Talk Show Host: 014: Dead When I Found Her

For the latest in my series of interviews with artists I’ve been writing about in the last few years, I’m ecstatic to be able to bring you what became a lengthy and fascinating exchange with an artist I’ve been writing about for a good few years, since his debut arrived, and is about to release his third album.

Michael Holloway of Dead When I Found Her opens up about his new album, his inspirations, and thoughts on industrial music and how he sees it taking the style forward. It’s been about three years now since the release of Rag Doll Blues [RDB] (album of the year here in 2012). How have things in the world of Michael Holloway been since that release?

Dead When I Found Her: Not quite three years yet! RDB was released in October, so we’ve still got a few months before we hit that mark.

Honestly, I wanted to have a third album out much sooner, but due to reasons both creative and business-minded, that just didn’t happen. My projects always take longer to complete than I initially foresee, and then once I do finally get the work to the label, there is usually another 4 to 6 months before the thing is released, by which point it probably doesn’t feel very “new” to me personally. But that’s business for you.

“I wanted to write an album that was actually about death – or more specifically, about old age, and death as the next natural, albeit unpleasant, step in the course of one’s life.”

But on to your question: uh, good? I’m still balancing my creative life with DWIFH and other music projects alongside my weird 40-hour a week job, so there is still this continual strain of feeling like I’m not really doing 100% of what I was put on this planet to do – which is music, of course. But I also haven’t really bothered to take a lot of steps that would be necessary to change that (or at least attempt to change it). It’s lame to feel like you’re fighting time all the time, you know? Derrick Jensen said that the number one thing that convinced him our modern civilization is a total failure is that the majority of the people on this planet spend the majority of their life doing something they don’t want to do. We don’t ponder that fact as much as we should; when I just sit and reflect on that statement, it feels monumentally shocking. All this unquestionable value of life exists out there ideologically & spiritually, and yet our actual way of living doesn’t value how we spend that life at all.

But I’ll stop being such a downer: despite all that, I’ve been keeping very busy with various music projects – I’ve been doing compositional work for mobile games (see: Skullduggery mobile game by ClutchPlay Games) [Ed: it’s marvellous fun, too, that game] and I also took some time off from Industrial Music last summer to write a doom jazz album, so there’s that, too. It’s called Guilt Noir and I’ll probably release it through, just under my full name. My first Solo Album! Ha. It’s somber noir music for walking alone in the rain at night, or hanging out in the smoky corner of an underground bar. And it’s a total departure from DWIFH: the main instrumentation is Rhodes electric piano, plus baritone saxophone and trumpet, among other things – all played via meticulous live keyboard based performances of deeply multi-sampled instruments. One thing that I find notable about DWIFH material is the dense, intricate web of sound that is created. Does sourcing the samples and creating this kind of sound contribute to the longer interval between albums?

DWIFH: Actually, I think the wait between albums is 100% the result of my own increasingly high standards and general perfectionism. Sourcing the samples is fun, because it allows me to feel very productive while not actually working on any music, so I think having days that I just spend sampling, while arguably ‘slowing down’ the process, really just keeps me focused and motivated about the larger project as a whole.

As for the dense, layered approach: that’s the kind of music I’ve always gravitated toward the most strongly, so I think I just naturally work that way. I might be clinically incapable of writing a “stripped down” song, because every time I’ve tried, I always wind up layering in a dozen more elements and shifting the whole thing into a humid swamp of sound. Talking of samples, where on earth do you find some of them? Often I’m finding no point of reference to identify them (the only one I’ve ever been absolutely certain on was elements of Dark City in Curtains), but they work so wellwith the music – are they from your favourite films, or ones that just fitted the mood?

DWIFH: The samples actually aren’t as rare as you might think. Many of them are from David Cronenberg films – I tried to sample the movies of his that hadn’t already been hit hard by industrial bands (like Videodrome) so I mostly reach toward the beginning of his career. The movies The Brood and Rabid are sampled very heavily on RDB, and The Brood shows up again extensively on the new album (spoiler alert!). When the samples sound more old-fashioned, it’s either from this weird collection of Hammer-type movies that my roommate has on DVD, or just random stuff I find on the internet.

Occasionally I find stuff at or other random collections, and I won’t even know what the source is, though that’s not usually the case. And yeah, Cronenberg is still my favorite director. There was a clearly defined theme for Rag Doll Blues (which appeared to me to be based around childhood) – has there been a theme to define the forthcoming album, and if so, which came first – the general theme, or did the songs you wrote create the theme?

