Frontman and lyricist Neil Holyoak from dark-folk duo Catacomb Saints joins us for crepes and coffee at Westwood’s Mon Amour Cafe to discuss the amazing experiences their debut EP Cruel As The Grave brought forth, using social media presence for positive influence, and his hopes for what their music can bring to their audience.
Catacomb Saints is comprised of:
Neil Holyoak – vocals and guitar
Devon Beggs – synths
You recently released your debut EP Cruel As The Grave, wanted to say congratulations.
Neil Holyoak: Thank you!
For those who have yet to discover how awesome it is, care to share a little bit about what inspired the lyrical themes and instrumental elements that you chose to include in the songs?
Neil: Absolutely! So I used to play in a folk band called Holy Oak, and we played in Montreal and Eastern Canada a lot. I was doing that for a long time, and I wanted to get outside of these tropes of folk music and this idea of the visceral nature of old school folk music. Don’t get me wrong, I still very much listening to, like, Doc Watson, or someone a little more contemporary like Townes Van Zandt, or, I don’t want to say ‘more traditional,’ but more narrative singers, you know? There was this idea that folk music used to be about people and people in the world doing their thing, good or bad things would happen to them, and then you would sing about it. But at a certain point, I felt that there started to be tropes around folk music where you had to sing about living in the woods or some kind of experience that fit that idea of what people thought folk music should be. It became more nostalgic than narrative, and I was talking about things in which I was trying to conjure up a world that was different than the one that actually existed. That didn’t seem as interesting to me because I thought that it was the opposite of what folk music should do.
I feel like it’s so easy for that to happen with certain genres of music.
Neil: Yeah, a lot of forms of music are like this. I think when it’s new and fresh, it starts to be a reflection of the world around it. At some point it becomes a reflection of the genre that it is, but then there’s almost no way to give meaning to it anymore once it reaches that point. Me and my buddy Devon [Breggs] started this project because we were both kind of itching to do something new. He was doing a lot of modular synthesis and weird sounds, but I still really liked lyricism and storytelling, so I wanted to bring in a different musical texture to give it a little bit more freedom in the words that I was singing. At the same time though, I still really like playing guitar, and I found that a lot of the folk fingerstyle that I already knew could translate pretty easily into a different context. So that’s kind of where we were coming from lyrically and instrumentally.
Yeah, and especially nowadays, I feel like we’re getting to see so many different kinds of genre splices. It’s so cool! You would never think that some of these combos would work out, but they do!
Neil: Oh totally!
And which song was your favorite to write and then record, if you have two separate songs? They can totally be the same song too.
Neil: So for this one, my favorite was the song “Stone Cold.” That one was actually going to be the single, and for that one, we recorded it in Banff, Alberta, Canada. It’s a rocky mountain town that’s close to the border of British Columbia and Alberta in Western Canada, and it’s just a very beautiful place. Lake Louise is the famous lake that’s there, and it’s all blue with the glacier runoff there. We went in the winter though, so that was all frozen and super cold. But me and Devon, we’re doing this project together, and we applied for an artist residency out there.
Neil: Yeah! Our proposal for the residency was that we wanted to record in a cave.
Oh my God, that’s so awesome!
Neil: Yeah! It was really fun. Another thing was that it was also a bit of a heritage thing to be in touch with the natural landscape, and it had some interesting acoustics. We drove out from Western Canada, drove across the Rockies in the winter, up these crazy mountain passes, and then when we got to Banff, we set up our recording studio in this cave. We didn’t have anything written yet, so we had a recording studio set up for us at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and that was just a really nice facility for writing and recording. One day we loaded up all of our gear and brought it to the cave, and then just set up a little recording studio inside the cave. That was a lot of fun and a very memorable experience.
It sounds like it!
Neil: Yeah! The cave is a natural hot spring, so even though it was minus twenty degrees [farenheit] outside it was still pretty warm in the cave. So yeah, I would say that “Stone Cold” was the most fun to write and record.
