Interview with Hollan Holmes

The spiritual journeys of a space music composer:
an interview with Hollan Holmes

Date: March 1 2011

Hollan, please be so kind as to introduce yourself a bit more. Next to being a musician, I heard you’re a design artist in daily life…
Well, by profession, I’m a computer graphics artist, more specifically, a texture artist, for film and animation. I’ve been a traditional artist all my life, but also a musician, however art was always the more serious endeavor, because I had a real passion for it from childhood and developed my skills in art before I did so in music.
I handled luggage for a major airline for nearly twenty years, but got very tired of it, as did my body, so I taught myself 3D and CG and landed a job in the film industry in 2003 and I never looked back. Easily one of the smarter moves I’ve ever made. I never lost the desire to make music, though, so I jumped in head first in 2005 and built a small studio in my home, where I now take music much more seriously than I ever did. Of course I still make art, too. Music technology had reached a point where I could easily afford to create cd quality music, so it was a no-brainer to give it a go.

You recently released your first album. What did you do before that?
Well, I actually did a lot of dreaming about releasing my first album (laughs). My day job as a texture/shader artist for an animation studio in Dallas consumes most of my day and, often, all of it.
However, because I love music so much, I’ve had a dream since I was a young man to someday compose my own music and “A Distant Light” is the fruition of that dream, along with a lot of hard work. I played in a few rock bands along the way, playing covers of the Stones, AC-DC, Rush and such, but we rarely wrote much original material. That ultimately sucked the life out of me, so I never truly put my heart into it like I would have, writing originals. I could never find anyone willing to take the higher and much more risky road with me. It eventually bored me, because I wanted to make music, not just play it. It seemed none of my friends were evolving musically in the same direction as me.

Ok, let’s talk about your debut album “A Distant Light”. What inspired the title, what triggered you about the concept and what music did you have in mind for it?
HH: I started taking the idea really seriously of composing music, in about 2005, but the process of putting together a cd didn’t really take form until well after I’d created a rather large body of musical ideas.
The original title was to be “Mist And Myth”, after a song on the cd of the same name, however after creating the song “Twilight”, it was, for me, the strongest of my work on the cd, so I changed the cd’s name to “Twilight”. But then the success of the vampire movie of the same name happened and a desire to have not even an accidental association with that entity compelled me to change it to a last minute idea I got, called “A Distant Light”.

This title was inspired by the fact that humans, by nature, are adventurers and our fascination with the cosmos has been perhaps our greatest dream and the most ambitious technical endeavor of our species, always looking to the stars, the distant lights. So, in one sense, the name represents our fascination with the cosmos. It also represents that moment when a weary traveler, having survived a long journey across some vast expanse, sees that distant light on the horizon that signifies he has discovered someone else’s presence and he knows he is no longer alone and his feeling that sense of relief and comfort that the light can represent. I thought it very fitting with regard to the kind of music that was taking shape.

How did you start composing the music?
That started around 2007, before any concept for the cd was nailed down. I just embarked on this journey of learning a few software packages, like Reason and Cubase, and started with the creation of sounds. Sound design is probably the most fascinating aspect of my musical endeavors. I love starting with a simple raw waveform and shaping it into this massive, ethereal landscape that captivates the imagination, draws you in and sweeps you off to some place you’ve never been.

From there, it is really a bit of a mystery! It is very hard for me to describe where I get my ideas for a composition. I can only say that they just come to me from the ether. I try very hard to not emulate anyone, while still accepting that I am clearly inspired by many. The journey has to be mine though, and mine only – not counting collaborations, of course – and it has to be an honest journey, meaning I’m trying to create my own interpretation, my own sound, music that is deeply personal to myself.

I’ve no interest in writing commercial jingles. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, it’s just not how I want to make music. I attempt to compose music that represents the various emotional states and moods I’ve experienced in my life, as well as my dreams, ambitions and to just represent that human fascination with adventure and exploration.

So, a lot of things inspire me; people, places, events, emotions, but how the actual musical ideas take form is elusive and inexplicable. Sometimes I’ll build an entire composition around a new sound that inspires a certain direction or mood. I’ve even awakened from dreams with ideas and have had to rush into the studio, crank on all the gear and purge the idea to the hard drive, before it was vaporized into oblivion (laughs). I guess this is why I’m so intrigued by scoring for film, although I’ve not traveled that path yet.

The liner notes inside the cd booklet reveal a strong spiritual meaning related to the musical concept. How does your music relate to your spiritual journey?
I approach music a bit differently than most people do, I think. I tend to view music as this sacred thing and not a medium to be abused, although I like to keep it fun, so I try to make music that celebrates the human spirit and imagination and, as was my hope in the case of “A Distant Light”.

