David Holmes: Holmer's Odyssey

Who is David Holmes? The hedonistic experimental DJ? The award-winning composer? The producer whose prolific work recalls the best music of the last 60 years? He is, of course, all these things and more. In a moving reflection upon his life, his work and his home, the Belfast artist tells Jim Butler that he’s just getting started…

Music. Clothes. Art. Literature. Films. Style. David Holmes has always been obsessive about his passions. Raised in Belfast during the Troubles these passions offered not only an alternative form of education but provided succour when his childhood was interrupted by the violent events happening just outside his front door.   

“Growing up the way I did the only thing I had was an imagination, a record player and a VHS,” he recalls today from the studio inside his Belfast home. The comforting four walls of home have always provided emotional stability and physical safety. As a kid he spent a lot of time indoors, in what he calls lockdown – handy for what would come 40-odd years later.

“My mum would say: ‘You’re not going out tonight, there’s trouble on the streets.’ So I’d sit in and rent three or four videos for two quid. It wasn’t a rich man’s sport, but you were consuming all this information.”

On other occasions he would sit at the top of his house on the Ormeau Road and gaze out his window, not dreaming exactly (“You didn’t have a dream growing up in Belfast back then,” he remembers, “the whole thing was so absurd”), but pushing his mind and his imagination, concocting fantasies. Next door to his house was the Parador Hotel. Back then it had one of those red neon Hotel signs attached to its side (“Like you see in the movies”) and sometimes the light would falter and flicker evocatively.

“I would sit there with this trumpet that didn’t work,” he laughs. “I’d just pretend to be in a movie, listening to jazz in the background.” 

Today, the obsessive nature is still apparent. Like other people his age, and certainly from his background, Holmes has had his own struggles with mental health, fixating and obsessing over things, some of which, he candidly admits, “didn’t exist”. He went to see a therapist – “which wasn’t really for me” – but during the course of his sessions he was diagnosed with Pure O.

“It’s basically pure obsession,” he explains. “I don’t have the compulsion in OCD, like my studio is a fucking mess and I’m quite happy with that. I’m just obsessed in my mind.”

During the second lockdown of his life – the Covid version – Holmes made a concerted effort to look after his mental health. He read more. Meditated.

“I really jumped into figuring that out,” he goes on. “Like I’ve been doing a lot of…”

Suddenly there’s silence. Holmes has been energetically holding court on all manner of subjects for the last 30 minutes – from Boris Johnson to the Troubles by way of The Clash and ageing, more of which later – but he’s abruptly fallen silent. He starts to laugh. There’s something he wants to divulge, but he’s not sure whether to unburden himself. And then remembering his freshly balanced mental equilibrium he chimes up once more.

“I’ve been doing mushroom therapy,” he says, at first hesitantly, before finding his voice. “But doing it properly. Not doing a big bag of magic mushrooms and sitting in a field with my mates and laughing our tits off for six hours - I never rule that out by the way. But in terms of dealing with my mental health. I’m a few years in and it’s been a complete gamechanger. Is it legal? No, and I don’t care. We live with a government who break the law on a daily basis and if they’re going to fuck up my mental health I will fix it by any means necessary.”

He goes on to extol the virtues of food science writer Michael Pollan. His bestseller, ‘How to Change Your Mind’ has been something of a revelatory guide for Holmes. Pollan, he explains, discovered psychedelics in his 60s and he made a conscious decision to go all in. 

“And what he found, no pun intended, completely blew his mind. This was about transforming the way we think, the way we feel… and all for positive results.”

In turn, the mushroom therapy has taken Holmes’ creative obsessions to the next level. He starts to list the symbiotic relationship that has often existed between drugs and music. Mods and speed. Acid house and ecstasy.

“I think that’s always given creators an inspiration,” he notes. ”It’s always opened portals that perhaps weren’t really letting any light in. And since doing mushrooms… let’s just say if I thought that I’d already opened all the portals, I’ve discovered there was another portal to be opened. And as a 53-year-old man I will take all I can get. I want to die being obsessed with music. I never want to become shit. So the mushrooms have given me that real need for rhythm and hypnosis and transcendence.”

