David Holmes: ‘Coming back to Belfast was a complex decision’

The international DJ thrives on creative chaos as he juggles performing, composing film soundtracks for Steven Soderbergh or Steve McQueen, and making and producing albums – his idea of a quiet life

Mon, May 5, 2014, 01:00

David Holmes just wants a quiet life. He says so, almost as soon as we sit down to talk in the kitchen table of his home in Belfast, which is littered with scribbled notes, half-empty coffee cups and a curious salt and pepper set inscribed with the labels “heroin” and “cocaine”. But it quickly turns out that his notion of a quiet life doesn’t correspond to anybody else’s.

For the last 20 years, in his various roles as superstar DJ, composer or producer, Holmes simply hasn’t stopped. Whether it’s creating film soundtracks for Steven Soderbergh or Steve McQueen, or making his own autobiographical album about his family and the troubled city where he grew up, The Holy Pictures, or producing artists such as Primal Scream, he always has numerous projects on the go at any one time, some big, some small, and all at various stages of realisation. You get the sense that, at the centre of it all, there is a burning, restless mind at work, hungry for change, alive to possibility.

“I like working on lots of different things at once,” he says. “Working this way means you’re never stuck in one place all the time; it gives you a fantastic opportunity to be objective. It’s about making space.

“For example, if I’m working on a film score, and I’m deep in it, I have 20 pieces of music all spinning in my head, and then I go and work on something completely different, then that’s the opportunity for me to get a new insight. It’s beneficial.

“All it takes is one thing to happen, and you get new colours and ideas, you see it all differently. I can step back in, with new ideas, new perspectives. It keeps it fresh. I’m much more honest in my criticism if I’ve time to sit back and not think about it.”

Collaboration is vital for Holmes; it feeds his creativity, keeps him connected. “I feel like I’m constantly learning, constantly evolving and changing. Recently I did the music for 71 [a film about a single, harrowing night in Belfast during the Troubles that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February], and it was the most wonderful experience working with the director, Yann Demange.

“The collaboration started way beyond the first shot of the movie, and at the end of the process, it shows: in the emotion, the mood, the pace. His vision was strong and he carried it through, and I responded heavily to his ideas.

“But it’s different every time. With Soderbergh [on Oceans 11, 12 and 13], I would send him loads of music, songs, things I felt could work, and he would let me know what he responded to. It was a conversation: ‘I like this, I like that.’ You learn so much from getting a reaction. It starts you thinking about other things.”

McQueen’s vision
Working with Steve McQueen on his debut film, Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strike, required some lateral thinking. “I asked him how he felt the music should be, and he said it only needed one piece, and it should be very emotional but non-musical. That threw me at first, but then I remembered about a track I was working on with Leo Abrahams called Among Them Be It for The Holy Pictures. The main instrument was a hurdy-gurdy – you know, that strange, visceral sound – and after playing it to Steve, he believed that it was the correct colour he was looking for, and that became the soundtrack to Hunger. It was so little, but sometimes that’s all it takes.”

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