Estonia’s Holy Motors Write With a Unique Desolation

The five-piece band from Tallinn conjures open-road loneliness on their LP ‘Slow Sundown,’ due in February of 2018.
November 28, 2017, 5:50pm
Photo by Kertin Vasser

Holy Motors didn’t set out with any grand ambitions. Like a lot of bands, they just sorta gravitated together as young freaks living in a big-ish city and started playing songs. Over the last few years, they’ve made more of them, even released some, in fits and starts. They built a low-key collection of dusty rock songs built around the uniting principles of reverb and twang—slow ringing chords made more ominous by vaporous effects. But it was an unpretentious and quiet thing, at least for a while, guitarist Lauri Raus said in an email interview (he clarifies that the whole band contributed to his answers). “At first, the promise of the band was something really private,” he wrote. “There was this music we played, but we didn’t know what to do with any of it.”

Part of that was by the nature of where the band lives. All five members live or grew up in Tallinn, Estonia, which they describe as a pretty private place. It’s a city, but something smaller in magnitude, “not a city like Manchester, Varanasi or New York.” They say that living there shouldn’t attribute any “aura” to them, it’s just a place they’re from, a happy accident that all of them ended up in the same general location at the same time, so that they could pick up guitars and play together.

As intent as they are on assuring me that their band is a humble endeavor, their songs have always told a different story. Even if they feel effortless—as the gritty gems on the 7” they released earlier this year on the New York label Wharf Cat did—there’s an attention to detail and easy comfort in their open-road anthems that contradict their modesty. Songs like “Sleeprydr”—with its psychedelic gasps and crawling guitar lines—are as dreamy and unnerving as a whole generation of rock bands who traded in slow-moving melancholy, like Low, Mazzy Star, or the post-Slowdive ensemble Mojave 3.

On February 9, they’ll release their debut LP Slow Sundown, a collection of songs that sends their squirrely slowcore widescreen, and today they’re sharing that record’s first single “Honeymooning.” It’s a wispy and otherworldly slow jam that kicks off the record, a low and slow guitar part hovering ominously like scavengers over a desert highway. Vocalist Eliann Tulve sings fragmented phrases in a heady deadpan, conjuring both shadowy paranoia and tender love in equal turns. The band has three guitarists—Raus, Hendrik Tammjärv, and Gert Gutmann—but they’re focused on upholding the tense, melancholic atmosphere rather than heading than the freewheeling excess such a lineup suggests. Drummer Kaspar Kiinvald holds it all together with a terse, plodding beat that keeps the track at an anxious squirm—even at the song’s hopeful moments it’s stalked by the specter of its own tiptoeing instrumental.

Taken as a whole—even when Tulve sings “Undress me / Anytime / Anywhere”—there’s an implicit desolation, a sort of fulfilment that feels just out of reach. Characteristically, they say that melancholy isn’t necessarily by design. “I think it comes from the playing of too many E minor chords over some modulated reverb“ Raus writes. “It has run through the songwriting like a compulsion.”

Whatever the reason, there’s little as winningly unsettled as the songs they make together. This time around, they’re rendered in even more striking detail thanks to the help of Merchandise’s Carson Cox, who knows something about writing songs of alienation, and who produced this album. The band met Cox years ago after playing a festival with Merchandise. Typical of their small-scale ambitions, they didn’t connect again right off the bat. They just sat and took in the scenery. “The next day when going out for breakfast Carson was already gone,” Raus wrote. “We had chewy pancakes in the rain and watched this small town pour empty from artists and concert-goers alike. It was something of a country western moment.”

Cox would eventually reach out to produce a 7”, introduce them to their label Wharf Cat and then come back aboard to produce Slow Sundown, but it’s that anecdote that you should remember to best understand the band. Theirs is a sort of mundane loneliness, cinematic, but simple, something like eating pancakes in the rain.

Slow Sundown album art:

Slow Sundown tracklist:

1. Honeymooning
2. Valley
3. Silently for Me
4. Signs
5. I Will Try
6. Ghost of Heart
7. Sleeprydr
8. Outro