Mid-2017, I discovered a Welsh band called Holding Absence via their song “Penance”. I swiftly gushed about them in an article, saying “I don’t know who Holding Absence are.. but I now want to know all there is to know and I’m about to lose myself down a rabbit hole of this band that should clearly not be slept on.” It was unsurprising that though they only had three songs released at the time, that SharpTone Records had smartly signed the band.
Almost three years and many more articles later (including Holding Absence’s self-titled debut album being my pick as editor for Album Of The Year 2019), I finally had the pleasure of getting on the phone with vocalist Lucas Woodland. It was just like any other Tuesday, in the now-normal circumstance of being homebound due to the present COVID-19 pandemic isolation. Set up with a coffee, I dialled the 50 kajillion number long international conferencing phone number, and said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t be embarrassingly awkward in the process of juggling my curiosity and enthusiasm.
It very quickly felt like two friends talking though, with Lucas being as kind on the other end of the phone as he always seems to be on social media and in messages. We talked about the mystery that is different timezones and seasons, and bonded over Animal Crossing: New Horizons video game and our often unsuccessful attempts to avoid scorpions, wasps, or tarantulas. Speaking to me (in Melbourne, Australia) from his home in Pontypridd just outside Cardiff, Lucas also talked about the extremely relatable challenge of hunting for a normal sleep routine while in isolation.
Clearly needing to talk about the band and not just Animal Crossing tree-shaking techniques, the release of the 7″ Gravity/Birdcage picture disc is the current focus for Holding Absence. My first band-specific question related to the curious splashes of colour that appear on the individual single artworks, the 7″, and also the band’s promo photos. It was an obvious difference to me, as through line-up shuffles and many releases, the black and white has been a staple of the Holding Absence aesthetic, with only a few swerves into colour (the “Monochrome” music video and the impactful final moments of “Everything”‘s video both come to mind).
Asking whether the literal smears of colour were foreshadowing any kind of change of aesthetic for the band into the future, Lucas didn’t give anything away. Saying “It could well be…” he didn’t confirm or deny, but directed focus toward the fact that underneath the coloured paint is still a black and white photo of the band. “It’s like a second layer. So the photo is black and white, but there’s a little bit of colour on the photo.” This idea of consistency with room for creative flare/changes feels good.
Though the Gravity/Birdcage release is the current focal point in terms of media, the elephant in the room is that it’s been a really rough time for Holding Absence and touring. In September last year, they announced that their very first US tour (in support of Being As An Ocean) could not go ahead due to visa complications. And it should have been this weekend that Holding Absence would play their first ever shows in Australia. This is also cancelled, this time due to COVID-19 risks and restrictions for public events and travel.
I didn’t want to breach that heartbreaking topic at all, but it turns out that the two-track was actually created in response to the void that had been created by these plans falling through. Lucas shared that the US cancellation had had the band collectively “down in the dumps”. There’s a typical kind of timing to things that Lucas described for me, relating to waiting time surrounding tours; with a wait before the tour and then afterward. Losing a month-long tour and having those periods of time prior and afterward, it quickly became “five months of nothing” for Holding Absence.
When the US cancellation happened, Lucas shared that they found a determination to not dwell on what they were missing out on, nor have the time they’d reserved for the tour wasted. After Holding Absence released in March 2019, the band had had new music created very soon after, with “Birdcage” written in May 2019. In decision mode, Lucas shares that in conversation with the band it was like “We’ve got a handful of songs already written for record two. And these particular songs, “Gravity” and “Birdcage” feel like they would do very well on their own.”
A two-track release following on from an album might seem like an odd choice, but it’s actually very much ‘on brand’ for the four piece. If you listen through the band’s entire discography (which I highly recommend. And I did this as my ‘homework’/prep for this interview!), the strong presence of standalone tracks becomes obvious. Holding Absence have stunning singles that aren’t released on EPs, and have continued to created a metaphorical trail of delectable crumbs for their fans to feast upon their music – song by song.
Lucas shared that the band are keen to “make it a thing” that they put out music in this deliberately gradual way, without any confinements to typical or expected approaches. From a listener perspective and also from Lucas direct, Holding Absence’s music is intended for savouring, not gorging; for people to take time with each lyric, word, note, mood. With this intention, Lucas says “We really try to make as much of a song and dance out of every song as much as we possibly can.”
And there’s a lot to explore. I’ve fallen in love with the atmospheres the band have created as well as their extensive use of beautiful metaphors, and the discovery that can happen about their music when absorbed with curiosity. I was excited to realise just who Saint Cecilia was, for one example, which then had the entire song click into understanding.
