Brian Borcherdt

Brian Borcherdt
Halifax’s Brian Borcherdt is both a singer and songwriter, as well as being the leader of one of Canada’s most interesting and dynamic electronic-based instrumental bands, Holy Fuck. After forming some four years ago, Holy Fuck have gained acclaim for their exhilarating live show and their most recent album, LP, was nominated for the 2008 Polaris Muisc Prize. In between touring across the world over the last year, Borcherdt stopped by his friend Jose Contrera’s house to record a barebones, folk-y solo record entitled Coyotes, which is an alluring and stark expression of introspective isolation. He spoke with Exclaim! about this new record and gave us the latest news on Holy Fuck as well.

Brian, for long-time fans of your solo work, Coyotes won’t be a surprise necessarily but, given your hectic touring schedule with Holy Fuck, what exactly prompted you to sit down and record these songs?
Oh God, I don’t know. I guess I’m always recording and writing, I’m just not very successful at finishing things. There wasn’t any deliberate "I’m gonna start something and release it at this point in time." It just happens to be one of the few things I’ve started in the last five years that I was able to finish for one reason or another. It’s natural that I’d want to release it and it’s difficult to figure out when would be an ideal time to do that. I am still busy with Holy Fuck so it just seemed like, "Well, I’d better release it now or it might never come out."

So, you’re constantly recording this kind of material?
Yeah, as much as I can, I’m constantly conceptualizing the idea of new songs being recorded or new Holy Fuck material. With Holy Fuck, we get into the studio as often as we can but, again, we’re really busy and so a lot of that doesn’t get finished. And then around that, when I have time off, I try to chip away at things that I’ve been working on solo; things that I’ve started before Holy Fuck got really busy and things like that.

Would you say this is any kind of therapeutic reaction to playing the raucous music of Holy Fuck almost every night?
Possibly. I mean it’s therapeutic for any and everything that’s gone on in my life. Before Holy Fuck, I think the things I was writing were very similar. As I get older and do it more, hopefully I hone in on something unique or altogether my own but, then again, my idea of that changes over time. Certainly, other things you have going on will dictate how you want to grow or possibly grow away from it. It’s hard to explain. I think the record I put out now is cool because it’s different than Holy Fuck but I think it would’ve come out that way any way.

As I said earlier, the songs on Coyotes bear a particular fragile isolation and that’s a sonic aesthetic, which emerged in the work of your older band, the Remains of Brian Borcherdt too. They’re such outwardly unique sounds and I imagine they must affect you personally in different ways; how would you articulate the different sense of artistic release or fulfillment you get from playing folk and rock music versus the charge of Holy Fuck?
I dunno, geez, I guess I just feel incredibly lucky to be able to do either but I think they both come from the same place — sort of a sonic celebration but maybe it’s just two different kinds of parties. One of the things that inspires me most is time or place and time or the raw elements of frequency. Like, what is wavelength and what is time? And how does music age and age with the listener and what is the listener’s relationship with that music and those frequencies. With Holy Fuck, from the beginning it was very much an experiment with time. Like, let’s see what we can do if we spontaneously try to create something out of very compromising circumstances and imitate something but hopefully find a moment in time that’s different than what other people are doing because it’s not really reflecting upon any current aesthetic or ideal of that era. It’s hard to explain but I guess I hoped that by using compromising equipment like Casios and dollar-store keyboards to make music, which, because they’re beyond my capacity to influence them because I can’t really make them sound the way I way I want them to, hopefully that compromised aesthetic will be unique and stick out. That’s one way to think about time and also these micro-second loops going over and over and how you wrap your head around that. For my solo stuff, it’s different. I wanna sing about what’s inside my head or what I’m going through but also still trying to labour out the rhythm a little bit and try to make it a little downtrodden and not bring in the big drums and bass that the audience might expect. You’re still playing with people’s expectations, which is kinda cool and what has is inspired me about music I guess.

Are there particular artists who’ve influenced the sombre, lo-fi approach you took to writing and recording Coyotes?
No, not really. Just as you called me, I was listening to a Melvins record I haven’t heard since I was 20. In my more impressionable years, I definitely got freaked out by bands that were kinda toying with their audience a little bit and playing with their expectations, whether by withholding snare hits right when you think they’re coming or letting feedback notes hang extra long. You really start thinking about compromise more and how, in the end, you’d love it much more if you had to make an active decision, as to whether or not you liked it. It wasn’t just some ear candy that came and went and went right through you like water and you said you loved it but, a year later, you forgot about it. You want something to have some kind of sharp edge or that digs into your intestine that will never be fully digested and will never leave you. I guess I’m confusing myself even because I’m thinking about Holy Fuck and my solo stuff. I don’t really overthink either of them. I’m overthinking this interview right now but I don’t think my music gets overthought. I think you’re catching me right at the end of a loop of mental thought on the subject but hopefully, at the end of the day, all of these things you think about or philosophies — you don’t wear them on your sleeve and they just become subtle things that add to the inspiration of what you’re doing. They become second-nature and hopefully make you something different from everyone else.