My music is how I channel my energy, both positive and negative, and how I purge my demons; it is how I meditate and how I lament. It is my escape and it is my artistic expression. Man has been expressing himself through music for a very long time now, but most of us now view music differently than we did ten thousand or even five hundred years ago. No matter how rudimentary the instruments, man’s fascination with music, whether it was the rhythmically induced trance state or the preservation of cultural history through musical stories, has been a very big part of the human journey. My hope is that my legacy, no matter how small or large, is a positive and honorable one.

I also read on the backside of the eco-wallet Steve Roach was in charge of the mastering and spatial enhancements. How did he get involved?
From a professional standpoint, I met Steve in 2004 when I expressed to him a desire to create one of his cd covers. I ended up working on the art for a couple of his cds, “Lost Pieces Volume Four” and “Immersion One”. That formed a professional relationship that has endured, so when I was ready to have my own work mastered, I could think of no one I’d rather have considered for the job.

Because Steve isn’t going to want his name associated with music with which he himself doesn’t feel a personal connection, there was no guarantee he would accept the job, but fortunately for me he did, so I was able to secure his services and I’m very happy with the results. How I first met Steve is a bit of a funny story. I was working as a baggage handler for a major airline in 1990, when I was assigned to a Tucson flight. While loading the luggage onto the plane, I noticed crates of musical gear with Steve’s name on them. I knew who he was, because I owned a couple of his cassettes and really loved his music, so like a giddy fan boy, I ran up the jet bridge, begged a flight attendant for a pen and got Steve’s autograph. I told him that story some fourteen years later and, surprisingly, he remembered me. Now, we’re old acquaintances and my hands don’t shake when I’m around him (laughs). We’re good friends now.

Wright Flyer drawing courtesy of Louis P. Christman

The design of the eco-wallet to “A Distant Light” is simple but so beautiful. What can you tell about the artwork?
Thank you, Bert, I’m honored by that. I’ve been a professional artist, off and on, since I was sixteen, so it seemed natural that I would create my own cd design and layout. Surprisingly, though, the graphic elements were pulled – with permission, of course – from other sources. This is actually pretty unusual for me, but part of it was a matter of time constraints and part of it was that these images just totally suited the idea I had in mind for the cd. It seemed silly for me to painstakingly draw a diagram of star chart or a lunar module, when I could just use an established one.

Lunar Module drawing courtesy of NASA Educational Division

 

The Galileo image was derived from a very old illustration, which I fell in love with and it just seemed perfect for what I wanted to convey, so it was used as reference for an Adobe Illustrator drawing I made of Galileo on the front cover of “A Distant Light”. My next cd, however, will be one hundred percent my creation.

What makes you confident you can succeed in this crowded niche genre of ambient/space music and electronic music as a whole?
Absolutely nothing! (laughs) Seriously, I’m not under any illusions here. I know the genre is niche, I know there is some very impressive talent out there, but in no way do I view them as competition. I feel more like we’re all part of a larger entity. Kindred spirits in a sort of symbiosis, where all of us feed off one another’s energy. I don’t care about fame or riches or any of that, which is a good thing considering this genre probably isn’t going to provide that (laughs).

What I care about is feeding my own soul and sharing my journey with anyone who wants to hear my work. I’m threatened by no one and I hope no one ever feels threatened by me, however flattering. I want to inspire and I want to be inspired. Of course, it would be nice to make enough money to upgrade the kit every so often, but ultimately I measure my wealth by the friends I keep and my experiences in life, not by a rack of blinking lights in my studio or my cd sales, although that is a form of measuring one’s success.

My financial success in this genre will be reliant on how much I grow as a composer and how creative I can get with the tools at hand. I want my music to draw the listener in and take them for a grand ride, not just feed them some latest cool trick or new effect. That’s not enough to endure anything more than a very short span of the listener’s attention. If the listener finishes my cd and wants to hear it again, over and over, then I’ve done my job well.
Getting my music in peoples ears, that’s the hardest part. Time, persistence, and word-of-mouth is huge in that respect, so tell your friends about me! (laughs).

You let me know that you think the ambient electronic genre is so important. How come?
It goes back to the previous question, I think. Those of us in the ambient electronic music community seem to me to have this desire to experience the world in a more meaningful and richer way. That isn’t to assert that musicians in other genres don’t, but in a day and age when uncertainty rules the day, society as a whole is feeling more and more stress under conditions that seem to be deteriorating by the hour. I may be a bit naïve or presumptive here, but I honestly think that there will be a growth in interest in this sort of music for a number of reasons that I mentioned earlier.

