UK band Holy Moly & the Crackers has been loosely defined as “gypsy folk rock,” but their new album, Salem, is decidedly more rock than anything else. Turn it on and turn it up. This one’s a rager.
Just released on Pink Lane Records, lyrics feature allusions to baroque, superstitious practice, and the dark arts — tarot, memento mori, witchcraft, hallucination — but with a heavier, crunchier sound than past efforts.
Holy Moly & the Crackers started out as a trio featuring Ruth Patterson (vocals, violin, keys), Conrad Bird (vocals), and Rosie Bristow (accordion, keys, saxophone). Over the past six years, they’ve added drummer Thomas Evans, bassist Jamie Shields, guitarist Peter Hogan, and Martha Wheatley on trombone and backing vocals.
Patterson and Bird have an affinity for New Orleans music and culture, despite having yet to visit the US. “I think that makes it all the more mystical for us,” says Patterson. “All of our idols come from America: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell; they’re our kind of bread and butter.
“I don’t know if America is actually anything like what I imagine in my head,” she continues. “But New Orleans is definitely someplace we’d really like to go. I just love the brass bands, the carnival idea of it.”
Patterson scored the entire album for string quartet and covered all those parts along with guest cellist Kerrin Tatman, a friend who recently moved nearby. The entire band went into the studio with parts fleshed out and knowing exactly what they were going to do.
Produced by Matt Terry (Alison Moyet, The Royal Shakespeare Company) Salem was fittingly recorded at the idyllic Vada Studios, which was once a medieval chapel above a family tomb. “It’s one of the best studios in the country. The acoustics — you can’t describe how good they are,” says Patterson.
Written in a day and a half after Patterson got pissed off, the title track uses the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for blaming others when things go wrong. “We kind of blame anybody else, all the vulnerable people in the world that can’t stand up for themselves, whether it’s refugees, asylum seekers, disabled people, women. It feels like they get a raw deal. It seems like everybody’s on a witch hunt for everybody else at the moment,” says Patterson.
She takes these attitudes personally. “I’m actually a disabled person. I’m a wheelchair user. And I do find a lot of kind of anger towards people. I do have a lot of comments like, ‘Oh, you’re taking the benefits. You’re adding to society’s problems.’ It just made me really angry. There’s a lot in the media about blame this, blame that, and there’s this big fear thing we have. So Salem is about that and is a reaction against that.”
Vocalist Conrad Bird wrote the chords and initial lyric ideas for “Mary” about three years ago, and his brother Lo finished it off. The brothers agreed each could take the song to their respective bands and complete their own version. “It’s Noel and Liam Gallagher all over again,” jokes Bird.
HMatC had taken “Mary” into the studio in the past, but it hadn’t quite worked out. When they were getting the songs together for Salem, Bird rewrote it with folk-rap, celtic melodies, and an industrial rock groove. Its heavy, ballsy attitude fits right in with the rest of the album.
“I based the lyrics on the standard folk-song trope: you wake up and your woman is gone, so you hit the road. It’s Beat (in the Kerouac sense) and it’s blues,” says Bird. “Mary leaves on St. Valentines Day, writing her message on the wall as cryptic explanation: ‘I’m a broken-winged raven, even Jesus needed saving, I’m a rose in the crown of thorns.’ So the protagonist hits the road, trying to forget her but can’t. A lot of my writing incorporates archetypes and folk song tropes to keep connection with that tradition, even if musically we are developing our genre and aesthetic.”
Whereas Patterson and Bird wrote most songs on the album separately, “Hallelujah Amen” was the first they wrote together from scratch. Bird’s vocal style is reminiscent of Tom Waits, giving a nice counterbalance to Patterson’s angelic tone. “I do think we captured the growl-y, gravely part. Then you’ve got this sort of ethereal thing,” she says.
The song concludes with an appearance by The Birmingham Community Gospel Choir. “There was not a dry eye in the room when they were doing their takes, because it’s just so powerful. Their harmonies … we were in the control room and no one spoke. It was amazing.”
Accordian player Rosie Bristow and Patterson wrote “Cold Comfort Lane” together. Bristow wrote most of the lyrics and the structure of the song, and Patterson insisted on its punchy rock ‘n’ roll arrangement.
“It’s a kind of girl power song. You don’t get a lot of that attitude— It’s usually boy bands that do this kind of thing, so it felt quite good to be a girl screaming into a mic,” affirms Patterson. “I’d never really done that before, found that kind of rock voice, so that was a new experiment for this album. Matt Terry was going, ‘Give me more! Give me more!'”
HMatC is currently playing throughout the UK, and hopes to make their way to the US within a year. Here’s hoping that happens! I for one will drive a great distance to see them do their thing.