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Holy Fuck Are Finally Out of the Woods

The Canadian experimental group returns with 'Congrats,' their first new album in six years.
Nick Walker

Holy Fuck's Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh are searching for the perfect analogy for their recording process.

"Whenever we finished or embarked on a new record, we'd have these conversations about where we wanted to go," says Walsh, the band's keyboardist and effects player. "Then we'd step inside this crazy forest, mess around, and not really know what was going on."

Taking a sip from his beer, de facto ringleader and multi-instrumentalist Borcherdt agrees. "You re-emerge kind of cut up and bruised and mauled by a wild animal somehow," he says. "We've gone back and forth through that same patch of woods enough times now that we know it better, and I think that's what people are going to hear."

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With Congrats, the first Holy Fuck album in six years, the Canadian experimental electronica group benefitted from a luxury they didn't have while recording their last release, 2010's Latin: time. To hear the outfit's core duo tell it, the gap between albums allowed them to grow independently as musicians, then bring that experience back to the band.

For Borcherdt, that meant playing in a half-dozen side-projects (slowed down Alvin and the Chipmunks anyone?), chief amongst them Dusted, his more lyrically-focussed three-piece with wife Anna Edwards. Walsh, for his part, has become the go-to engineer and producer for a variety of Canadian indie rock and punk acts, including METZ, Viet Cong, and Wintersleep.

Their new album is the band's most streamlined effort to date, benefitting from Borcherdt's strengthened songwriting ability, Walsh's accumulated hours behind the boards, and a collective decision to record in a proper studio for the first time. Without dialing back on the ferocity they've become known for—Matt "Punchy" McQuaid's krauty bass riffs and Matt Schulz's cavernous drums, for instance, sound larger than ever on the opening one-two blitz of "Chimes Broken" and "Tom Tom"—they've also embraced moments of real warmth. "House of Glass" throbs with disintegrated bursts of noise, but it also features harmonic funk grooves unlike anything the group's done before. "Neon Dad" could be shoegaze, with Borcherdt's hushed vocals and Explosions in the Sky-like guitar work.

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"The previous records were made in such a way that we never really had time to split," says Borcherdt. "We existed based on a certain momentum keeping us on the road, keeping us together. For this record, we consciously took a break."

Perhaps owing to a number personal changes and geographical upheavals within the band, Walsh describes that break another way: "Life tore us apart." Within the past six years, three out of four members have become fathers, and the group has split between three cities: Halifax, New York, and Toronto. For Congrats, moreover, they've parted ways with tastemaking UK indie Young Turks, and signed with Los Angeles-based label Innovative Leisure.

These non-Canadian labels make sense when you consider the group has always felt like outsiders in their home country's music scene. When they first formed in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 2004, their ramshackle DIY approach to creating electronic music set them apart from their indie rock contemporaries, who used traditional instruments and straightforward song structures. "As music fans we always gravitated to some of the weirder kids in the classroom, so to speak," explains Borcherdt, name-checking Ontario acts like Constantines, Peaches, and Manitoba (today better known as Caribou).

Despite a Pitchfork review of their 2006 self-titled debut album suggesting that the group ought to "consider some rehearsal before their next recording date," their electrifying live shows earned them fans around the globe, as well as invitations to play at festivals like Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and SXSW. While they weren't the only band in the mid-2000s using pawnshop-sourced analog equipment, like Casio keyboards or 35mm film synchronizers, Holy Fuck's gear choices feel remarkably prescient today.

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To underscore this point, Borcherdt recalls a recent trip to a music store where he found the first drum machine the group used on their debut record. "I wanted to try it out and the sales guy was a bit of a know-it-all," he says. "He was nice, but he was like, 'Dude check this out,' and started running it through delay pedals," he says. "And I'm like 'Cool, cool, neat' and finally I had to tell him, 'Yeah I made a record ten years ago using this drum machine.'

After we wrap up our interview, the duo will head to an event organized by a Toronto not-for-profit arts organization, where Borcherdt's performing a one-off improvised drone set. This raises the question of whether or not they feel there's adequate infrastructure supporting so-called "outsider" artists in Canada today. Though Holy Fuck received a government grant to make Congrats and have been nominated for Juno and Polaris Prize awards—both unimaginable accomplishments in the band's early days—Borcherdt admits there's still plenty of challenges facing musicians in Toronto.

Pointing to the high cost of living in the city and the lack of proper venues, the frontman questions the scene's sustainability. "How do you allow people to make noise in a city that's allergic to noise?" he wonders out loud. "How do you allow people to convert spaces in a city that has no space?"

Despite these factors, Borcherdt is optimistic about the future of experimental music communities across the country. "It's reaching a critical point where you can't deny we're having more of a dialogue about artists that feel marginalized in the system, and I'm glad for that," he says. "That's what people responded to all over the world and that's what put Canada on the map."

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Who knows? Perhaps other bands will be inspired by Holy Fuck's example to spend some time exploring the woods for musical challenges. "Maybe you get lost and it takes you three years to make a record," Walsh says, laughing, "But it's a really good record."

Throughout our conversation, it's clear the group's dry sense of humour has remained intact, which might have something to do with their longevity as a group. When asked if fatherhood has affected them in any way, sole non-dad Borcherdt quips, "Did you notice the Steely Dan tones?" before offering a serious reflection.

"Sometimes you want to start over, then you come around 360 degrees and you're like 'Wait a minute, Holy Fuck's the most fun band I've been in, it's the most successful band I've ever been in, we all get along really well,'" he says. "If [Congrats] is the moment that tips the scale and the true fans finally throw their iTunes gift cards in the mud and say 'Fuck this guy, I'm not supporting him anymore,' that's fine too."

Congrats is out May 27 via Innovative Leisure (Last Gang Records in Canada).

Max Mertens is on Twitter.