If you needed someone to soundtrack this most unprecedented of years, Bob Holroyd might be a good person to ask – the Surrey-based producer’s extensive catalogue, which dates back to the early 90s, is just the tonic for these strange times, blending ambient electronica with experimental global beats.
It was arguably Coldcut’s epic 70 Minutes of Madness mix (which recently turned 25 years old) that launched Holroyd’s career – the rhythmic, tribal African Drug, which was included on that album would go on to be remixed by everyone from Four Tet to Joe Claussell. Since then, he has built a portfolio that ranges from deep ambient to tribal techno, while also contributing music to countless TV and cinema soundtracks (ranging from Lost to The Sopranos, and from Friends to the Ace Ventura films).
His latest release is Brushed Aluminium, an uptempo club stomper backed by remixes by T. Williams, CASSIMM, Alec Soren and Kolani.
909originals caught up with him.
Hi Bob, thanks for talking to us. I remember seeing on your Facebook page that the lockdown period was a strange one for you, that you had thought it would be really productive, but you ended up suffering writer’s block?
I just thought, ‘I’ve got no excuse to not make music’, but that’s the point in a funny sort of way. It started off with an attitude of ‘I can do whatever I like’, and I was also keeping an eye on the news all the time – I found it quite fascinating. But over time, because I didn’t have any reason not to get on with stuff, that made me feel more pressurised, in a way, because I didn’t feel that creative.
I would get up in the morning, and think to myself ‘I need to get on with something, because I’ll never have this opportunity again’, but then that kept on snowballing. I managed to step back from it – I would go on long walks, and not think about it, and after a while I started to feel productive again.
In a pre-COVID world, what would have been your routine when it comes to making music?
It’s generally when the mood takes me. I’ve got a part-time job at a pub, which is partly for money and partly for the social side of things, because if you work on your own at home all the time you don’t get to see anybody. The pub is shut now, obviously.
Another thing I tend to do, is produce library music for films and programmes, and I still have that as an outlet, but in general, people aren’t making as many programmes as they were before COVID, so that too has slowed down.
So in the end I said to myself ‘I’m going to do whatever I feel like doing, whenever I feel like doing it’. I’ve been working on a large variety of stuff, such as this latest single, Brushed Aluminium, which is much more uptempo and club-oriented. I’ve done another couple of tracks which I’m looking forward to releasing soon.
One piece I worked on was very experimental – playing the same piece over and over again, and trying to get it to sound roughly similar every time. The effect was to emulate what was happening on a typical coronavirus day, with the same things happening again and again, with the occasional difference. It was a bit like a Steve Reich sort of piece, but much more random – sometimes it matches up and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it comes together and sometimes it drifts around a bit.
There were other times I felt like doing much more uptempo stuff, because the sun was out and I wanted to get out DJing again. I mean, sometimes, you would wake up and think ‘oh, this is so depressing’ and not be very productive, and on others you would have this attitude of ‘I’m going to get on with what I do’, and be very productive.
You’re most closely associated with downtempo and ambient music, which is very apt for these strange times we live in?
Obviously a lot of the music is an expression of yourself, to a certain extent. But it does sort of coincide with the general mood at the moment – there’s this frustration, and feeling of now knowing what’s going to happen. As a producer, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to play live next year, or if the clubs are going to be open.
In the past, I would run through a series of chords and build a structure, and record a track. Whereas now, I tend to have around 20 tracks on the go at the same time, and depending on how I’m feeling on a particular day, I might work on one, or another. Sometimes everything is inching towards completion, and sometimes I use it as an excuse not to finish anything.
In a way, nothing seems to have urgency, and at times it doesn’t seem like there’s much point in releasing stuff. But then at the same time, I’m lucky, I’m making music because I want to make music.
The new single, Brushed Aluminium, is quite uptempo compared to a lot of your recent output, ironically at a time when the nightclubs are all closed. I suppose it’s due to the fact that you’re missing that sort of live environment?
It’s not very economically savvy, is it? I think that’s it, you’re kind of missing when you can’t have. You want to have the opportunity to feel it again.
The release features remixes from T.Williams, CASSIMM, Alec Soren and Kolani – a new breed of up and coming producers. What have you learned from working alongside these guys?