Holy Fuck was in the news just prior to the Canadian Federal Election because the Conservative government specifically cited the band as an example, or rather a scapegoat, for their desire to reassess and cut arts funding in Canada. Their argument was based on the band’s name being offensive and embarrassing for our country. Now that some time has passed and a very small majority of Canadians have spoken with their votes, what do you make of this whole controversy?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s just really frustrating. I mean we all know that politicians will lie to sort of swing something in their favour and divert people’s attention and they want to create hot topics to distract people from what’s really going on. It’s just weird when you get pulled into it somehow, which is what happened to us. We were busy touring in Europe, working hard as we always have and of course, doing it all without government support. We’ve gotten very little over the years; I’ve always suspected it was because of the name. But whatever, we’re hard working and we’re gonna get through it; musicians are gonna make music whether we get grants or not. It’s helpful and, in the end, it helps get your music out into the world and give Canada an identity because, without that, everyone’s gonna call us "America junior" and not think about it too much. So it’s just silly but the fact that they want to divert those funds to the Olympics and stuff, they were gonna do that any way. Like you said, we’re just scapegoats. I just get frustrated when people actually believe it. Like someone will say, "Well, what if I don’t want my money to go towards the arts or bands with ‘fuck’ in their name? I’d rather see it to go into health care." Well yeah, you’ve got a good point but guess what: it’s not fucking going into health care. It’s going towards the Olympics and a whole bunch of other bullshit topics. So, if people really opened up the files and really saw how their tax dollars are spent, it’s not so clear, but it’s just making it seem that way. Like, "We’re gonna protect Canada’s identity by barring out f-words and obscenities." Well, maybe that’s part of our identity — the identity of a different generation but a generation that still counts and is part of this country.

Do you think this attention helped or hindered your band in any particular way?
I don’t think it’s necessarily helped but time will tell. I think more people know about us now, which is good [laughs]. I don’t know. We’re just trying our hardest to do what we’re doing for the sake of the music so maybe it’ll help even more people know the name any way.

Holy Fuck have been touring the world non-stop and you’ve got shows booked in Europe and Australia until the end of the year. I also see that, in between that, you’re touring Canada with Martha Wainwright on your own. You’ve been working so hard; is there any break in your future?
There are little breaks but that’s all I really want; a couple days off, here and there, between shows. I’m not the type of person who wants to sit in my apartment in Toronto and watch TV. I’d rather spend that time working. That is one of the things that suffers for me; I don’t spend as much time recording and working as I’d like to. But what I have been able to do is still find time here and there to go to exciting places and go back to my parents’ house in Nova Scotia and walk in the woods and clear my head. That stuff is very important to me. We’re going to Australia and New Zealand soon and I think I’m gonna stick around for another couple of days. I’m not sure what I’ll do but I’m gonna do something in New Zealand and that’s really exciting for me. That’s worth more to me than having time off. That’s time off in a different way; it’ll be a chance to go somewhere beautiful with my camera and go for a hike or something. That’s all I really want.

Wow, here I was worried about you. That sounds great man.
Yeah, I’m finding time within it. As long as I have a guitar handy… actually, that’s the tough thing about Holy Fuck. Travelling as we do, we don’t have a lot of extra room to bring anything that isn’t specific for the live show so I don’t have a guitar with me. I miss that so I’m trying to find a way to do that.

Any other recording or musical projects scheduled that we should know about?
Well, I have a handful of stuff that I’ve started over the course of the last five years or so. It’s 90 percent done but I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with it when I’m done. The current plan, and that might change, is to put it online for free. Some of it has drums and bass, some of it is home demos and I hope to make them sound as good as possible so I don’t feel insecure about letting people download them But yeah, who knows? That works well for me because it doesn’t take time away from my schedule with Holy Fuck. Something like that would be fun. Holy Fuck has started recording but have had no time to finish anything. We have two weeks off coming up and we’ll try to finish off the record then. If not, it’ll be a project for January and hopefully we’ll have it out for the spring.