"I want to die being obsessed with music. I never want to become shit. So the mushrooms have given me that real need for rhythm and hypnosis and transcendence."

In 2022 and with a 30-year-plus career already behind him, David Holmes, producer, DJ, composer, filmmaker… – a multi-hyphenate in today’s language – believes he’s only just getting started. In the last year alone, he’s released two awe-inspiring singles, ‘Hope Is the Last Thing to Die’ and ‘It’s Over, If We Run Out Of Love’, under his own name, both featuring the emotive vocals of Raven Violet; written the stirring soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s gut-wrenching Covid drama, ‘This England’ and alongside his regular collaborators Jade Vincent and Keefus Ciancia, released the dramatic third Unloved longplayer, the sprawling, 22-track ‘The Pink Album’. 

He’s also produced Sinead O’Connor’s first album in almost a decade, ‘No Veteran Dies Alone’, scored the music to ‘Lyra’, a powerful documentary about the life of murdered investigative journalist Lyra McKee, written the theme tune to the TV gangland drama, ‘Kin’, soundtracked the final series of ‘Killing Eve’ and delivered captivating remixes for Jarvis Cocker and Orbital (his fittingly spellbinding rework of the Hartnoll brothers’ ‘Belfast’). 

He continues to take his itinerant God’s Waiting Room nights around the country – he was last seen spinning triumphant sets at The Social in London and playing two emotional nights at Convenanza, his old friend, the late Andrew Weatherall’s boutique festival in Carcassonne, France. Then there’s the monthly radio show of the same name, which he describes as a round-about selection of ‘the cinematic, library music, rock’n’roll, psych, experimental, unclassifiable and independent’.

And for anyone still requiring an additional Holmer fix, his Instagram account is a reliable resource of poetical, moral, cultural, spiritual and political guidance. Whatever his fear of becoming shit, using that as a motivational tool seems to be working – there’s no danger of that actuality existing any time soon.

“I’ve always had this strange fascination with why really great artists become stale at some point,” he considers, assembling another rollie in double-quick time. “Not all of them, but it’s very common. And it boils down to a few things. One of them is having too much money and being surrounded by yes people. People just telling them they’re great. Another is laziness. I understand that. As you get older there’s so many other things you’ve got to do: your family, tidying the house… you’re not young anymore. But I love technology for that reason. I haven’t got time to travel around record shops and spend hours trawling through different bundles trying to find the Holy Grail. And there’s so much gold online. Whether it be music – I’m on so many record shop mailing lists – photography, art, movies…”

Whatever the reasons for this recent prolific flourish and his joyous sense of urgency, one thing is for certain, he’s not resting on his laurels.

“I don’t,” he reflects. “I’ve seen crazy shit happen. When opportunities arose for me to actually do this for a living I just made a conscious decision not to take it for granted. Because it is the best job in the world. I feel extraordinarily grateful to still be able to do this. In fact there’s not enough hours in the day sometimes. I’ve kind of broken through to a point where I feel like a 20-year-old.”

Reflecting upon his life, his career and his good fortune it’s abundantly apparent the Troubles are never far from Holmes’ mind. When he was four his house was bombed while his sister was washing him in the bath. One of his brother’s best friends was shot dead on his street, an event which led to his brother moving to America because Holmes’ dad got word that his brother was “going to get shot next”.

By the time he’d reached his 20s, Holmes had unsurprisingly buried it all. In 1995, when Jockey Slut first featured him on the cover around the release of his debut album, ‘This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats’, there was only one stipulation: he didn’t want to discuss the Irish Situation. 

“When I discovered acid house, right, which was a gradual thing – the penny dropped in mid-89 – Belfast was still so dark,” he explains today. “People talk about the 70s in Northern Ireland, but the 80s were fucking crazy too. So when I discovered ecstasy and acid house the last thing I wanted to talk about was the Troubles. I’d been through that my whole life. This was getting buried.”

Belfast, he states matter-of-factly, was intense. And even though he and his mates were out partying and “every Saturday night was the best night of your life – and it was, you know?” they were still carrying this dread, both real and existential, around with them. It is, he suggests rationally, why so many people in Northern Ireland suffer from PTSD. 