DWIFH: You’re right on the mark about RDB – it was about childhood, or more specifically, about memories of childhood and the frailty of those memories. Though it was explored pretty loosely; some songs have no connection to those themes, others are very directly about it. The new album, All The Way Down, is the most thematically-focused DWIFH album yet. It’s basically the opposite of RDB, because it explores elderly life, dying from natural causes or “old age,” and basically is me confronting all of my fears about that stage of life. The central question is: what if the last part of your life is the worst part of your life? And, from that: if your memory is failing (due to old age), and your body is failing (old age again), then it follows that your final days will be, in a sense, the only thing you actually know of life. You will exit life with that experience being the only thing you take with you. Which is a horrifying notion, and I wanted to explore it.

Furthermore, it occurred to me that while ‘death’ is generally the common theme among industrial, goth and metal albums, it’s usually not explored in a realistic way. Metal tends to turn it into a cartoon, goth music turns it into a romance, industrial tends to focus on either the militaristic/war side of it, or go the metal route toward cartoonish, horror imagery. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t feel particularly honest or grounded. I wanted to write an album that was actually about death – or more specifically, about old age, and death as the next natural, albeit unpleasant, step in the course of one’s life.

“You find new corridors of sound. You find new ways to use the wealth of resources in front of you to make it sing with bizarre and scary new sounds.” Did the relative success of Rag Doll Blues change your outlook in terms of the music that you write and release, and how you communicate with press and fans?

DWIFH: I don’t think so, really. The state of the project following RDB has felt like a natural continuation of how things started with Harm’s Way. I know the fan-base was substantially expanded with RDB, but my relationship with them feels more or less the same as before. I think that’s just the nature of this genre, and its relatively small size.

DWIFH is a pretty single-minded project, in that it exists specifically to bring more old-school industrial music into this world. The context is contemporary, but the style is deliberately old-fashioned. That plan, or MO really, hasn’t changed one bit. I’ve seen some comments verging on criticism, perhaps, about how other bands will drastically modernize their sound while still drawing from the past, whereas DWIFH more or less stays firmly in the past – and to me, that’s the whole point. I want this vein of music to be alive, to have new songs showing up regularly, all with the sound and feel and vibe of that particular niche and era. So the ‘success’ as it were of RDB just tells me that, hey, great, there are definitely still people out there who crave this sound, who want to keep hearing brand new songs that have “that sound” that I think most of us call “electro-industrial.” I know I still want to hear it, so that’s why I keep making it! I feel the same way toward other bands: as long as the songs are great, I don’t care if they don’t sound obviously modern or distinctly “next-generation” or whatever; usually that just means they’ll sound like something else entirely. You’ve been fairly open with your influences in the form of the various cover versions and re-interpretations of songs that you’ve released over the years (which have ranged from Skinny Puppy through to Prince and Phil Collins (!)). Did you grow up in a musical household, and was there a particular catalyst for you getting into music composition?

DWIFH: My father had dubbed tapes of Depeche Mode, Yello, and some electronic new age music in the house when I was a kid, and they definitely played a huge role in my attachment to electronic sounds at a very young age. That said, my household wasn’t particularly musical; in fact including nearly all of my extended family, I am somehow the only musician among the lot. There is a second or third cousin who plays classical piano, but otherwise, the Holloways are almost anti-musical. They don’t sing, they don’t play, in fact they tend to be the sort of people who don’t even listen to music much, let alone get excited about it. And then there’s me, for whom music is pretty much the center of the universe. Go figure! Aside from Skinny Puppy being an obvious industrial influence, what other industrial artists have you particularly admired or enjoyed listening to?

DWIFH: After Puppy I think the most influential artist for me is absolutely Mentallo & The Fixer. There is just so much musicality to Where Angels Fear to Tread and Burnt Beyond Recognition. There is an element of melodic progression and musical counterpoint going on there that is beyond a lot of other genre bands. I could listen to Radiant all day, it’s so melancholy and gorgeous.

Or a song like Mother or Harlots, it’s absolutely huge in compositional scale, but never feels bloated or overlong, each part plays a natural role in the full structure of the piece. They also did great stuff with movie samples, syncopated beats – all the trademarks of the best electro industrial.

After that… Solid State Logic by Haujobb is one of my favorite pieces ever, in general but also specifically from a compositional standpoint. It builds up and climaxes in such an organic way. Too much industrial music has a generic loop-based structure that you can predict the movement of after hearing just a few bars; songs like SSL defy that completely.