This music – and I’m sometimes reluctant to even call it music – provides a sort of emotional sanctuary; somewhere for us to decompress, to drift off into a state of peace or to just recharge the spiritual batteries. Other genres can do this, as well, but ambient seems particularly suited for it. Society seems to be filling up with zombies; automatons; people just going through pre-programmed motions, just trying to get through their day, only to do it all over again the next day and the next.

Ambient electronic music is a vehicle of transformation, where one can escape the insanity and return fresh and able to think straight and provide solutions for themselves and others. So the ambient electronic genre’s fan base is comparatively tiny right now, but to those devoted to experiencing it, this music is incredibly important, I think. Something just tells me that this sort of music will both grow and evolve into something much bigger.

These are hard times in (electronic) music. Why did you stick to the decision to the put the album out as a factory pressed cd with all financial risks attached to it, and not test e.g. the water by just downloads?
I came to grips early on that I probably wasn’t going to make much money on the first two or maybe even three cds. These initial years are all about building my career, so I planned on not seeing an immediate return on my investment, if at all. I’m confident that my success will happen if I work very hard and make the best music I can make. It isn’t enough, however, for me to just provide downloads.

Call me old school, but I’d never experienced a musical release that didn’t also have some form of art associated with it, until these last few years. The experience of holding a physical cd in your hands, taking in the cover art, reading the liner notes, making that emotional connection between the art, the music and how it collectively makes you feel, that is incredibly important to me. I won’t ever release a download-only collection. I’m an artist. I’m compelled to include the visual experience. I cannot separate the two. Think of how different an experience it would have been to get the newest Yes album, without Roger Dean’s extraordinary cover art? For me, that artwork shaped the way I perceived Yes’ music. I feel no differently today. Downloads are only half the experience for me. I know it is prohibitively expensive for many, though.

Hollan, what kind of gear do use? Any favorites among them?
There’s absolutely no doubt that I’m a neophyte. This started out as a hobby and has grown into an essential component of my life, but because I’m new, I have very little in the way of kit. For A Distant Light, I ran a Mackie Onyx Firewire board into a Windows XP PC (Win7 64bit now) that I built myself. It houses Reason 4 and now Cubase 6. A pair of Alesis M1 Actives and Audio-Technica ATH-M50 monitor headphones serve as my monitors. Period. That was literally all I used.


“A Distant Light” is a testament to how little one can get by on to make music these days. I have to admit, though, that I relied heavily on Steve Roach to take some pretty rough material and turn it into something listenable, but that is primarily because of my lack of experience and not the limitations of my gear.

In time, I plan on adding more VSTs, like Absynth, Massive and Omnisphere, an Eventide reverb unit, better acoustics in the studio and a decent unit for field recordings. I’ve got a huge wish list, but I have to be realistic. I’m in no hurry, though, as I think it’s important to keep it simple and enjoy the creative process of sound design and not rely on the use of canned VST sounds.

I have a few vintage synths that will eventually get used on future projects, which include an Oberheim Matrix 12, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, a Moog Prodigy, a Korg Wavestation and a Korg MS2000. Right now, I’m making an absolute science of milking Reason’s Subtractor, Malstrom and Thor for everything they’re worth. There’s no end to what a skilled sound designer can do with these synths. They’re why I love Reason so much. Erik Wollo made a couple of VST synths I want to try out, as well.

I heard you’re already working on your second album. What can you already reveal on it, and what other future plans do you have?
I am. In fact, I’m nearing it’s completion. I haven’t decided on a name yet, but it consists of eight pieces and comprises about 60 minutes of run time. I’m incredibly excited about it and I think it represents my growth as a composer as well as my growing technical skills. I’m tempted to share works in progress, but have decided not to, because I’m reluctant to share work that doesn’t sound it’s very best. I’d rather wait and share the final polished creation as a cd, so it has the greatest impact and best first impression possible.

Future plans, hmm. Aside from occasional studio upgrades, I think I’m just going to continue doing what I love and that’s create art and music. As long as the demand is there for me to share, I’ll certainly do so, but audience or not, I’ll still make music for as long as my body, mind and spirit will facilitate it. It feeds my soul and contributes to my enthusiasm for life. It is my passion and it is essential to my happiness. I’m excited about the future. There may even be a collaboration or two, down the road. Time will tell…

Website: www.hollanholmesmusic.com