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.”
Three years after its bedroom beginnings, Holy Fuck is a textbook case of what happens to a young band with few options but to ride the hype they’ve attracted, only to end up getting swallowed by it. The band is no longer the blank slate of potential they once were, and the learning process has been riddled with line-up changes that never went away and the need to hold it all together under an unforgiving spotlight.
Though their reasons for forming may have begun under the ethos of "no rehearsal, no songwriting, all-improv,” the trappings of nearly instantaneous notoriety have led to demands they cannot contain. Continuous touring has cost them numerous rhythm sections, and a curious and often fickle audience of trend-spotters broached them with too-high expectations.
These days, Holy Fuck’s chief concern is adapting their spontaneity to the rigours of the long haul. "We hit a wall when we started playing larger venues,” Walsh says. "I remember we were opening up for Metric at the Kool Haus, and it was sold out. That was a turning point, I remember, where we began to talk about maybe writing down some things or figuring out an order to what we’re doing. So we started doing set lists. We’ve been refining our set and trying to put the best show across.”
According to Borcherdt, recording in a studio has posed unforeseen issues as well. All in all, restricting the essence of Holy Fuck’s live strengths to the studio experience has not gone as smoothly as he would have liked. "It shouldn’t be an issue, but it is. When we’re in a studio, we play the same as we would on stage. We gather together in a huddle, and we’re all facing each other. We do what we can to make it more sonically suitable for a studio, meaning we have to wear headphones and stuff like that. The two hardest things I guess are, one, we’re playing through headphones so it just sounds fucked up and, two, there’s no audience there to feed off of, which is a big part of what we do.”
Borcherdt is convinced the band has grown with each hurdle it has faced. "I think we’ve certainly gotten better along the way. In the beginning we sort of like a freak show. It was all chaotic, and all very random, and we’d just make up stuff on the spot. We’ve basically been touring non-stop for the last couple years, since the release of our first self-released album, and we’ve come up with something that can vaguely be defined as song. So now that the music takes more of a form, it’s easier to commit to it in the studio.”
The music may make for easier commitments in a studio, but that doesn’t mean the recording of their new album, simply titled LP, didn’t pose other problems for Holy Fuck. Between their rigorous international touring schedule and the complications of technology, it’s a testament to the band’s will that the album got finished at all.
"It took us a while,” Borcherdt admits. "We had a lot of problems getting to it. We had a couple hard drives go down, so it seems like every time we got a good chunk of material going, it would fall apart and we’d lose our momentum. Fortunately we didn’t lose any of the real girth of it. We finally had six tracks that we put out as a self-released, limited edition EP, and so we toured with that earlier this year. Then we finished up another four songs and added them on to make the full album. So not a whole lot of it is new; it’s stuff we’ve been touring and playing for a long time.”
Two years after they rode a tall wave of hype into the spotlight, the core of Holy Fuck (Borcherdt and Walsh) consider themselves a seasoned, if weather-beaten, band. Many of their issues with membership and musical direction amount to the birthing pains many new bands undergo. Gone are the makings of "Toronto’s evil super-group.” Kevin Lynn has returned to his day-job at Outside Music, Glenn Milchem has returned to duties in Blue Rodeo and other notable members have filled their spots and moved on as well: Matt Schulz of Enon, Loel Campbell and Mike Bigelow of Wintersleep.
"It’s been a slow evolution for us,” Borcherdt concedes, noting that the personnel transitions were never part of the plan. "I want it be a real band. I think there’s something more mysterious about a band.”
But this is a band that essentially got popular before they were even a band, and never had the opportunity to be mysterious.
At the time of this interview, the members of Holy Fuck are doing something they haven’t had much chance to do in recent years: they’re sitting on their hands. It’s early October and their sophomore album, LP, will drop in just over two weeks’ time. There’s really not much for them to do as they wait for the promotional machinery to kick into motion.
LP will be the first album Holy Fuck haven’t released themselves; the Young Turks label will release the album in North America, while indie powerhouse XL will handle the band in the UK. It’s a major step up in terms of the band’s visibility, and it should result in a lot of attention for their new album.
At nine songs and 37 minutes, LP is barely even that. Not only is it a brief statement of intent, but it also showcases a young band that has already evolved away from their much-heralded beginnings. If Holy Fuck circa 2007 is more firmly a real band, it comes at the expense of the spazzy electronic-improv energy rush they debuted mid-decade. These days, Borcherdt and Walsh have filled out the group with a rhythm section consisting of Matt McQuade and Brad Kilpatrick, and this configuration is more interested in channelling sustained, focused rhythms, electronic overtones, and indecipherable wails into a forceful groove. It’s reminiscent of Krautrock, a groove that on LP sounds indebted especially to early ’70s pioneers Neu!, and also to the many post-rock bands of the ’90s who brought the motorik sound back into vogue.
"There’s not a lot of hype preceding us anymore, and that’s good,” Borcherdt says near the end of our interview. "We don’t really thrive in that realm.” With LP finally under their belts, Borcherdt, Walsh, McQuade, and Kilpatrick can finally move on from being the bright new hopefuls of the Canrock circuit. LP isn’t the most distinctive statement they could have registered, but it’s a necessary steppingstone. Given the pressures they’ve faced, it’s a wonder they’ve made it this far at all.
"The concept from the beginning was more a matter of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” says Borcherdt. "The concept was already there, but it took a while to settle into a groove. I’m glad, though, that it happened the way it did. I’d hate to be starting fresh right now. I feel like I’ve certainly learned a lot, but I think that wisdom would mean nothing if not for the spontaneity of all these events that happened at the beginning, and all the hilarious stories and ridiculous things we had to do.”
If LP hints at anything definitively, it’s that Holy Fuck is a more stable entity now than when it first hit the stage at Pop Montreal, and that Borcherdt and Walsh are of a different mindset than the band that belted out their first record. "I’m kinda glad it played out the way it did,” says Borcherdt, "because, otherwise, we wouldn’t have all these different recorded moments of everyone involved, which was what has made it so exciting. It’s over-rated, I think, trying to fit that typical image of a band on us.” And yet, with records and labels and tours and studios and songs, Holy Fuck has to contend with the trials of a typical band image. They’re still learning, they’re still changing, and they’re still — for all it’s worth — a different band every time out.