"I just made a conscious decision not to take it for granted. Because it is the best job in the world. I feel extraordinarily grateful to still be able to do this. In fact there’s not enough hours in the day sometimes. I’ve kind of broken through to a point where I feel like a 20-year-old."

However, if David Holmes aged 23 was an archetypal apolitical hedonist – with the substantial caveat that the nights that he put on at Belfast Art College, bringing over the likes of Orbital, Andrew Weatherall and Richie Hawtin changed people’s lives for the better – David Holmes aged 53 is anything but. In fact, right now, he’s never felt so politically engaged in his whole life.

“I’ve lived in a world that’s total chaos and wrong on so many different levels,” he sighs, barely bothering to conceal his disgust. “And to go through that again, but on a world level. I don’t want to bury it. I want these fuckers to be taken down. I want people to be on the streets.”

Part of his ire right now is attributable to his work on Michael Winterbottom’s ‘This England’, the celebrated director’s portrayal of Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid. Coming so soon after the actual events, and having to watch each sequence countless times, Holmes was understandably moved by reliving history. The emotion was still palpably raw. Tender. He admits there were a number of incidents in the production process that provoked such anger he had to leave the studio.

“We live in this world where we’re completely slammed with so much information,” he says. “It’s like what would have been a scandal if it had been just one thing that happened 20 years ago [and was discovered today] is forgotten because there are new things being uncovered every day. When you see them giving hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of contracts to Tory donors that knew nothing about PPE… these people should be in prison.”

His most recent songs – and they are unabashed pop songs with a capital P – are infused with this righteous anger. Both ‘Hope Is the Last Thing to Die’ and ‘It’s Over, If We Run Out Of Love’ are boisterous clarion calls and, as their titles suggest, optimistic statements of intent. ‘Hope…’ was the first to be released and from its opening synths, driving 60s soul beats and unapologetic lyrics (‘Make some changes/Changes we want to see’) it’s clear Holmes is an artist, if not reborn, then certainly driven by a new-found sense of purpose. “I’m not worried about what anyone thinks or what anyone says,” he states proudly. “This is from my heart. This is music that I feel.”

If ‘Hope..’ had the air of Hope Sandoval-fronting-Suicide about it, ‘It’s Over…’ is even more suggestive. A pointed and ecstatic celebration of youth culture, Holmes has chucked all his musical obsessions into the blender – soul, acid house, krautrock, psychedelia, punk, rock’n’roll, 60s girl groups – and come up with something close to New Order at their most rousing, backed by an elephantine, Spector-like Wall of Sound. The song’s origins lie in the work Holmes did on Noel Gallagher’s last album, ‘Who Built the Moon?’ Inexplicably, Gallagher didn’t get it. Thankfully, Holmes did.

“I said: ‘Can I do it? I’m gonna get Raven to sing it.’ When I sent it to him he nearly shat himself. ‘Fookin’ hell, why did I not think of that? Give us a number!’ he said. I replied: ‘No.’ I thought it should have been the first track on his album, but he wasn’t feeling it the same as I was. It’s got that original Oasis swagger from their first two albums. It’s not sentimental, but it has a feeling of freedom. We might be going down, but I’m going up.”

The two singles’ videos and the Situationist-inspired artwork push the notion of youth culture – turning revolt into style, to quote George Melly – and its importance to contemporary Britain further. The clips, ‘Hope…’ directed by graphic artist Jimmy Turrell and ‘It’s Over…’ by erstwhile The Jesus and Mary Chain bass player-turned-video director, Douglas Hart, are jam-packed with images of razor-sharp seditious youth and a host of cultural icons (among them Angela Davis, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou). 

The great news is that these songs aren’t outliers – an album, tentatively titled ‘Only Love Can Save Us’, is on its way next year. And as per the opening songs – and their accompanying remixes courtesy of such acid house stalwarts as Daniel Avery, Sean Johnston and Darren Emerson – it’s going to be dancefloor friendly.

