Holy Fuck: The Camp Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Electro-acoustic jams using toys, keyboards and other noisemaking objects with live bass & drums
File Next To: Hot Chip, Liars, LCD Soundsystem, Battles, Fuck Buttons
Playing: Camp Wavelength, Friday August 28 at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Get your ticket here!

Holy Fuck are back! After a hectic six-year tour schedule and the subsequent time off, a new album is nearly ready for release. Their show at Camp Wavelength will be the first in Toronto since 2013. Marissa Janes sat down with Brian Borcherdt to reflect on the past decade of Holy Fuck, from its humble beginnings with Wavelength to finally taking a break to write a record.

I interviewed you nine years ago, when I was studying at Emerson College in Boston. I’m going to touch back on a few of the things we discussed in 2006, as so much has happened between then and now. Holy Fuck started more than nine years ago, maybe about 11?

Yeah, probably about 11.

We’ve come full circle, in a way, from when you started out. Can you tell me about your initial cassette release?

We did have a soft beginning to the band —I  guess that’s how things are when they start as a concept. So the first thing — getting a demo — is just myself making some noises and trying the best I could to capture the idea that I wanted to put forward. After hours of messing around, I was able to cobble together our demo, which got gigs for the band, but it wasn’t even a band yet!

It was just you.

Yeah, it was just me, and I only tried playing live probably about twice — two and a half times, one and half of which were disasters.

And this would have just been, like, setting up synth drums…

Yeah, setting up a Casio SK-1 and doing some beats on that, and then trying to basically juggle very limited noisemaking things in some way that was musical. It’s not like there’s something MIDI-controlled that allowed me to program the beat and just sit back; it was really like juggling, where you can only go so far before you start dropping everything and making a mess of it. For me, that was probably about five or 10 minutes into the set — it would all fall apart! I did that couple of times on stage and it was really embarrassing, and I didn’t want to ever do that again. But at this point, there was this demo out there, and it had already gotten me approval for CMJ Festival in NYC and SXSW, NXNE, and CMW as well. For the first time, I had the opportunity to do things, and unfortunately it was for this project that I didn’t know how to do.

But at the same time, if the opportunity presents itself, you aren’t going to say no…

No, I wasn’t going to say no.

You mentioned trying to fulfill some kind of idea or concept. Did you imagine that with a full band or did that just happen organically?

I didn’t know how to make Holy Fuck work, but as soon as I realized that I wasn’t able to do it — that I wasn’t good at it — my first thought was to make it into a band as opposed to changing my technology and integrating laptops. I chose to instead bring in a drummer and a bass player. That’s the world I was coming from — all I really knew was how to play in a band, except usually, I’d be playing guitar. So I thought if it was a band, it’ll go further and be more fun, because now I’m not juggling. Now we’re playing catch and communicating on stage. I’m glad that’s how it happened, because it is that initial communication and enthusiasm we had on stage together as a group that the audience was picking up. I don’t know if we were good or not, but I think the audience felt like they were part of something and that we were genuinely having fun on stage.

I was re-reading our other interview, and you did get that Beans gig. I totally forgot about that. That was one of the first things where you could say, “OK, something’s happening, someone likes it and someone’s taking us somewhere with it,” because you played Coachella backing Beans, and that was based on some festival show…

Yeah, it was POP Montreal, which was also part of that initial run of festivals I got with that demo. We played POP Montreal on a Sunday — not a great slot. It just so happened that Beans missed his flight and there wasn’t a lot going on, so he popped into the bar where the band was playing and recommended that his label come see us in NYC at CMJ. So here it was, our third show, and Warp Records was coming out to see us.

And at that point you were playing with Graham Walsh?

Yeah, it was still changing. Graham’s first show with us was POP Montreal, and the very next show at CMJ, he wasn’t there. It was Loel Campbell, Mike Bigelow, and myself: a three-piece, totally different from the band that had played POP. That was Graham, John Hall, and Dylan Hudecki. It was always different, but at least we were pulling it off every time somehow. The rehearsals would be a disaster, we’d go into [the show] really stressed out, and then the moment the show started, it worked.

Well, as you said, so much of Holy Fuck is playing off of each other, and that’s something I’ve always noticed when I’ve seen you perform.

Yeah, one person makes a mistake, and we all know…

And you all laugh!

Yeah, we all laugh! It’s like throwing a frisbee and someone misses it, and we all have a laugh. I hope that the audience notices it in a way, like you said — a good thing, like we’re all having fun.

You played a Wavelength show with Holy Fuck early on?

I think it was the very first thing…

The very first! When was that?

When would that have been… Probably early 2003, I opened the show as Holy Fuck. I performed alone. Then, The Mark Inside went on, and after that was this other band I had called Hot Carl Loves The Ladies.

I remember that, it was a project that was happening at the same time as Holy Fuck.

Yeah, I performed in character that night so I started the show fully bearded and then I shaved down to this pervy mustache and played the headlining set. It was fun. I mean, that was one of those Holy Fuck shows I could barely get five minutes out of. There were barely 10 people there!

