A few weeks ago, when Radiohead's Kid A debuted as the No. 1 album in America, after a summer that saw the charts dominated by the Total Request Live Mafia, music aficionados sent up a collective cry of joy. And Irish DJ/producer David Holmes' voice rang out among them.
"I was so pleased about that because it showed that people are finally waking up to good music again," he declares. "There was a while back, where I kept thinking, 'Fuck, where did it all go wrong?' You'd look at what people were buying, and it was so discouraging."
"Kid A is a really dangerous record for Radiohead to make, but it's brilliant," he continues. But Holmes reckons the band wasn't conscious of the commercial stakes when they made it. "If you look back at Sgt. Pepper's or Pet Sounds, they were trying to create something new and different. A lot of timeless records were made by taking a risk."
David Holmes knows about taking risks; in 1997, he entitled his second album Let's Get Killed in deference to the scrapes he narrowly escaped while making field recordings on the mean streets of New York and tripping on LSD. Holmes created his latest, Bow Down to the Exit Sign (1500 Records), around a set of aesthetic challenges that are even greater—although not as potentially life-threatening—by marrying the project to the writing of a film script.
As new twists emerged in the story of the as-yet-unmade Living Room ("the pitch is it's a contemporary Midnight Cowboy meets Performance," he says, the latter title referring to Nicholas Roeg's 1970 Mick Jagger vehicle), the music evolved to reflect them. Likewise, as Holmes roped in collaborators such as Jon Spencer, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, musician/poet Carl Hancock-Rux, and former Tricky foil Martina Topley-Bird to add vocals and lyrics, their contributions shaped the movie's plot.
While Killed bore the impression of American soul and R&B of the '50s and '60s and the cross-cultural grooves of French legend Serge Gainsbourg, Bow Down sounds grimmer and grittier, boasting so many points of reference that taking inventory of them almost overloads one's circuitry.
"The initial inspirations, musically, for this album were Miles Davis, his Bitches Brew period; Dr. John, 'Walk on Gilded Splinters' from Gris Gris and Gumbo; and Can's Ege Bamyasi, Tago Mago, and some bootlegs that I had of just them jamming," Holmes explains. There's also more than a little Velvet Underground in cuts like "Incite a Riot."
Holmes chose a structural model for Bow Down that guaranteed results full of dramatic tension: the soundtrack to Performance. Gillespie's "Sick City" anchors the set, much as Jagger's "Memo to Turner" did. Spencer and Topley-Bird provide contemporary counterpoints to the blues and gospel contributions of Ry Cooder and the Merry Clayton Singers, and Hancock-Rux (who also contributes a cover of the Gene McDaniels '60s hit "Compared to What") takes the place of proto-rap ensemble the Last Poets. Instrumentals, incidental passages, sound effects, and snatches of Living Room dialogue cement Bow Down into a consummate listening experience.
Ironically, the composer behind the Performance soundtrack, Jack Nitzsche, died in late August, after the completion of Bow Down. "He was incredible," reflects Holmes on the man responsible for the music of 30-plus films, including The Exorcist. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a stunning piece of work. There's music in that movie that's just timeless.
"And he was so fucking hip as well," Holmes adds. "He was like a rock star in a lot of ways, like Phil Spector was . . . or Lalo Schifrin or Ennio Morricone. There's a lot more to these powerful fucking names than just, 'He did the score.' They are legends."
Holmes, who provided the music for the 1998 Soderbergh picture Out of Sight and is now on board for the director's remake of Ocean's Eleven, also names Eric Serra and David Arnold (who handled the orchestral arrangements on Bow Down's "Hey Lisa") as some of his favorite cinema contemporaries. "But a lot of the soundtracks I'm really drawn to aren't by the run-of-the-mill guys," he says, citing Neil Young's contributions to Jarmusch's Dead Man as an example. "Or the soundtrack work Tom Waits does. I love that man—he's a complete genius," he adds, with obvious admiration.
Like the best work of the many names Holmes mentions in the course of an interview, Bow Down isn't the most accessible platter. Repeated exposure is required for the album's nefarious charms to take root. But if the success of Kid A is any indication, even in today's culture of instant gratification, an ardent audience for artists such as David Holmes still exists. "Everything that's instant wears off very quickly," he concludes. "The records that take more than a few listens are the ones you grow to love."