Interview: HOLY HOLY’s Oscar Dawson
We get to know the Aussie guitarist and talk about the songwriting partnership behind this rock band’s exceptional debut album
As one half of the creative force behind Australian rockers HOLY HOLY, Oscar Dawson has played a large part in making one of our favourite records of the year, debut album When The Storms Would Come. Along with the lyrics and melody of writing partner Timothy Carroll, it is Dawson’s guitar parts and soundscapes which help give them such a distinctive sound, floating somewhere between classic and experimental rock.
We caught up with Dawson on a day when the London underground had gotten the better of him, so much so that he was considering ditching his guitar and making a run for it. Thankfully, he was still more than happy to talk with us about his partnership with Carroll and the process of writing the album…
How quickly did your relationship with Tim become a collaborative one?
“We’ve known each other for quite a while. Initially just purely on a friendly basis. We’ve had this interesting situation where we’ve always lived in separate cities and that’s persisted until today. We met whilst travelling overseas in Southeast Asia. We had guitars and were barely even men at that point, travelling around and hanging out. We wrote a few outrageous songs, I hate to think what they would sound like now, but it was fun and we enjoyed it.
“We stayed in touch over the years and reconvened over here in Europe quite a bit later. Tim was living in Stockholm and I was in Berlin and I suppose it was kind of serendipitous because I travelled to Stockholm on completely unrelated business and just happened to discover that he was there. I slept on his couch for a couple of days and he was working on a tune, he had the bones of a song and I would just come on board and play a few guitar part, arrange it a bit and maybe come up with a few ideas.”[cc_blockquote_right] I WANT TO WRITE SONGS WHERE YOU AREN’T HIDING BEHIND ANYTHING OR TRYING TO BE COOL [/cc_blockquote_right]How did it progress from there?
“We worked on a demo for one of the songs that ended up being on our album, albeit in quite a different form. Tim was also working on a project under his own name where he released a song a month for a year which he called *The Swedish Tapes. I ended up working with him on that project and it just kind of started progressing from there really. He would travel to Berlin because it’s a great city to hangout in. I was one of those Australians who goes to Berlin, lives there because it’s cheap, and tries to pretend that they’re making lots of art whereas in reality I was just sitting around being a bit confused the whole time.
“It was nice that he came over there and every now and then I went over to Stockholm and we had something to focus on. We got back to Australia separately and at that point it still wasn’t even a band, it was just some songs. We each had our own things going on in life, Tim was in Brisbane and I was going back home to Melbourne. Then he decided to really start working on these songs in a more focussed way and that’s when he got Matt Redlich our producer on board in Brisbane and then Tim got me up there too and it started from there really.”
Is it true that Matt encouraged you to take a while with the recording rather than rush the release of the album?
“Quite a few people did that and I think that was the right idea because there is always a tendency to record the album, release it and get on with the job. In some cases you can be your own worst enemy by doing that and the album won’t be as good as it could be. We’d recorded a full album a while back but then as the months went by we ended up writing a couple more tunes and playing a few more shows and then we started realising that the sound was coming along a bit more.
“Then we wrote a new song called Impossible Like You, which is on the UK version of the album, and that was the song that kick-started everything. It went to radio and we had a real thing on our hand. We then signed a label deal back home and as often happens, they wanted us to release an EP and wait to release the album. I think that was a sound strategy because we ended up again writing some more tunes, recording some more and it kept coming along.”
Was it hard then to finally let go of the album?
“Part of me was like ‘shit we should have written even more songs and delayed the album even more’ and who knows what could happen, but I think that’s always the way. As a writer you could just keep on writing and never reach the finishing line. Sometimes, you’ve just got to call it and say ‘this is the album, it’s done’ and any new tunes that we write will be for the next one.”
[cc_blockquote_right] YOU HAVE TO GIVE AND TAKE AND I THINK THAT CAN PRODUCE THE BEST RESULTS [/cc_blockquote_right] How has your writing relationship with Tim changed over time?
“Over that period I became more and more involved. Initially he’d have a basic idea for a song, with lyrics, a chorus, a verse and a bridge to which I would add my part or change little things. Towards the end I’d come to him with a fully fledged music track which would then trigger ideas for melodies and lyrics. A Heroine was one of those. In that sense I got more involved in terms of steering the direction myself. We also brought in Ryan Strathrie our drummer a bit more. We’d start working on a demo and get a basic structure and then send it to him. Because we didn’t live in the same city this was done via email a lot of the time. We’d send an MP3 to him which he would play drums along to and that would then inform what we’d do next. Finally, we’d all get into a room together and flesh it out even more.