Talking about metaphors, Lucas shared that “I feel like there is only so many ways you can say so many things. I feel like metaphors are a really good way of cramming quite unique words into not-so-unique sentences. So with “Birdcage” for example, it’s like “You still keep my heart trapped inside your birdcage” and well what does that mean? It’s a birdcage, so maybe the character the guy’s singing about has a pet bird. Or maybe her name is Polly. Or maybe it’s just like a very hands-on kind of reference to the fact that birdcages are quite restricting, and maybe the fact that birds are meant to be free and to fly. So what I’m getting at is that I feel like throwing a word like “birdcage” in there can just completely change everything up and make everyone ask questions about a song that maybe they wouldn’t normally.”
In “Birdcage” there’s also reference to “compass-spinner” which was a unique one for my ears. Explaining this a little, Lucas shared “I think to me the main symbolism and imagery in that is that a compass is arguably the most reliable thing. Famously, if you were lost in the wild, a compass would be the most reliable thing you could have. So the fact that this person completely throws the direction of this other person out of whack, it’s such a symbolic and strong message to convey, really; this person spins my compass and completely loses me.”
When I’d considered ahead of the interview exactly what I’d wanted to know about Holding Absence, it was a desire to hear from Lucas about the beating heart that is behind this project. How is ‘she’ seen by the band and what is their approach of creating through her? Is Holding Absence a faceless entity that they tune into? With a far more grounded outlook than my own, Lucas answered “That’s a really good question. I don’t think like that really. I’ve got a lot of friends who are spiritual, but I’ve never thought of Holding Absence as anything other than this vessel of emotion and connection.”
Talking then about the earlier days as a band, Lucas shared that there was more of an intention to hold an ambiguous kind of aesthetic, where they’d try not to speak in between songs and that their creations were deliberately presented as aged, “…so that it could have happened 30 years ago or three seconds ago.” He’d seen a show by The Pixies, and described how “They just got on stage and played 18 songs and they didn’t say a single word between songs. I was just like ‘Holy shit, that’s just so cool.’ But as time’s gone on, I feel like you’ve got to sometimes respect whatever your beast becomes and whether it’s destined to become a faceless ‘cool’ band or whether it’s destined to become a bit more of a hands-on loving kind of band, which is what I think we have become over time. I just feel like as long as Holding Absence is sincere and real underneath, it can be anything.”
The loving sincerity comes across in the response you can witness in their devoted fanbase, which is movingly shared in the music video for “You Are Everything”. As in the “Monochrome” music video, as well as the lyrics of “Permanent”, Holding Absence as a band seems to have become the answer to their own promise that “You will find a home, you will find a place”. It seems rare to find a band that is established and popular enough to grace pages of the likes of Kerrang, AltPress, and Rock Sound, yet also be devoted to their fans and determined to check in on as personal of a level as possible. Even for myself, a writer/reviewer of a relatively unknown music website on the other side of the world, Lucas has been nothing but generous with his time and willingness to go into as much detail as would soothe my curiosity, for as long as we’ve known each other. The sentiment of “You are everything” isn’t just window dressing for these guys.
But as Holding Absence is simply a vessel of emotion, and the songs are a very real catharsis, Lucas expressed a desire for this human factor to be remembered. He says “My life has been revolved around supporting bands and thinking bands are the coolest things of all time, but we kind of need to respect the fact that a band is just a name for a thing that puts music out. It’s quite important to remember that Holding Absence is just an outlet, really. It’s more about what it’s an outlet for that matters.”
I asked about how this is balanced for Holding Absence, and maybe more specifically Lucas as frontman; how he handles the attention as being the kind of main spokesperson for an open and hands-on band, while also tending to his own wellbeing as priority. He says “I think that is the hardest bit. I’ve actually.. literally in the last week I’ve had a bit of a.. not like an issue or a crisis or anything. Just every now and then I feel like people forget that I am just a dude who just has the same fears and the same self-doubts and the same hangups as everybody else. It can be really tough when you get somebody really outwardly dislike something about you or something you’ve done, or everything you do.”
While Lucas is a singer, the stereotypical frontman concept of being completely comfortable with attention showered upon him is something that’s taken some getting used to. He says “I’ve never really been like that in my personal life, and I’ve had to embrace that, because unfortunately I can sing. [laughs]” Describing it as a “weird learning curve”, Lucas feels blessed to have Holding Absence as a means for venting uncomfortable emotions along the way. He also feels grateful for the band members beside him on the Holding Absence journey.
Describing the line-up as “so solid” after some earlier band member shifts, Lucas says “now we are this bullet-proof, water-tight vessel of music and emotion. The four of us just totally know everything we need to do… as people and as musicians. We’re the tightest we’ve been as friends in a long time as well, which is important.” I asked Lucas to share a little about each member.