Wavelength was actually something that you recommended to me the first time I visited Toronto. I think you and I met up in Boston and I was coming up here, and you asked if I’d be here on a Sunday because I should go to Wavelength. What was your relationship with Wavelength? I know it has changed quite a bit, but what has its impact been on you?

I think much of my initial relationship with Wavelength had to do with the fact that I just didn’t like Toronto that much. I was coming from the east coast, Halifax, where to pass time we’d hang out at house parties or go to a rehearsal space and make music because there wasn’t a lot going on.

Halifax has a great music community.

I think there’s not that much else to do if you don’t want to go to rah-rah bars and get wasted watching hockey games, so for people interested in something a little different, it was very common to just hang out at your friends’ rehearsal space or basement, do some mushrooms and make some music. That was your Friday night. I had a hard time finding that vibe here in Toronto. I didn’t have a hard time finding it in Montreal, so I did feel a little regret that maybe I chose [the wrong city]. Mind you, this is 1999 when I moved here…

Well, the founding reasons of Wavelength sound a bit similar to what you were going through: “I live here, so why don’t we make this musical community for ourselves…”

I did have a very naive impression, because I was young and didn’t have a lot of friends or connections, so I’m sure there was more going on. What I saw was a photocopied poster in my neighbourhood for the second Wavelength — I missed the first one. It just seemed like something I liked: the image of it, the way they described it, a night of experimental music on a Sunday. What do you have to lose on a Sunday night? I went and checked it out and enjoyed it, didn’t know anyone, just watched the bands. I did that for the first year it existed, upstairs at Ted’s Wrecking Yard. I like comparing that to the way Holy Fuck started — around an idea. It’s an idea I had for a long time, probably from Halifax, so at Wavelength I saw people pushing themselves creatively to do something that was new. Not new to the world, but new to them. It wasn’t always great, but I liked the adventurous spirit of it… And I think this adventurous spirit infused itself into bands, so that by the time Broken Social Scene is coming to play, I mean, in another person’s hands that’s a rock or pop band, but through the lens of Toronto and Wavelength, there was a bit more of a daring spirit. So the rest of the world heard something unique that would otherwise not have been there.

It was almost like an entrance fee: you can come play this, but you gotta fuck with something a bit. You gotta have a weird guitar pedal or something. And by the end it’s maybe just people playing indie rock, but everyone took different things from it. What I took was the confidence to make something that was new to me that might fail. I was learning to do something other than playing guitar. Everyone found their own way to make Wavelength special.

Last time I interviewed you in 2006, very early on in our friendship, the Holy Fuck albums that existed at the time were still released on Dependent Music. I know anyone that started listening to you in the past six to seven years probably doesn’t know much about that history. You began and self-released music on your own record label/collective, Dependent Music, beginning in 1994 in the Maritimes. In 2006, I asked you your thoughts on U.S. distribution, as I was living in the States and had been bringing down all of these albums from Canada, or having you mail them to me. Here’s what you said:

“I’ve thought about U.S. distribution many times, but I’m always discouraged by it. We are an artist-run collective; the most we can do to promote ourselves is playing. We don’t have someone sitting in an office full-time who has dedicated their entire job to promoting us, and we don’t have a budget to apply to advertising. I think word-of-mouth has worked really well in Canada. To get music in stores in the States is one thing, but it might be smarter at this point to keep building the core and then work with other labels in the U.S. and other labels in the U.K. Those people that know the markets and have a handle on the press could have a lot more force than what we could do with our own label. That’s not to say I don’t think we have a wonderful label. I really hope people across the world discover it, but if they do so, I think it’s more appropriate to do it online.”

Things changed!

Yes, I like my answer! Wow! It’s interesting how you proposed referencing this interview off of an old one. I’ve been curious to know how I might answer a question then vs. now.

Dependent Music was obviously really special, this baby you had for a long time. But when you started actually gaining some kind of success in the industry and the U.S., you went with it.

It would have been around the time that we talked. One of the things I was noticing then was going to record stores in the U.S. and seeing labels like Paper Bag. I was thinking that it was great, but is anyone gonna buy it? That seems like a pessimistic way of looking at it, but it has nothing to do with its artistic content. I worked at Outside Music when I first moved to Toronto and I was unpacking returns in a warehouse full of musicians: Constantines, King Cobb Steelie, The Sadies, Rick White… All of these wonderful artists, but it’s a bit of a reality check when labels return everything that hasn’t sold and you open up a box of your records and have to start peeling off the stickers and security tags. That was on my mind at the time. I would have loved to have my records and especially my Dependent label-mates in these stores, but my fear was getting them returned. So [at that time] it would be smarter to go directly to the city, play live, and sell them off the stage to build enough demand.

Speaking of, you’ve got a record coming out soon?

Holy Fuck does, but we don’t know exactly when. It took us a long time to finish. We knew we needed a break so we gave ourselves at least a year and a half to do the things that were necessary to us as people to live our lives. From the time you and I sat down together in 2006, we didn’t stop touring until 2011. I was never in Toronto — I had a place, but I would come back for a week and leave again.

