Damselfly Interviewed

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Darren Holloway is a very interesting musician. In that he’s nothing out of the ordinary. He’s maybe representative of the many thousands of musicians up and down Britain who go about their daily business, creating work without any real hope – or wish – of joining in the pop game. Playing in bands since a teenager (and getting to support a number of circuit bands, the source of many a tale I’d wager) promoting events, doing a stint as a roadie or soundman… many have travelled this path. For the record, Holloway played in Brighton indie rockers Chrome Yellow and was a roadie for Lewes Psychedelic Shoegazers The Laughing Trees; two of the many millions of nearly-signed bands who would prop up the bills for the likes of Catatonia, Lush, Thousand Yard Stare and Echobelly way back when. He then moved into promoting raves and dance nights around Brighton, Sussex and London (Sanctuary, Secret Vice, Rinky Dinky, Twisted), featuring DJs such as John 00 Fleming and Sarah Chapman.

Enlightened amateurism you can call it, which does sound a tad patronising. But an amateur, or craftsman/backwoodsman approach has often been the wellspring for some of this country’s greatest and most giving musical movements and creative apparitions; from Cecil Sharp to the UFO club to the late 80’s rave scene.

And, as his latest incarnation, Damselfly (the inspiration for which seems to have been rooted, Traffic-like, in his cottage in the Sussex village of Upper Beeding) Holloway has released three tremendous records and a bunch of remixes; a creative burst that can’t be longer than 3 years in total. His music is incredibly evocative of place, and of time, and deeply suggestive of a host of subjects and moods. We caught up with him over email (after planning to talk for months and never really getting round to it). A few tentative starter questions from my side seemed to open a floodgate of information and insight into his new project. I’d suggest you grab a cuppa and a biscuit. And maybe a notepad.

 

LTW: It feels as if your music is very linked into the land, into the (sinister) Sussex Downs…
That’s good to hear. I don’t always intentionally set out to create soundscapes that are necessarily linked to the land, but more often than not I’m drawn back to it in one form or other, if not directly then by some sort of association. I think I’m quite visual in how I write, and living within the belly of the South Downs its landscape is invariably in my sight-lines. I’m very lucky to live in a nice old cottage right on the banks of the river Adur, with views across the Downs. Even at night I fall to sleep with the gentle sound of the river in my ears. That and the rustling of leaves in the trees I have found is the best distraction from the constant ringing and humming of my tinnitus, so I suppose you could say that, as well as being inspiring, the land is a healing thing for me, not in some New-Age Hippy way, but a very literal and tangible way.

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(Chalk)
I definitely have chalk in my DNA. My family moved from London to Lancing, on the Sussex Coast, when I was four, and I’ve lived the majority of my life here. My childhood was spent either down the beach of up The Downs. As a teenager I took my first girlfriends to places like like The Clump and Lancing Ring on hot summer evenings. There are some great secluded spots in now overgrown World War 2 bomb craters up there. I even managed to get shot in the arse by some local lads hunting rabbits on one such night, so some strong associations of pleasure and pain! As for the sinister side, yes, I think you’re right to call that out. There is a deep history of ghost stories, pre-Christian shenanigans, Satanism and dark arts and the like across Sussex. Some of those were very much parts of my rights of passage as youngster too. As a a cub and boy scout with First Lancing troop I spent nights camping and playing wide games in the Sussex countryside, sitting round campfires and listening to ghost stories and tales of strange goings on that were linked to the area, passed down from previous generations.

LTW: Anything else that drives your music?
Each of the three DAMSELFLY albums has been in part inspired by books I was reading whilst writing and recording them. For ‘We Chose The Wilderness’ I was reading Landmarks and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, that my sister and brother-in-law had bought me as a present. Those books were like a revelation to me in that they put into words and made sense of much of what I felt about the connection with the land, and the language of the land. They both definitely seeped into the music. There are two particular aspects which have really stayed with me – the point about being able to name multiple features of the land, its flora and fauna, that you only derive from having an intimate relationship with it, by being to some extent immersed in it. I think it is true that if, when you look at a field, all you can see or describe is ‘trees’, ‘grass’, ‘flowers’, ‘hedge’, ‘bird’ etc, then those things have a diminished value as opposed to if you can see and name and describe them in their infinite varieties.

