A good film soundtrack hangs in the background, carried along by the film’s momentum, giving way to dialogue or standing in its place as the narrative requires, but without intruding into the viewer’s consciousness.
David Holmes is like that soundtrack; releasing album after album of unusual, thoughtful music over 15 years that swing between ambient soundscapes, clattering breaks, techno and jazz, he still remains a background figure, known more among producers and studios than the record-buying public.
Holmes, 41, is the youngest of ten children born and raised in Belfast, giving him, he says, the “brass neck” to propel him through his career. Belfast in the 1970s was short on fun and long on Troubles, and while the paramilitaries warred on the streets outside, young David spent his days under curfew watching films, unwittingly sowing the seeds of what would become his signature musical style.
Holmes says: “It was purely accidental. Andrew Weatherall once told me if you’re going to go into the studio try and find your own sound. As a DJ I used to spin soundtracks over the top of my sets, and that gave me the idea – it just became my thing.”
Playing rhythm and blues records in nightclubs as a teenager, Holmes found his musical interests abruptly altered in the late 80s. “Like millions of other people, I got completely obsessed with the acid house revolution. So while I was always buying different music – soundtracks, country, rock and roll – my next obsession became electronic music,” he says.
“And that in itself opened me up to primitive electronic music, library music, musique concrete – all this electronic music that existed long before acid house.”
His first release to overtly sample cinema was DeNiro, (under the moniker The Disco Evangelists), intertwining themes from Apocalypse Now, Once Upon A Time In The West and Blade Runner.
This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats, his first full length album in 1995, is a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack in search of a film, from the dark foreboding intro No Man’s Land – sounding every bit the backdrop to an opening scene – through acid techno, fractured funk, and breathy ambience.
For his 1997 follow up Let’s Get Killed Holmes, instead of sampling films directly, Holmes used recordings he had made as a mere teenager – that brass neck again – of street people in New York, splicing together captured dialogue and drawing on his early Mod and soul influences.
Traipsing through the underbelly of New York City as a teenager had been “an enormous trip”, Holmes recalls. “We were recording in the wee hours, under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. I remember consciously just trying to focus on pressing the record button.
“The whole thing was like Fear and Loathing in New York. The experience of making those tapes is the one I’ll take to my grave – it was such an adventure.”
Many of the titles come from the NYC experience too – Let’s Get Killed was a phrase that readily came to mind walking through the Bronx at night. Holmes says: “Just after that, we found sprayed on wall in fresh paint ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’. To be honest I began to freak out a little.”
A warm and upbeat album, it became Holmes biggest hit, chiming well as it did with the late 90s ‘big beat’ sound of the time. A third album, Bow Down To The Exit Sign, was also well received.
There is a certain irony Holmes’ music’s affinity for cinema has become what he’s better known for, providing soundtracks and compositions for a dozen films. Steve McQueen’s film about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, Hunger, was one that he sought out.
“There’s been more than a fair share of glamorised films made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I really wanted one to do it right. I knew McQueen would. He made a film about an IRA icon without turning it into a pro-IRA film, and in a way that made it relevant to what’s going on in Abu Grahib and Guantanamo. It’s a great, great film.”
Holmes has scored for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, including Ocean’s 11 and its sequels and most recently The Girlfriend Experience, featuring the first major crossover role for adult star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort.
“I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a big fan of Sasha in her other job,” Holmes laughs. “She’s a really interesting character, a real 21st century porn star – a very smart girl.”
The Girlfriend Experience features on a retrospective of tracks from the last 15 years, The Dogs Are Parading, which also includes tracks from his most recent original album, The Holy Pictures – made in 2008 after the deaths of his parents.
It is an album full of tender moments, and for the first time, Holmes steps out from behind the shield of cinematic themes and adds his voice to the mix, sounding not a million miles from Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain.
“I’d toyed with the idea of singing in the past but it was only after I lost both parents I felt I had something important to say,” he says. “I wasn’t really intending to make such a personal album, it just happened. I felt no one else could’ve sung those lyrics so every day when my family went to school and record them myself. It was a very cathartic experience.”
A man with many strings to his bow, Holmes latest project is not a film score, but a film – Good Vibrations, co-produced with Michael Winterbottom, looks at the life of Terri Hooley, a colourful Belfast character and his titular record shop on the city’s most dangerous street. “He discovered The Undertones and sold the rights to Teenage Kicks for £500 and a signed photo of the Shangri-Las – he never got the photo,” Holmes chuckles. “I’ve been buying records off him since I was a boy, and all my friends for 20 years are involved in the film. We’ve been talking about making it for years – it’s a real Belfast production.”
But for all his Belfast history, the future for Holmes lies in LA, where he’s moving with his wife and five-year-old daughter. “I don’t want to hit 50 and never have lived anywhere but Belfast,” he muses. “And just think of the weather!”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]