“I wanted to make something that was more high energy,” he confirms, “but I didn’t want to make a clichéd dance record. I wanted to do it differently – bring in other influences that weren’t necessarily what you’d hear in your everyday dance and disco world. I’m really enjoying myself even though I’m writing about things that aren’t so much fun. I’m trying to do it in a way that’s joyous. Like if you listen to those old Motown records, that driving beat, those amazing, huge orchestras… and the song is about pure heartbreak. It’s about getting the contrast of saying things that I feel are important but doing it in a way that is much more hopeful.”

A case in point is a new song, ‘Emotionally Clear’. Holmes refers to the track a few times during the interview. Initially he says he’s really proud of it. Later, he says he’s going to find it difficult to write another song as good. A few minutes after the interview the track lands in our inbox. Holmes isn’t lying. Buoyed by a swirling organ it’s a haunting blast of cosmic Baroque pop, and a perfect counterpoint to “Hope…’ and ‘It’s Over…’.

“There’s a few darker moments on there,” he admits. “But it’s all part of the same narrative. I’m really trying to tell a story.”

The only part of the story he’s deliberating is the title itself. Love, he says, a man born on Valentine’s Day, is such a big word. He fears it might be too corny.

“But if we did have a government that genuinely loved people and cared about them we wouldn’t be in the place we are right now,” he states. “So, it’s simple, but I’m just trying to be brutally honest.”

Unloved: (left to right) Keefus Ciancia, Jade Vincent and David Holmes
"Punk rockers, goths, Northern Soul, soul boys, mods, rockabillies, it’s all the same thing. It’s just different clothes. Different technology. Different music. But it’s all the same mindset of being part of something that felt esoteric and really exciting.”

David Holmes has always been a musical magpie. Growing up in the 70s with nine brothers and sisters (“and a really cool mum”) his education ran the gamut from Elvis to the Sex Pistols, and everything in between. He was the pre-teen punk with a sister at art college who would dress him in PVC trousers and a Seditionaries-style cheese-cloth top. Then in 1981 he had one of his countless VHS epiphanies when he watched ‘Quadrophenia’. Could the punk also be a mod?

“I remember this local punk, he was a bit older than me, one of those guys my mum told me I wasn’t allowed to hang around with. Which of course made me want to hang around with him even more,” he laughs. “He said: ‘No, you can’t do that. You’ll be a poser.’ And then you grow up through all these things and you realise that punk rockers, goths – I wasn’t a goth, nothing against them – Northern Soul, soul boys, mods, rockabillies, it’s all the same thing. It’s just different clothes. Different technology. Different music. But it’s all the same mindset of being part of something that felt esoteric and really exciting.”

When he embraced acid house his dance music loves came in many forms – Latin, reggae, pop, European, gay Italian house music (“Which I’ve always had a love for because of the feeling”). He mentions Balearic and what he calls: “An absolute freedom of music.”

He continues: “That’s why I feel really lucky that I was dancing to Alfredo in Amnesia in 1990 and experiencing the DJ playing The Clash next to Grace Jones next to some crazy Brazilian record next to Detroit techno. Acid house was like all this great music coming together.”

Subsequently, it’s hard to define his musical styles, essentially because he loves so much (“It was always music,” he explains. “Rhythm and blues, Southern and Northern soul, rock’n’roll, The Who, the Small Faces, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, The Cure… at the end of the day, it’s all great music”). Does that make him a poser? A dilettante? A thief? Maybe. But his love is genuine. He stands by Jim Jarmusch’s assertion that artists should celebrate their theft because he believes that what you do with this theft has the power to become original and authentic.

What’s certainly original is the home Holmes has found in the world of film and TV soundtracks. His first two solo albums, the magnificent ‘This Film’s Crap…’ and ‘Let’s Get Killed’ were described as soundtracks for imaginary films. His first foray into soundtracks was a pilot for Lynda La Plante’s ‘Supply & Demand’.

“Which of course fitted my world completely at that time,” he jokes. “It wasn’t great, but it got me experience working with the moving image and emotions.”

This eventually led, of course, to his work on Steven Soderbergh’s superb ‘Out of Sight’, and an ongoing relationship with the experimental filmmaker. Today, 25 years after first working together and the bond remains.

