There’s nothing more pivotal within the field of rock music than a third album. Of course there’s seminal debuts, and more than a few incredible second offerings, but it’s album number three that boasts the power to really make or break a rock band.
Holy Holy are fully aware of this. Renowned for their dense sonics, vivid lyricism and unabashed chemistry, the songwriting partnership between Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson has so far seen them become one of the most acclaimed Australian duos of the decade. The band’s latest offering, My Own Pool Of Light, looks only to solidify Holy Holy’s stake in the Australian soundscape, showcasing a more experimental side of the band to emancipate exactly what being a ‘rock’ band in 2019 really means.
“We kind of said to ourselves early on that we wanted to not write the songs with the guitar in the hands,” says Oscar Dawson, producer of the duo and a prodigal guitarist in his own right. “Because it sort of just leads to similar kinds of motifs and ideas and chord shapes and whatnot. This time saw us starting more with drums, beats, keyboards - changing the entire vibe as opposed to the process of a song.”
Removing the guitar from the context of a rock band always tends to prickle up wary fans. However, My Own Pool Of Light doesn’t so much subtract guitars from the equation as it does evenly disperse them - every track seems to have just the right dollop of fretted mania to allow the other textures explored by the band to breathe. ‘Teach Me About Dying’ is driven by crunchy 8-bit drums from an old Casiotone keyboard, while ‘Faces’ warps vocals into a hypnotic rouse reminiscent of a sideline sporting chant.
“Taking the guitar out of my hands ended up meaning that I was writing a lot of melodies with my voice,” primary songwriter and vocalist Timothy Carroll elaborates. “There's like a bunch of songs on the record that use multitrack vocals that are then looped and effected to serve the purpose of a guitar riff, like ‘Faces’ or ‘Hatswing’.”
“I think there is a bit of us just trying to change what a song can be like on this album in the beginning in particular. Some of the songs bleed into the next, so there's parts of the songs that exist across multiple tracks, and I think that was sort of an influence from albums by Kendrick Lamar and other guys. Obviously we're not a hip hop band and this isn't a hip hop album, but there are some sort of sonic choices and a freedom that those kinds of artists really express. They can do anything. They're not sort of tied to this archetype of a ten track album. We were kind of excited about like trying to access some of that freedom.”
Not only did the band remove guitars from the songwriting process, but My Own Pool Of Light took Holy Holy even further out of their comfort zone to produce the record almost entirely by themselves. While the band did enlist the help of choice collaborators Andrei Eremin and Gab Strum (Japanese Wallpaper) on occasion, or hit the booth at Headgap with drummer Ryan Strathie when required to track drums or flesh out vocal takes, the duo took to recording the album in an array of settings to capture those giddy moments of spontaneity that really make a record great.
“We did this record all in the box,” Dawson explains. “Our first record we recorded a lot to tape, and our second record was mainly in the box, but very live, but this one was very much a digital experience, mainly on a laptop and our iMac in my studio. But we had the freedom to sometimes shoot a session over Andrei Eremin and he’d just shoot back ideas, or get Ryan to upload snippets of drums into a Dropbox folder and we just download them and chop them up.”
“We did some vocals in my office in Launceston, which is like not that soundproof at all, just like traffic going by and like a shitty mic that we just had lying around at home,” Carroll laughs. “And also we did some vocals out at my farm in a shed with a generator power - it’s not very hi-fi at all.”
While working in the box can present some restraints – a lack of hardware being an obvious obstacle – the prevalence of producers making billions from cracked software and left-field plugins. Dawson cites an unlikely influence in psy-trance as being one of the major sounds heard across the record.
“There’s some plugins we use which are actually like, really gross, but if you just work with them a little bit more and find a sound, you can pull some amazing sounds from them,” he explains. “There’s one plugin made by Infected Mushroom – they’re that Israeli psy-trance collective – called Manipulator and it’s actually the most amazing plugin!”
Lyrically, My Own Pool Of Light is peppered heavy-hitting narratives that promise to linger in your skull longer than you’d first think. The record exemplifies not only Carroll’s talent as a writer, but the duo’s ability to create soundscapes around his pen that complement, not compete, with the stories told.
“On this album I was like, ‘I need you to be a gatekeeper. I need you to not allow anything past that is weak lyrically,’” Carroll says of Dawson’s contributions to the record. “The other thing that we did a lot on this album is I would improvise really long extended sections across multiple takes, so sometimes we’d be like wading through maybe 40 minutes of improvised verses and pre-choruses and stuff, and then he (Dawson) would sit through them and find the sections. And so in doing so, he actually had a lot of input into what lyrics end up on the album.”
‘St. Petersburg’, a somber piano ballad with a creeping instrumental climax to bookend My Own Pool Of Light might just reflect this chemistry at its absolute purest. Carroll reveals that the song has long pestered the duo, patiently waiting for its moment like good songs do.
“I wrote that song when Oscar and I first started working together, back in 2011, and we produced a version from back then, and we also tried to record it on When The Storms Would Come, but it didn’t feel quite right and got shelved. Then on the Faces tour, I started soundchecking my vocals with it because it was something I could do myself, and we were like ‘Hey, this is pretty good!’,” Carroll says. “So like at the end of a session, one day we had a grand piano and we just like took a moment, Oscar figured out the chords and we just did like four lives takes of it with our drummer Ryan hitting record in the control room.”
“We weren't really sure if it was going to make sense on the album. Not to compare it, but it’s almost like that Radiohead song, ‘True Love Waits’, where it just floated around in their back catalogue. Our deep fans would definitely know it.”
As naff as it may be to slap a Radiohead comparison upon oneself, you can’t help but feel that Holy Holy just might be the right band to do so. Dawson nods his head in agreement.
“We actually love Radiohead and we know that there's some moments on the record that have a bit of that going on. So yeah, I'm fine with that.”