SOMETIMES you can judge a record by its cover.
Holy Holy’s second album is strategically titled PAINT, and boasts striking cover art by Newcastle based expressionist artist James Drinkwater.
“Paint is a powerful word,” Holy Holy vocalist Tim Carroll explains. “It’s both a noun and a verb, it’s very visual and colourful and creative and expressive. It felt like the right title for where we wanted to take the record.”
The band started as a creative outlet for long-time friends Tim and guitarist/producer Oscar Dawson. The first album was written when Tim was living in Stockholm and Oscar in Berlin; Tim would commute to Oscar’s creative enclave.
“We didn’t know we were forming a band,” Tim says. “But that suite of songs led to us forming Holy Holy. We found that when we collaborated we made something different to what we did separately and we liked it.”
The heavy touring for their 2015 debut album When the Storms Would Come included shows with Vance Joy, The Preatures and Boy and Bear. They played big rooms, small rooms, festivals, and toured three times through Europe, including headline shows and festivals such as Primavera in Barcelona, The Great Escape in the UK, Reeperbahn in Hamburg and London Calling in Amsterdam. By the time the touring ended, something had changed in Holy Holy – they’d morphed into a band ready to expand their collective horizon. With Ryan Strathie on drums, in-house producer Matt Redlich on keyboards, and bassist Graham Ritchie they knew the second album would be something different.
It’s also something very special. PAINT sounds like a band who’ve leapfrogged the difficult second album syndrome and delivered the experimental fifth album already – all without losing any of their personality.
“The first album was pretty much written on acoustic guitar in Sweden,” Tim says. “A lot of this record was written with everyone in the room. It enabled us to explore more of the dynamics of a live band. We’d worked out what felt good live on stage, what got the reaction from the crowd and what was fulfilling to perform. That has wound its way into this record.”
Oscar says embracing the chaos became almost a motto in the studio. “Not that the record sounds chaotic, but it’s about exploring a wider palette of sounds and emotions. 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.”
From the title down, everything’s more direct and colourful than their debut. “When I wrote the sketches for the first album I was really inspired by Bill Callaghan and Bonnie Prince Billy, people like that,” Tim says. “That natural palette of language and sounds. A lot of people called it pastoral or Americana. We wanted to step away from that nostalgic sound and step into something more challenging. A bit more of a risk. Cleaner, more precise and minimal. Compare When the Storms Would Come to PAINT; the difference between those two titles says a lot about what we wanted to do with this record.”
Boundaries have been stretched. Risks have been taken. PAINT is a panoramic record with songs bursting with ideas, some with so many that they’re divided into the more classically derived notion of ‘movements’.
“Neil Young says ‘you think you stink’,” Tim says. “I like that idea of not over-cooking something if it feels good. We took that approach with ‘Send My Regards’, going with what felt right.” The stunning song, which closes the album and potentially their live shows, ends with some wild harmonised, stereo guitar lines that nod to the well-worn Led Zep and Queen albums in Oscar’s collection.
“I’ve always wanted to do harmonised guitar solos,” Oscar admits. “I’m the biggest Queen fan. I’m still mourning Freddie Mercury. And it’s hard to come up with tonal ideas or guitar parts that haven’t been done before. We’re constantly trying to find sounds that bridge the gap between the guitar and the synthesiser; between something nostalgic and something modern.”
Playlists on the European tour reached from DD Dumbo to Tom Petty, Metronomy to Solange, Grizzly Bear to Field Music.
“They all filter in by osmosis,” Oscar says. “The influences may be several steps away from what we’re doing, it might take years, but there’s a filtration process.” ‘That Message’ mixes unexpectedly funky bass and beats over stark, spoken word lyrics. ‘True Lovers’ is a straight-up electro-pop banger that showcases Matt’s arsenal of vintage synths – a major component of PAINT’s diverse DNA.
‘Willow Tree’ is a wandering epic that warps before your ears. ‘Gilded Age’ is a shapeshifter, repeatedly refusing to conform to what you think it will be.
“Something happens when you play with the same people for a long time,” Oscar says. “It’s like a conversation. You understand what people tend to say or think and where conversations tend to go. It can be quite fluid. So when we get together to write or rehearse it’s really natural now.”
“Finding people you enjoy making music with is as hard as finding someone you want to marry,” Tim adds.
Tim’s playing less guitar on PAINT, concentrating on those incredible harmonies and some vocal force. “It frees up space and gives Tim more room vocally,” Oscar says.
“I’ve done a lot of controlled singing, but that can get a bit boring at a certain point,” Tim says. “On this record I wanted to push a bit more. I like it when it doesn’t sound perfect; when it breaks or distorts a bit.”
Most of all, PAINT smashes any preconception listeners may have had about Holy Holy and forces an instant reassessment. It’s not one of those second albums that lazily recycles the debut.
“We stumbled into ideas we really liked, instrumental sections that were interesting and exciting to play.’, says Tim. ‘It just kinda happened. Not that it wasn’t a lot of work. We put a lot of thought into it, but the creative opportunities opened up. We were lucky.”