Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bill Holt Interview

In the early 1970s, Bill Holt, a happily married company executive with 3M quit his job to commence recording what would eventually come to be known as "Dreamies". The initial release of this unique album consisted of two lengthy tracks simply titled "Program Ten" and "Program Eleven" which take the listener on a trip into the fascinating world of Holt's imagination. Melancholic guitar strumming and psychedelic vocals supplement intricately layered synthesizer sounds and recorded samples culminating in one of the most original albums I have ever discovered. The great shame about "Dreamies" was that it went largely unheard upon its initial release in 1973 but in recent years it's notoriety has been gradually building amidst the murky depths of the internet and via Holt's own website.

As far as I can tell, there are two interviews with Bill Holt online. The first can be found on the now defunct Cyclik Defrost here and the second was with Evan LeVine from the highly recommended Swan Fungus here. I recently contacted Bill to cover a few of the details concerning "Dreamies" and his career in general that had yet to be investigated and to bring attention to this under appreciated musician and personality. Many thanks to Bill for being so helpful and cooperative.

Was your decision to quit the security of your job at 3M and record "Dreamies" somewhat spontaneous or had the idea been slowly burning away for a long time?

Well I was in the job for about 10 years. I enjoyed it immensely for almost the whole time. I think most people go through stages in life, start to question what's up. I think my decision to leave 3M was classic Maslow's hierarchy of needs where you start out just trying to get a roof over your head and food and security then after you get that you start to ponder some other meaning of life. It was just in the last couple of years in the corporate world I realized, having done well at one thing, maybe I should try to use that confidence gained to follow my heart.  In the early 1970's when I left my corner office at 3M, the whole culture was turning on it's head. The whole concept of being "a free spirit" was new, at least to me, and it looked incredibly attractive. It's not like I dropped out into oblivion. I saved up a years worth of money. Had a plan. I was off to be a successful groundbreaking artist armed with all the latest musical tools and a definite idea of what I wanted to do.

"Dreamies" still sounds remarkably fresh and unique (it was included in MOJO magazines top 50 "most out there albums of all time"). How do you feel about the album now after all these years?

Extremely happy and proud. Every now and then I listen to it and think - how'd I do that? Dreamies Program Ten and Eleven sound much more detailed, more intricate to me now then when I recorded it.  For me the hardest part of being an artist is the revealing yourself part. At times, I was embarrassed by it.  So the recent acclaim is comforting, fulfilling. I love Dreamies, always did.

The titles of the two long tracks on "Dreamies" were inspired by The Beatles song "Revolution 9", so I assume they were an influence. What other bands or musicians influenced you at the time? 

Not much else that I actually listened to. Mainly, I read. About avant-garde composers.  I was fascinated by the dictionary definition of musique concrète.  So it was abstract concepts that inspired me, not so much what I heard. Experimenters like John Cage, somebody I read about never listened to. Most of all a real appreciation for fearless original artists. Even Picasso.  One of a kind. Like Bob Dylan's unconventional voice. Or playing music backwards on Strawberry Fields.  I realized you don't have to be a musician to make music. All you have to be is human. As long as there were no rules I was happy. Maybe that's part of why I left the corporate world. Looking for a place, a life with no rules.

How did you feel when sampling became common practice and mainstream in music years after the release of "Dreamies"?

Never noticed really.  But to answer your question, that my 1974 Dreamies is said to be a precursor of things today make me very proud.  It's what I wanted. To have some influence. Don't we all? At the time I was simply doing what I loved doing.  All things considered, I would prefer to be of my time rather than that far ahead of my time.

As far as I'm aware you never performed the album in a live context and had little desire to do so. Do you feel this restricted your exposure in hindsight and would you do anything differently if you could go back to the time of "Dreamies"?

I do wish I had been a performer. Even now I imagine performing Dreamies as some sort of multimedia orchestral thing but that would have to be the doing people who know how to make such things happen. By the time I was 30, I was  just too conventional a corporate Catholic school person to up and leave my young family behind while I headed out for a life on the road. What I loved most really was the studio. The gear, what I could do with it, the experimenting, the wiring things together, hearing the sounds, doing stuff with the mics, spicing tape, sorting through samples and soundbites, writing music, designing the cover art. That was all I needed. And it was all done in the comfort of home with Carole upstairs making vegetable soup. I can't really picture Dreamies groupies. I would probably be an odd bunch.

The long series of political satire videos that you have presented on seem like an extension of some of the themes that are hinted at in "Dreamies". To what extent is political commentary a part of your music?