You’ll notice I’m mostly naming old stuff, but I guess that’s kind of the point. As for new, that Cardinal Noire album is really great, and came from out of nowhere. Stuff like that is exciting to me, firstly because I just love hearing it and feeling that vibe of course, but also because it makes me feel less isolated as a musician – here are other people clearly drawing from the same sources, feeling the same sort of ambitions and excitement that I feel about this genre, and feeling it today, not twenty years ago. Your music seems to elicit an emotional response that is far beyond either “liking” or “disliking” it. Would you say that “ensnaring” the listener and triggering such responses is the whole point of music – i.e. not allowing music to just be “aural wallpaper”, forcing the user to pay closer attention? And is this something that is more difficult nowadays in a world where music is supposedly more disposable than before?

DWIFH: Honestly I’m not sure I can speak for the type of reactions my music evokes in people – I think that’s up to them, it’s sort of out of my hands at that point, you know? I can see the response and reflect on it, but I can’t really say if it’s in line with what I anticipated, probably because I didn’t anticipate anything at all. Meaning, my internal response to the sound is the only voice I listen to, quite literally; if it moves me, great, maybe it will move somebody else, too. But that’s the only barometer I trust, so to speak.

Pop music has always been regarded as disposable, I think, but there will always be people who are interested in a deeper kind of relationship with recorded music – I don’t think that is changing. And I think this is still a genre where passionate artists will find passionate audiences, because they are operating on the opposite sides of the exact same wavelength. It’s a niche, but a rich one, even if (like anything) there is a superficial level to it as well. Even the worst Terror-banana EBM music is made passionately, and appeals to a certain type of passionate fanbase who really get off on hearing that kind of thing, for good or ill. I think DWIFH fans are probably people who engage in a strong attention to detail when it comes to experiencing music, rather than people who just want to shake their ass to a stomping beat or just want to associate with a creepy aesthetic. But I don’t know; again, I really just know what it means to me, and that seems, so far, to have wound up communicating with a bunch of people out there, too.

Thankfully! One thing I’ve found interesting is that unlike some of your peers, you have resolutely stayed away (thus far, anyway) from overt politics in your songs. Do you think politics should make it into industrial music, or is it just that your songwriting simply focuses on other areas?

DWIFH: I don’t have anything against a political approach to a project, I think it just hasn’t felt like “Me.” I’m interested in more internal, existential concerns, to sound rather pretentious about it. Aesthetically speaking, politically oriented music doesn’t offer me a whole lot. It feels almost non-aesthetic, in a way. “This is about that war” or “this is about corrupt politicians” – those themes don’t transport me to beautiful, scary places. And that’s precisely what my favorite music does, and what I want my music to do. Atmosphere is everything. More of a question from a slightly selfish point of view, really – any plans to come and play in Europe/the UK? (I appreciate that you’ve not played live a great deal over the years, comparatively)

DWIFH: It’s entirely a matter of what the opportunities are. Meaning, this isn’t a big enough project right now for me to launch a European tour myself. But, there are festivals, there are events – if the right event or person invited me to do something, then absolutely I’d be interested in doing it. There has been interest, for sure, with Germany in particular; but nothing that has managed to gel into a reality so far, sadly. The lyric “We build the future on the bones of the past” (from New Age of Reason) seems to me to sum up the ethos of what you do so well. Acknowledging one’s influences while still moving forward with new ideas. Where on earth do you go from here?

DWIFH: You find new corridors of sound. You find new ways to use the wealth of resources in front of you (I’m speaking of digital music technology) to make it sing with bizarre and scary new sounds. You find a concept outside the realm of music that you want to explore inside the realm of music – like my new album, exploring old age, the fear of being old and alone, forgotten by the world. Industrial music is the perfect medium for exploring those feelings and those fears, just as it was for exploring memory and childhood on RDB.

As for where to go… It’s funny, people will moan about how the genre isn’t going anywhere new, and then the next buzz band everyone’s raving about will be basically a total nostalgia act. Basically I try to not think about it. Stuff like Comaduster feels very “new,” and in an exciting way. Stuff like Youth Code feels much more rooted in the past, but also in an exciting way. I think maybe people, as consumers, don’t actually know what they want until something is right in front of them, appealing to them on whatever visceral level, and it could be just about anything really. But as an artist, cliché as it sounds, you just have to ignore the outside world and be true to your passions, and build the sound you want to hear. Somebody else probably wants to hear it, too.

For me, electro-industrial is a firm genre, like types of indie rock or folk music or jazz or whatever; we can keep mining it for new songs, new atmospheres to explore, new corridors to wander down and get lost in. People can bitch all they want about what sounds relevant or dated or if a genre is dead or alive; all I care about is writing a great song, a song that moves me. And usually it’s going to be a song with “that sound.” You know the one I mean.

The new album “All The Way Down” is out this autumn on Artoffact Records.

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