Friday 23 August 2019

'I'm the luckiest f***er in the world' - Belfast DJ David Holmes talks working with Steven Soderbergh, soundtracking Killing Eve and growing up in the Troubles

Belfast DJ David Holmes on growing up during the Troubles, his 20-year partnership with Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh, working on the 'Killing Eve' soundtrack and why he will not be taking part in his band's live shows

Driven out: two of Holmes’s siblings ended up in Chicago to escape the Troubles
Driven out: two of Holmes’s siblings ended up in Chicago to escape the Troubles
Retro sound: Holmes his Unloved bandmates provided the music for Killing Eve
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is the day after the killing in Derry of journalist Lyra McKee, and David Holmes is angry. The proud Belfast man abhors the violence that marred the daily lives for so many during the Troubles and he is desperate for all the bloodshed to be left in the past.

"That was absolutely horrendous," he says of McKee's death. "A human being is a human being but to find out how talented she was… and it sounds like she was at the beginning of an incredible career. It's just so f***ing senseless. And for what?

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"You look at who's in charge up here and you look at who's in charge in England and you think to yourself, 'Oh my God - are we potentially heading into another nightmare?' The person who killed that girl was probably not even born before the Good Friday Agreement. They've not one f***ing reason to be in a movement like - inverted commas - the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA or whatever the f*** they're called."

Like so many of his generation, the revered DJ and film composer - now 50 - has his own very personal memories of the heartache caused by the Troubles. Growing up in a Catholic family in a largely Protestant part of Belfast, he recalls how two of his brothers were essentially driven out of the province during the height of the conflict.

"I remember a young guy, a friend of my brother's, getting shot on our street in 1972. My family weren't political and a local UVF commander came to my father to warn him to get rid of my brother - who was 17 - because he was going to be shot.

"So he came home from work and when he saw the bags packed he asked, 'Who's home?' He was told then that he'd be going to Chicago. My father had a brother there."

Another sibling wound up in the Windy City, too. "He kept getting stopped and searched and beaten up by the British army. One day, he just went, 'F*** this' and he left."

Despite such tribulations, Holmes says he had an exceptionally happy childhood and, as the youngest of 10, he was given a rich cultural upbringing. His oldest sister, Maggie, was 19 when he was born and went to London to be a fashion designer. "She would come home at Christmas with an extra suitcase and in that case were clothes, records, books, magazines - all the stuff that we weren't exposed to. She had all this culture - it was a like a treasure chest.

"And my brother was a huge Jam and Clash fan. When I was eight, I was listening to the Pistols and the Clash and the Damned. I didn't even know how to spell 'anarchy' [in reference to the Sex Pistols 'Anarchy in the UK'] let alone tell you what it meant but it had an energy and emotion that did something to me."

His mother played her part, too. "She had a very open-minded attitude," he says, "and really loved music. She was a huge Gladys Knight fan. She loved Sinatra. She loved Elvis, The Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel. And when she'd go to see my brothers in Chicago, she'd bring me back all these amazing soul and rhythm 'n' blues records and then during the Acid House period, she would come home with all this really cool stuff - and it was perfect because Chicago is where house music began."

And it was thanks to this middle-aged Irish mammy walking into Chicago record stores and asking staff for recommendations for her music-mad son back home that Holmes began embarking on what would be a magnificently esoteric career.

First, he blazed a trail in the early 1990s as one of the most in-demand DJs the island of Ireland has ever produced - comfortably playing to sell-out crowds in venues like the Point Depot.

Then, at the end of the decade, he was being lauded for cinematic sounding albums like Let's Get Killed. It wasn't long before Hollywood - in the shape of indie auteur Steven Soderbergh - came calling. The result of their first collaboration was the romantic crime caper, Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

Twenty years on and Holmes and Soderbergh have a partnership every bit as enduring as that of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock and John Williams and Steven Spielberg. "The man is a f***ing genius," he says of Soderbergh. "He's one of the most creative and intelligent people I've ever met. He knows exactly what he wants and he can articulate what he wants amazingly well."

He has recently finished the score for Soderbergh's forthcoming film, The Laundromat, which is based on the Panama Papers scandal and stars Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman.

"He sent me the script and a note saying, 'I want you to embrace your inner unhip white man' and he sent me a playlist of the kind of world that the music should be in." He worked with Northern Irish composer Brian Irvine and a jazz quartet, and after four productive days in a London studio, he sent the finished product to Soderbergh.

"He got back to me and said, 'This is perfect' and the next time I heard the music, he had cut it into the finished film and I am thinking, 'This fits like a f***ing glove'. That's his genius - not mine. Some directors will micromanage stuff and they'll almost give you too much information, but he knows exactly what he needs to say to you and what he needs to give you. It's a classic case of less is more and being very articulate with very few words."

It's been a highly productive 12 months for Holmes. He has also scored a new Irish film, Normal People, a two-hander with Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. "It's made by friends of mine [directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn who did [the Belfast-set] Good Vibrations and I think it's a gorgeous film." He says the central performances are "outstanding" and he is relieved that Neeson has weathered recent controversies, arguing that his words - deemed by some as racist - were taken out of context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the kicking Neeson received, Holmes isn't keen to get into the nuts and bolts of the argument.

He's on much steadier ground when the subject of Killing Eve comes up. Holmes, along with his Unloved bandmates Keefus Ciancia and Jade Vincent, have supplied the music that's helped make the BBC spy series such a global TV hit. They soundtracked the first season and the second season features yet more of the sophisticated retro-inspired music that has become Unloved's stock-in-trade.

"I think it works very well," he says of the collaboration with Killing Eve, adapted for television by the much-lauded and newly named James Bond scriptwriter, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. "And it's the fruits of the good fortune of being in LA working on a Steven Soderbergh film and meeting [by chance] Keefus and finding we not only got on, but worked very well in the studio together." Jade Vincent is Ciancia's partner in life and art, and once she was recruited to the Unloved cause, the band took off.

"A lot of the stuff that I was playing like Brigitte Fontaine, The Shangri-Las, people like Broadcast and Cat's Eyes became the foundation for Unloved," he says. "It's got this melange of West Coast girl groups, but it's also got this European psychedelic feeing, too.

"Unloved," he adds, "was a name I had in my mind for a while based on the Samantha Morton film."

The trio's second album, Heartbreak, was released to considerable acclaim earlier this year. And while he will support Ciancia and Vincent with a DJ set in Dublin next week, he is not part of the Unloved live show. Touring, he jokes, is not something that appeals to him. "There's not one part of me," he insists, "that wants to go on tour. I'm 50 years of age!"

For now, though, Holmes is enjoying the business of being at home in Belfast and slowing down a little. "I'm taking two months off," he says. "I just hit a brick wall where I was taking on too much stuff and you reach a point where you need to give your creative juices a chance to flow again."

The time-out is unlikely to stretch any longer, though. Holmes enjoys being creatively restless and working with like-minded people like Steven Soderbergh.

He laughs heartily at how his career has turned out. "I'm the luckiest f***er in the world," he says. "I really am."

Unloved play Whelan's, Dublin on May 9, and David Holmes plays a support DJ set

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