by Laura Stanley
About his latest recording All Of My Bodies, Andrew Lee (Holy Hum) writes in the “discourse” section of his website,“I’m sorry but this record is not for you. It’s for me. It’s for my late father.” Our role as listener suddenly is drastically different. We selfishly believe that songs are always for us; to placate, please, and entertain. But we are wrong. Sometimes music is only for the musician.
“I don’t say that to be exclusive or to alienate anyone,” Lee says, clarifying what he wrote on his website. “I’m more at a point now where I am doing things for myself. I have to get something out of it and I can’t possibly try to figure out what anyone else wants out of the music so I get more satisfaction in making myself happy with my music.”
Listening to All Of My Bodies is like looking through a window into a dimly lit room but your breath fogs up the glass so you have to keep wiping the glass and then the glass gets smudged. Lee sits inside this room and we watch as he screams and punches the walls and cries and lies on the floor and meditates. This is a man trying to come to terms with the death of his father. What unfolds is so intimate you feel like you shouldn’t be there at all but it’s so beautiful you can’t walk away.
The Vancouver artist comes from a singer-songwriter background – Lee was the lead-singer of the now demised alt-rock band In Medias Res – but for his project Holy Hum he wanted to explore how sound can also convey what he is thinking and feeling. This curiosity also extends to his ongoing video and sound installations. An ever evolving drone composition became the hour long epic Appendix C which he released in early 2015. That spring, he released its melancholic precursor, Appendix A + B – “Appendix A” was the first Holy Hum song containing lyrics and vocals.
After a smattering of additional releases, All Of My Bodies is Holy Hum’s first full-length collection of songs. On the album, Lee uses both sound and lyrics to express his grief and confront his memories. On the album’s apex “White Buzz,” Lee opens the song by moaning, “In the room/the weight upon your shoulders/you’re letting go,” foreshadowing the song eventually droning off into bottomless din.
As Lee stands outside a restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown and I sit at my desk in my room in Toronto, our conversation unfurls with ease and we discuss artistic processes, live performances, and the role memory plays in Lee’s music. “I’m having a really nice time,” I admit to him halfway through our conversation.
Does music and art go hand in hand for you?
It took me a long time for that seamlessness and fluidness of jumping back and forth between art and music. It’s probably even something that I am still discovering currently. For a time they were two disparate mediums: I had a visual arts project and I had an older band called In Medias Res and they were very different. I was having exhibitions but I was playing in a post-rock type band. Once I stopped doing that, I realized that my interest lie in both universes and that I wanted to make a project that embodied both sides of my brains and that’s sort of what Holy Hum is. It has been an interesting journey because I think whatever fans I do have, they kind of don’t know how to describe the project and they don’t know what to expect when they come to a performance. Maybe I’ll be doing an ambient performance or maybe I’m not performing per se and it’s an installation piece. Or sometimes it is a standard, four, five piece rock band playing songs.
Are your live shows improvised?
I would say it’s improvisation and also implementing chance elements. Regardless of whether I’m singing a song on the guitar or whether I’ve made an interpretive score for five instruments to play, I think there’s always an element of improvisation. I have a very short attention span so if I’m just going through the motions of playing a song on the guitar that’s already been arranged and written, my brain starts tuning out and I lose my focus. So often times I’m always implementing improvisation.
If you talk to people who have played with me in some incarnation of Holy Hum, they’ll probably tell you that Andrew is very difficult to play with and is always changing things. The act of performing is important for me. I realize that it’s not some sort of rehearsed performances that I’m doing, I want to get something out of the performances. Often times I’m trying to discover new things and I’m trying to do new things regardless of whether I’m alone in my practice space or I’m in front of a couple of hundred people. There has to be something at stake for me when I perform. So I think I’m always improvising.
On Bandcamp you wrote about Appendix C, “…the sounds and imagery that were running through my mind and heart at the time influenced it a great deal…” How do you turn the sounds and imagery running through your mind and heart into art or music?
Often times sound informs everything. It doesn’t even need to be Bob Dylan singing a song or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, it can often just be a sound. When you break down the elements of what you’re experiencing, whether you’re looking at imagery or whether you’re sitting on your back porch or laying in a field, there’s that ambient sound that really informs your experience and I realized the great potential in that and tried to explore that in “Appendix C”.
Speaking of ambient sounds, on All Of My Bodies I hear rain. It’s at the end of “Joseph Pt 2,” I hear a thunderstorm at the beginning of “Sunbreaking,” and on “Sex at 31” you sing “Even after so much rain, this city still remains.” Are you inspired by nature?
Absolutely! Only in the sense that those sounds are very specific to me. Those sounds are actual moments in my life and I wanted to remember those moments in my medium. My paintbrushes and my colours are sound so the way that I remember and the way that memory functions for me is sound. If I’m feeling really shitty about something or I’m thinking about someone, I’ll whip out my sound recorder and I’ll capture that moment and I’ll date it and I’ll name the file what I was thinking about it. A lot of [the ambient sounds] on the record are specific time and places for me that transport me back to that moment. It’s not going to have that affect for anyone else but it has that meaning for me and that’s what I was going for in this record.
What is the role of memory in your music?
Memory for me, as I understand it, it’s like you have an actual image (the actual memory) and you put a piece of paper on top and you try and trace it. It’s never going to be the exact same thing, it’s going to be something different and for me, I don’t think that negates the memory. That memory and that moment becomes new again when you try to evoke it, when you try to remember it. It becomes something new and it becomes something of the moment. The fact that humans can do that is a wonderful thing.
I’m not trying to tell any sort of definitive story about anything or anyone. All I’m trying to do is grab any sort of semblance of those memories and bring them new life and it’s very meaningful for myself, or for anyone, because then memories become something new. You get a new perspective. And also the time and place in your life when you’re thinking about those memories is not static. My memory of my father’s death and my memory of visiting him on his death bed five years ago is very different now. I was a very different person and now I’m equipped more in certain senses to deal with those things so in that way I’m never going to really experience those memories in the same way. I can’t.
On your website you quote Philip Glass who was kind of an outsider with his art and is now viewed as a dominant artistic force: do you find yourself navigating an insider/outsider binary? When do you feel power versus when do you feel like an outsider?
I generally do not feel power at any time. I generally feel powerless. Whether you’re referring to me as an artist and a conduit of art or whether me being an artist in the realm of artists and feeling that I have some sort of authority. I think as a musician within the music community I am not fully accepted because I approach music from an artistic point of view. So often time, I have a hard time finding shows because bands don’t know what they’re going to get with me so often times they don’t want to play with me. In the art community people are less incline to work with me because they think of me as a musician.
For better or for worse, I created my own plane or plateau that I can exist in which is somewhere in between a musician and a visual artist and so far that has done me a disservice for both communities but it gives me tremendous freedom to be either or neither or be one more than the other at any given time. I’m only saying that because I’m able to look back on it now but that wasn’t any sort of strategic manoeuvre on my part.