(Walking the land)
The other point is about walking the land as an almost metaphysical way of both understanding it and being able to develop thought that is unique or at least in some way inspirational. I don’t think you’ll find a walker who won’t in some way agree with that, even if does sound a bit la-de-da the way I’ve put it. That idea was the inspiration for ‘Mountain Ghost A’, it’s about coming across the ghosts of people who have walked those paths, not necessarily in a metaphysical or spiritual sense, but in experiencing and sharing some of their footprints, knowing some of what they knew in a physical sense and understanding how the land made them feel at the time. I’ve probably overly romanticised that, but I think you get the point. One of my favourite poets is Edward Thomas, and you can almost feel his long walks whilst battling his depression in his poetry and writing, they have a musical and rhythmic quality to them.
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LTW: There’s a brooding aspect to your music too, that may be geographical?

Yes. Again, that’s not always intentional, but I’ve always been a bit of a melancholy person I think. I find sadness as an emotion far more engaging than any other, there is a beauty to it that is unique and very human. The first album, VOTTOL, probably has the most tracks that are in some way linked directly to that brooding feeling. Its full title, Variations on the Theme of Loss, was taken from a line in the excellent 1975 book by John Keegan, ‘The Face of Battle’, where John states that all military histories are in some way variations on the theme of loss. That line stuck with me and from it I tried to write each track to somehow describe a loss, be it a personal and physical loss, or something less tangible, like a loss of a piece of the past or geographical feature. Most losses are in some way geographical I think, they are anchored not just in time but in place too. ‘The Harrow Ways’ is my favourite track from VOTTOL and it’s a kind of electro sea shanty that is mourning the destruction of parts of the ancient Harrow Way, a Neolithic pathway that stretches across parts of Southern England. There’s a link here too to military history, ‘harrow’ being possibly derived from ‘herewag’ – a military road. You can’t tell my brother is a Geography teacher can you?!

(Shoreham…)
‘A Hunter Gathers’ and ‘For Edna’ are more personal, being meditations on and memorials too the victims of the Shoreham Air Show tragedy in the former, and the death of one of my best friend’s mother just shy of her 100th birthday in the latter. The Shoreham Air Show was an integral part of mine and my family and friend’s summers, almost marking the end of it and the passing into autumn, a somewhat melancholy time. When the Hawker Hunter came down on the A27, along with the other ten men it killed, it took one of my other best friend’s younger brother. I was at The Amex stadium, home of my local team Brighton & Hove Albion, with my own brother when the news started filtering through, but I didn’t find out that my friend’s brother was missing, presumed dead, until a couple of days later when I saw his photograph on the local news website. I’ll never forget the text I got back from my friend when he just said, ‘It doesn’t look good’. A few years before that, I was with my brother and a few friends in the field right next to where the Hurricane came down, killing the pilot, during the Battle of Britain mock dog fight.

…Both of those days had beautiful weather and everyone was in that peculiarly happy mood. Then you either see first hand, or start hearing about, sudden and violent death, and it just sends your brain into a spin, totally disconnecting you from reality for a time, and those memories are then forever linked with that place and time.

LTW: And there’s a strong sense of the past there.
Yes, we’re all informed by the past in some way I think. I’m very interested in all types of history. I mentioned the military history aspect earlier, and on VOTTOL the closing track ‘Boar’s Head Waltz’ is a tribute to the men of The South Downs Regiment, Lowther’s Lambs as they were also known (the lamb being part of their crest) who died at The Battle of Boars Head in The First World War. That became known locally as ‘The Day Sussex Died’ due to the scale of the losses, but until the recent resurgence in interest in all thing WW1 due to the centenary, as a battle it had remained largely unknown, having taken place the day before the main Somme offensive. It was a trial run for the main offensive and the powers that be obviously didn’t learn the lesson it taught, absolutely horrific…

The title ‘Hedge Born’ from the second album ‘An Awkward Bow’ is an old colloquial term for being of ‘low breed’, a peasant in other words, and ‘Sub Rosa’ is a term that was used in Ancient Rome for when secret clandestine meetings were held at houses – the owner would hang a rose above the door which informed everyone gathered that ‘what get’s said here stays sub-rosa – beneath the rose. I think it’s a beautiful term, even though I’m sure a lot of the discussions and associated actions that came from them were far from beautiful! ‘Sing Me Down Lorelei’ is an imagining of the drowning of doomed sailors entranced by the old Germanic folklore temptress.

