I've started to think of Holcombe Waller as the forgotten man. When we met in college, in the late 90s, he was the brightest whitest hope among us to save music forever. While the rest of our arty clique was still fucking around trying to find an aesthetic, a style, a sound to glom onto, he was already a veteran – still stoking the embers of an old school, you-can-only-make-it-in-Hollywood-style record deal. Holcombe had delayed his college education for a year, trying to cut hits in Southern California with the financial backing of a music equipment maker trying to extend their empire into the then-bloated yet still-burgeoning recorded music industry.
Soon enough there was a full stop to that – but that’s not where the story ended, that’s where the plot got thicker.
A (no joke) genius, both gifted and cursed with the voice of a seraph and perfect pitch, Holcombe began his university education by indulging an entirely different set of talents. He was that guy, the one taking graduate level physics classes in his freshman year. Given his penchant for transformation, of course, the freshman physics major became the sophomore art major, and soon enough he was diving into the evolving world of digital art production. Eventually, the straight As straight boy came out as something… more… erm… complicated, his interests cohering around art and music.
Back then three-fifths of the musicians who would go onto form The National were hovering around the edges of campus -- one of them matriculated, the others just visiting. At the time, they were part of a band who, according to official histories, must go unnamed -- and while their identity is not something I will reveal, what you need to know is that Holcombe is the one they looked up to for aid and guidance. Though he was quite busy in a key role with one of our school’s award winning a capella singing groups (we didn’t really get that part), Holcombe found time to produce two records by the then-thriving (now forgotten) band.
Upon graduation, a pair of albums by Holcombe were recorded and released in rapid succession – 1999’s Advertising Space and 2001’s Extravagent Gesture, both of which were drunk on influences he was still processing. Let’s just say that the soaring and tragic voice of Jeff Buckley was an appealing sound to emulate for someone cursed with a golden throat; and that Holcombe’s struggles with sexual identity and politics, and his fledgling efforts to learn guitar, made Ani DiFranco’s hard folk sound a natural interest.
Both of these early albums have since been partially disowned by Holcombe– though you can hear elements of both that make you wonder why – flashes of Bryce Dessner’s longing guitar playing throughout, a few songs that, when you hear them, don’t easily leave your head.
Frankly, all I remember about this time are off-campus apartments with Russian icons on the wall; funnydrunk parties and romantic fist fights happening off camera; and various other twentysomething mishaps. It was a dramatic and stressful time, and we were callow and ambitious and desperate and sensual and young. (Depends which one of us you ran into.) In subsequent years, I remember almost-serious attempts to sell our stories as a reality show to MTV. I’m quite sure it took Holcombe a decade plus to heal some of the scars.
The next time Holcombe popped onto the radar was with 2005’s Troubled Times, and that’s also where his current direction came into focus. Created in the wake of George Bush's back-to-back elections and thematically dominated by thoughts about this state of affairs, the record was pissed off but in a smoldering mode, a record about the failure of unions both political and romantic. It alternated happy, hopeful, I-just-woke-up-next-to-this-wonderful-person songs with one literally called "Literally the End of the World." It ends with “Hope is Everywhere” which features another member of our college clique, Mia Doi Todd. It’s a song so diaphanous and spare it’s more space than song and then…and then…there was more space.
What the hell’s Holcombe been doing the past six years?
In a phrase, he’s been “going deep” again. Soon after the release of Troubled Times, he began to investigate more seriously the area where the art and performance worlds meet. He spent time in New York City -- participating in the hothouse salons and gender-bent performance nights curated by impresario Earl Dax and presented in various cabarets and warehouses, apartments and institutions. He was befriended by internationally renown singer and artist Antony Hegarty; and, in turn, Holcombe befriended downtown performance icon Penny Arcade, a woman whose history extends from appearances in the films of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith to performances in illegal art spaces in Brooklyn circa now. He crossed paths with Ryan Trecartin, the art world phenom, and appeared in one of his much-admired video fantasias. In 2007, Holcombe dug into what it meant to be a songwriter, presenting Mihael Sagalovesky and the Tragic Torments of Patti ♥ Townes, a work consisting entirely of classic songs by Patty Griffin and Townes Van Zandt. More than covers, Holcombe’s performances found him dressed as a drunken clownish angel, reappropriating the work of these songwriters’s songwriters to his own ends.