I mean, you got an awesome experience out of it! I’m jealous! *both laugh*
Neil: It was definitely a lot of fun. I’ve never recorded in a cave before, but I’ve always been into different acoustic spaces, like, recording in a church hall for the echos or even just a big, tall stairway to get crazy reverberations.
It’s funny how you bring that up though because it’s so easy to forget about utilizing the things around you.
I feel like a lot of people try to replicate, kind of like you were saying, the echoes of a church, while in a tight-knit studio setting. But if you really wanted, you can still go to the actual church, or whatever place, to get that natural experience.
Neil: Yeah. The whole cave experience was just amazing and I think it really came through naturally in the song.
Absolutely! And we’re always interested in learning the origins of a name, especially for complete works. Why did you choose Cruel As The Grave for the EP title?
Neil: That was actually I line that I’ve liked for a long time from the Bible, from The Old Testament’s Song of Solomon. They’re writing about all of the wonderful things about Solomon and then the things about the song, but then they get to this part that’s like, ‘Love is strong as death, and jealousy is cruel as the grave.’ That line hit me really hard because it struck me as something that was very true. It embraces this dichotomy that you can’t really have one without the other. You can’t have love without the fear of losing it, and then all of these other feelings like resentment and jealousy would end up drawing you into the earth. I thought it was just such a compelling line, so we worked it into “Stone Cold.” Then when we were bouncing back and forth between album titles, that just kind of stuck out as a memorable moment to highlight. It comes during a part of the song where the music kind of drops away to just me singing, and then I sing that line. We were like, ‘Well, that sounded really nice. Why don’t we use that as the title for the EP?’
It’s definitely thought-provoking, and it’s awesome to hear a little bit about what the line means to you on a personal level.
Neil: Thank you. I’m glad that you think so.
Going into a bit of the industry aspect of music and recording, modern music listening has been favoring of shorter releases like singles and EPs as opposed to full-length albums. Why do you think that is nowadays?
Neil: I think that the way people listen to music now is very different and is more streaming based. Gosh, I don’t even remember the last time I bought a record. *laughs* Music now feels like it’s more about content in the sense that everything is digital, so it’s more like these little, easy to consume bites. Whereas I think previously, I don’t know if it was a format thing or if people just had more of an attention-span was a little bit longer, but you would put on a record that would have a consistent mood and feel, and you would listen to the whole record. I used to do that, but I don’t anymore. Usually nowadays, I just go on Spotify, and pick an artist, and I’ll either listen to their top songs, put on that artist’s radio, or got to their related and see who else I can listen to that’s similar. I think it’s just a change in the times and a change in the way that people listen to music where it’s almost like music is a mood. Most of the time I’ll put on music to get a general feeling rather than, ‘I want to listen to this artist or this record in its entirety.’ I still do listen to complete works, but not as often as I used to in the past.
Yeah, I’m the same way. What’s funny is there actually are playlists now that are supposed to tailor to certain moods or certain events. Like, there’s a Dinner Party playlist that I absolutely love! *laughs*
Neil: Or a Pool Party playlist!
Yeah! Or a Road Trip playlist! It’s like, ‘Well, any song can be a road trip song if you really want it to be.’ *both laugh*
So with social media being the most prominent form of marketing nowadays, do you think that it’s made it easier for independent artists to make a name for themselves or do you think it’s made it harder?
Neil: I think it probably does a little bit of both.I think it helps in the sense that there’s more opportunity for people to get themselves heard and to get out there. I guess in some ways it’s almost more egalitarian because anyone can have an Instagram page or a Facebook page to promote their music. You don’t need to go through a record label to have access to promo channels, so I think in that way it’s easier. I think where it can be harder is the signal to noise ratio. Because it’s so much easier, it’s even harder to get your voice heard over the ambient noise in the room. I think that’s where it becomes challenging to artists because there can be this pressure to compel people to adopt a schtick, or do something that they don’t necessarily feel passionate about. It’s almost like they’re choosing to do something they know will single them out in a crowd for the sake of being different. I think it’s good for artists to have something to single them out as different, but generally I like to think of that thing to be the strength of their words or the way in which they connect with their audience as opposed to having a specific aesthetic. That can be cool and really interesting, but sometimes there’s not a whole lot of depth in that alone.