Scott Carey (guitarist)
“Scott’s the newest member, so I feel like people would be less familiar with him than anyone else. But myself and Scott met at school when we were 12, and we started our first band when we were 15. [Falling With Style] We were in that band until the age of 20, and then I joined Holding Absence, and Scott joined Holding Absence about 3-4 years later.
“Me and Scott, on paper, we’ve been writing music together for 10 years now, and he’s probably my oldest friend. A lot of people don’t realise that. Every first thing I did in a band, I did with Scott; I did Download with him when we were 18, toured with him for the first time, so we have this really really strong bond as people and as musicians. We realise how special it is that we’re back writing music together, and it truly feels like we’ve had 10 years of practice together.”
James Joseph (bass)
“James is a funny one. James is an unbelievably on the ball businessman when it comes to music. I feel like behind every Corey Taylor… you’d understand this analogy if you like Slipknot. The guy Clown, he’s the brains of the whole thing, and he just plays the steel drum. So everybody probably assumes he does nothing, but Clown is the main member of Slipknot, really. James is very much like that.
“James is always hands-on, always on the trigger as to what to do and when to do it, and what will resonate with people the most. I truly believe that without a member like James in a band.. I don’t think many bands would succeed without somebody who is a lot more entrepreneurial with the way things are done. Putting out songs and T-shirts isn’t enough anymore, you need to know why you’re doing it and for whom you’re doing it for. James has just been such a driving force behind Holding Absence really, and of course he’s a brilliant bassist and a brilliant songwriter as well, obviously James and the Cold Gun really highlights that. In Holding Absence, he’s just a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes as much as anything.”
Ashley Green (drums)
“I feel for Ash. Because he’s the drummer, I feel like there’s this narrative about every drummer, and it’s harder for him to write songs of course.. because he’s the drummer! But I feel like for me, on a personal level, Ash has been so important.
“Being in a band is really like starting a business with a sibling and also going out with them. [laughs] It is like every type of emotion and connection and bond that you could have – all of them put together. You do have this sense of blood running through you and you need to do what’s best for the business rather than just what’s best for whatever you think. There is a higher power than you when you’re a band. And then like I said, on top of that, it kind of feels like a relationship, because you shouldn’t be going off with other people, you should be spending time on this, so you do have this really overwhelming type of relationship.
“I just feel like Ash underneath that is the most pure person, and he never gets rattled by that. And at a lot of times we’ve all kind of felt like giving up, and I feel like Ash has been the real person underneath that’s just reminded me that I am just making music with my best friends and singing about what’s hard in life and overcoming those things.
“And once again, on top of that he’s just a fantastic drummer. He underplays in Holding Absence. He really does underplay, and he’s just a machine. So the fact that we can have somebody like him on the pots and pans and also behind as a really compassionate emotional friend is really important.”
After Lucas gushed over his bandmates, we spoke about the Gravity/Birdcage picture disc vinyl, and by extension how the This Is As One and Permanent/Dream Of Me vinyls have now become rare and highly sought after. Describing the cool, collectible nature of those physical releases as “such an alien thing to me”, Lucas shared that putting them out is something that Holding Absence are keen to continue. “It’s kind of our way of releasing singles and music in a unique way that doesn’t need to be for an album. If everything has a physical version of it, it feels a little bit cooler to me. If we’d just chucked “Birdcage” out to get a load of Spotify streams, I’d feel really soulless about that. I don’t like the concept of that. But having a physical disc that you can hold, and look at, and just play even, I feel like that’s our way of compromising with the way the current climate of music releasing is.”
I’d been surprised that “Birdcage” had released on Spotify at all, expecting it to be only accessible through the physical release. Discussing some of the pros and cons about music streaming, Lucas feels that exposure to a band is a positive thing above all, and he took a look at the current Spotify streaming numbers for the two songs while we were on the phone. Describing it as “unbelieveable”, Lucas shared that “Birdcage” was at 130K streams since it’s release on 17th April, and that “Gravity” was at 210K in the space of a month. Nearly overtaking “Wilt”‘s 230K plays already, it’s clear that the streaming demand is there for Holding Absence. Releasing the Gravity/Birdcage 7″ is something of a compromise, offering something more, something tactile, for those who are wanting to have it.
Thinking to the future, I was interested whether the themes of heartbreak would continue in Holding Absence’s music, given that he seems to be very happy in a relationship [seriously, how stalkerish is social media that I even know this…]. Saying “I’m in love with my girlfriend. I worship the ground she walks on,” and sharing how he feels blessed to have someone like her in his life, Lucas revealed that it’s rare that Holding Absence songs are truly autobiographical. “I feel like a lot of what Holding Absence says through music are a lot of the emotions I felt in my life, being channelled in different ways. It’s not like I’m really singing about myself in some ways. I’m singing about stories, and I’m singing about emotions, but I’m not telling you the characters to these stories.”