There are certain things that they do in terms of production, which I hadn’t really considered. But really it’s a combination of things. One is around playing live – Kolani runs this DJ school, where he’s mentoring people online, and that’s made me want to go out and do more live stuff.
To be honest, listening to someone playing ambient music isn’t that exciting, unless there’s something else going on. So I teamed up with this guy called Patrick Dunn, who does audiovisual backdrops for The Orb and Tangerine Dream and people like that. I wanted to learn how to reinterpret what I did into a more immersive live experience.
But in terms of working with the likes of Alec Soren and Kolani, I’ve learned how they do things more immediately, and ‘on the fly’, whereas typically I would be more studio based. It’s a different way of working, in a way it’s like remixing in reverse.
DJing has moved on so much from when I first got into it, you can bring samples and loops in as you go, and it all gets beat synced so things would have to go very badly for you to get it wrong. Before, it was a case of trying to mix two tracks together, whereas now it’s like working with a sound collage.
We recently interviewed Duke Dumont, and he was talking about the same thing, that he can’t wait to play live and chop up the various parts of his latest album and mix them back together again.
It’s a different way of starting the process. That’s another reason the coronavirus situation as been disappointing, because I spent last year in particular getting to that point, and I was booked to play a festival in New York, and then Pennsylvania, and then I was due to play at the Extreme Chill Festival in Iceland. But then of course, everything stopped, which was quite frustrating.
But you’re right, having lots of threads or stems of a track which you can take apart and re-assemble is very interesting, particularly when playing live, which is more exciting than just sitting and playing a CD at home.
I’ve also been working on creating whole ‘atmospheres’ around the live experience. I got to do a show in Winchester which has the biggest planetarium in the UK, and I was linking the music to different star patterns, and it was a perfect venue, as people were lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. I took that to Colorado, because there was a planetarium there that wanted me to do something similar.
Max Cooper has been doing things like this in some of his shows, with these massive screens. He did a show at the Barbican last year which was absolutely amazing – you’re almost surrounded by the sound and the imagery.
Maybe that’s the future of festivals in a COVID world – everyone sitting or lying down two metres apart?
Ha! That would be quite good actually, if we were allowed to do it.
By deconstructing and reconstructing your tracks, does this give you more of an opportunity to dive into your back catalogue and create whole new symphonies based on old material?
Definitely, and that’s the sort of thing I have started to appreciate more. In the past, if you were mixing two vinyl records together, if something increased in speed you would have no idea where the key would end up, but with new technology you can speed up or slow down a track and it stays in the same key. You can layer tracks on top of each other and come up with things you would never have thought of.
You go through your own back catalogue and think ‘that sound would be really cool to put it in that track’. One track of mine which I suppose is my biggest ‘hit’ is African Drug, and there are a couple of loops in that and vocal chants that I can bring into the mix.
If anyone has heard of my music, they have heard of African Drug, and by using part of it, it can give them a point of reference in my live sets.
On the subject of African Drug, did you see that Coldcut’s 70 Minutes of Madness, on which it featured, recently turned 25 years old?
That was such an amazing album and I was so fortunate to be included on it. But I don’t know why anyone picked up on African Drug more than any other piece. I knew it was good, but I didn’t have any idea it was going to go off and have this life of its own.
I recently watched a documentary about Classic Albums, and it was about Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. Apparently the band put forward 14 or 15 tracks, which they were going to narrow down to ten for the album, and not one of the band put forward The Boys Are Back In Town. It was Tony Visconti that said ‘I quite like that track, why don’t you do it again, but a bit more rocky‘. It’s unbelievable to think that none of them chose that track, when it’s one of the tracks that you most identify with Thin Lizzy, and is also one of the great tracks of rock history.
I think all artists are like that, there are certain tracks that they are really pleased with that haven’t really been picked up, and others take off. African Drug was picked up by so many people – Coldcut played it on their show on Kiss FM, and it was played a lot at the Mambo Club in Brixton, which was playing a lot of African music at the time.
It got licensed to five or six different compilations, and Francois K used it on his Essential Mix. But I still have no idea why that track has become much more popular than the other stuff.
Some 25 years later, people still say to me ‘you’re the person that did African Drug’. That’s nice, but I have been doing other stuff as well!
