love. I tell Oscar that it mildly amuses me because it sounds like a dramatic 80s power ballad and, through an awkward pause, I say that I hope there was an intended sense of drama to the song. Thankfully, Oscar understands where I’m going and says, “Yeah, we’ve done that thing a couple of times now, where we’ve kind of been dramatic in the sense of referencing times gone by. On our first record we had the song You Cannot Call for Love like A Dog which has a kind of big, perhaps, over the top guitar solo in it.” He continues, “When we started that guitar solo, it started in a very different place. It’s funny you should mention the 80s. At first we called it the Dirty Dancing car crash scene guitar solo. So certainly it isn’t out of the question to have some of those ideas in our heads, using synthesizers but also guitar solos and referencing some of that old material. The main thing with all of that stuff is it feels good. It’s got to feel good. It feels good to us.”
I enquire whether Oscar has heard of the Yacht Rock sub-genre? I openly place True Love in the Yacht Rock category and instantly want to face palm myself. But right away, he confesses with ease their love for the sub-genre, saying, “We listen to quite a bit of it actually. I love Yacht Rock. The point for me is that sometimes, and maybe it’s just been this way since the beginning of popular music, sometimes it feels like in modern music that there’s not enough drama and emotion. There’s too much coolness, and I feel like a lot of music that I love is often not very cool, but it’s very dramatic and it has emotion. That is something that is important to me, because if it’s not got that drama and emotion, then what has it got?”
“I love Yacht Rock. Sometimes it feels like in modern music that there’s not enough drama and emotion. There’s too much coolness, and I feel like a lot of music that I love is often not very cool, but it’s very dramatic and it has emotion. That is something that is important to me, because if it’s not got that drama and emotion, then what has it got?”
On the evolution of HOLY HOLY’s sound
I ask Oscar to offer his explanation on how the band’s sound has evolved. He says that when they’re touring, or planning a tour, they end up writing at the same time. The idea of everyone writing together wasn’t an established rule, but it naturally started to happen as the band was up and running as a functional musical outfit.
“When you get together with a group of people in a room and things are working well, you tend to become a sum that’s greater than your parts. By that I mean, ideas happen that wouldn’t necessarily come if you’re on your own.”
By contrast, when Tim and Oscar were writing the first album, there wasn’t much of a band around it at that time. The band kind of came through it. Oscar explains that it started off as Tim’s work, and then it was Tim and Oscar for a long time. As they started making WHEN THE STORMS WOULD COME they enlisted players. Dawson names the band, “Ryan Strathie became the drummer of the band from then onwards, and Matt Redlich our producer, he came on board at that time aswell, and then Graham Ritchie our bass player he came on a bit later when we started playing more shows, and it just kept going like that, you know? Slowly expanding out, and then by the time we finished that first album, we were basically a band. And now that’s gone further. You just keep further solidifying as you go.”
On life after Paint is released
I ask Oscar what he’s most looking forward to after the album is released on 24 February, both as a band and for him personally. He contemplates a while, then says, “I don’t know yet. I haven’t even thought about it. At the moment I’ve been living from week to week, just trying to stay on top of it, keep the wolves at bay. Oh, I mean there’s lots of things.”
“Once the record’s out I’ll feel like I can breathe out.”
I wonder how the negative goings on in the world affect Oscar? He says, “I just hope it isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. But, I think it’s good to be worried because when you worry about something, you’re more likely to change it. Down here in our little country Australia… I think we’re so lucky. And for us in this band, we’re fortunate to do what we do and have people around us who support us. Not just our audience, who are so wonderful, but also our team, our label and our manager, so many people here to support us. I think music, well for me at least, I think music is one of the main good things in the world, and it tends to always be there, where humans are. So I’m really lucky to be a part of that.”
Dawson’s parting words on the new record perfectly sum up the result of some perfectly controlled spontaneous liberation from HOLY HOLY in PAINT.
“It’s nice to have stability in your life. It’s easy to go ‘Ok, this is what we sound like, this is what we’re doing’. But in the long term, it’s more interesting and more exciting to see where an idea can go and be open-minded. Sometimes it feels like you’re going against instinct, but in the end, we pulled it together.”
PAINT is set for release on February 24 and new single That Message is available now. Pre-order album: PAINT.