Before we get into the interview with Holy Moly & The Crackers and their new album Salem, feast your eyes and ears on their new video for Mary, the anthemic new single from their upcoming album. With an industrial groove, hooky brass riff and celtic/folk influence the song skilfully draws together the band’s horizon of genre.
Holy Moly & The Crackers Interview
Thanks for agreeing to talk to FRUK. Who are we talking to?
Conrad (singer, trumpet)
There are references to witchcraft, tarot and hallucination on Salem which I take it is inspired by the witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts. The album was recorded in a studio that was once a medieval chapel above a family tomb…and the songs are described as darker, starker, more intense….Can you share with us how the ideas for the album arose and what was a major driver in terms of the narrative which deals with many modern issues?
We’ll get on to this, but Holy Moly & The Crackers has many influences – a real mosaic. But one of my great loves is the dark theatrical craziness of New Orleans culture, and I share that with Rosie (accordion) who works as the costume designer for the Newcastle Circus when we’re not touring: The city where death and the spirit world are celebrated in the most spectacular way (I’ve never been. For me, it exists in the stories and in the songs): witchcraft, voodoo, Day of the Dead, Mardi Gras, jazz funerals, the ghost stories of the bayou – all thread together by a mongrel Christianity, twisted and contorted by the mash of culture and immigration that is the history of the city. When I realized that we’d be tracking the drums above a 12th Century family tomb, it was like the fates were coming together. I told Tommy, our drummer, to play the drums loud enough to wake the dead. Let loose, that boy is crazy on the kit. There was something judgment-day-like about it.
The album is not a political one, but as a writer, it is hard, perhaps irresponsible, to ignore the tectonic shifts in our political structures over the last two years. For 20 years homophobia and xenophobia, though always present, has been condemned by the victorious liberal mainstream. But Trump and Brexit has changed everything: Pandora’s box has been opened and the monsters are coming out. Ruth’s (lead vocal, violin) take on the witch trials of Salem (1692), for me, is a mature and intelligent metaphor for the combustive, dangerous mix of fear, ignorance and hysteria that is blowing up today. The past informs the present; will human nature ever change? “untie me, untie them, untie yourself from the saga that seems to go on for all time” It’s a very impressive, important piece of writing. Don’t tell her but as a songwriter, I’m kind of jealous, ha! It felt right to name the album after the song.
What have been your biggest musical influences with this album?
We’ve departed from our go-to folk/gypsy roots: Cold Comfort Lane is reminiscent of The Scissor Sisters, The Zutons and we’ve been listening to a lot of Artic Monkeys. You can here it in Ruth’s vocal performance. We love dub and reggae (…check out The Frightnrs on Daptone Records) and you can here that on Hallelujah Amen; Sugar steps in the giant footprints of Tom Waits; Regina Spektor has always been one of Ruth’s favorite artists and she echoes her orchestral elegance in The Wall and Salem; Our guitar player Pete, when not touring with HMATC, is a guitar technician and works for rock/punk band, Counterfeit – Easy As The Sunrise, Let Go, Mary all have elements of guitar crunch, development of a heavier sound. Like I said before this album is a mosaic, a melting pot. In the end the song leads us, not the other way round. The song dictates the sound, and we follow.
Compared to your earlier releases, Salem has been described as less gypsy, more rock. Was this a conscious shift and did you seek out that new sound in your choice of production and mastering?
Yeh, I’d agree with that and I suppose there’s a two-part reason for the shift; creative and pragmatic.
We’re all older than when we started: We’ve been touring pretty hard for the last two/three years, and all a little more haggard. Creatively, it didn’t make sense in my head to write another batch of folk songs, or good-time party tunes. I was hungry for something heavier, darker. And I think we achieved that, especially if you listen to the album in comparison to our first album, First Avenue (a naïve collection of self-penned folk songs).
Pragmatically, I feel like there’s a glass ceiling as a “gypsy festival band”. Don’t get me wrong, we are a live band through and through, and the festival season is my favourite time of year. But we wanted to change things up, to give the band a new lease of life and excitement. Maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, because I suppose that’s how we’ve built a reputation (if you can call it a reputation), but we wanted to make something that had meaning and weight beyond the live stages of the festival circuit. And then we met Matt Terry, an accomplished producer of 30 years. He’s worked with the likes of The Enemy and The Wonderstuff: a real indie kid. He heard some demos and got really excited about them, he believed in what we were trying to do. He offered us the album but said we needed to learn some rules first. He basically taught us how to write pop/rock songs. And of course you need to learn the rules before you can break them: I mean, Picasso was an overly skilled realist as a teenager before he tore it all up. Looking back on it, I don’t think we knew the rules before we met Matt. For me, this album was an exercise in learning how to write a rock/pop song. Call it selling out, really I don’t mind. But we plan to get whacky and weird in the next load of writing we do – subvert the structures and templates. Well, that’ll be album no. #3, and that’s for the future.
You’ve very eclectic musical influences, is there a common ground amongst you in which you all find a balance or do you find it’s your differences which spark new ideas….a sort of musical cross-pollination?
Ruth, Rosie (accordion) and I started the band 6 years ago. We found common ground with ‘nu’ folk & blues: Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling, Gogol Bordello. As the band grew, so did our musical horizons: Jamie (bass) loves funk, soul and Motown. Tommy, as a drummer, is all about the Doors, Velvet Underground and The Strokes. Martha (trombone, backing vocals) is the newest member. She played in North-East ska band P!key Beatz before joining the band and brings a vibey, rhythmic punch to the songs. We throw it all into the cooking pot and let the ingredients do the rest of the work. You’re right: it’s the differences that spark the new ideas. And with differences come the accidents, the unexpected – and that’s where the magic is.
You’re all well known as a touring band so life on the road and staying positive will be high up on your agenda. So a) What is one of HMTC’s top road touring tips for getting along with each other in close quarters and b) what are you listening to in the van at the moment (and how do you decide)?
a) Top tip: Be understanding with hangovers. Anyone is unreasonable when they’ve got a banging head, nauseous and stuck in a dank dark van on the way to another show. It’s a little bit more complicated when everyone is hungover, ha! We’re a loud dysfunctional family: we bicker, we argue – but we’ve been through a lot together, and love each other for it.
b) I’m writing this on the way to a show, and we’re listening to the news. Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn’s driver ran over the foot of a photographer (how is this newsworthy?!) We all think it’s a setup. Apart from that, we’re currently listening to a lot of Jack White in the van. Albums – Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, are awesome pieces of work. I feel like he’s doing what we are trying to do; taking the old American tradition of folk/blues and ripping it up, dragging it kicking and screaming and snarling into the 21st How do we decide? Who chooses? … Whoever shouts loud enough. I told you: a loud dysfunctional family.
You’ve no doubt got a busy summer ahead of you on the festival circuit, what song from the album are you most looking forward to playing live?
I think that depends on what part you play in the song. I imagine for the backline Cold Comfort Lane must be really fun. I’m looking forward to performing Hallelujah Amen. I’m very proud of that song.
Are you playing any new festivals this year?
Moonbeams Festival, Bestival, Camp Bestival, Looe Music Festival (and a return to Boomtown!!) I really can’t wait – it’s going to be a mad ride.
And finally…what do you want your fans to feel when they first hear Salem?
Pete Hogan (guitar)
(this is what happens when you ask the band)
Salem is released July 14th via Pink Lane Records.
Pre-Order it here: https://holymolyandthecrackers.lnk.to/salem