“Tim and I also like having our own identity in the band and like letting the other have his identity as well. Pushing and pulling a bit, which is always a fun part of it because it is a collaboration. You have to give and take and I think that can produce the best results. When that works you get a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Do you get involved with Tim’s lyrics at all?
“Very rarely, and most of the time it’s because I like his lyrics. I also think lyrics are a hard thing to comment on unless you’re really sure that they’re not working, which sometimes happens but not so often in this band. I like Tim’s stories and I think that the stories we tell in the band are a by-product of where we’ve been and what we’ve done in our lives and often I’ve shared those experiences with Tim, so I find them relatable. Tim and I are the same age, we’ve both travelled and lived a bit so we’ll see eye to eye on some of those ideas.
“The other reason is that I feel like they’re such a personal thing and in the eye of the beholder, you’ll live with a song for a long time and you’ll uncover new things in the lyrics as you go along. Often I won’t comment on them as they’ll just take on a life of their own. I feel like you have to let them live.”
Will the lyrics ever lead you to a sound?
“I think it often works the other way, the sound or the basic chords will come first and then the lyrics come after. Most of the time it’ll be the case that we’re working on a sound and Tim will fashion the lyrics to that. Either that or he’ll come with some basic lyrics and the bare bones chords to which we’ll develop the sound.”
Have your travels changed you as a writer and musician?
“Whether its travels and experiences or just changes happening naturally, but yeah definitely. I think that travel is great, you see new things and it opens your mind but also because you find yourself away from home with time on your hands. You’re in a different head space, one that gives you time to work on songs and write new things, as opposed to when I’m at home I’m always busy working or doing errands or whatever. When I’m away I’ve got freedom to write and I think that’s sometimes the best part of travelling. That’s why I say Berlin was really good, we had time and space. We had no money at all and the only thing we could do was write music.”
[cc_blockquote_right] YOU LISTEN TO QUEEN AND THEY’RE JUST SO OVER THE TOP [/cc_blockquote_right] Who are some of your biggest influences?
“It’s so hard to say, there have been so many over the years. My heroes from back when I was a kid are still lingering there, like Jimmy Page and all the old guitar heroes. I’ve always loved Queen and Led Zeppelin. From a songwriting perspective what I love about Queen is that it’s bold and they’re not afraid to make a strong statement. I think it’s very easy as a writer to get into this frame of mind where you’ve got to be very cool and play everything down. You listen to Queen and they’re just so over the top, I can’t believe anyone had the balls to do that but I love that they did. I feel like a lot of the time in music these days people don’t make those big statements.”
Is that something you try to incorporate into your music?
“Most of the time our music isn’t making too big a statement but I like the idea that we can try to put our balls on the line. I remember hearing Brian Eno talk about ‘coolness’ in music and that if you think about what that word actually means it’s actually a veil for emotion, it’s covering up or hiding it. It’s the opposite of being vulnerable and opening up and I want to write songs where you aren’t hiding behind anything or trying to be cool. That’s something I try to think about a lot as we write. I’m not sure how much we did do that on this record but I’m hoping that we keep doing it in the future.”
Who are some of your other key influences?
“At a certain point I started listening to Radiohead a lot more. It became less fashionable to play guitar solos and it became more fashionable to use delay pedals and create soundscapes. However, we decided to put a guitar solo on You Cannot Call For Love Like A Dog and that was great, it felt natural and fun.
“Later on came Neil Young and the Crazy Horse style. Initially that jarred when I was a kid, it was so imperfect but then it just made sense and I started listening to Wilco and there’s some great guitar playing on those records. It’s a sound as opposed to a technique and we started bringing that into our music, but I can’t ever really kick the old vintage rock I’m afraid.”
What’s next for you guys?
“When we meet up for tours and rehearsals we use that time and end up writing new tunes. We’ve got a few in the set now and I feel like it’s a good way to test new material out. You just get a feel about how they resonate with people, or how they don’t resonate with people So we’re slowly developing these songs and seeing where they take us. It’s been really good to get it the album out and we’ve got more things to say. I’m ready to write new tunes now as we’d been working on When The Storms Would Come for a while. I just have to remember to be patient.”
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