Interview with rebellious electronica musician Holo

Image credit: Paul Chynoweth

Intuitive music producer Holo has shared his latest electronica track ‘Bleu’, one of his most experimental works to date. Rich in textures, this Houseum release was inspired by the producer’s awesomely peculiar fixation on the colour blue and its many tones. The result is a vibrant track that has one hearing colour with its psychedelic tones and breezy ambiance.  ‘Bleu’ will feature on the composer’s forthcoming album In Limbo, which will be unveiled on the 11th of  March. The Aussie composer Holo, also known as Hugo Horwood, lends his minimal vocals to the concluding seconds of the track. We chat and unpack Holo’s creative process in the ever-changing genre landscape.

Stream / Download: ‘Bleu’

Describe your sound for us. What do you want people to feel when they hear your music?

It’s difficult for me to describe my sound. Each Holo record I release I intend to be quite different – for example, this EP In Limbo is my take on a breakbeat genre. Whereas my previous release, ‘Atlas’ was much more house orientated. My favourite band is Radiohead, who have constantly changed, and I want to do that too.

I think the common thread within my music is an emphasis on texture, melody, and harmony primarily. I really care about which sounds I pick, as I want to create a distinct atmosphere for the track to live in… almost like decorating a room. Other signatures I think of are simple drum parts, live guitar, bass playing, the use of unusual samples, and lots of reverb. 

As for what I want people to feel, I think that’s up to them… I just feel what I feel and hope someone else connects with it too. Something I find really interesting when reading YouTube comments on my tracks is how differently people can respond to the same track.

Which 3 artists have influenced you the most growing up?

Radiohead have always been my favourite band. They’ve influenced me in a lot of ways, but particularly to really care about the arrangement. When you listen to a Radiohead song, each element is doing something interesting, and that’s absolutely crucial to the song. They inspire me to innovate, not follow trends, and be brave enough to do things other producers aren’t.

Then there’s The Beatles. They taught me what great melodies and harmony sound like. And there’s Paul’s bass playing too, which I totally try and imitate. And finally, like Radiohead, they taught me it’s possible to innovate and break convention while still remaining accessible.

Finally, I’d say Daft Punk. I remember being given Homework and Discovery for my birthday as a teenager, and I’d never heard either… you can imagine how much my mind was blown! It really kick-started my love for electronic music. I admired their creative use of samples, their melodies, and how they combined influences from other genres.

How did you discover your particular sound?

I think through a lot of trial and error. Years ago I would listen to music I loved, open Ableton, and try and write in EXACTLY that style. I’d try and write something just like Bicep or Leon Vynehall, but it always led to frustration because whatever I was doing was never nearly as good as the tracks I was inspired by.

As I continued to do this, however, I learned what came naturally to me. For example, I loved writing chords, and I found I had a good instinct for picking sounds and textures that worked together. I eventually started doing things that felt natural more and more and tried less to sound like other people. This included recording my own guitar and bass playing – something I initially shied away from because it’s not all that common in house music – which I found to be a huge asset in coming up with interesting ideas, fast.

When talking about ‘Bleu’ you mentioned you find inspiration in, “a really strong mental image, whether it be a colour, or a scene.” Why is it important for you to follow your artistic gut this way?

While I find inspiration in a mental image of the music I’m writing, the image never comes first – it’s the music. I write music without any clear goal in mind as to what the track should be – I just mess around with chords, melodies, often samples too, until something catches my ear. Once I’ve found that core musical idea, I simply need to keep messing around to find other elements to complement it. Once I’ve done that, I sometimes get that mental image, but it’s something that’s in the back of my mind rather than a source of inspiration I write to.

Following my gut and writing without the finished product in mind is a hugely important part of my process because I free myself from any internal expectations. I can write based on how I’m feeling at the time, experiment in multiple genres, have fun, not judge myself, and most importantly do things that are unusual, such as combine elements from different genres. If I always set my mind to writing a specific type of track then I’d have to tell myself “No, you can’t do that”, which isn’t much fun. And I need to be having fun to write good music.

Tell us about one of the first struggles you faced (as a group or a solo artist) and how you overcame it?

For a long time, I struggled with how I felt about my music. I’d often open up Ableton, and if I didn’t come up with something I thought was good in an hour or two then I’d close the project and feel really frustrated.

