DAVID Holmes is working on the soundtrack to a film called I Am Belfast — a lofty title for sure, but it’s one that could’ve summed him up in his hometown’s music circles over the past 20 years.
The DJ, producer and composer has always been a bit of a curator and taste-maker in the city, since his early days spinning records as a kid gatecrashing the mod scene. He helped guide wide-eyed early ravers through the late ’80s and early ’90s by running underground club Sugarsweet — which famously inspired Orbital to write their anthem Belfast after a gig at the club that’s since been written into myth. He even jumped the gun by opening hip coffee shop Mogwai in the ’90s before we had any real coffee shops — or hipsters for that matter.
His ’90s albums This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats and Let’s Get Killed had a cinematic montage quality that earned him a call-up to soundtrack Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, which led to the Oceans series and his reputation as the go-to man to give Hollywood flicks some underground kudos.
Holmes (43) also helped chronicle the ’70s Belfast punk scene with the 2012 movie Good Vibrations, released on his Canderblinks production company. The chaotic tale of label and record shop boss Terri Hooley was a nostalgia trip down Holmes’ own memory lane — as the North’s ‘Godfather of Punk’ gave the young fan a leg-up in his early days of collecting vinyl. “I’ve been buying records in Good Vibes since I was 11,” Holmes tells me over the phone. I used to go and harass him, he used to give me stuff all the time.
“I think the movie really re-established Terri. But you know what, sometimes I wonder if he’s taking advantage a bit. In terms of, he’s got so many people who are aware of his shop, who come to the shop, and then you look at something like Sick Records and how much business they’re doing. Terri would usually be the biggest supporter of that record shop. But I almost thought that post Good Vibrations it was a great opportunity for terri to inject a lot of new life into the shop. But you know what, Terri is a living Belfast legend, I have a lot to thank him for. He gave me more records than I actually bought.”
I Am Belfast sees Holmes crashing back to the present with fellow home boy Mark Cousins, the director, film critic and scholar. I catch Holmes as he’s getting ready to present the “work in progress” with Cousins at the Belfast Film Festival. The film is billed as a “unique film about a 10,000-year-old woman who is the city” — a surreal premise that Holmes tries to explain: “I think the 10,000-year-old-lady is Mark in many ways. It’s a big chunk of who he is, how he’s travelled, what he’s learned. It’s him returning to Belfast and falling for the city again.”
“I grew up in belfast in the 80s and 90s, and what I’m afraid of Belfast becoming is just another generic city”
The music is being composed while Cousins shoots, so it sounds like a real collaboration, even if Holmes plays the modesty card: “I’m so fucking lucky to be working with him… he’s one of my true heroes from Belfast, a great intellect and so passionate. Compared to him, my brain is a lump of emmental cheese.”
So far, the duo’s methods have been poring over footage and sound libraries over “several bottles of wine” in Holmer’s studio, scrolling and looping until collages click.
“It’s been abstract and primitive and weird. We’re trying to build up a colour palette in a way,” he says.“We’re looking at it from the point of view that the minute it sounds like a film score or it feels Irish or cliched it’s like, ‘fuck that, get rid of that, what does this distortion sound like?’”
Aside from “getting inside the mind of Cousins”, Holmes is fired up about his latest project Unloved, a collaboration with composer Keefus Green and singer Jade Vincent. The trio have two tracks on Soundcloud but Holmes points out: “We’ve got so much music. The tracks on Soundcloud are kinda dreamy and weird and cinematic. But our first single When a Woman Is Around, it’s more like Wrecking Crew, Phil Spectre, The Shangri-Las.”
He emailed us a seven-track sampler as long as we didn’t “give it to every Tom, Dick and Harry”, but we can reveal that it’s a big departure from his previous album, 2008’s The Holy Pictures, an intensely personal document that touches on growing up and the passing of his parents. It’s also a world away from the muddy soul and dub poetry of the Free Association or his fuzzy electronic production work with Primal Scream. Unloved has a twangy, droney swagger, conjuring up The Ronettes, The Jesus and Mary Chain or Stereolab at their most woozily psychedelic, full of sultry sloganeering from Jade. They’re the kind of songs that could frame a Tarantino movie scene and end up becoming a dancefloor staple in 20 years. Holmes says they’ll “keep on dripping it out in 7-inches, freebies and then put a record out”.
At the time of interview, Holmes was getting set for a DJ set in Kilkenny at the Set Theatre, and he promised to play some Unloved, adding that When a Woman is Around “just sounds brilliant in a club”. Asked what else he has in his bag, he says: “I’m playing high-energy rock ’n’ roll, ’60s soul, weird psych, a lot of guitar-based dancefloor music, droney things, some punk.” He pauses for a bit and says, laughing: “I mean, it’s probably gonna go down like a shite on a mantelpiece!”
When he finds out the Set Theatre is an ornate old-style concert hall he pipes up: “Ah brilliant! I’ll be bringing loads of ’50s rock ’n’ roll then. I’m really looking forward to it now, those venues make such a difference when you’re playing older music. Given the strangest piece of music in the right venue, people listen to it in a different way.”
He adds: “I wanna play records that make people go, ‘What the fuck’s this?’ or, ‘What’s that movie?’ You know, tuning in to their ears rather than their dancing skills. I’d rather go out and play music that changes the atmosphere of a room just by its weirdness or its cinematic quality or the fact that it’s an esoteric piece of music.”
Confounding expectations seems to be Holmes’ biggest kick. He admits he’s been “turning down loads of offers to DJ”, but gives a tantalising scrap of info to Irish clubbers crying out for a new haunt: “Belfast is going through a really strange transition. I can’t figure out whether it’s my age or if Belfast is changing for the worse. I grew up in belfast in the 80s and 90s, and what I’m afraid of Belfast becoming is just another generic city. I always thought belfast had this incredible edge that other cities didn’t have, and I do realise that a big part of that was to do with what was actually happening in Belfast politically and the Troubles.
“Listen, nobody wants to see a return to those days, but I don’t wanna see Belfast turn into this generic normal city that you could find anywhere In the British Isles and Ireland. I’ve been away from Belfast, I haven’t really been DJing. I’m thinking about starting up another little club night in Belfast that just plays weird records and shows weird films. That’s been missing in my life… I feel like I’m too old to make a load of 20-year-olds fuckin dance.”
Originally published in The Star