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
David Holmes in his studio: ‘I’ve always loved living in Belfast; with my DJing career I’ve travelled all round the world, but I always wanted to come back.’ Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
David Holmes. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
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.”
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.”
Holmes says that the encounter with McQueen was probably the most inspiring piece of direction he has ever taken. “Not only was it perfect for the film but it completely changed how I look at music for certain films: one tone or drone could have such emotional impact if placed against the right images. I’ve always been into musique concrète, the manipulation of natural sound through various tone generators, tape splicing, echo chambers and so on. I like the John Cage approach to music – all sounds are music – and McQueen inspired me, because after reading the script I realised there was already so much music in there that didn’t resemble music as we know it, but felt way more powerful than any score. That was McQueen’s vision, and he knew exactly what he was doing.”
The move to LA – and back
Holmes could probably talk about tape splicing all day, but what I really want to know is why he’s sitting here at all. Two years ago, he decided to return to Belfast, after living in Los Angeles with his wife, Lisa, and young daughter Nina. So is this small, rain-soaked, fractious city the place he really considers home?
“I’ve no idea. It must be. I’ve always loved living in Belfast. With my DJing career I’ve travelled all round the world, but I always wanted to come back. And, look, you can be in Paris in an hour and a half, London in an hour . . .”
Yes, I say, but you’re talking about ways to get away from here, aren’t you? Holmes laughs. “Coming back to Belfast was a complex decision. I didn’t want to bring my daughter up in LA, turn her into a Hollywood child. I have many good friends out there, but I missed the normality of my own house and studio. And it costs a fortune to live in LA, even to rent. Soderbergh was retiring, jaded by the industry, and a lot of my own work was in Europe.
“One day Lisa said to me, would you want to live in LA if the weather was s**t? And in that one moment, we knew we were coming home.”
Like any home, it’s not perfect. “Sometimes it worries me that Belfast is becoming too much like any other city. Maybe that’s more to do with my age, rather than how Belfast has changed. When I was young, there were no film festivals, no music festivals; if you wanted to see a band, you brought it over yourself. Yet I had such an incredible time here in the 1980s, early 1990s, during the acid-house explosion. You had the best day of your life every weekend. I was lucky to grow up in the time that I did, because I got a real education in the history of pop music: R&B, modern jazz, rockabilly, the skinhead/ska movement – you were learning all the time. The music scene has always been an escape for people who lived here through the Troubles.”
That irrepressible DIY spirit is also the guiding principle behind Good Vibrations, the story of Terri Hooley, Belfast’s one-eyed godfather of punk, and the man who discovered the Undertones. The movie, produced by Canderblinks Film – a company set up by Holmes and two of his oldest friends, directors Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa – and with a joyous score by Holmes himself, was named by critic Mark Kermode as his favourite film of 2013, “an absolute humdinger with real heart and soul”.
“Well, that was another part of me coming back to Belfast,” says Holmes. “I understood, after working with Soderbergh, the family aspect of making a film. I was one of his regular collaborators, there was an established relationship there, and I saw the benefits that can bring. Making a film is such a complex, super-involving, all-consuming process. You need to trust the people you work with. So I wanted to create that situation for myself, back at home, and keep those relationships growing.”
The losses he has suffered in his own life may have made that desire for close connections in his creative life all the more intense. His 2008 album, The Holy Pictures, was a deeply felt response to the death of his parents. His brother’s death, last February, has also had a profound effect on Holmes, who is the youngest of 10 children. He is currently at work on a short film, the first he has directed himself, which engages those feelings of grief, loss and hope. “I love the thought of being reunited one day with the people you have lost,” he says.
So is he a religious man? “I think I am definitely a man of faith. I do believe in spirits, that’s for sure: I grew up in a haunted house. I don’t believe in religion, but I don’t judge anyone for having religious beliefs if they’re doing something with it. If they go to Mass every morning, that’s their medicine, and if that makes them happy, well, why not? Who am I or anyone else to say that they’re wrong? One thing I do know, if there’s such a thing as heaven, you don’t get knocked back for being a particular religion.”
Holmes clearly thrives on creative chaos. But underneath it all, there’s a longing, amounting almost to nostalgia, for more simple pleasures. “I’m 45 now, yet part of me wants to keep DJing forever,” he says. “All I want to do, really, is play weird music and show films in a shitty little bar.”
Maybe that’s what he means by a quiet life.
QUICK QUESTIONS: SMOKE AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Best source of inspiration? “People, Tumblr, great DJs, great films, books.”
Biggest regret? “Starting smoking.”
What makes you happy? “My daughter Nina and working in my studio on great projects.”
Last time you cried? “Watching Michelle Fairley and Liam Cunningham play my mum and dad, and Edward Hogg playing my brother Michael, in my short film I Am Here.”
The song/piece of music that moves you most? “Abandon Window by Jon Hopkins.”
Your greatest fear? “Death.”
Worst habit? “Social media, although I think I’ve weaned myself off it – such a waste of time and energy.”