David Holmes: The soundtrack of our lives

With his work on Ocean's Eleven and Buffalo Soldiers, David Holmes helped to revolutionise film music. Now, he tells Andy Gill, the delights of his own band have lured him away from Hollywood
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The Independent Culture

In an unfeasibly small studio tucked away in a corner of London's Primrose Hill, David Holmes and his programmer Steve Hilton are beavering away at twin G4 Powerbooks, changing the course of film music yet again. Over the last few years, soundtracks have become an unexpected growth area of British pop music, with the likes of David Arnold, Barry Adamson, Craig Armstrong and Holmes developing new and unusual ways of enabling images to more readily leap off the screen and into our hearts.

Holmes, a red-haired, denim-clad Belfast soulboy, is currently the most industrious of the four, balancing his day-job as soundtrack producer for the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Michael Winterbottom with his pet project The Free Association, a hip-hop soul collective which he hopes to build into the digital-age equivalent of George Clinton's Parliament, a musical zoo complete with horn section, backing singers, and a stage "just completely full of freaks". Hilton, Holmes' shock-headed co-conspirator in The Free Association, is a programmer/engineer of vast experience, particularly in soundtracks, on which he's previously worked with both David Arnold and Craig Armstrong. Having also worked with the enigmatic and demanding Scott Walker, he's unlikely to be fazed by any odd requests that Holmes might come up with.

"The first thing Scott said to me," he chuckles, "was: 'Now, what I want the sound to be like is, if you could imagine the universe as a great big lottery ball, and all the planets are inside the lottery ball, and I've just spun it - get that sound!'." It took a little time, he adds, but they found the requisite sound in the end.

The pair's most recent film commission has been for Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming Code 46, which they describe as a love story set in the future - and as such, they've seized eagerly upon the musical latitude afforded by such virgin territory.

"The soundtrack we've just done has got hints of My Bloody Valentine and Sigur Ros, of Roy Montgomery, and of Karen Carpenter's backing vocals, and it's got these really unusual drum loops made from live drumming, using a lot more emphasis on toms than snare," explains Holmes. His enthusiasm bubbles through irrepressibly, as does his fascination with the diverse arcana of music history. As a Belfast teenager back in the Seventies, he was a fanatical mod, with a taste for the musically outré and hard-to-find.

"I was really into obscure soul records," he explains. "Deep blues from the American South, and British R&B bands like The Bo Street Runners and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner, people like that, and a wee bit of Georgie Fame, because he used to play at The Flamingo, and I'd dream about going to places like that. I reckon the records I was playing as a mod were so underground they would never have been played at mod clubs in the Sixties in London."

Holmes' arcane soul influences have since stood him in good stead, especially on last year's splendid mix album Come Get It I Got It, where the likes of Betty Adams, Sixto Rodriguez and Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers rubbed shoulders with the first of his and Hilton's Free Association experiments. Things have recently been brought full circle, with Rodriguez's sweetly creepy drug-song "Sugarman" being covered as The Free Association's next single.

"I never really said, 'I want to make music for films one day'," he claims, "but on the first record I made sampled Once Upon a Time in America, and all the press started going, 'Oh, it's really filmic!'. But you have to make a statement in music, you have to do something that's unique, whether people like it or hate it. So I started looking into vanloads of old film soundtracks, and using that as a source of inspiration, and that sort of led into This Film's Crap, Let's Slash The Seats."

This Film's Crap... was Holmes' early entry into what has now become virtually a genre unto itself, the soundtrack-for-a-non-existent-film, created largely from scraps and re-played fragments of other film soundtracks.

"My mam bought me a dictaphone for Christmas," he explains, "and I used to sit in the cinema and record the music, little piano lines and stuff, then I'd bring that into the studio and get the people I was working with to translate it for me."

Holmes was given his chance to work in films by Lynda La Plante. "From that I worked on Resurrection Man, the film about the Shankhill Butchers in Northern Ireland, and from there, I moved on and did Out of Sight for Soderbergh, then Buffalo Soldiers, which has only just been released, and then we did Ocean's Eleven."

Before he arrived in Hollywood, how- ever, Holmes made two more soundtracks for non-existent films, Let's Get Killed and Bow Down to the Exit Sign. The former was the product of a lairy period spent deejaying in New York, and featured his "field recordings" of street dialogue over tracks heavily influenced by the records he was spinning, the likes of Dr John, Bitches Brew, the MC5, Public Image and Alice Coltrane's version of "A Love Supreme", "with the mad organ and out-of-time drums".

Bow Down to the Exit Sign was an altogether more ambitious project, an attempt to give his aural tableaux a more effective shape by developing a script and soundtrack simultaneously with a writer friend, Lisa Barros D'sa. In the event, much of the spoken content was provided by New York poet Carl Hancock Rux, and by another friend, actor Sean Gullette (the mad scientist from Pi), who acted out several scenes and improvised a few more. Ultimately, however, Holmes knew he wanted to take things a stage further and get involved in making scores for films that actually existed somewhere other than his head.

His biggest break came when he got the gig to score Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh. "I was still this naive kid," he recalls. "I went over there not knowing whether I had the job - I just knew it was George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and it was an Elmore Leonard novel, which was enough to get anybody excited. I watched the film, and it had great music in it, like the Isley Brothers' 'It's Your Thing', and I suggested to Soderbergh that the best way of making a great score for this film was by dissecting the source music and creating little grooves from the instrumentation he already had on the screen that gives the film so much personality. So I got these clavinets, Fender Rhodes pianos, live bass, wah pedals and stuff, some mental sound effects, and did some demos at my studio in Belfast. He liked them, and so I went over to LA and worked there for a couple of months." Out of Sight led in turn to Ocean's Eleven, for which Holmes devised a score which managed to be both modern and redolent of the rat-pack era of the original.

"Obviously it was a remake, so the first thing I did was watch the original Ocean's Eleven, and thought 'No!'," he explains. "Then I tried to think of ways to identify with what was going on - with it being a contemporary film, how to be original, but set within the heart of Las Vegas. Which is where the Elvis song 'A Little Less Conversation' came about, because obviously Elvis had a really strong affiliation with Las Vegas, and that track has a very contemporary feel."

After the success of Ocean's Eleven, Holmes took time out to compile Come Get It I Got It, he and Hilton recording little linking pieces of breakbeat fusion-jazz to join the tracks together, an enjoyable diversion which eventually snowballed into The Free Association. Before long, the pair were back in Los Angeles, recording an entire album of backing tracks with the same "Wrecking Crew" of session players they'd used on Ocean's Eleven, and getting singer Petra Jean Phillipson and rapper Sean Reveron to front the tracks. The result was David Holmes Presents The Free Association, one of last year's outstanding albums.

Never ones to rest on their laurels, Holmes and Hilton are already planning the follow-up, and hatching grandiose plans for a Free Association live spectacular - that "stage full of freaks" mentioned earlier - so it looks as if Hollywood might have to wait a little while for his return. But there's no doubt that, one way or another, Holmes will have a significant part to play in the way movies are absorbed in years to come.

The Free Association single 'Sugarman' is available on Mercury Records from 1 September; the album 'David Holmes Presents The Free Association' is reissued by Mercury on 15 September