Interview with Oscar Dawson of HOLY HOLY
HOLY HOLY is about to release their much-anticipated follow-up record. The Australian indie rockers hit our radios with their debut album, When the Storms Would Come, in 2015 and have since travelled the world and consolidated into a fully formed band. The new record is titled PAINT, and I had a chat to guitarist and co-founder of HOLY HOLY, Oscar Dawson, about the upcoming record, travel and his view on the new Star Wars films.
Sean Wales: Hey Oscar, where do I find you right now?
Oscar Dawson: I’m in my bathroom. But don’t worry, I’m not taking a shit or anything, I’m about to leave it. I actually just shaved…my face that is. So I was just inspecting my shave, I think I did an alright job.
Pretty happy with it?
I’m pretty unco, I always find little patches where I’ve missed a bit and I just found a patch. Basically, it’s bothering me. I’m back out of my bathroom now. I’m in my apartment in Melbourne.
Who would you say has the best facial hair out of you or Tim, or who looks after it better?
I don’t know who looks after it better. I mean you may have seen in any of our photos he has quite a beard whereas mine is just a bit of growth. So really, he has the better facial hair, I suppose. He does encourage me to get a moustache but I really need the support of my wife in that endeavour which I don’t think I have at the moment.
Let’s have a chat about the album. Who was responsible for most of the writing on the record?
Mainly Tim and I tend to do a lot of writing, whether we do that together or kind of sending emails to one another over the internet. But this time around we wrote a lot more together as a band. So as five of us in the band that includes Ryan our drummer, Mat our producer who has been playing in the band for a couple of years now, we have been writing with him more. Also Graham our bass player, he has been helping writing more now which has been great actually. So it’s definitely expanded out from just being Tim and I writing the lion’s share of the material. It’s been a more inclusive process which has been really great.
Has the more inclusive writing process helped change the sound of HOLY HOLY?
It certainly makes a difference. One of the biggest things, well who knows I wouldn’t know how to quantify what determines our sound, but one of the biggest things is that we are a band now. When we wrote the first record and recorded it we weren’t even a band. It was just Tim and I and we created a band as we recorded it and built bit by bit on that.
This time when we started the process, we were already a functioning fully formed band who was touring and playing shows and that. So that fact alone was enough to make a big difference, I think, to how the record sounds and how the band sounds. That was the starting point, not a finishing point.
Where’d you find time between touring late last year to actually write and record the album?
I don’t know exactly. We managed to make the pieces fit, somehow. It’s a mystery to me actually how we managed to make it all work. We all do a lot of different things. Tim runs a festival down in Tasmania and I do a lot of other production stuff, as does Mat our producer.
We are all doing a lot of different things and I don’t exactly know how we make it all work. We plan the touring well in advance and we are pretty on top of that. We are pretty picky with what shows we play, and that is for many reasons. One of which is that we don’t want to use up all of our available time we have. Also being picky and choosing our shows wisely kind of means we enjoy the shows we do play a lot more, and it makes them more special.
We don’t want to just be that band who is playing every single gig that gets thrown their way. But also with the writing and recording, we sort of find ways to make it happen when touring. By and large, we all live in different states, so when we’re touring that’s the main time we are together. Often we do rehearsals when we start a tour and often during those times that’s when ideas come out. When we feel good about them they happen quite quickly.
It surprises me how quickly they come together. Some of the songs on the record we wrote in the last week of recording and they just come together and when something works quickly generally we like it and we feel like it’s a good idea, and we tend to go with those ones that happen quickly. It’s one of those things you can’t think about trying to hit a deadline or trying to finish something in time because that can sometimes make your mind close. So often we trust it all to get done and somehow it does.
Do you find having other projects is important to you and the band? Does it help you come back to the band more refreshed and ready to go and work on new music?
It’s important to me, I don’t know about the other guys. I think it’s important and it’s definitely important to me as I tend to get bored easily. Not to say that the band is ever boring, which it isn’t. Sometimes I feel if you go away from what you’re working on, for me something different musically, writing for another artist or a different style of music, coming back to the band I find it’s better for my perspective. For me, I find it works out better from that side of thing.
Also, I feel these days if you’re playing in a band and it starts to do alright you can get into a pattern and throw everything into it and you can spend your entire lifetime working on that band. Sometimes it’s great, but sometimes it can work against the band a bit. I think bands should be fun and something you do not as a career. You’re just making tunes with people, music with other humans and you don’t need it to be a big structure or anything like that.
I feel it’s important sometimes to have that lightness in a band. When you have other things you also do you can get away from the band and then come back to it. It’s a hobby in a way. It’s certainly more than a hobby I’m not saying we don’t have all those structures and shit because we do. We work hard at it, we aren’t just fucking around. But I think it’s important to have a bit of that.
Travelling seems to have helped HOLY HOLY, as in you and Tim met overseas and have travelled as a band together. How has travelling helped shape your music?