We could be cheeky and see you as one of these brilliant British musical recluses, Daniel Patrick Quinn, the Caretaker, Robin the Fog, I could go on….
Haha, be cheeky all you like! I’m flattered to be mentioned in the same company as those artists and certainly I don’t object to the association. I think it is true though that, although I can be quite a sociable person, I’m at my most content when I’m either at home on my own or with my wife or one or two close friends and family. I was a shy kid in my early school days and had to force myself to develop a more outgoing persona. There’s an impression that Sussex and the South in general are somewhat ‘soft’ places to live and grow up.

LTW: Is that fair?
The reality is very different and where I grew up you had to toughen up in one way or another pretty quickly to get through it fairly intact. But deep down I definitely still have those reclusive tendencies. I think it helps writing that way, I can lose myself for hours or days in the creative process and, apart from copious amounts of tea and a bit of food here and there, I don’t need or want for anything else. If my personal circumstances were different I think I’d be more of a full-time recluse, but having said that I’m not one of those people who could jack it all in and go and live on a really remote part of an island in the Outer Hebrides or somewhere. I’d definitely go mad before too long.

LTW: Your music does sound very private, sometimes microscopic in its attention to detail despite having quite grandiose titles! Why the dichotomy?
That’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that before. I think it’s because when I’m writing purely instrumental music, save for the odd vocal sound here and there, I still want to be able to provide a setting and narrative for the music. I’ll often maybe have an idea of a story I want to tell or a place I want to reference as part of the music before I start writing, or I’ll start playing around with melodies and sounds which will then spark an idea, a more visual setting or representation for the music. I’m a huge fan of film and soundtrack music, I grew up listening to Ennio Morricone and albums likeBig War Movie Themes and Western Greats, marching up and down in time to the music with my sister in our garage where the record player was. I love how Quentin Tarantino uses music in his films and am a big fan of the soundtrack and other instrumental works of Nick Cave & Warren Ellis.

But I think you’re right regarding the private nature and detail in the music. I like precision in music, passages or moments that are distinct and move the music along or from one place to another. Although I’ve talked about some of the reference points for my music here I prefer for people to make up their own minds about what it’s all about, it’s much more fun that way. Some of the feedback I’ve had with regards to what people think the references are have been wrong on a personal level but have been very rewarding all the same, sometimes leading to me discovering things I wasn’t previously aware of. That, for me, is by far the most rewarding part of making music. It used to be a lot about getting the on-stage buzz and the associated hedonism that goes with being young and being in a band, but I’m way past all that now!

LTW: I should also ask you about the artwork you create fro the releases, it’s always very striking, old school, too.

I’ve always felt that imagery is an integral part of music. Artwork can to some extent make or break music for me. There’s loads of great examples of where the artwork enhances the music – off the top of my head the first two British Sea Power albums, I can’t imagine them without seeing the cover art, or Iliketrains’ He Who Saw The Deep. That’s why DAMSELFLY as a ‘band’ includes the Brighton artist John Lymer who does the photography and digital manipulation, my nephew Jack MacRae who does the graphic design, and more recently Chris Tomsett, AKA Innerstrings, who’s created the films for ‘Sub Rosa’ and ‘Mountain Ghost A.’

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LTW: I have to ask you, you mentioned tinnitus earlier. I’m interested in how you deal with it as a musician, as it must be debilitating in some way in the creative process.
I’ve had it for a few years now, so it’s getting harder to remember what it was like before. When I first realised the ringing was permanent I was determined not to get dragged down and depressed by it too much. I researched tinnitus and its effects a lot and found that, unsurprisingly, there is a high incidence of depression among sufferers. The realisation that you’re never going to be able to enjoy silence or true quiet again can, if you’re not careful, become overwhelming. And that’s where a vicious cycle can start, because the more you stress about it, the more you notice it. I find meditation helps, but the single most effective trick I found was just accepting it as part of me, and, as corny as it may sound, making friends with it…

…If anything the creative process provides some relief, a distraction and the fact that you’re listening to sounds means the ringing and humming are less noticeable. After all, our brains only have so much bandwidth to use at any one time, so anything that uses up a fair bit of processing power is handy in that regard. I just have to be careful, especially when using headphones, that I don’t have everything turned up too loud, as the ringing is then that much worse once I’ve finished. That’s probably the hardest part, especially because I prefer to record and mix loud in order to try and get the best feel.

