It's heartening to see musicians who clearly love what they do getting on in the world and even more so when they are well, kind of, local. Holy Moly and the Crackers are one such band. They are about to release their much anticipated third album, 'Take a Bite'.
The band have their roots in the University of Warwick where Conrad Bird (vocals/guitar/trumpet) was doing an arts degree, and Ruth Patterson (vocals/fiddle) was studying fashion. There they met Rosie Bristol (accordion), known by everyone as 'Squeezebox Rosie', and bonded over a love of Balkan folk music and wild times in and around Warwick and Leamington Spa. They began playing at house parties and pubs and pretty soon, to the horror of Rosie and Ruth, Conrad adopted the name of Holy Moly & the Crackers without even telling them, and the die was cast. Returning to the North East somewhere around 2013 they quickly recorded their debut album, 'First Avenue', named after the studio where it was recorded in Heaton, Newcastle. It was a dreamy concoction of folky tunes, dancing fiddle, Rosie's rattling accordion and Conrad's rasping trumpet and vocals. The album set them up to start to build a national following and in 2017 came 'Salem', an altogether more raucous affair that featured 'Cold Comfort Lane,' a track that was picked up by the car manufacturer Kia to promote their Sportage advert, and was also added to the soundtrack to the film 'Oceans 8'. Happy Days! That good fortune, and a killer riff from Nick Tyler, has enabled the band to continue and record their third album, and helped finance a life pretty much on the road, promoting what they do so well and playing all over Europe to growing crowds of fans.
'Take a Bite' gets a release on 5th April and they're playing an album launch show at Newcastle's The Cluny that night. I think it's a great album and was able to tell Ruth and Conrad so at a recent interview ("but you have to say that" laughed Ruth). I'm happy to be able to genuinely confirm that it's a gritty synthesis of the folky elements of the first album and the more outlandish bombast of 'Salem', resulting in a superb punchy album that has rousing choruses and a terrific live feel.
The album kicks of in high kicking style with 'All I Got Is You', a stomping tune that will have any joint they play rocking hard and, if there was any justice, would have hit No.1 in any old chart. It's got all the classic Holy Moly features Ruth's steaming vocal, Tommy's thumping drums, Rosie's rocking squeezebox and another killer riff courtesy of Nick Tyler; it's sure to become a live staple. That's smartly followed by 'Upside Down', another stomping tune thrust on by the pulsating bass of Jamie Shields and Ruth's strident vocal and Rosie's wheezing squeezebox. The song is a tribute to a friend of the band, apparently a circus performer who is at her happiest when she's upside down. She demonstrated that by climbing onto the stage and doing random hand stands at a pre-Christmas Newcastle Riverside gig. 'Can't Get Enough' slows things down a modicum and has a nice middle eastern kinda feel, and leads into 'Kiss Me Before You Go', that features a joint vocal with Conrad. It's clear that there's been a change in overall sound and that contributions are being made by the whole band so, for me, the whole thing sounds more rounded and fuller. 'Sisters' harks back to the first album with a quieter sound and a beautiful Ruth vocal and some gorgeous fiddle. 'Take a Bite' could be read as an invitation to jump into the whole Holy Moly experience and immerse your self in the eclectic vibe of the band. It has a kind of Moroccan Arabic feel with Rosie's box of tricks adding some weirdness and strange time signatures, and perhaps points the way forward. Probably my favourite here is the stomping 'Naked in Budapest' that is largely a Conrad vocal and reveals oblique tales of debauched nights out in that mysterious capital. "I never felt so blessed as when I was naked in Budapest" we're told tantalisingly. It's a tremendous tune with a long refrain of (I think) "we're not going home". The album concludes with a lovely little song that again is something of a departure, 'This Little Light' has a kind of jazzy swing vibe and is tight, light and just a wonderful lovely uplifting way to end it.
On the strength of this terrific album, once the band get back on the road, they won't be going home for a while. The eleven songs here are short, concise and punchy and I'd say they'd been designed to work well on stage and add depth and breadth to the usual storming Holy Moly gig, and will undoubtedly work well on those summer festival stages that are all ready beckoning.
In the run up to the album's release I met with Conrad and Ruth at a fine Newcastle hostelry, not far from the Cluny where the band will play their album launch show on April 5th. I started by saying that I'd been able to hear a review copy and found it more stripped down than album two. I then asked for some insight into the writing process.
Ruth: "Yes, I see it as a mixture of the two. Not too folky but not as electric and heavy. More honest and observational. We wrote it together. The band all contribute. I write most of the lyrics and Conrad ties to all together."
Conrad: Sometimes songs arrive fully formed and you say 'here it is everybody' and sometimes they come in dribs and drabs. Sometimes there's maybe four different ideas and you stitch them together. It can be one or two or the whole group. Ruth wrote most of the lyrics this time though. We sit down late at night and have a few drinks, only a few!
Ruth: "I have to believe what I'm singing. That's my personal taste too, when I'm listening to someone I can tell when someone's just going through the motions. I didn't want us to fall into that trap. I want that passion. I wanted to make sure on album three that it was still exciting for us. It doesn't have to be my story but I have to understand that character. The songs aren't necessarily about me, I sometimes write in character."
