Bob Holroyd entered the American consciousness with two gorgeous, mostly downtempo (though the man had some beats to boot) albums on Six Degrees Records earlier in the decade. The UK producer makes beautiful work of pianos, strings, and guitars, fitting somewhat obtusely into the “ambient” scene, though his works merits a stronger citation than most of the mediocrity lumped into that category. The digital has always been an accompaniment, and not the driving force, in his work, no matter what the tempo or culture he’s exploring.
Recently Bob reached out to me regarding the new three-disc “Re” series he’s released—he has been a consistent “email friend”, that kind we acquire in this technological age. Such friendships are among the best aspects of instant access. He shipped out the three albums, a total of 32 songs, many I was familiar with, although most in a new form, whether that meant remixes of his work by Nitin Sawhney, TJ Rehmi, dimmsummer, Frederic Galliano, or dZihan & Kamien, or his own retakes on his music. It’s a great way to access his impressive catalog and see what a prolific time he’s had over the short span of a decade. True to form, we traded questions online, to get to the heart of his latest musical undertaking.
What was the inspiration behind the RE: project?
Initially it came about as a result of getting the rights back to the two albums I recorded for the Six Degrees Record label. There were a few mixes by myself and others that had either only been released on vinyl, or not released at all, so my first thought was to put them out as a sort of “completionist” album.
Having listened to the tracks on A Different Space and Without Within again after such a long break, I thought it would be interesting to reapproach some of my old tracks and see what I would do differently this time around. Extending this idea further, I also wanted to get more artists/DJs involved, to see how they would interpret the music. As a result, the project has grown and developed into a much bigger entity than I had initially envisaged.
The global music component has long been a part of your work. When did international music become a force in your life, and subsequently your work?
When my family went on holiday to Kenya in the late ‘70s. This was when I first heard African music and it seemed so different from anything I was listening to, or even heard of.
From then on, everywhere I traveled, I noticed such a variety of new sounds and musical styles, and I wanted to incorporate some of these into my own work.
One of my favorite tracks has always been “Drumming Up A Storm”. For the most part, your work has been down- to mid-tempo. This, along with a few other songs, such as “African Drug”, work specifically for the dance floor. Did you study African drumming or African music?
No, other than just listening to it.
Along with that theme, Indian music seems to influence you a bit.
The same, really. Having traveled to India, I absolutely loved the place: the noise, the colours, the smells. On a scale of one to ten, everything seems to be turned up to at least 12!
Getting inspiration from traveling, or experiencing new or different cultures, has been a constant theme in my music, and where I derive a lot of inspiration from. I have no real musical boundaries, I just love new sounds and new ways of doing things musically. Discovering a whole range of different instruments, sounds, and ways of playing them is the equivalent of a painter suddenly being given a completely new palette of colors that seemingly didn’t exist before, and these are often the starting point or triggers for new ideas.
Being that you have a broad range of styles, you have remixed quite a diverse list of artists. My favorite of the remixes is the beautiful track from Sanscapes. What do you look for when approaching a remix? Are there any specific guidelines you go by, either culturally or aesthetically?
It depends on the source material as to whether I feel there are any cultural guidelines. If it is a track that is already a modern piece of music, I think my role is to reinterpret the track in my own particular style. However, if the source material is traditional, or sacred, then I try to approach the track in a culturally sympathetic way.
The example you refer to, “Looking Back”, is a good illustration of this. Sanscapes was a remix album using traditional chants and songs of the Kalahari Bushmen, and the aim of the project was to raise awareness of their plight. I obviously totally agree with those who want to document and try and preserve the way of life of the various indigenous peoples around the world, and this was definitely the main reason for getting involved.
However, I felt that my role in this project was not just to duplicate a traditional Kalahari song, as these have already been recorded and documented, but to try and represent musically the journey the Bushmen are on, and also write something that would be accessible to western ears in the hope that this in itself might bring more attention to their situation.
This is why the track starts with the Bushmen singing on their own, but gradually builds and develops into a more modern sounding piece, to hopefully represent the direction their lives are unfortunately going in as they try to adapt to the pressures of the modern world. I think the fact that the Bushmen themselves were so involved with the whole project demonstrates that they realize that they face this challenge, and are prepared to change in order to keep the basis of their culture intact.
Furthermore, this is an example of how musical and cultural boundaries are so fluid. As a result of some of the Bushmen coming to London to help promote the Sanscapes event, they have since written a new song called “Big Metal Bird”, a reference documenting their first ever flight in an airplane !
On the flip side, the RE: series features a number of seasoned remixers taking stabs at your material: Frederic Galliano, dZihan & Kamien, Nitin Sawhney, tj Rehmi. How did you connect with these musicians? How did you respond to their mixes?
I started by writing to musicians who work in a similar genre of music to ask if they would be interested in working on the project. As well as being artists that I knew and liked, I felt that they would remix the tracks in a sympathetic, as well as interesting way. This they have done admirably, and I’m really pleased with the results.
However, I have subsequently moved the project on by also asking artists whose work is not necessarily in the same style as my own, and in some ways this has been more interesting—or interesting in a different way, as I have less preconception of what they might come up with.
While we’ve been talking about the upbeat, the bulk of your work is very relaxed, orchestral, cinematic at times. Do you have training in classical music?
Up to a point, yes. I was sent to piano lessons from an early age and the bulk of the teaching was classically orientated, but since then I haven’t really ever worked or seen myself as a classical composer.
What is it about the visual component of the downtempo music that inspires you? I say visual because your slower material is filled with imagery.
I tend to think as music in a visual way, and as a result write music similarly. Writing music is often like assembling a musical collage with all the various textures and colors making up the whole, and I think this is why a lot of my tracks have a sort of cinematic quality to them.
I’m especially pleased with the re: cycle component: all packaging is recycled, including the plastic tray. Has this ecological consideration influenced other areas of your life?
Yes definitely. It’s something I have always been aware of, even though at times it seems very difficult to follow it through in all aspects of one’s life. I try to do all the things that hopefully will make a difference, like buying organic food, fair-trade products, products not tested on animals, etc. But I find it hard not to get depressed or overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the environmental problems the world is facing.
Ironically, it cost me quite a lot more to use recycled materials, which I find appalling in this day and age, and just shows the stupidity of the situation. However, I want to try and make a difference, however small, and therefore I’m really pleased you have mentioned this point, as it may inspire a few more people to think about these issues, and hopefully incorporate them into their own lives.