LTW: Can you be specific as to whether it affects the results of your work? I wondered if it actually put you off enjoying what you do or what you have made?
I have found sometimes that I get the first mixes of tracks wrongly balanced, mostly too bass-heavy, if I’ve had a long session mixing. So I try and mix now in shorter bursts, and that way I find I have less reworking to do when it settles down a bit again after a good rest. If I’m really not sure I play the mixes to someone else for their view, but I have to guard against being over-picky and the temptation to keep reworking tracks. When I released the first album I got a lot of confidence from people complimenting the production, so I realised I must be doing something right and tried to trust my instincts a bit more. I have a hearing aid for my left ear, the side it is worst, and when I listen to final mixes I’ll listen first without the aid, then with it, then without again. I suppose everyone hears sound slightly differently anyway, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry sometimes that what I’m hearing is very different from most people. But overall, the therapeutic benefits I feel from making music far outweighs any negatives that result from it. How long that will last I don’t know.

…I’ve been recently diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, which means the hearing on my left side is very likely to progressively get worse, possibly resulting in complete loss of hearing on that side, and even the right if that becomes affected more too. That obviously isn’t something anyone is going to look forward to, let alone a musician. I think I am quite an adaptive person though, I try and be realistically inquisitive over these sort of challenges rather than being in denial or overly optimistic or pessimistic about possible outcomes.

LTW: Talking of sound, your music’s sound seems to have gone through a clear “narrative arc”, towards guitar textures and away from beat-driven electronic music. Why is that?
That was more of a conscious decision. Having cut my teeth in guitar bands from the age of sixteen, writing almost exclusively on guitar, when I came to create DAMSELFLY and start writing the first album I only had one rule – to not go anywhere near a guitar in writing or recording it. I have very eclectic musical tastes but have always had a particular love of electronic music. I was lucky enough to share a bedroom with my brother and his record collection. Being six years older than me he used to come home with bags of records from Subway Records, Virgin or HMV in Brighton during the New Wave into New Romantic era. That music was so new and exciting and had a profound effect on me. Records like John Foxx’s The Garden, Waiting for a Miracle and Sleep No More by The Comsat Angels, the early Simple Minds and Ultravox albums, New Order, more left-field and obscure stuff like Dalek-i and Hambi and the Dance, the first Human League singles, I could go an and on, they all blew my young mind. But I’d never played electronic music before personally, so it was always something I wanted to do.

…It was also partly informed by the intervening years between playing bass or guitar in Chrome Yellow and starting DAMSELFLY when I gave up on playing music and got heavily into the dance scene, either as a regular party goer or promoting or hosting club nights. But having done that for VOTTOL I didn’t want to continue with such limitations and started to introduce some guitar in ‘An Awkward Bow’ and subsequent releases, albeit mainly via amped guitar synths as opposed to conventional guitar. I love guitar synths, playing guitar parts on a keyboard means you play them completely differently, you have to be more minimalistic and sparse or mechanical, which helps them fit into a more ambient or electronic soundscape. I’m also a big fan of late 60s and early 70s British rock and metal, so I wanted to get something of the feeling and sounds of early Black Sabbath and Deep Purple into parts of some of the tracks on the new album. ‘Mountain Ghost A’ is probably the most derivative in that regard, I really tried to get an early Sabbath Tony Iommi guitar sound, and the woodwind sounds on the mellotron are a nod to some of the sounds on Deep Purple’s eponymous album. I like to try and blend all the different types of music I love these days, from classical and folk to dark ambient and metal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

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The new Damselfly record is available on CD and is out October 1 on Holloway’s Bandcamp page https://damselfly1.bandcamp.com/

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