Do you feel that social media puts a pressure on artists to portray themselves in certain ways to their audience, or even just constantly have something going on so that they have content to post?
Neil: I think it makes it more about the creation of content and less about the creation of the work. I feel like if I had it my way, I would just write songs and do interviews and such. I actually don’t spend too much time on our social media pages. I get why it’s cool, like, I follow artists and I like to see what they’re doing and where they are. As a fan, it helps me feel more engaged and I really appreciate that aspect. At the same time, it’s hard for me to remember to post all the time, so I feel like a lot of times I just let it slide. But then with that, it ends up making people feel like nothing is happening, even though there could be a lot going on in that artist’s world that they’re not broadcasting.
So we were already talking about this earlier, but you’re also a part of another music group called Holy Oak. What are some similarities or differences between the two music projects that you are a part of?
Neil: They’re very similar I think. On some levels it feels the same to me, I don’t know why. *laughs* It doesn’t feel substantively different because it’s all still my songs and I’m still singing them. My group Holy Oak had more people in it, like, I think at our largest we had about eight or nine people, at our smallest we were a two-piece band, and then sometimes it was just me. I think the main difference between the two is the instrumentation. Holy Oak had a lot of live drums and acoustic instruments, and this one is mostly electronic and mostly has synthesized instruments.
And a fun little question for you, if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Neil: I think as of artists that are playing now, I’d probably want them to be aesthetically similar, or at least similar in direction. I really like Nick Cave and his band, so I think that would be a lot of fun. Although, I might be a little intimidated to go on tour with him. And let’s see, who else, who have I been listening to a lot lately? I’ve been listening to a lot of Gillian Welch, who’s this really cool contemporary folk artist. Her and her partner David Rawlings do a really great job with that genre of music, so I think it would be fun. I guess there wouldn’t be too much overlap between the audiences with what I’m doing and what they’re doing. *laughs* And then a younger local artist like Phoebe Bridgers would be cool to have on tour as well. I think she’s so cool and her style of songwriting is so direct and interesting, I really like that. As for what to name the tour, oh my gosh, I don’t even know! *laughs* I feel like the only memorable tour name I remember was ‘The Rolling Thunder Review,’ that Bob Dylan tour where he painted his face white and was kind of wearing this, like, mime makeup. It was very strange but also entertaining. *both laugh* Yeah, I don’t know what we would call our world tour. I feel like I’m ill equipped to think of a good name. *laughs*
That should totally be a job position, Professional Tour Namer. *laughs*
Neil: I feel like when you name a tour it’s always around something that’s going on in your life. It’s like a zeitgeist thing where it’s a moment in time and you’re naming it, so it’s challenging for me to name something that’s based on my imagination. *laughs*
Speaking of the world, you’ve gotten the chance to travel and live in many different places. In the terms of music, what are some differences that you’ve seen between those places, like, how excited the audience is, or payment, or booking?
Neil: I guess the places that I know the best are Montreal and L.A., and in terms of that there are big differences, particularly with the West L.A. and the Montreal scene that I was a part of. When I first came back to L.A., I was right out of high school, I had moved back to town for a summer, and right away I was so surprised that you had to pay to play in these venues. I had just never heard of that before, and I was like, ‘This seems weird to me.’ When I went to Montreal, it just wasn’t like that. I mean, you book a room and such if you wanted a room for the night, but with that, you would be taking all of the ticket revenue and you wouldn’t be splitting the amount with the venue. It would be that you booked the room, in which that was your room for the night, or what you could do was book the show with the venue, but then they would get a cut of the ticket sales. That would just be how the payment worked in Montreal, at least in most venues. When I came back to L.A., there was still that pay-to-play kind of thing, but I didn’t encounter it as much as I used to. It was also probably because I was looking at different venues.
It’s definitely calmed down a little bit because of backlash from artists, and fans as well, complaining about the unfairness of the whole thing.
Neil: Yeah, that’s what I saw too.
I personally don’t agree with pay-to-play either.
Neil: I understand it if you’re thinking of it as booking a room, like, that makes sense to me.
