Interview with Mike Holmes
It was the evening of the 6th of May and just a week or so before IQ had played De Melkweg in Amsterdam where they premiered new album The Road Of Bones to an enthusiastic crowd. 18:30 sharp and the telephone rang. Mike Holmes presenting himself on the other side of the line as I thanked him for taking the time to talk to DPRP.
Marcel: First of all, congratulations on the new album. I saw you guys at De Melkweg just about a fortnight ago and the new songs went down very well with the audience. I think dark, brooding and heavy might be the general demeanour of the album. What would you reckon to be the main influences for that?
Mike: I don’t know, to be honest. I think you’re right. It is darker than we normally do and it is certainly darker than we tend to be on stage. It just grew organically and it’s just where we were at the time. Probably influenced by some of the music we listen to, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, say what. I think, actually, some of the influences for me personally in writing the music, has been that I have been watching a lot of films recently and particularly with the title track, when I was writing it, it felt like a sort of film soundtrack. It’s got that kind of feel to it.
Marcel: There are people that say the title track takes its name from the Kolyma Highway in Russia. Is that a correct reference because watching the video to the track makes you think about a serial killer.
Mike: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s about a serial killer. We took the title of the road in Russia but the track is not about that road at all. The Road of Bones refers to the bones the killer paves his road with.
Marcel: Could you say there is a connection between the songs?
Mike: Yes, it’s not a concept album. There are themes running through the album. Like you said it’s dark and brooding. And musically there are themes running through the album. I do that quite often when I’m producing an album anyway, but particularly with The Road of Bones there’s quite a few themes that reoccur throughout the tracks. And in terms of the lyrics, well, you’d have to talk to Pete about the essence of them, but they are all of a certain feel. It’s true. It is a dark and brooding album.
Marcel: How do you look upon the fact that you are composer, band member and producer all in one person?
Mike: Well, it’s cheaper. In one sense it’s good, cause I have an overview of the inception through to the final mix. So I can keep an eye on everything throughout the lifecycle of the album. And if I’m writing something, I write the notes but I also have an idea for the sound that I want and the kind of performance I want from other people. And on this album I did want to try and take the rest of the band out of their comfort zones and push them a bit harder so that we could get something a little more different than a normal IQ album.
Marcel: In what way would you reckon it to be different? Apart from the dark and brooding aspect, that is.
Mike: That’s a good question and it’s difficult to answer really. I think it is different but I’m not convinced I can put it into words. In terms of the playing, I did push people a lot harder and, well, for instance with the drums, I had something in my head that I wanted to… I don’t like telling people what to play, I would like them to have their own input, but I have to get them to play stuff until I hear what I want to hear. And with Cookie we sometimes did 30 takes with the drums and get something with a bit more bite and energy. I don’t know how it sounds different. It does sound like IQ but at the same time it’s the next step on, which I think every new album should be.
Marcel: You have mentioned in a studio interview that audience response helps getting the final form of an album, but how does that compare to playing live when songs are already taped?
Mike: Well, yes, that’s true. Obviously once the album is recorded you can’t really influence it. What we like to do and what we did last year was go and play a couple of the new tracks to get to feel what the songs are like live. You can kind of get a sense of whether it works or not if you play it live in front of people. And last year, we did two shows, one in Holland, in Ulft and one in Germany. We played one track in Holland and by the time we played it the next evening we had already changed it, because we knew it just wasn’t right then. And again, it’s difficult to put into words why we knew it wasn’t right, but we could just kind of tell. You know, when you play something in front of an audience, it’s almost like when you mix an album, it’s hard to tell what to change when you’re in the middle of the process; in fact you would have to stand back. You know what I mean? When playing live, it’s just like standing back and listen to it with somebody else’s ears.
Marcel: Would you say that that is part of the standard you, IQ, have set for yourselves?
Mike: Yes, I suppose it is. That could be why we take a long time between albums. But we have quite high standards as to the selection process for the music. It’s just that once the album has come out, there is no way you are going to change it, so you have to get it right and you have to be happy with what’s on it. So yes, I suppose it is.
Marcel: What was it like to record with the old and new members at the same time? What was it like for Neil to have been road tested?