Though Lucas is grateful for the love he has (having wanted it for some time), by way of song content, he is focused on doing what’s right for the band as a whole. He feels that gushing over his girlfriend in a song, “if not done perfectly” would be a very risky thing. Lucas shares that he’s more embracing his girlfriend’s presence in his life relating to Holding Absence in the important way that she encourages, pushes, and inspires him. Lucas feels like her support is “the greatest strength I have as a songwriter.” Elaborating, he says “Feeling like I’m flawed and knowing that I have somebody to remind me of those little things that I might not be doing perfect, and asking me questions of my lyrics before anyone hears them… Having her in my life has really changed the dynamic of songwriting, in a really really positive way.”
Returning to the point of the songs not being purely from Lucas’ own experiences, he gives the example of “Dream of Me”. Saying that the song is not about death, he’s had conversations where listeners have expressed how much the song has helped them with their grief. He said “It was like ‘Wow, I accidentally wrote a song to help somebody mourn somebody else.’ That person is going through more emotion than maybe I have in my entire life. That really humbled me and really opened my eyes to the fact that the things you say don’t particularly need to be 100% true as such. It’s more a case of ‘Are the emotions and the way I’m conveying them genuine?’. It’s like reading a book. Imagine if somebody told you you couldn’t feel emotional about a book because the person in the book didn’t exist. [laughs] But the author has obviously thought and felt these things, and that’s how they’re channelling them through their characters. It’s still just as credible.”
Though “Marigold” began as a poem, Holding Absence songs typically do not come from poetry. Sharing that he has a kind of synesthesia when it comes to where he was and how he felt when he writes songs, Lucas spoke about how “Marigold” came about. It was a moment in the early hours of the morning where he was looking through a book about flowers in his bed to his phone torchlight. As a somewhat romantic mental image, Lucas agrees it was “kind of like Harry Potter with his little lumos, reading his book at night”. Lucas says that he writes – all the time – whether just a sentence, rhyming words, or a few lines together. This can come from conversations or even misheard lyrics. He says “It’s important to think on your toes as far as lyricism goes.”
With the creation of “Birdcage”, it was partial versions of the opening two lines that Lucas had to begin the song with: “I’m the mortal coil wrapped around your finger” / “Pushing daisies through your letterbox”. He then fleshed them out, giving real-world relatability to these otherwise poetic lines. Expanding upon the first line, Lucas uses “the mortal coil” to describe the ebbing and flowing of life. He says “I really resonated with that for a number of reasons, one because there’s a band called This Mortal Coil that my parents are really big fans of. So that came to me when I was younger, just because I knew they listened to that band. And because C. S. Lewis wrote a book called “A Grief Observed”. He said something, and it’s stuck with me so much and it really inspired me to break the mould a little bit when it comes to depression. He said basically when you feel like life is going in circles, you need to be careful that it’s a circle and not a coil. Repetition in life or monotony in life is either a good thing or a bad thing, and it’s important to determine whether you’re going down or up.”
“For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
“When I read that, it really inspired me to change my life a little bit, because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t spiralling down, you know. Fuck me, what a tangent. [laughs] So “the mortal coil wrapped around your finger”, when you’re wrapped around someone’s finger you’re obviously under their spell, and the mortal coil, it just sums you up; you’re your own universe fulls of ups and downs, trials and tribulations, happiness, sadness. But to this love interest, you are just this thing wrapped around her finger. That was what that lyric kind of meant.”
With clearly so much contained in just one or two lines of a song, it’s these kind of gold nuggets of understanding that Holding Absence potentially have on offer for the curious, aside from making bangin’ tunes. Lucas accepts the fact that quite a few song lines might go over peoples’ heads for this reason.
He shared that “pushing daisies” is a reference to death (the phrase “pushing up daisies”), but also relates to romantically sending flowers. “As the song progresses you realise that this person isn’t actually with this person that they keep sending letters or flowers to.” With the physical idea of daisies through a letterbox combined with the reference to death, it becomes “the love is actually dead. In that line alone, it actually has a darker side to it, as it’s kind of wrong and this person should move on. And that’s where the sinner line comes from, and the downsides of loving you to death. Like ‘I loved you too much and I didn’t realise I was actually doing harm by pushing these daisies through your letterbox.'”
Having taken up a lot of Lucas’ time by this point, I farewelled him, with his plans for a cup of tea and sleep ahead of him. We’ll have more to talk about when album two blossoms fully to life, whenever that may be… or maybe there’ll be a standalone gem to come. In the meantime, listen to “Gravity” and “Birdcage”.
[Holding Absence photos: Bethan Miller]