INTERVIEW: Holy Moly & The Crackers | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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There has always been a touch of madness about Holy Moly & The Crackers. Madness that stems from seven creative forces coming together, their imaginations and influences combining to produce a unique flavour of fiery, sultry folk music. Since the release of their debut album, First Avenue, in 2012 they have led something of a theatre troupe lifestyle: going from place to place, living, creating and performing across the UK and Europe. Whereas First Avenue, and subsequent EPs, emitted the romanticism characteristic of being “a gypsy festival band” — youthful angst, a love of adventure and a naïve fascination with the world — their new album, Salem, takes a step back from the folk music vein and expresses a shrewder outlook on life.

Where does this fresh, grittier sound come from and do they aim to retain their boisterous musical daringness? Vocalist and trumpeter Conrad Bird explains, “Part of the reason for a change in aesthetic was to move away from our identity as a ‘gypsy festival band’. Don’t get me wrong, we love playing festivals, it is our favorite time of year, and our set-list will always include the gypsy/ska sound that we have gained a reputation for. However, Salem was about moving away from that, expanding on our influences and our identity.”

To grasp how Salem diverged from and retained some of the best elements of their previous material, we turn to the initial spark that inspired their journey together. The first time they performed under the name Holy Moly & The Crackers was during Bird’s university days in Warwickshire. The three original members, Conrad, Ruth Patterson (vocals) and Rosie Bristow (accordion), performed in a friend’s kitchen to about thirty people and “the night descended into madness pretty quick — a real birth of fire!” Fire no doubt reflecting the natural beauty of Yorkshire, where they grew up, the chaotic music scene in the Midlands and a love of Balkan and Russian folk music. A fire that grew stronger when Bird and Patterson followed Bristow to Newcastle, where she was to work as a costume designer for the Newcastle Circus. With no real plans or ambitions in mind, meeting bands such as The Buffalo Skinners and Rob Heron & The Teapad Orchestra however encouraged them to throw themselves headlong into writing and playing music full-time.

They ended up mixing an intoxicating combination of ingredients: folk blues, ska, reggae and klezmer with a hint of rock and pop. In words and in image, they were led by a fascination with the theatricality, superstitions and exoticism of New Orleans, nomadic wildness of Gypsy culture, the burlesque comedy and dance of the circus and the poetry of great 20th century bards (think Bob Dylan and Tom Waits). What tied it all together was more than just pulsating rhythms and sensual imagery, it was an acute sense of narrative.

“The link between storytelling and music is as old as the art forms themselves and I think it is important, as a writer, to maintain the link,” Bristow explains. “The new album approaches the ‘story’ in a different way to our first album. Songs like Cold Comfort Lane are more first-person/second-person imagist snap-shots, than the archetypal third-person story that you might associate with traditional folk songs.”

Pandora’s Box has been opened and the monsters are coming out

The storytelling/music link however is explicitly suggested in the song Salem, after which the album is named. It refers to a town in Massachusetts known for its 1692 witch trials — evoking the prosecution and exclusion of unsuspecting individuals from their community. Recognizing that, “as a writer, it is hard, perhaps irresponsible, to ignore the tectonic shifts in our political structures over the last two years,” Patterson indicates that Salem grapples with changes in modern-day life, including Brexit and the Trump presidency. “Pandora’s Box has been opened and the monsters are coming out. Salem, the song, uses the witch trials of 1692, as a metaphor for the combustive, dangerous mix of fear, ignorance and hysteria that is blowing up today.”

The band’s extensive touring impressed the implications of these social changes most vividly. “Spending a month driving around Europe makes you really appreciate how wonderful freedom of movement is. We always experience the best hospitality when we play in mainland Europe and the idea that Brexit might lead to the breakup of the EU and increased isolation and nationalism is really concerning.”

HMTC had the experienced guidance of producer Matt Terry when recording the album and, contrary to the attic studios of the past, they recorded in “a beautifully grand house set in acres of picturesque gardens with a twelfth century chapel attached”. They stayed there for a month living and breathing their new project. But a drastic re-visioning of sound and image is a risky step for any band. So which song resonates most with what they set out to do and is it a sound they want to go on creating?

“More than any of the other songs on the album, Hallelujah Amen takes our old sound and develops it: grooves it up, uses the hook and the chorus as the foundation on which to build the song. And this is the direction we want to take. For the next album we want to take a step back, but retain the lessons of structure that we learnt recording on this one.”

And what better way to commemorate this new “road-mark on their journey to discover the sound and ‘identity’ of Holy Moly & The Crackers” than by releasing Salem on the 14th of July? Bastille Day: the French celebration of liberty, equality and brotherhood, the marking of new era, and in the case of Holy Moly & The Crackers, a new kind of sonic madness.

Salem is released on Pink Lane Records on Friday 14th July. The band play Cluny 2, Newcastle the same day.

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