Do you feel content with the experience that you’ve had, touring so aggressively?

Right now, I want to go back on the road. Coming back to Toronto was special. It allowed for me to meet my wife, get married and buy a house. My bandmates had kids and Graham has especially been busy producing other people’s records. I’ve been producing my own records and some for other bands, so Holy Fuck took a while. Because of all of these commitments, the Holy Fuck record was left largely in my hands to produce, so like you said, we’ve kind of come full circle because it started with just me, and for the last couple of years it’s been me sitting in the basement with a hard drive. Now it’s finished, and I think it’s our best record — I want to go out on the road and be busy again. This time, we’ll probably tour a little smarter. Our previous tour schedule didn’t consider the long-range picture.

And you burned out.

Totally, six years straight. I’m going to hang out with Alex from METZ tonight, and I can’t wait to see him and catch up.

He’s doing that kind of touring right now!

He is, but they had enough foresight to take a break to write a record. We wrote our records while we were touring! We’d be sitting in hotel rooms uploading files every night.

Another question I had for you nine years ago was about the fact that you were still largely an improvisational band. In the two years following that I saw you start formulating fixed sets and songs with names, but since you were writing on the road, was it just happening organically on stage? You’d finish a set and be like, “Hey, that was cool. Let’s try it again.”

Yeah – “Red Lights” is called that because it was written in the Red Light district of Hamburg at a soundcheck because that was our only time to be creative — we were sitting in a van all day. We’d come up with ideas at soundcheck and try to put it into the set that night. On this new record, because we took our first break, we actually rented rehearsal space to write material. We played secret shows in Brooklyn under a different name, tested the material, and then worked through it some more at the studio. While writing on tour, we’d get home and record material in three days before we fully understood the song we wanted, but then the album’s already out and the song just gets better than it’s ever been on tour. After that, the actual recording just sounds like a cool [under-developed] idea.

You had a pretty set line-up for several years there, who will you be playing your upcoming show with?

[PHOTO, MAY 1 2008 LA ZONA ROSSA in AUSTIN, TX opening for MIA]

The classic band! Matt Schulz on drums, “Punchy” Matt McQuaid on bass, Graham Walsh. Loel Campbell has been filling in again sometimes, as he did when the band started. We began as a mixed bag line-up only because it was hard to demand these commitments from people because it was still so loose.


Kevin Lynn, Brian Borcherdt, Graham Walsh, Glenn Milchem

Here’s the picture I took in 2006, your first show opening for Wolf Parade.

That was our first steady line-up, but only for about a year. At that time we had to be as flexible as possible, but that’s how we get to have great musicians with us.

It’s also fun, because it changes the dynamic — they’re all really talented but you’re gonna get something different out of it every time, and you have your own personal relationship with everyone.

[PHOTO, GRAMERCY THEATRE, NYC, MARCH 9 2007 – Brian, Graham, Matt Schultz, Mike Bigelow]

Yeah, it’s always been friends. Once we started having pressure of reviews and labels, we wanted to always be at our best, and to do that we solidified our line-up. It is fun for us to play with different people —some nights would be more apocalyptic, epic and dark. Others would be more disco-y — different people bring different elements. But from an audience perspective, we didn’t want to confuse them.

So in the near future, you’ve got Camp Wavelength.

Yeah! We’re picking up steam now — so much of our music has to do with the chaos of the live stage. We’re playing in London, England at a festival called Visions, and then our Toronto show will be our first here since 2013. Then we’ll start playing regularly [in anticipation of record release and tour]. Our lives have changed a lot. Matt Schulz has two kids and lives in New York and it’s a hustle.

He’s playing on a late night show!

Oh yeah, Seth Myers! Matt is such a workaholic, he’s amazing!


He’s not from Canada — how did you meet him?

Graham was doing sound at the Raven in Hamilton, and Schulz came through with Enon. Graham’s a quiet guy and as luck would have it, he was feeling social that night and they kept their friendship going through e-mail. So we went to see him play at SXSW, and Graham was like, “OK, watch this drummer, if we ever need somebody.” Schulz came out to a show in New York and he loved it.

You’ve got some other projects on the go right know; LIDS must be tough because of everyone’s tour schedule.

I love it — I love it too much. We rehearse next door at Paul’s and then come here to Ronnie’s for some pints. When Doug MacGregor and I first talked it was before the Constantines were re-uniting, and before Dallas Green of City & Colour had hired him full-time. Doug is one of the most fantastic people and fantastic drummers. For awhile it was just the two of us, and then Alex [METZ] joined and it has moved very slowly because everyone has been so busy. It’s like a poker club! Most of us [musicians] should probably try to find a hobby that is not music, but my version of a hobby is just a different band. LIDS is my club! It’s a lot of fun. We get to play rarely, but when we do, it’s a blast.

I’m happy to hear everything is moving forward. We can’t wait to see you at Camp Wavelength!

Holy Fuck play Camp Wavelength Friday, August 28 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your single day tickets here! Or better yet, join us for the whole weekend and get a Festival Pass!