I remarked that there is a song on the new album called 'Naked in Budapest', and on a previous one there's 'The Devil on the Danube'. What, I wondered, was the band's connection, if any, to the Baltic region?
Conrad: (laughing). "Well, we started the band partly because Rosie, our accordion player, introduced us to Gorgol Bordello, and all this Klezmer stuff, and a film 'Black Cat, White Cat'; she brought all that stuff to the table. We'd never actually been to the Danube or Eastern Europe, but it was a part of our music. But then last summer, July 2018, we went to Hungary to do some festivals and it was a big moment because we'd been working for seven years and come so much further than we thought we could and it was an emotional moment to see The Danube and think 'Fuck! We've made it'. We had such an incredible weekend in Budapest and we wrote that song.
Ruth: "Conrad had already written the music and we were in the studio thinking about what it could be about. The highlight of the summer had all been about Budapest so we just brainstormed ideas and it all got a bit silly, but I really think it suits the music.
Conrad: The song, 'Naked in Budapest', is a celebration of that weekend. I wasn't actually naked there, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Our drummer, Tommy might have been, he went to bed long after us! Drummers are all crazy. 'Devil on The Danube' however, is kind of our identifying song that's why we always play it last.
On reflection, how do the band feel about 'Cold Comfort Farm' and that car advert? Did it feel like 'selling out'?
Ruth: (laughing) "I don't really know how I feel about that. It enables us to do the album and all the touring and pay for us to function as a band. We're all pushing 30 and thinking if this doesn't go anywhere you're going to have to get a job.. So we can live and do this full time and thats what it's all about. It's a car advert and that's hilarious."
Conrad: "At the weekend I was chatting to my Dad about this. He's a visual artist, and we were talking about Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. My Dad is a purist and doesn't like selling his work but we hate that term 'selling out'. In some ways it's quite intelligent because you're engaging with audiences.
Ruth: "People who use that term and say it in a serious way are often bitter, or more affluent!"
Conrad: "Everything is subsumed by some kind of consumerism - we have to make a living. Going back to 'Cold Comfort Lane', it is mad that's it's taken on a life of its own but it happened completely by accident and I think it's a really good song, we didn't mean to write that, you don't know what's gonna happen when you are writing it.You look back though and think, well that one song has enabled us to write a whole new album."
Ruth: "and if people like it, they like it and I don't think anyone will be turned off it because it was in a car advert."
Conrad: "I think that other songs like 'Devil on the Danube' are more our 'brand', the Balkan influenced dancy tunes are more us. A song like 'Cold Comfort Lane' can act as a gateway into our music. This is what we wanted to do with this new album - take some of the rocky stuff in 'Salem' and come back to our roots and join it together. I felt, in hindsight, that 'Salem' was a bit too disparate.
Ruth: (laughs) I think we gave everyone a bit of a shock when we released 'Salem' because the first album was all like 'Blue Bell Wood'. We got so nervous just before we released it I was thinking "Is this going to be all right"?
Conrad: "I remember about a week before release, Rosie came round for a coffee and she was saying 'I think we've made a terrible mistake'. I said 'well, we might have done, but it's too late now, it's done'. But it paid off."
What strikes me about the music of Holy Moly and the Crackers is that, unlike much of the folk music we hear around us which has an American bluesy sound, theirs has a more European folk feel at its core. I asked if that was a conscious decision.
Conrad: "Interesting that you say that because that bluesy stuff is what I like, very Americanised. Bluesy, Jack White - all that kind of thing."
Ruth: "Conrad listens to lots of folk stuff too like John Martyn, John Renbourne. He introduced that music to me when we first met. I listened to lots of fiddle music, I've been playing since I was five. My mum's Scottish and I listened to a lot of Celtic stuff when I was growing up. I listened to fiddle bands and Scottish fiddle orchestra's. Even as a kid I kind of thought 'well, this is a bit boring', but that stuff stays with you."
Conrad: "I don't think that stuff really influences the band, but it is there.
Who else do the band members listen to?
Conrad: "My obsession is Bob Dylan. My all time favourite is 'Blood on The Tracks'. I haven't bothered with the Sinatra albums but I love 'Modern Times', 'Together Through Life' and 'Tempest'. I love that song 'Pay in Blood'. I know I should love Leonard Cohen, but I think he's well ... Ok. Jack White has been a big influence.
Ruth: "I love Beth Ditto. I really love Regina Spektor. Patti Smith - I'm not a mad fan but I really like her. We saw her at Hop Farm with Dylan. It was strange. We won a competition to play there but we didn't meet him (Dylan). Patti Smith is such a powerful performer. It's not just the songs - it's the energy and the passion, it feels like she's talking to you. I feel that as a performer, I have to think about that a lot more. She's a performance poet. That opening line in 'Gloria' - 'Jesus died for somebody's sins - but not mine' is so powerful."
I finished by asking about the band's future plans.
Conrad: "Well, the new album, 'Take a Bite' is out 5th April. Then we go out on tour with a few dates in the UK in February and then a European tour in March, with Skinny Lister, they've been a big influence on us. Then we're doing some more shows in the UK, some Festivals, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany and then even more UK dates in October. So the year has been planned, and then next year the fourth album.