It was only until my friend heard my track ‘Atlas’ and encouraged me to send it to Houseum, who ended up posting the track on YouTube, that this started to change. The knowledge that other people enjoyed my music helped me gain confidence and as a result of that, my music, and my ability to write it, became a lot better.

For any producer who won’t share their music because they’re similarly self-critical, my advice is to get it out there when it’s nearly finished, not finished. Finished doesn’t exist. Record labels want demos and don’t care if your hi-hat is a bit loud. The ideas are what count. Just get the ball rolling.

What are the most important pieces of equipment to you?

I have a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster that I’ve had since I was 18. I know its sound so well and have recorded it on so many tracks that I feel particularly attached to its voice, and it’s a key ingredient for me in what makes a track sound like it’s one of mine.

I also own an original Roland TB-303 which I use in my track ‘In My Dreams’ and ‘In Limbo (Dark Mix)’ from the new EP. It’s a really special and rare synth these days as not many were manufactured, and it’s quite old, so it filters sound nothing like a brand new Behringer 303 clone. I love how it spits out a musical phrase so alien to anything I could have written myself. I use the 303 to inject randomness into a track that is otherwise very carefully considered, and I love that contrast.

Music for the individual or the masses – which do you want to create?

Well, I won’t lie… I’d be pretty happy if the masses loved my music, provided it was the music I wanted to make! If I can affect a lot of people with my music then that’s only a good thing.

But I don’t set out to make music for others. I’ve always done it for myself, as a way to relax, have fun and express myself. I’ve found that if I enjoy something, then someone else will too. That’s another good lesson for producers starting out. 

However, as I’ve put out more music and started to build a bit of an audience, that audience is increasingly in the back of my mind. I try and not let that thought influence the musical decisions I make, and I want to continue taking risks and doing unusual things in my music.

Do you have a favourite memory of your career so far?

I think seeing my track ‘In My Dreams’ recently reach 2 million streams on YouTube, and reading all those great comments on it. Ten years ago I would have never ever dreamed something like that would happen! It’s really inspired me to keep making music and give it all I can.

If you could work with, or perform alongside any artist living or passed, who would it be?

Thom Yorke from Radiohead. He’s such a brilliant and innovative musician. I’m loving his new project The Smile, and I’d happily step up if they need a third guitarist.

What kind of message are you trying to send with your music?

I’m not really trying to send a “message”, as my music has next to no lyrics. But I am trying to convey feelings. When I write, I try and imbue my music with specific feelings… but I’m happy for the audience to feel whatever they want to feel. It’s not something I can always control. For example, I tried to make my track ‘Circles’ from my Atlas EP feel energetic and exciting, but I read on YouTube people feeling this deep nostalgia for example. You never know how people will react to your music, and that’s a great thing.

‘Bleu’ features on your upcoming EP In Limbo. The EP title track will also have a ‘Dark Mix’. Can you please elaborate on what we can expect here?

I’ve always liked the idea of remixing my own tracks, but I never intended to with this one. I was writing ‘In Limbo’ (the second single off this EP) and was experimenting with some 303 lines over the top of this disco bassline and breakbeat drums. The 303 element wasn’t really working, and so I tried muting everything apart from the drums, bass, and 303 line. It sounded great – really dark and moody – and so I saved a new version of the project immediately and wrote an entirely new arrangement around these 3 parts. It’s one of my most unique tracks because it combines instruments and influences from so many disparate genres, including acid, disco, classic rock, and even renaissance music. It’s a track I’m particularly proud of as it really “shouldn’t work” if you know what I mean.

What can we expect from you in the near future? Any upcoming projects or gigs in the pipeline that you would like to tell us about?

Yeah! My second single from my In Limbo EP is coming out in a week, and then the full EP on March 11th via Houseum Records’ sub-label Ellipse Records.

I also have an EP scheduled with Noire & Blanche this year which features a lot of my own singing. And another EP with Shall Not Fade for later this year too.

Finally, I’m also working on an EP for a new side project, New Monika. The tracks are half-electronic, half-guitar-based, and they sound like I’ve produced them but not Holo tracks. You can stay tuned for that by following @newmonika.music. 

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