“He’s one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met,” he reflects affectionately. “Steven and I have never been out for dinner or drinks or anything like that. We’ve never hung out. We just have a great working relationship. I regard him as a friend, but we have a very professional working relationship. And because he doesn’t fully know me it’s probably the reason why we’re still working together. If we hung out for a week or something he might turn around and go: ‘He’s fucking doing my head in.’”

Hollywood could have made him rich – he was offered lots of blockbusters after Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s’ trilogy – but he decided to stick with Soderbergh because it would be a more interesting and fantastic process.

“I just realised early on, how much money do you need?” he says. And of working in Tinseltown: “I felt like I was living in Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’.”

After a two-year sojourn in Los Angeles – during which time Unloved began to take shape – he returned to Belfast in 2012. The weather had got “a bit boring” and he “missed the winter”. Upon returning his production company finished its first film, ‘Good Vibrations’, he scored the music for ‘71’ and “hasn’t stopped working since.”

Today, his restless, obsessive, creative mind is sated by any number of projects. When he wants to DJ, there’s God’s Waiting Room.

“I stumbled upon this complete shit hole – most of my venues have been shit holes,” he laughs, referring to Maple Leaf Sports and Social Club which hosted the first few GWR nights in Belfast. “We brought Jarvis [Cocker] and Steve Mackey over to do Dancefloor Meditations and Jarvis walked in and went: ‘What time’s the Meat Raffle?’ It was proper sticky carpet, old guys sitting in the wee bar next door. Jarvis called the bingo that night. There’s some great footage of him going: ’24, show us your drawers’. That night is in my top five nights of all time.”

And this, essentially, is what music has given him, and so many others: friendships, memories, purpose, a home, a life.

“I’ve always been quick to try and make friends with people,” he reflects. “I’m very positive in that sense. And sometimes it’s been amazing and they’ve been lifelong friendships like Andrew [Weatherall] and Ashley Beedle (with whom Holmes did his first production job as The Disco Evangelists on 1993’s ‘De Niro’). And Darren Emerson.”

He signs off, smiling: “I’m all about leaving your ego at the door. And just remembering we’re all just fucking… we’ve all got one go at this. Let’s just live our lives and help each other get through this thing. Whatever it is, to quote Kurt Vonnegut. I just want to do it with joy and love and gratitude and kindness and not be a dick.”

For that, we are all truly thankful. 

Who is Raven Violet?

“She’s so naturally multi-talented”

“I met Raven back in 2010, 2011, when I met Keefus and Jade [her parents] – she was about 16. I was trying to get her to come into the studio and sing backing vocals. I had a feeling she’d be really good. And after a lot of cajoling she agreed. I realised she had the voice of an angel.

“Over the years she’s done more singing – with me and Unloved. We did the cover of ‘Strange Effect’ by The Kinks and she killed it. It’s got well over four million streams on Spotify and is the title music for ‘Nine Perfect Strangers.’

“One day I was talking to Keefus about Raven. I said maybe I should get her involved in something. It was during lockdown. I did a track for the Golden Lion – for Golden Lion Sounds. I sent it to Raven and she completely killed it – that was ‘Love is a Mystery’.

After I wrote ‘Hope Is…’ I sent her my song with my melody. She sang it and it was amazing. It just evolved into the next track [‘It’s Over…’] and then I realised we should do the whole record. It was a very natural process. I realised if she’s singing these almost mature lyrics about real issues it seemed to carry a lot more weight.

“Although she likes doing music and she’s loving doing this album, it’s not what she wants to do. Raven is an incredible writer – an incredible scriptwriter. She wants to be a filmmaker, she makes a lot of videos for Unloved. She’s got an incredible eye. She’s just so naturally multi-talented. She wants filmmaking to be her real job. 

“She’s written a feature film that we’re trying to develop. Jeff Bridges read it and wants to get involved. Keefus is a good friend of Jeff Bridges. He sent it to Jeff Bridges and he thought it was amazing. I feel so blessed to have her because she’s an incredible artist.”

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Disco Pogo.

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