Last August, Toronto's Holy Fuck got some shocking news. Canada's conservative Tories had announced the cancellation of PromArt, a $4.7-million federal program that sent artists abroad to promote Canadian culture. One of the reasons cited: “a rock band that uses an expletive as part of its name.” Why, reasoned the conservatives, should government money go to groups “that would raise the eyebrows of any typical Canadian?”
“I don't really have to convince anyone that it was a scapegoat situation,” sighs Brian Borcherdt, the band's keyboardist and effects man. “People are smart enough to know that that's obviously what happened. We weren't really to blame.”
When Borcherdt and his bandmates founded their experimental electro-indie group in 2004, the expletive was more of a guttural reaction to the band's barrage of noise than a desperate plea for publicity.
“It sounds like I'm bullshitting, but it's true,” he claims. “We didn't at all want to be controversial. It sounds funny to say that, but, honestly, when you live in a pretty big city like Toronto, you forget that there's a world out there that would care, and you think for the most part that you'll never have to deal with that world. Really, you just play music and have fun with your friends and you never really think that your band name will stop you from being stocked at Wal-Mart.”
But to the people that matter—the open-minded ones who love music—the Tories can shove it where the sun doesn't shine. The f-bomb hasn't stopped Holy Fuck from making buzz-worthy appearances at marquee festivals like Lollapalooza, All Tomorrow's Parties and South by Southwest. The Juno Awards didn't seem to mind when the band's second full-length, LP, was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year in 2008. Neither did M.I.A., when she took the band on the road with her in 2007 and 2008.
Of course, Holy Fuck had no idea what they were in for when they started. Their only focus then was to develop a new brand of electronica, one that employs all the weird effects and washes of noise that have come to dominate the genre, without the plug-and-play ease of laptops.
“We weren't trying to shun technology,” Borcherdt says. “We thought maybe it would be an intuitive way to do something without the prerequisite of modern technology. I wasn't entirely convinced that in order to play a certain style of music, you had to go out and get a certain style of equipment. It was fun to try to find things around the house and at pawn shops that were very lo-fi and battery-operated, that were intended for use as toys, to see what we could do with them and hopefully achieve very unique results.”
Some of the gear has proven particularly popular, such as an old piece of film-editing equipment that has tape heads built into it, which allows the band to pick up the magnetic audio on the reel of the tape.
Still, Borcherdt adds, Holy Fuck has been very careful not to descend into gimmickry.
“We've developed an intuition about when it starts to get silly. We never intended on becoming a Blue Man Group, where we're up there with all this silly stuff. For the most part we'll just pick up little battery-operated keyboards, especially ones that have headphone jacks that you can plug into your guitar pedals and to any amp to make it sound big and huge. We know by now that there will be at least one beat or rhythm accompaniment on there that will sound really cool if we fuck it up the right way.”
But fucking it up the right way, it turned out, wasn't so easy. Rehearsing proved to be damn-near impossible.
“In the beginning, because we were trying to figure out how to use this unwieldy pile of instruments and a lot of it was random, it wouldn't serve practical purpose to rehearse because chances were, we wouldn't be able to recreate any of it anyway. We've become known as an improvisational band, and that was never my intent. It's not like jazz, where we're, like, ‘Let's improvise!' It's more like, ‘It's so intense, let's save it for the show. We might not be able to ever do this again so let's share it.'”
Over the course of two albums, 2005's Holy Fuck and 2007's LP (re-released last year on Young Turks), the band has learned how to bring its notorious stage presence into the studio.
“It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to recreate that energy, and perhaps we haven't been able to recreate it so much as make it a different type of expression. It will sound different when you get the record. We set up in the studio so that we're all in the same room together, facing each other, and we're playing live together. We know we're trying to commit to a take that we like that has all four of us on there, but still it's very much a live performance.”
Even if, adds Borcherdt with a laugh, “there's a little less energy in the room, and a little less sweat, and maybe I'm not as drunk!”
Take it from the Canadian conservatives on this one, though. Holy Fuck rocks with the kind of intensity that inspires expletives and raised eyebrows, eh.Holy Fuck play on Sunday, June 7, with Crocodiles at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/holyfuck.