HOLOVR: The tape scene had a real underground feel – not just a signifier of being underground, obscure, niche, as it sometimes feels now
London-based artist Jimmy Billingham is the man of many musical monikers, therefore you might know him as HOLOVR, Tidal, Venn Rain and Holographic Arts, just to name a few. Not quite ambient, not quite techno, a little bit of both but at the same time neither of them. Jimmy is also a prominent member of the underground tape scene, he’s been supporting the format way before it became fashionably popular again. Over the last years he’s been involved with various labels, but he kind of stayed under the radar until his first album as HOLOVR (‘Lunar Lake‘, 2013) was released on Opal Tapes. This was followed by his second one last year (‘Holo Earth‘), bringing him some well-deserved attention. Besides working on his various projects and doing live performances, Jimmy also curates his own tape label, Indole Records. So far there have been three releases, but as of yesterday there have been three more added to the catalogue: Precipitation: ‘Cold, Pines, Azure‘, Ex Geo: ‘Memex‘, and Blood Room: ‘Habitus‘. You can’t read too often about the man behind all these projects, so we spoke to Jimmy about his musical background, the different concepts behind his monikers and his albums, Opal Tapes and his dedication and commitment to cassette tapes – welcome to his holo world!
What is your first memory of music?
Hmm, good question – probably just the kind of stuff that young kids are surrounded with: novelty records, TV indent music, themes. Nothing really of any notes this far back. Then ‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson – loved that! I remember being very taken with hip hop and early house sounds as a child during the 80’s, and somehow acquiring a couple of tapes – I was pretty young; think I got my parents to tape something from the library. I specifically remember one called ‘Hip Hop and Rapping in the House’ (just looked it up – surprised to find it!) and being aware of acid house when it kicked off over here, just the whole phenomenon of it as a cultural movement – this appealed to me even back then; so as well as the mainstream media that just surrounds children, the idea that underneath was something a bit more subversive that occasionally ruptured it. I think this was pretty formative for me. I remember these acts on ‘Top of the Pops’ with their Korg and Roland gear and just being pretty intrigued by what it was all doing (in reality, probably not much on ‘Top of the Pops’).
What and who was your biggest inspiration when you started to experiment with your own sounds? How did it all begin?
Hard to say biggest inspiration – it wasn’t really wanting to be like anyone, but just a feeling that I could make the kind of music I wanted to hear, given the right tools. I played guitar a bit as a teenager, and bass in a band, but was never entirely comfortable with playing an instrument as such and I was also increasingly into electronic music. I knew that sequencing on a computer was the way forward for me, being able to layer and craft over time. So I did an evening class in Cubase – probably about 1998 – just really to have a go on it, and made a nice little tune (was promised a copy on tape from the guy doing the course, but never got it – was probably pretty shit). I then seemed to have an inordinate amount of hassle getting a cracked copy set up at home and ended up just layering wav files in some really basic audio editor. I remember a huge amount of frustration trying to get things to work at the beginning and have had an uneasy relationship with music software ever since, although it is so much easier to get up and running now with music production tools. We had an Atari ST knocking about back then, before I got into MIDI stuff, and then once I got round to thinking it could be useful, my dad had got rid of it!
(Video by David Richards)
HOLOVR, Holographic Arts, Holo Earth… Where does the passion for all ‘holo’ come from?
Holographic Arts began all the others – no passion, just a word that fit. I like the connotations and imagery.
Before your current projects you’ve been producing 8-bit chiptune music and just later you’ve started to focus on more experimental drone music with Tidal and Venn Rain. What did you find challenging during this transition process?
No challenge – just a gradual process of liberation and finding my voice, aligning my physical tools with my inner music drive. Although I eventually acquired a decent computer and software for making music, I was never quite satisfied with the sound I was getting, although I made some ok tunes – the process just seemed endless on a computer and too open-ended; too much tweaking and looking at timelines. I switched to chiptune stuff because I really liked the tones as well as the limitations of running programs on Gameboys, though I was actually pretty surprised by the sophistication of programs like Nanoloop on the GBA. The first drone stuff I did as Tidal was all from Gameboys recorded to tape and then layered in software, before finally buying my first decent hardware synth in 2010 (Korg Poly 800).
You did a PhD in film before starting to make music. How come you didn’t want to pursue this further?
They were parallel – making music has always existed in parallel to education and work. I didn’t pursue an academic career for various boring reasons (it was heavy film theory, not film-making).
You’ve been very into the tape scene, released plenty of music on cassette. We could say that you’ve been supporting the format already before it became popular again. How come you are so fascinated by it?
Initially, when I got into it, it had a real underground feel – not just a signifier of being underground, obscure, niche, as it sometimes feels now. The qualities of the medium were what made it essential to this tape scene (and why it never really fell out of favour in the noise scene that preceded the synth/new age tape stuff that I got into). So it’s not really that I’m fascinated by it as a format – it was just the substance of that scene because it worked and really fit the sonic qualities of the music, with tapes being a sonic component of the music as well – a lovely symbiosis! I think this has been lost a bit, releasing on tape just for the sake of it. It was the embracing of the lo-fi by the underground synth scene, with the hiss and warble adding to the emotional clout of the music that got me going during this period. It was a revelation after years of trying to refine a certain polished sound. It’s not even that long ago now, but this sensibility didn’t really figure in the kind of electronic music that I was into, but now seems to have been accepted into it (at least as an ‘outsider’!).
