By Dimitri NasrallahWhen Holy Fuck first broke into the spotlight in 2005, they had about them the infectious energy of a group of guys who’d finally had enough of making music in the expected fashion, and the kind of irreverent name that made people scoff or pay attention. Either way, you wanted to know more. They were ballsy enough not to bother with songs; word had it they kept no set-lists and never rehearsed. They simply showed up, got a feel for the crowd, and went nuts. To add fuel to flames, Holy Fuck featured an unlikely cast of characters. Two relative unknowns fronted the group: Brian Borcherdt, a late-period By Divine Right sideman, and Graham Walsh, a hitherto unknown sound engineer from Hamilton. Together, they played two tables’ worth of junkyard oddities, film projectors and keyboards that could have been pilfered from the garbage bin of a Toys R Us. This in itself wasn’t so bizarre in a city where niche scenes boiling up from apartment parties and art galleries were busy hosting shows by bands enthralled with rediscovering all manner of sonic gadgets from their formative years. But how had they scored a backing band from a Can-rock wet dream, and what had they done to resuscitate these mainstays and make them sound so revitalised again? As a Holy Fucker, drummer Glenn Milchem (on loan from Blue Rodeo) sounded abrasive and pent up. He pounded the kit as if he’d been waiting nearly two decades to offer up something other than a country-rock backbeat. Most music fans already knew that Kevin Lynn, bassist for King Cobb Steelie, had a taste for the abstract and dubby Bill Laswell approach to rhythm. And yet here he was, gigging around with these 20-somethings, finally out of the familiar echo chamber and on fire with unpredictability.What did these guys all have in common? Well, for one thing, they were all tired of playing scripted roles in bands that were tied down to a traditional trajectory of honing songs and meticulously reworking individual contributions. They were all looking for a refreshing outlet, some excitement. According to Borcherdt, "we sorta started this to be a bit renegade, to just go out and have some fun. Let’s learn from our past mistakes of playing in more contrived rock bands, let’s try to be something unique and make some sounds that are a bit alien to what people have already heard. Let’s embrace the chaos. Let’s just make some noise.”Make some noise they did.
Holy Fuck began in 2004 as a name on an application form. Borcherdt, an East coast transplant who’d moved to Toronto in 1999, was the man filling out the paperwork. At the time, the name was a bedroom invention siphoned off a mound of junkyard electronics, which he occasionally lugged out of his bedroom to perform solo as the Remains of Brian Borcherdt. "It was more of a gestation than a project then,” Borcherdt says. "It was a funny name, and it made people look twice.” People looking twice included the festival bookers who received Borcherdt’s applications. In early 2005, one of his application forms was finally accepted by North By Northeast. Then came a second acceptance: CMJ, one of the biggest new-music showcases on the continent. Borcherdt played those gigs alone, only to find that he got lost in the shuffle as a solo electronics act at a crowded music showcase. Still, it wasn’t a half-bad start, and it led to a third Holy Fuck gig at Pop Montreal. "Brian had already booked the show at Pop Montreal, and so he got a bunch of his buddies to come play,” says Graham Walsh. Those buddies came in from various connections — Walsh arrived through Dylan Hudeckie, a mutual friend in By Divine Right, who came along to play bass. Another friend by the name of Johnny played drums. It shouldn’t have worked. The band was pieced together on the fly, and they were lucky enough to nail something workable on the first go. And that, as Walsh puts it, "was Day One for Holy Fuck.” Day One indeed. What happened at Pop Montreal was the stuff that most musicians’ dreams are made of. The band not only got noticed at the festival, but they were also singled out and catapulted to the top of a huge heap of new bands vying for attention. Beans, the former the Anti-Pop Consortium MC, happened to catch Holy Fuck’s set and was blown away by the band’s abrasive groove. After the gig, he invited Holy Fuck to join him on tour as his backing band. There were still a few kinks to iron out before that tour happened. For one thing, the whole "band” thing was still up in the air; their rhythm section had other commitments. The line-up finally gelled when Holy Fuck landed Kevin Lynn, who worked with Borcherdt at the music distributor Outside Music, joined on bass; Glenn Milchem arrived a bit later through Lynn. With that configuration in place, Holy Fuck began gigging around more regularly. They also went into the studio, belted out an album in much the same way they approached live shows, and captured something of that live energy. "For one reason or another, festivals kept accepting our applications and giving us gigs,” says Borcherdt. "Pretty much all of our first shows were festivals.” Within six months, the band was playing Coachella with Beans, to audiences tens of thousands strong. The Beans influence on the development and notoriety of Holy Fuck provided an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His stamp of approval brought the upstarts the kind of attention no record company could garner. "That was pretty unheard of, and pretty exciting because there weren’t really a lot of expectations from us at that point,” Borcherdt concedes. Things began to skyrocket from there, and inevitably expectations began to swarm around Holy Fuck. Toronto weekly Eye dubbed them "Toronto’s evil super-group”; it proved to be attractive shorthand for music journalists around the globe. And around the globe they went, playing Glastonbury, CMJ, South by Southwest, All Tomorrow’s Parties, touring with !!!, Mouse on Mars and Buck 65. "I think the early excitement around the band had to do with people picking up on that initial energy,” Borcherdt says. "We got a lot of attention right away, but at the same time I didn’t know why. I was hoping it was for the right reasons. We were still blank enough a slate so that people could’ve brought what they wanted to it.” Call them lucky. Holy Fuck’s beginnings were filled with exceptionally good fortune, and the band had the sense to know when to capitalise on all the right opportunities. That they kept getting such chances offered to them is a narrative as unscripted as their live shows. But was this unmitigated streak of luck too volatile to last? Unfortunately, it usually is. As Borcherdt explains, "People came out and enjoyed what we did, something about it grabbed them, but I think the next stage was a bit of a learning process for us.”