Of course, because you want your own space on your own time.
Neil: Exactly. And at that point, you should have a lot more control over what happens in the room and how the proceeds would be distributed. That’s kind of my thoughts on it. And then in terms of artist support, I mean, Montreal is half French language, so I always thought it was interesting playing to audiences where there was sometimes a language barrier. I think for the most part people were bilingual, but that would come out more when you were singing as opposed to when you were speaking. For someone who wasn’t a native English speaker, it could be a lot harder to catch words, and I would definitely have the same experience when trying to understand French. So with Montreal, I feel like the audience was connected more to the musical aspects of it rather than the lyrical aspects, which was interesting for me as a lyricist. It’s still a cool experience because it really does make you think more about the sounds and that the words you’re saying are making impacts the sounds rather than just the meaning of the words. There’s also the sound of the word and a feeling of the word, which I think is really cool.
That’s such an interesting take on it because there are so many cool sounding songs that are also deeply emotional songs, and sometimes you forget that they need to kind of intertwine in order to be exceptional. It’s definitely interesting that you noticed that while in a different country.
Neil: Yeah, totally.
So how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Neil: I think I basically don’t. *laughs* I think I’m either one or the other depending on the day.
I feel like that’s kind of the L.A. mentality. *both laugh*
Neil: Oh, it definitely is! I feel like I’m always doing one thing or the other, and it’s the same with music. I have a job that’s outside of music, so I’ll either be doing that or I’ll be doing music. I do find it very challenging to balance the two, because even in terms of time management, it’s just hard to compartmentalize.
Yeah, it’s a very fast paced world. *laughs* And what advice would you give to your younger self in regards to what to music and life experiences?
Neil: I guess if I could go back and give some non-specific advice, I would probably say to not worry so much and to concentrate on writing songs and the parts that are fun about it. I feel like when I was younger I just got so bogged down from scene stuff and industry stuff, that there were a few aspects that I didn’t really enjoy. Now looking back, I don’t feel that my concentrating and worry about those aspects really positively impacted me or even where I am that much.
What do you hope your audience away from your music?
Neil: I think there’s two kinds of people. There are people who feel sad and they want to listen to happy music to uplift them, and then there are people who are sad who want to listen to sad music so that they feel that they’re not alone. I think that the type of audience that what I’m doing appeals to is the audience that would want to hear something showing that they’re not alone, and so the number one message that I would want to convey is that no matter what weird stuff is going on in your life or troubling stuff that’s going on in the world, we’re all in it together, and no one person is experiencing what they’re feeling in isolation.
I love that. It’s a reminder of how huge of a connecter music can be. Like, you can have someone here in L.A. who’s singing a song and then you can have someone in France or Morocco or Australia who can also feel the same emotion as this artist that’s putting it all out there. And it could not necessarily be the same experiences, but they could be similar enough that it could have a positive impact on the person.
And to end us off, what other big plans should we be expecting from you in the near future, for either project?
Neil: So for Catacomb Saints, we’re working on finishing up our LP. We have a bunch of songs recorded that we haven’t been released yet, and then we’re going to put it all together to put out a full-length record. I don’t know when yet, but I’ve been working on lyrics and Devon, my bandmate, has been putting in a lot of time learning new tricks on the synthesizer and figuring out cool sounds on the modular. That’s the big plan is to get the full-length done.
About Mon Amour Cafe:
Do you have an affinity for crepes? Do you like getting a bang for your buck? Well, Westwood’s Mon Amour Cafe offers both and boy will you not be disappointed. Nestled in the heavily populated neighborhood close to UCLA, this build your own crepe shop offers a variety of recipes to fit your mood. Whether you’re looking for something savory, or want to give into your sweet tooth like I was (in which I opted for the Nutella, strawberry, banana and ice cream infused Broxton), vistors of all ages and backgrounds will be able to find something to enjoy. But that’s not the best part! Mon Amour is open late Friday-Sunday, so you have plenty of opportunity to nab yourself a treat after a show at the Regency Village Theater or Geffen Playhouse Theater, a sporting event at the college, or let’s be honest, after a long night of partying.