Holy Esque: "You see a lot of bands posting what they do on a day-to-day basis – it's just taking the piss”
Combining unearthly vocals with epic riffs and cryptic, understated graphic design, Glasgow's Holy Esque explain their outlook
Sometimes it takes a band years to find their sound, that particular je-ne-sais-quoi that sets them apart from the herd. It's rare indeed to find one that arrives fully-formed. Often when that does happen, they're made up of seasoned musicians who have been through the ranks of several other groups. Not so with Holy Esque.
Blazing onto the Glasgow scene with their self-titled four-track debut EP, the've been hotly pursued by the London A&R mob, toured with WU LYF, and attracted praise from bloggers, promoters and journalists the world over. The hype, for once, is justified. Their epic, emotionally heavy songs pack a punch that belies their collective youth. Barely out of their teens, Holy Esque's songs convey a depth of feeling and experience that have drawn comparisons with The Undertones and Echo & The Bunnymen.
One of the most remarkable things about Holy Esque is the voice of their singer, Pat Hynes. It's a strange, elemental sound; combining the rasping, torn intensity of Kurt Cobain or Tom Waits, filtered through an unearthly vibrato that sounds alternately like laughter, or the gasping contractions of uncontrollable grief. Meeting Hynes face-to-face is un-nerving. His voice is a sharp contrast to the fresh-faced, almost awkward boyishness of his appearance. He is modest about his vocal technique: “It's just how I naturally express myself,” he says. “I've always sung this way. I can't really put a style or a technique on it. I just sing, and that's what happens.”
Hynes' vocals can be a deal-breaker for some listeners. As with Thom Yorke or the aforementioned Cobain, some people just don't get it. Hynes himself has not always been comfortable with the way he sings. Initially, he says: “I thought it was fucking weird. I was like, 'Why can't I sing?' But I learned to appreciate it and work with it, and I gained a little bit of control over it. But I can't stop it. It's just the way it is.”
Two of the band's members, keyboardist / guitarist Keir Reid and drummer Ralph McClure, are students at the Glasgow School of Art, and the band are keen to retain as much control as possible over the visual aesthetic of Holy Esque. “The music goes hand in hand with the art and graphic design. It has to,” insists Reid. They designed the band's logo, a crucifix turned at an angle, casting a shadow.
The symbolism of the band's quasi-religious imagery and name is something they prefer not to explain in full, however: “We think the image, the symbol, is very important,” says Reid. “We want it to be recognised, but at the same time we want it to be questioned.” The shadow of the cross could be a reference to Christianity's long shadow, the legacy of faith. It could be a comment on Nietzsche's famous statement: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” The band are loath to confirm or deny my speculation about the meaning of their logo: “It's nothing religious, but there are elements of religion involved,” says Reid. Hynes seems to enjoy the fact that the image raises more questions than it answers: “It's open to interpretation,” he says. “It can mean something or it can mean nothing. Take it for what you will.”
This refusal to be drawn on their intriguing imagery, combined with a distinct lack of biographical and personal information about the band's members, has led some to speculate that the band are intentionally being mysterious. Guitarist Hugo McGinley is keen to deny that: “It wasn't intentional,” he says. “We just didn't want to put up any shit, man. You see a lot of bands posting what they do on a day-to-day basis, and it's just taking the piss.”
Hynes believes that Holy Esque's music speaks for itself: “You just need to know the band, you don't need to know where they're all from and what they had for breakfast... We just want folk to focus on the music. The rest of it... who gives a fuck?”
McGinley elaborates: “The whole 'mysterious band' thing... It's almost like somebody caught on to it, and it's just snowballed. People have misread it, but I can understand where that comes from.” Reid is keen to put the 'mysterious' tag down to journalistic exaggeration: “Someone's written 'I don't know much about them' and then someone else takes his words and changes them into 'No-one knows anything about them.' It's not like we wear masks on stage.”
And yet, the band are difficult to pin down on many subjects. Asked who they see as their peers or influences within the Glasgow scene, and they refuse to be drawn: “We are totally on the outside of whatever is going on right now,” says Hynes. Reid agrees: “There are loads of bands in Glasgow right now who are all doing the same thing, but our sound is very different,” he says, but will not name any of the bands he is referring to. When asked whether they feel any affinity to the older wave of Glasgow bands, such as Belle & Sebastian and Arab Strap, the band are quick to point out that the era of these bands is long over: “There's a gap, and something new has got to happen,” says Hynes.
Talking to Holy Esque, there is a sense that they are very close. All dressed in skinny black jeans and monochrome colours, they look almost like a hipster street gang: “There's a real togetherness with it,” says McGinley, describing the band's dynamic. Drummer Ralph McClure agrees, saying: “I can't picture us doing anything else, to be honest.”
Their EP was recorded by a legend of the Glasgow music scene, Kevin Burleigh, producer of Glasvegas and Simple Minds. Burleigh came along to one of their early gigs, and immediately fell in love with the band's sound: “It was about his love for the music, rather than anything else,” says Hines. Their manager, Matt Sadowski, had invited Burleigh along to the gig: “He was blown away by the vocals,” he relates. Having an experienced producer on board really helped cement the band's sound on their first EP: “A lot of credit is due to Kevin,” explains Hynes. “The music came from us, but having someone that understands the cycle, and knows the feel of the band, that made a huge difference.”
Holy Esque have toured extensively in the UK, and even made it out to Estonia to play a music festival in the city of Tallinn, where a capacity crowd watched them perform in an old Soviet theatre. There is a sense that the band are still keenly focused on touring, gigging and reaching out to new audiences, rather than on recording. They will play “anywhere that will have us,” according to Hynes, but won't confirm or deny their plans for recording an album, or signing to a label. Their manager is more forthcoming: “Hopefully around this time next year we are looking at a diary filled with worldwide festivals in the summer months to promote an album release,” says Sadowski.
There is always a risk that hype can destroy a band, and there is certainly a lot of expectation riding on Holy Esque, given that they only have a handful of tracks under their belt. If they can keep writing songs as anthemic and powerful as Ladybird Love and Rose, they could well be destined for greatness. For now, the band are still becoming accustomed to the attention and praise: “You find yourself laughing at it because you don't know what else to do,” says Hynes. “We appreciate it, and it helps the band, but it's not something that any of us have been exposed to before.”
Whether the band's history and aesthetics will ever be elaborated upon remains to be seen. For now, all we have to go on is their music, and the strange shadow cast by their imagery. Perhaps the meanings we project onto their songs and their aesthetic are more powerful than the truth could ever be. In the words of William Blake: 'Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.'