A great deal. A driving force. One of the great satisfactions I get from knowing so many people have been under the headphones with Dreamies, is knowing that they heard John F. Kennedy explain the meaning of freedom. His inaugural where he recites we are the heirs of a great revolution. I sometimes wonder how many listeners actually hear what they are listening to. That first Dreamies album is an expression of the politics of the time. Not a documentary, more an expression of the mindset. A combination of love, chaos, confusion. Maybe not political commentary, more like subliminal commentary. That's what I was looking to do. You listen, you enjoy, you come out of Dreamies different than when you went in.

Do you still have the original Moog Sonic 6 or modified drum machine that you used on "Dreamies"?

Sorry you asked that question. Reminded me of what a goofball I can be. No I do not have my Sonic Six. I tossed it out like a piece of junk. It was not working. I started my business after Dreamies, getting back on my feet. Forgetting about music. Wanted to erase the whole thing, move on, get out of debt.  By the mid-1990's I was total business again, making money, getting starched shirts from the cleaners again - so I'm cleaning out a room in my office, come upon the Sonic Six in that military grade hard gray case that opens to reveal a keyboard and a gray blue and white dashboard filled with knobs and switches - and I figure it's broken, it's from my past life, so why not throw it in the dumpster. In my next life I won't do that. I am the opposite of a hoarder. I'm a disposer of the past. I  think it helps keep life new. So I toss out a lot of the old. The homegrown drum machine vanished many years ago.

How do you feel about the Internets role in bringing about a renewed interest in your work?

Great. My music was recorded, mixed for headphones but not many people listened with headphones in 1974. So the combination today of digital downloads plus everybody on headphones is perfect. It love it. Flattered that young people today appreciate Dreamies. It kills me to see the free bootleg downloads. I saw one bootleg site with a counter that said Dreamies was downloaded 1720 times. For me that's a lot!  A lot of missed royalties that I could really use these days. That really bugs me. I spend time policing the internet, but it's impossible. Makes it hard to think of music as a way to support yourself. On the other hand, without the internet Dreamies would be buried in the dust of the past.

What do you think about the 2006 reissue of "Dreamies", which subdivides the two programs into ten separate tracks?

I did that personally. Many times I was advised by college radio that you can't play Dreamies because it's too long. The tracks obviously make it more accessible.  I think the tracks also make for an interesting way to listen. I did it so the tracks blend seamlessly, so I don't think there is a downside. The other thing about the reissue CD is the package. The retro black LP look. With the same label as the original 1974 LP. The booklet with all the photos of the moog and recorders, the lyrics. I wanted Dreamies to have a first class package that would stand the test of time, and I think we succeeded with that CD reissue.

What made you decide to finally record the follow up album "Dreamies: Program 12" after over 30 years of no officially released music?

A combination of things. Around 1995 when I sold my business I started gathering up all the latest gear for a new studio. This time music and video. The whole internet computer audio video digital thing was just coming on line. I ran my business on Apple, loved it.  When multimedia came along I knew I was off to the races again. It was as exciting as the years when the Moog and the Beatles came along.  Coincidentally the renewed interest in the 1974 Dreamies came at about the same time as the horrific 9/11 attack. Just as breathtaking earthshaking as what I experienced 40 years before when Kennedy was assassinated.  All of that came together for Program 12.  I wish I could do that  music over.  On the bright side, getting such bad reviews for Program 12, hurtful stuff, helped me in a way. Made me a bit more fearless for my new stuff.  Nevertheless, 30 years from now Program Twelve will be a bit of an American time capsule.

Recording "Program 12" must have been a much less cumbersome and frustrating process compared to the original "Dreamies" album. How do you record music nowadays?

I  have a great Mac studio using Logic software tied to a rack with a Mackie mixer and 10 or so gizmos feeding a MOTU into the Mac. It's hybrid analog digital.  I try not to upgrade too much, I find it's important to get a complete comfort level with the gear so you be totally fluid with creative part. The big challenge with digital is too many choices, too easy to do things over. You can go on on and on. With tape, analog there's a certain discipline at work that says not all things are possible. You can only mix down so many times. At some point you can't go back and do it over. You don't have 20,000 instruments and 50,000 FX to choose from. I would never want to go back, but, from a creative standpoint, I am still figuring out how to coexist with digital. The main thing for me these days is conveying the emotion, telling the story. That never changes.

From what  I've read about you, you don't strike me as someone who sits still for very long, what are you working on these days?

I am happy to say I am newly inspired with Dreamies Program 14. It's called Good Fortune. I can only do Dreamies inspired, so I feel blessed to be inspired again.

No comments:

Post a Comment