Mike: Ha ha. That’s another good question actually. It was great to work with Tim and Cookie again. They are old friends and I have known them for so long. It was just so easy for them to fit back in. With Neil it was not so much him being road tested in terms of live stuff, it’s more, we hit and struck lucky with Neil. I think he’s a good player and he’s got good ideas. But more than that, he has been an IQ fan for over 20 years so he kind of gets us. As soon as he came into the band he knew which sounds were appropriate for what tracks and he’s so familiar with the sound of the band so it was very easy for him to fit in.
Marcel: So the part he plays in the title track does refer, at least to my ears, a bit to Nomzamo’s title track. Was that on purpose or just accidentally?
Mike: Oh, that’s very interesting to hear, actually. No, no, that’s not on purpose at all. I’m surprised you should say that. No one said that yet. You mean in terms of the keyboard sounds? I thought it all sounded quite modern.
Marcel: Well, more specifically it’s the xylophone part that resembles Nomzamo’s xylophone part.
Mike: You’re right. I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah, well done. Haha.
Marcel: That brings me to the question as to what Neil brought to the table in terms of composing?
Mike: With this album, most, initial ideas came from me. I mean everybody has their input. I’ll take something to the rehearsals and we’ll thrash it around together, see what arrangement works best. Neil, unfortunately, well not unfortunately for him, but for the band, he had a very stressful job and he changed it for an even more demanding job, he has moved house and he has just become father. So he hardly had any time to give to the band in terms of writing. But even so, everybody has their input because whatever input there is, we all thrash it around together in rehearsals and try different arrangements and different sounds and generally in the end we all agree.
Marcel: How do you fit music and lyrics together since the lyrics always fit in very naturally.
Mike: Usually what we do with IQ is that the music is written first and the bare bone of the vocal lines are written as well. Pete and I, for this album sat down and talked about how things were feeling. I know that sounds a bit hippy-ish. For the title track I told him what I had in my mind when I was writing the music and the story grew up organically. I think it is one thing that Pete does very well. He writes lyrics that sound good to sing and, quite apart from the meaning, they sound very natural.
Marcel: Like on other albums, this indeed sounds like music and lyrics are quite well balanced. What made you decide not to do a double album but rather three versions of the album?
Mike: That’s a long story. We set out to write an album. Usually when we write we take what we think is the strongest music and most of the time, the music that doesn’t make it onto the album, the music that gets put on the shelf, usually 90% of it is forgotten. This time, there was that much strong music, even though it didn’t fit the flow of the album, would be nice for people to hear. It is definitely not a double album, but rather the album with a bonus disc. Which is why, if people don’t want to hear it, they can just buy the standard album. Then I think the third version you were referring to, was a box set, specifically to promote the album launch show in London. It was not as much another version of the album. The idea was not as much to promote the album but promote the album launch show. So when you’d buy the box, you had the ticket, you would also have the double album and a tee shirt. And then really as an incentive, we had some stuff left over, live stuff or other versions or ideas we had left over and we put that on a third disc. We did a limited edition of 500 of this one.
Marcel: When I was browsing the IQ-HQ, I stumbled upon the part where it says Recommended listening and all of you mention a lot of music, all of which isn’t prog. So I wondered, where then do you get your ‘prog-kicks’?
Mike: Haha, my prog-kicks? Haha! Well, yes, if there is such a thing. Well, I still like a lot prog music. Part of my problem with, well the good thing and the bad thing is that I just like old music. Prog has done some great stuff and some awful stuff as well. Prog kicks these days, I don’t know, I haven’t actually listened to a lot of prog recently. The last thing I heard… Well, I do listen to a lot of classical these days, things like Ella Fitzgerald. She has got one of the best female voices of all time, I think. She has done a series of albums called ‘The Songbook Albums’. They took songs by one composer and created a songbook out of them, but the recording quality is great and the arrangements and the production, just wow!
Marcel: That brings me to another question. You said you don’t listen top prog that much these days. Yet what happens when you go to a prog festival like for instance ‘Night of the prog’, do you hang around and watch shows, what do you do?
Mike: Yes, in general, I do, yes. I do still like prog. And it’s good to see what bands are doing, particularly newer bands. There have been some bands around recently which I think are pretty good. And also with a record company hat on, we get about 6 demo’s a week. You know we did the Synaesthesia album earlier this year and I really like what Adam did with that album. Great keyboard sounds and coupling modern and traditional prog. There is some good stuff kicking around.
