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Holy Holy: From Humble Beginnings to Ambitious New LP

The duo on early Berlin days, playing to big crowds across Australia and the decision to expand their sonic template for second album ‘Paint’.

It started, like all good stories do, in a smoky Berlin cafe, about six years ago. Having just haphazardly wheeled a bass amp stacked high with guitars and bags through the cobbled streets of Neukölln, Oscar Dawson and Tim Carroll entered the Gelegenheit cafe and prepared to play their first-ever show together.

They weren’t yet called Holy Holy, but the songs they’d be performing – tracks they’d written during Carroll’s regular visits from his then-base of Stockholm to see his friend in Germany – would go on to feature in Holy Holy’s repertoire for years to come.

“[The cafe] was like something out of a movie, cos it had wooden tables and chairs and candles, and there was a small bar in the corner,” recalls Carroll today, sitting in what he calls “a funny little cabin on the side of a lake” in Tasmania – aka his home – where he moved roughly two years ago. “The bar guy was an older gentleman with a big silver moustache, and he had an ashtray on the bar and was smoking away. There was no stage. You pulled back a curtain and there was a recess into a wall, and that was where the artists would stand and perform.”

Regardless of the low-key setting, the act of playing internationally was, admits Carroll, “thrilling”.

It wasn’t, however, as memorable as the duo’s first official show as Holy Holy in 2013, having both settled in Australia following their European adventures. On this quiet Sunday evening, Dawson’s duties included not only playing guitar, but operating the venue’s smoke machine, blanketing Brisbane’s Black Bear Lodge in regular plumes of fog.

“We were this new band, lurching through this set, with not quite enough people in the room to be comfortable, and then between songs, as the smoke started to dissipate, Oscar would do a little shuffle to the back of the stage, and then you’d hear ‘pfffffffffff’, and all this smoke would flood onto the stage,” laughs Carroll. “It must have looked so ridiculous.”

Fast forward to last April, and Holy Holy are sitting in their dressing room at the 8500-capacity River Stage – spitting distance from Black Bear Lodge, but a figurative world away – preparing to support Vance Joy. At which point, something like stage fright started to kick in. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, how did I get into this situation?'” cackles Carroll. “I was terrified.”

A week earlier, on the first date of the tour at Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena, the duo – who are joined in Holy Holy by drummer Ryan Strathie, bassist Graham Ritchie and keyboardist/producer Matt Redlich – marked the recent passing of Prince by covering “Nothing Compares 2 U” in front of the 7,500-strong crowd. “We played the song, and I opened my eyes and looked out and there was just this fucking [sea of] people with their phone torches on, blazing in our eyes,” recalls Dawson, calling in from his home in Melbourne. “When something like that happens, you think, wow, that’s pretty cool.”

There were, of course, several significant steps between their first shows and these supports, one being the release of Holy Holy’s acclaimed debut album, 2015’s When the Storms Would Come. It was a record the duo started crafting without even knowing it; some of the songs created in Dawson’s Berlin apartment served as a backbone of the LP. “When we first started recording that we didn’t have a band name or all the members locked in, we didn’t have management, didn’t have a label, didn’t have an agent,” says Carroll.

When the Storms Would Come debuted at Number 11 on the ARIA charts, followed by months of heavy touring. Today Dawson refers to the period as “an ever changing fog”. Part of the haze is due to the duo’s activities outside the band – Carroll founded Tasmania’s A Festival Called Panama four years ago, hence the move there; Dawson is an in-demand songwriter and producer who recently finished working on full-lengths by Ali Barter and Ben Wright Smith – but largely it’s down to their rigorous schedule supporting their debut, in which they navigated Europe and the UK on three separate occasions, on top of multiple laps of Australia. For a duo who live in separate states, spending so much time in a confined space must have created its own set of challenges.

“We kept it together,” chuckles Dawson. “I wouldn’t say it’s ever plain sailing, but I think sometimes it’s supposed to be hard. That’s where you get the best stuff from. I’m not saying we’re at each other’s throats… but we have to almost bump up against each other a little, and that’s a good thing.”

Ask the duo what they have in common, and Dawson says: “I think we make good music together. I don’t know if that’s a thing in common. I guess that also means we have complimentary differences. Cos if we had too much in common to make music with, then it wouldn’t work out. We do enjoy speaking about ideas, we definitely argue about ideas. We share a sense of humour, too. We laugh a lot.” Carroll thinks they’re both “pretty sensitive people”, and are “both communicators. We’ve been able to navigate [any] challenges by talking it through. And I think we both perform music in a way that’s very much related to an intrinsic feeling within us. That’s how we’re constantly judging sounds and making sonic decisions.”

holy holy feature live
Dawson (left) and Carroll at their first-ever gig in Berlin’s Gelegenheit cafe. Soon after they’d settle on the name Holy Holy.

While the pastoral mood of their debut drew critical praise, one piece of feedback stung Dawson badly. “I remember someone whose opinion we cared about said, ‘You’ve released a record that’s really not in keeping with the times.’ And I took that to heart. I was horrified: ‘Oh God, are we that daggy?’ I thought ‘fuck, we can’t do that again’.”

With that in mind, Dawson and Carroll set about crafting album number two, Paint [out now]. With a few exceptions, the majority of the LP was compiled over the past nine months, with song sketches traded by phone and e-mail and made full whenever the band came together.

“There are a lot of things that I am really proud of with the first record, I think it sounds genuine and warm and live,” says Carroll. “But I think we wanted to step away a bit from the nostalgic Americana sound and push into something a bit more crisp and interesting and challenging, and also push the band a bit more in terms of the way we play and see what results would come.”

All of which explains the new album’s expanded sonic template – from the wild, freewheeling prog-rock of closer “Send My Regards” to the Eighties-styled pop of the gorgeous “True Lovers”, while drum machines and various synthetic elements are evident in album opener “That Message”. “We were just giving ourselves a bit more latitude to create a sound, as opposed to just letting it be what we are,” explains Dawson.

Were there moments where they asked themselves, “Can we even do this?”

“Definitely,” says Carroll. “When we started working on ‘That Message’, with an electronic beat and the kind of phrasing that references a bit of an R&B tradition, that was a big step. But there’s nothing to be gained from sticking to a style. I don’t know how many records we’ll have the opportunity to make, so I’d rather try different things and take risks.”

From issue #785 (April 2017), available now. Top photo, credit: Benjamin Knight.