That’s a good question, I don’t know. I think that travelling contributes in all sorts of weird ways. Obviously when you travel, well I tend to be a little bit more open-minded when I travel. When I’m in Melbourne I’m head down and grinding through life. Which I don’t mind, I kind of like it. I’m always busy doing things, paying rent, working on music.
Sometimes I can find I get into a habit where I don’t lift my head up and look around. And travelling is great for that. I think it’s important and just seeing other places and meeting people you might never meet again, it opens your brain up a little bit. I think when we started the project, although we didn’t know we were starting the project, but when we first kind of started working on some of these early songs for our first record, we were both in different situations overseas.
I was living in Berlin, I didn’t have a job, I was broke and I didn’t know what I was doing. Music was a great relief, it was something to do. I felt like it was something stable in my life. Even just that, having something to be attached to. It’s kind of like an anchor, that’s a big thing about music. Maybe for Tim when he was travelling and writing some of those songs on the first record while he was living in Stockholm, he had time. Just time alone gives you mental space to write so that makes a big difference. Also over there, you have these long, cold, snowy winters and that makes a big difference to your head space. Even just little things like that, like where you are and what’s going on outside your door obviously makes a difference.
So all those things are really good for creativity, but I don’t think you need that for creativity. I don’t think you need travel, I don’t think you need to put yourself in odd situations. I think you can be creative at home in your day-to-day, at home as well.
What was the inspiration behind the record’s title, PAINT?
Well, Tim came up with that title. It was a point of difference from the first record which was called When the Storms Would Come, which is a bit of a muted kind of title. PAINT is a bit ambiguous in meaning, a bit ambivalent and I think PAINT is just PAINT. One word, bold and strong. It’s got a lot of connotations but they’re all based around this idea. It’s also PAINT in capital letters. It’s bold and a bit more of a statement. We had the title before we finished the record and I think that was a part of it for Tim. Having that title in the back of our head, not that we wrote to the title, but it was good to have.
I found the album artwork quite mesmerising and eye-catching. How did that come together?
So, obviously that factors back into the title as well, the PAINT theme. We didn’t want to be obvious, the album is PAINT and the artwork is a painting. We didn’t want to be obvious but again PAINT has a lot of different connotations.
This piece is by an artist in Newcastle called James Drinkwater. He is an old friend of ours and someone whose artwork I’ve always loved and admired. This artwork is quite mesmerising. It’s bold and it’s strong and I love the textures of the paint, so not just what he is painting but the actual texture of the paint on the canvas. The way it’s kind of three dimensional in that regard. It’s sort of colourful but it’s not like a fucking rainbow or kaleidoscope.
It still chooses its colours, it’s bold but it’s still subtle and muted at the same time. All those things that seem to be in contradiction to each other sort of come together. So for us to kind of make sense of the cover of the record, for me, it’s the most fitting statement of the music. It was a painting he had already painted too, so he didn’t paint it for the record. It was a painting he had already done quite recently and when I went to James and said we’d love to use one of his pieces it was one of the ones he suggested.
There’s a lot of layers to that particular painting, lots going on. Do you think that is reflected in your new music? There’s more happening in HOLY HOLY’s new music, with synth layers and that kind of stuff.
Yeah, I’d say that’s entirely in the case and I hope that’s evident in the music because that’s exactly what we were doing, so if you felt that, that’s great. We definitely wanted to make something bolder something that’s a stronger statement. There’s a little bit of almost chaos in the painting, I’d say. This album isn’t chaotic but it has got moments of controlled chaos.
We let ourselves have a bit more latitude. We knew the sounds we wanted to use and not let ourselves be restrained or controlled by any sort of particular sound. In the first record, we were a bit more band in a room styled, a bit more folk oriented.
With this album, we sort of said no, let’s just play music and let it be a bit more. I think that’s what happened, so in that sense too that kind of sense of controlled chaos I guess is something we were conscious of when we were making the record.
Tell me a bit about this new project called Painting to PAINT.
So basically James Drinkwater along with three other Australian artists are each going to do a painting inspired by a song off the record. So four songs, four artists.
James will be doing one, his partner and another really great artist Lottie Consalvo, there’s another really great artist out of Sydney, Chris Horder, someone who’s art I love, and the fourth one, a fellow called Ben Kenning has just been locked in. He is another abstract artist. Each of them are going to do a painting inspired by a song.
Sounds cool! To finish off, I’ve got five quick ‘favourites’ for you. First up, favourite band or artist?
Ahh, no one. Definitely not me. Favourite band, ah fuck I don’t know man. Every time I think of one, there’s another one right behind it. Probably still making music, that’s active, probably Radiohead. I’ve never seen them live though, I’d love to see them.
Favourite book! Fuck, I’ve barely been reading at all lately. I don’t have one book I go back to. What have I got down here, I do love…I’m worried I’m going to offend you. You know what’s great actually, anything by Cormac McCarthy. He is pretty brutal, but I love his shit.