I saw recently that you were trying to work out why some of your tracks get more plays on Spotify than others – particularly tracks you weren’t expecting? What was your conclusion?
It’s been another project of mine during lockdown, actually. Younger people would understand better than me how to promote stuff on Facebook and social media, and would probably understand why people like certain things. I started asking people what it was about certain tracks that made them more popular, and I didn’t really get a definitive answer.
One person pointed out that once tracks become popular, they re more likely to become more popular, because they appear at the top of the Spotify list, so that’s the first thing that they’ll click on.
There are certain things I’ve been able to identify – the album Afterglow is very popular, even though it’s ten years old. It’s very ambient, and it has an element of sadness to it, because it was recorded just after I got divorced. It seems to be used in a lot more things; there just seems to be something about it.
Obviously, if you worked out what the magic formula was, that wouldn’t work either, because you just have to write what you feel, and if people identify with it, they identify with it. It’s not like Stock, Aitken & Waterman, who knew what would work and churned it out and made a fortune.
I remember reading somewhere that one of the reasons that Ed Sheeran is so popular is that he uses melodies and chord progressions that are proven to make people feel happy.
Even writing a brilliant pop song is an art. There are thousands of people out there trying to write the perfect three-minute pop song. That’s quite hard to do.
You’ve long been associated with the term ‘world music’ – now, given that sounds from all over the world have permeated popular music, what does that term mean to you now? I mean, these days, you might hear Kalahari drum patterns in a hip hop track, whereas 20 years ago that would have been unheard of.
It’s an interesting question. I feel that the way things have moved on in society and the music industry, it almost feels like a genre – and I don’t mean this in a patronising way – that has run its course.
The term ‘world music’ indicates that something sounds sort of ethnic I suppose, but that’s not all that unusual these days. Unless you are getting stuff from a specialist record company that only wants to release the authentic playing styles of an African tribe or an Indonesian tribe, everybody else just sees it as music.
We all have our influences – some people might use Indian bhangra music and try to make it sound western, and others would try to sound Indian when doing something ethnic sounding.
People often say to me ‘what kind of music do you do’, and I wonder if it’s ambient or minimal – I’m not sure. I know that people need to have a category in their head in order to place a particular style of music. But in terms of world music these days, I think of it as sort of Buddha Bar or Café Del Mar type stuff. It might have a little snippet in it that sounds exotic, but its pretty much played over a western-sounding rhythm.
It’s more difficult to get ‘surprised’ by music now, though, isn’t it? Even when people are bringing in different rhythms, there’s an understanding of where they came from.
With music these days, everybody can do everything. I mean anybody can make music but just because people have assembled some sounds together it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a musician.
At the same time, among up and coming producers, you have that move towards analogue sounds, people want things that sound rough around the edges, and recreate the authenticity of, say, the acid era of 1980s Chicago?
That’s something that’s been interesting when working with younger producers – they are really getting into the analogue sounds. Of course, to me it sounds like it did at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s; I tend to think of it as old fashioned. But if you’re only 25, you never had it the first time around, so it sounds amazing.
It seems like a strange thing to go through this whole process of using digital effects to make something sound dirty and slightly grainy, but at the same time, that sort of sound was unique. It had that background noise that you can’t recreate with a lot of stuff these days.
You’re obviously renowned for your soundtrack work – if you had to soundtrack the year 2020, what would it be like?
Of course it would be be somewhat melancholic, but at the same time, it has offered an opportunity to think about what’s really important to you. One thing I really enjoyed was just being able to go out for a walk, listening to the wildlife and taking in the peacefulness of everything.
There were no aeroplanes flying overhead and no traffic, and it was all relative – I remember thinking, ‘if I can’t think of something to write for a couple of days, it’s not the end of the world’.
Brushed Aluminium has been out about a month now, what’s the schedule for your next release?
It will be out at the beginning of next year, probably the end of January or the start of February at the latest. I’ve got another track which is quite uptempo, and then I have this strange loop piece which I want to try and promote as well, but I’m not sure how to do that. To me, it’s sort of an art installation piece, but of course there’s nowhere to put it.
Maybe it’s something that I can use when things get back to normal. Sometimes, you forget what normality felt like, there’s been so much change.
[Thanks to Bob for talking to us. Brushed Aluminium is out now, check out his Facebook page for further updates]