“Toronto’s evil super group”, Holy Fuck, prey on Auckland and Wellington this December. The band’s founding member, Graham Walsh, chats with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.


TORONTO-based Holy Fuck’s live shows are descending into legend status. Their hard-to-classify melange of electronic music, math-rock, post-rock and furious rock n roll has seen them touring with the likes of MIA, Wolf Parade and Cornelius, and winning glowing reviews from critics, and bands such as Radiohead. They’ve also managed to raise the ire of Canada’s Conservative government for their “profane” name. Not bad for something which started off as a side-project.

The band was part of Dependent Music, an artists’ collective and record label, and initially formed in 2004. Founding member Graham Walsh says “we all came from other bands, other alt. rock and typical guitar/drums/bass bands and started jamming as Holy Fuck as an experiment and something to do. It wasn’t the typical music that we were playing, it was just to do something completely different and be creative. And then the side project eventually took over and became the main project and everything else is the side project now.” The band didn’t really have any expectations but “we started getting these opportunities presented to us and of course you want to capitalise on them and everything’s always been a bit of a surprise along the way. Coming to Australia and playing in New Zealand is a great surprise.”

Holy Fuck got one of their early breaks touring with Brooklyn rapper Beans, one of the founding members of the Antipop Consortium. “He was one of the first people to step up and take notice to what we were doing and give us our first opportunities. We played at a music festival in Montreal and he was performing there as well. He liked what we did, and wanted to start working with us. A few months later we ended up learning his songs and we were his backing band at Coachella and we went on tour and did some other festivals with him. He approached us, it was great, it was a great way to jumpstart the band and get us up there and get us exposure. It was a very key point for the band.”

The band became renowned for making electronic music without using the standard electronic music conventions, such as looping and programming. However, Walsh says “that’s not our motto or m.o. per se, that’s just how we started out. You want to do something that’s different and stretch out, and we used the tools that we all had access to, like kids toys and a bunch of guitar effects pedals and other things that we had with us. We came from playing in typical rock bands, we didn’t really have laptop computers and sophisticated sampling equipment and midi-control and analogue synths, things that a typical electronic artist would have. We just wanted to do experimental music with the tools that we had.” It’s proven rather successful, that Walsh admits “we’ll probably continue to use that kind of stuff because it’s fun for us to use, and we like the sound that it makes and the tone and the character that it brings.”

And this does mean their live shows are much more liberated, and free from some of the confines that live electronic music faces. “I think that using tools that we do use has allowed us to incorporate how we perform in the other bands that we were in, like specifically a drummer and a bass player. It gives us the feel of playing as a band live and not following sequences and pre-set songs structures. Using the tools is liberating in that way.” Their live shows are largely improvised, something which means their music is unpredictable each night, and changes with each performance. Part of the background to this is that the band doesn’t really rehearse. This does suggest it would be difficult maintaining a sense of control over the music. “We’ve performed enough that we’re good at communicating. The more and more you perform a particular piece, you remember the good bits and you try and edit out the bad bits. Every night you keep refining it and refining it and eventually a bit of a structure will come about. It’s just through practice and constant performing, it’s got pretty easy for us. There’s definitely a chaotic element that keeps it interesting for us, and I think for the audience as well. Stuff happens, and something does go wrong we can recover from that pretty easily and get the thing back on the tracks comfortably. We don’t really rehearse but that’s sort of ‘cause we’ve gone on the road so often and our drummer lives in New York.”

Holy Fuck became dubbed “Toronto’s evil super group”, and incorporated a good number of musicians into the mix. The transient nature of the band, while adding a bit of vitality, must also add some challenges to the music. “Yeah it can be difficult, but the music fortunately is elastic in nature. When we bring in a different drummer to fill in, we can make it work. You hear the song in a different way, and it’ll feel slightly different but all the elements are still there. It’s all blended together slightly differently. It’s not too bad. It’s not like a typical singer-songwriter where you’re told to go listen to the CD and learn the parts. It’s a lot more fun than that in the way it changes up. The structure may change a little bit, how a different drummer will react, it keeps it interesting too.”

The band is driven strongly by rhythm, much more so than melody – obvious when listening to the frantic urges of 2007’s LP or their self-titled 2005 album. Walsh says “I don’t know if we really make a decision one way or the other or intentionally leave melody as a secondary thing. We’re always trying to think of catchy lines and things like that. I think that’s whatever intuitively we think is cool and gets focused on in each song. I think we’re incorporating more and more melodies than we did in our very first record, which was very rhythmically based, and not much melody going on.” The band’s raw recorded material manages to capture what you’d imagine they’d be like live – it’s mostly live-takes and improvised, the band edit “only if it’s necessary”.

The band also gained some kudos from Radiohead for their remix of In Rainbow’s ‘Nude’, an opportunity Radiohead presented to keen parties. “It was really exciting. It was challenging for us because we were presented with the opportunity in the middle of a tour and you can’t say no. We really had to scramble, we were on the road in California, to find a studio to work in Los Angeles. We went into the studio at 10 o’clock at night, and didn’t start working until midnight or one am and went until 7 or 8 in the morning. It was the only studio time that we can get and we had a show the next night. It was very hectic. We got it done on the road, and mixed it in the van with speakers and headphones and things like that. It was really exciting.”

In recent times however, Holy Fuck have caused a bit of controversy after being specifically targeted by the ruling (well, problematically ruling, at the moment) Conservative Government in Canada. The band had received some funding from the state-funded PromArt initiative, where bands get grants for touring. The Government decided to cancel the grant, and one of the reasons given, was that it was funding bands with names such as Holy Fuck’s. “It’s been pretty annoying, but it’s gotten us a lot of publicity, so we can’t complain about that. It was a bit silly for it to happen and to also know it wasn’t even true. The government scapegoated us knowing they were going to cancel the programme regardless. They needed the funding for other things, the government in Canada now is very conservative. They needed a reason that could rally the conservative people, so they chose us for having a profane name, and a couple of other people who did controversial things – not even controversial things, funny little points like a son of a famous Canadian musician got funding and they were like ‘we don’t think the government should fund the sons of wealthy rock stars’. It was a whole retarded scenario, it was silly. I think a lot of people knew it was stupid to blame us. I doubt that they even know what our music sounds like and I think some representative from the government said they don’t want to listen to our music, they don’t have to, they just think the name is too profane. I mean give me a break.”

It must get frustrating having to justify the band’s name as a result, and it’s one of the questions the band finds themselves having to answer frequently. “Ultimately, you want people to focus on the music. We started this band to make music not a way to get out this ‘hilarious’ name. We wouldn’t be where we were if people didn’t like our music but most interviews ask us ‘why we named the band that’, and ‘where the name comes from’ and all that. I don’t know how many other bands get those kind of questions, but we get them a lot. [laughs]” Regardless of their name issues, it’s their live show which has got the most people buzzing, with breathless reports of destruction, chaos and unrelenting beats. As one foreign review put it after witnessing their show, “the name is simple – this is like the best sex that you ever had, only better.”