Ahhh, don’t, don’t.
Do you watch Harry Potter?
No, well I might have seen one on a plane or something. But I’ve never read the books. I don’t know much about it. When people start talking about fucking Voldemort and Hogwarts, I’m never really sure what they’re talking about.
Ah, I was going to ask you what your favourite Harry Potter movie is, but clearly you’re not into it!
It’s not that I’m not into it, I just haven’t done it. It’s not I’m against it, it sounds awesome and really good and lots of people seem to like it. I tell you what I don’t like. Fucking Star Wars, what the fuck is with that shit! I’m over it.
Honestly, I’ve never seen one.
Not even the old ones?
I like the old ones but the new ones are fucked. I’ve actually boycotted Star Wars, I don’t watch them. Everyone talks about them but I just ignore them. You know what’s a great movie, The Deer Hunter. That’s a fucking awesome movie, an oldie but a goodie. Favourite movie? Yeah I don’t know, that’s a cracker though.
City or country?
City or country? Ah, mate. I mean, at the risk of sounding overly patriotic, or something, I actually think Melbourne, where I live, is a great city to live in. It’s great for music, it’s big but not too big, it’s got everything you could want. It’s my home so from that perspective it’s my favourite. But the more you go away from home, the more time I spend away from home, I realise how lucky I am.
I lived over in Berlin for a year and a half and it was wonderful and awesome. I had a great time most of the time but I came back home and thought I’m so lucky to be here for so many reasons. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect because nothing ever is. There’s things that could be done to improve Melbourne and more broadly improve Australia in all sorts of ways.
It’s funny, we just had Australia Day and it makes me feel so uncomfortable that day, for so many different reasons and it’s such a complex thing. So I find it hard. I actually worked on Australia Day so it sort of passed me by, I was very conscious about all the various issues being spoken about on that day on social media and the marches that were happening.
There was a big one in Melbourne. I find it very hard to be proud of that day. But on the other side of that, I also feel we are lucky to live in this place. We are lucky in many ways and again that’s not to say it’s perfect, there’s a lot of things to be done and can be done to improve it, but we are lucky.
We have been to places like London and toured in the Netherlands which is fucking beautiful, a wonderful place. We love touring there and love playing shows there and being there. It’s great fun going to Germany and the UK is always fun, but coming back home and when I arrive home I realise we are so lucky to be here.
I’m from Melbourne and I tend to agree. It’s funny, when I was writing my questions I was considering asking you about Australia Day because so many musicians are taking it upon themselves to drive that social change because the politicians don’t seem to be doing it. But I didn’t want to sound too political!
My feelings about it are complex because it’s possible to be in a grey zone. I think we do have a culture and a society here that globally in terms of its history is quite good. We’ve got a lot of citizens from all around the world but we also have a really dark fucking history. And that in itself is really complicated too.
So I think we should probably make effort to be aware of that and conscious of that and where possible right the wrongs from history, but at the same time realise we’ve set up a society here that’s pretty good. We can do better and we constantly are.
Even in the recent past, when I watch movies from the 90s, and movies are always a great barometer for where a culture is at, I watch some of these movies from the 90s and I’m shocked at how sexist some of these movies are, and how racist they can be. And you know what it’s one of these things where you’re a frog in water, I don’t even know if it’s true or if it’s just a proverb. But if you put a frog in water and you boil the water they don’t notice it. But if you put them in boiling water they jump out. It’s that kind of thing where we’re so immersed in our culture we don’t notice the good thing that are happening.
It’s like good health, you don’t notice it. And so there are good things we are coming a long way but there’s still a long way to go.
It’s about awareness really.
Yeah, it’s awareness and I think it’s raising. The other big thing on Australia Day, or should I just call it January the 26th, of course, is the Hottest 100, for example, which is another interesting one because there’s artists who get in the Hottest 100 and celebrate that but on the back of it go shit, well I shouldn’t be celebrating that. There’s other historical and very powerful things that happened too that’s bigger than any of this shit.
So I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with that too and I know Triple J are very conscious of it. So, who knows, it’s just really interesting and I have a lot of discussions about it. I was working on that day with another artist and her band and we were talking about it a lot actually. There’s a lot of different points of view. In another way we are lucky we can even express that point of view, we can say basically whatever we want and that in itself is a really great thing. I don’t know what the answer is to any of this stuff, but the idea of celebrating something on the 26th feels very strange to me.
I’m a first generation Australian, by the way. My parents are migrants, admittedly from the UK, but they’re migrants and I’ve always felt this caucus connection to the country as well. Anyway, hope that there’s something in there that’s not going to get me abused online!
I’m sure it won’t! Well, I better let you go, thanks a lot for the chat Oscar, good luck for the record.
No worries. Thanks a lot for your time, I appreciate it mate!
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- Sean Wales