Although ‘Holo Earth’ was released only one year after ‘Lunar Lake’, the atmosphere and the sound is wholly different. Also, technically there seems to be a huge difference as well… Could you tell us about the process and the practical differences between the two albums?
To me, the only difference is in the means and process used to make it. There was no deliberate change in sound, but I also didn’t simply try to replicate ‘Lunar Lake’ – I wanted to take my time and craft something with more precision and thought. It was made knowing that it would be a vinyl release and I wanted two side-length continuous tracks with distinct tracks within these. Like ‘Lunar Lake’, it was made on a four-track cassette recorder, but starting with the drone backing, made from tape loops, and then building up tracks on top of this, a tape per side. So pretty limited in terms of flexibility of recording and making changes once laid down, but again I often like these kinds of limitations. It came out pretty much exactly as I’d wanted. To me, it is a more complete and cohesive piece of work – it feels very hermetic for me, with intentional progression and narrative inwards, towards disintegration. ‘Lunar Lake’, on the other hand, was made pretty quickly (within about a week I think) and using samples of my Venn Rain material. I initially intended it to be a remix album, and the original title I proposed was ‘Holographic Arts Meets Venn Rain on a Moonlit Lunar Lake’, in the style of those Scientist albums, but Stephen said it was too long, so the name HOLOVR came out of that!
On the same note, in a way ‘Lunar Lake’ seemed to be more mellow and emotional, while ‘Holo Earth’ is more dry and technical…
Again, not intentional, but interesting to hear that! Since making ‘Holo Earth’ I’ve swapped out a lot of my gear, finally acquiring some bits that I’ve always wanted, so the next release will sound different still, very much in keeping with my current live set-up, and all recorded live. I’m always pretty surprised when people perceive radical differences in tone and mood between releases, because to me it’s all a journey in the same direction, and I feel I’m quite particular about the kind of atmospheres I want to create, but then I do also feel a need to continually develop my sound through different techniques and equipment, if only to keep it fresh for me. Release schedules also mean that the sequence of this progression is sometimes unclear.
Opal Tapes is a relatively new label, but during these 2 years of its existence they’ve accumulated quite an impressive discography. How did you get in touch with Stephen Bishop’s label?
I just emailed him proposing the remix thing I mentioned above, and he’d heard my Venn Rain stuff so I think that made him pretty receptive. Probably didn’t get 20 demos a day like he does now, either! I got in touch because he seemed to be doing something different, with a good sensibility and that encompassed the directions I was exploring musically, so thought it would be a good fit.
You’ve quite recently returned from your first European tour. What are your impressions? What were the best moments? Where do you think you had the best time?
It’s actually my second – I toured as Tidal a couple of years ago. That was very DIY – no booker or taxis or hotels or anything, so this felt like a breeze! A tiring, fun and incredibly satisfying breeze! Everything went smoothly – crowds were into it, played some great places, had a lot of laughs and beer. It was great hanging out with the guys and always nice to do these things out in the real word, just with you, the music, audiences, and with other people into the same stuff – away from the internet and screens and the same few mediating platforms. The best show was probably Paris, just because it was the first night and we had a really good crowd, great sound, lighting, and hearing the others do great sets. But all of them were great in their own way. Felt like a nice mix of venues and crowds, which really sums up what the label has done so well, occupying these unexplored places between established forms.
You’ve mentioned briefly your next release… How is it going to sound different? What are the plans, what should we expect and when?
Completely different gear and no tape hiss probably the main differences. It’s a 12” record that I’ll be putting out on my Indole Records label – a continuous piece over two sides, recorded live to two tracks. It’s in for press at the moment, so can expect early 2015 sometime, after the next batch of tapes, which were released just yesterday!
How do you feel about the idea of collaborating with others? Do you have anyone specific in mind with whom you would like to work with?
I’m less into the idea of collaboration than I used to be, partly because making drone it was definitely easier to collaborate, as you don’t need to worry about syncing and those kinds of things. When I was playing with Jake (Tuluum Shimmering) in Clime we both used loopers independently of each other, so they would be out of phase, which produced a really nice effect. Those sessions were very natural and we never really spoke about what we were going to play, other than agreeing a selection of notes to play. Currently I’m busy enough with my own projects, so don’t have much time for collaborating, but I’m open to trying things out in the future, with the right person and gear.
Could you pick three favourite album covers?
James Ferraro – Clear (LP version): so weird and trippy. Like all good hypnagogic stuff, it’s uncanny, playful, absurd and sincere all at the same time. It was basically this image that switched me on to the US underground synth scene.
Autechre – Amber: I love the incongruity between this organic landscape and the artificial soundscapes of the music. But the landscape also seems strangely unfamiliar, like from another planet.
Tuluum Shimmering – Ulau Tau / Spirit of the Sun: Felt-tip ethno-psychedelia – what’s not to love! This artwork has the same qualities that make his music so great: rich, idiosyncratic, outsider and absorbing.
What kind of music are you listening to these days? Who would you name as a source of inspiration or whose music are you enjoying the most nowadays?
Recently I’ve been listening to (off the top of my head): Bochum Welt, Marble Sky, Gescom, Alessandro Cortini, Lorenzo Senni, Basic Channel, Heat Sureens, Pierre Bastien. Bochum Welt in particular I’ve been really into – was one of those Rephlex guys I’d always been aware of but never dug that much into his back catalogue. Pretty much everything he’s done is fantastic – full of lovely melodies and with a restrained technical craft that isn’t showy for the sake of it. I like that his sound is pretty consistent and hasn’t changed that much in 20 years. Bedouin Ascent is another from the 90s that I’ve been digging.
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