Marcel: When I go to a festival, I often wonder whether or not some of the bands might be contemplating a live jam session. Would you ever consider being part in that?
Mike: I don’t know. The trouble with me, I’m a real control freak, I want it all to be perfect. And you know with jamming, some of it might be good, some might be a bit average. If someone would ask me, I would see what was proposed. Well, yeah, take for instance jazz audiences, there is a lot of jamming going on in jazz and whatever happens, people always applaud. Jazz audiences are not that discerning at all. They will never say: “Hey, that didn’t go down too well.” And by the law of averages, it will eventually be average.
Marcel: I will take it a bit further then. Would you ever see yourself play in something like Transatlantic?
Mike: Well, yes, that is quite a different matter. Transatlantic is all about well constructed music. And actually, I have been involved in something quite similar with Tony Levin, Geoff Downes and Nick D’Virgilio. Both Tony and Geoff are out on the road a lot. We haven’t got that much spare time to put into it. Yet what we have done so far, sounds encouraging. But it will be quite some time in the making.
Marcel: Any chance of telling us when there might be an album? Or would that be too early?
Mike: That would be too early. There is still a lot to be done musically. I would love to bring it out this year, but that is hugely unlikely.
Marcel: You have got two festivals coming up. How do you rate playing festivals compared to regular concerts?
Mike: It can be ok. I enjoy it. People are up for it and there can be a great atmosphere. But on the downside, you can’t usually get a decent sound-check. So like I said before, I always want to put on the best show we can and that’s difficult at festivals. Still, you do get the chance to play to people who don’t even know you. You can’t just go around and play only to people who know IQ all the time.
Marcel: What is the special connection between IQ and the Netherlands, if there is such a thing?
Mike: I don’t know, I think there is. We always had a good time playing in the Netherlands. Dutch people are just hugely into prog, aren’t they? It feels like that. When we come over, audiences are really good to us. And a really good friend of ours, Arie runs De Boerderij in Zoetermeer and that is a great venue and we love playing there. And of course, once we stopped playing, we go to the bar.
And that’s good as well. Ha, ha.
Marcel: With a new album coming up, it was strange to see not many gigs are planned ahead. I know you said it takes quite some time and money to get you all together for rehearsals and for recording yet, is that the reason for that or is there another reason? Do you have other things in mind for promoting the album?
Mike: That is pretty much what sums it up. Money and time. I was lucky enough to be able to stop my day job. But everybody else in the band and the crew have day obs so they cannot give a whole lot of time to the band. You may have noticed that a lot of the giging we do these days is around long weekends. We don’t have a lot of time to give to the band. And indeed there is the logistics part. We all live quite far from one another so it costs about £600 each time we want to rehearse. And for a concert we have to rehearse at least once. Then we have to get everybody to where we are going to be playing. It sometimes can get a bit too much.
Marcel: Are you looking for other ways of promoting the album then?
Mike: For this album we have been using a promotion company. That is one of the reasons why we are doing this interview. And well, obviously there is adverts we can do. And there is the social media like Twitter and Facebook. We get to put things on Facebook and Twitter and you immediately can get reactions.
Marcel: What would you say about an all GEP tour then as a means of promotion?
Mike: Well, that might be a thought, but no, I’m sorry, I just can’t see it happening.
Marcel: There have been re-releases of some of your albums. Could we expect any other re-releases?
Mike: I’m no into re-releasing per se. There were particular reasons for re-releasing The Wake and Tales from the lush attic but I now can’t think of any particular album to re-release. Well, but would you ever consider re-releasing the Paul Menel albums? Yes, why not? But there would have to be a specific reason as for re-releasing an album.
Marcel: Seeing that this album sounds very cinematographically, would you ever consider doing an IQ adaptation of a classical piece?
Mike: I wouldn’t just do that, it would have to come as a natural flow. I don’t see myself sitting down and saying “Right, I’m going to sit down amd write a piece for orchestra.” You don’t just write for a single instrument but for a whole range of instruments at the same time. You can’t just translate a keyboard section into strings. It’s quite a different beast.
Marcel: That about sums up the questions I have. We will have a couple of our reviewers doing a Round Table Review of the new album soon now. I wish you good luck on the album and good luck on touring it and thank you for taking the time to talk to us at DPRP.
Mike: Thank you. It was nice talking to you.