By 2008, all this work and research began to pay off with recognition from the gatekeepers of high culture. He won a five figure Mapfund grant to support Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest, a new work of folk song theater in which he profiled the psychology of a generation defined by war, religious stratification and environmental catastrophe, yet whose reaction to this state of affairs is strangely passive. Consider it a series of response songs to John Meyer ‘s “Waiting On the World to Change,” perhaps?
Into the Dark Unknown (the theater piece) was funded by both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It was co-commissioned and presented by Time-Based Arts Festival at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Under the Radar at New York’s Public Theater, Seattle's On the Boards, PuSh Festival in Vancounver, British Columbia, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. It was a big deal!
Holcombe would process this whole experience in 2009, teaching and collaborating with choreographer Joe Goode while serving as a visiting artist at the University of California, Berkley.
With Into the Dark Unknown, an album-length reinterpretation of these recent adventures, Holcombe has returned, in a way, to the world of pop – insofar as pop can be defined as the best place to present stuff this relevant to living, to a wide, “popular” audience. The music toggles between touching yet elliptical narratives of the sort made famous by Joni Mitchell or Harry Chapin, and the loopy spirit energy of a Van Morrison – though if Morrison defines soul and grit, Holcombe is all angels and air.
Every one of these songs is a snapshot, though the names and faces are often blurry. The only one I see clearly is Holcombe’s and I can read the horror and the love and the feeling off of his features.
"I don’t know much, but I know you / You are the kind of magic always breaks my heart in two / The house all trashed, the wine uncorked / Maybe I should call you when I get back from New York"
Yes, rhyme sort of dies on the page, but stories don’t. And if you take the above as a documentary presentation of some shitty glamorous night that you too once had, you’ll probably connect with it as strongly as I do.
A diva in the truest sense, Holcombe has made an album that is the product of many years of consideration and reconsideration, the kind of obsessive revisiting and revisioning that would do an Arthur Russell or Kate Bush or Glenn Gould proud. There’s an idealized sketchiness to these songs, a loose unraveling of the folk-rock chord – several songs are live recordings, to best catch a certain energy I’m sure – just as I’ll assure you any looseness is intentional. There must have been something about the sound of the room that day, or a particular face in the crowd that was treasured and remembered.
Into the Dark Unknown is the sound of a vocal acrobat that's learned the wisdom of restraint -- drones of various shapes provided by strings, acoustic guitars, ambient sounds and the fading strains of harmonies heard in echo. This music can be almost embarrassing to listen to, it's so stripped bare.
It’s taken a certain range of experiences to get Holcombe this far, and I only hope I’ve done them justice. When Holcombe sings that he’s “Bored of Memory,” it’s only because he’s haunted by them.
Into the Dark Unknown: Song-by-song
Here’s what I think these songs are about, one by one. No authorial endorsement of these interpretations was either sought or granted.
- Atlas // This is a song about the gifted and talented or, perhaps, how it feels to take anti-depressants.
- Risk of Change // This is what they were warning you about visiting New York City. It’s also about personal evolution.
- The Unicorn // Here’s what it’s like to have your heart pierced by that mythical creature, True Love.
- Baby Blue // This is about the morning after whatever just happened.
- Hardliners // A song which explains how it’s the flaws in people that we fall in love with.
- Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan // Anxiety! Influence! This song was written by the Native American musician Buffy Sainte-Marie.
- Shallow // This is about Adam & Eve & other bits of misremembered Pagan mythology.
- Into the Dark Unknown // A folkie wedding classic that most people haven’t heard yet.
- About Time // There is a great difficulty in achieving adulthood in a society that delivers a steady stream of constant pleasure.
- Bored of Memory // This song haunts the entire record.
- Down & Cried // All we are up against.
- I Can Feel It // An after-dinner mint.
Alec Hanley Bemis lives in New York, where he started the Brassland label and continues to run it along with managing various artists. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The New Yorker, LA Weekly, the internet and various other reputable information outlets.
High resolution photos, bio and press releases can be downloaded via Holcombe's Girlie Action public relations page.