Paradise Lost Vocalist Nick Holmes on Doom, Dirge, “Obsidian,” and Horror (Interview)
In this time of global pandemic, brought about by the COVID-19 virus, few genres of music seem more suited than doom metal. This may seem like a contradiction because in a growing situation of global depression and hopelessness, why would people want to seemingly double down on music filled with negative emotions? Shouldn’t people be seeking the most joyful and happy music on hand as the cure for what emotionally ails them? I, for one, certainly don’t think so.
What I can say is every individual comes to that question differently, and what works for one person is never going to work for everyone. It does seem metalheads are more likely to find solace and emotional catharsis through dark and often negatively charged art -- maybe trying to cover up or ignore our negative emotions will, in the end, result in bottling them up under the kind of pressure that might later explode in self-destructive ways. Negative art can remind us we’re not alone in our feelings, nor that those feelings are anything to be ashamed of for simply experiencing.
Doom metal revels in these internal expressions of despair and gloom more than any other type of metal, and for many, that’s a reason why it’ll be the light guiding us through this even further darkened world.
What great fortune then that one of the godfathers of doom metal, Paradise Lost, is releasing a new album right in the middle of such worrying times. With Obsidian, the band's 16th album from their 30+ year history, the Yorkshire legends of gloom continue a return of sorts to their origins -- their last two albums featured vocalist Nick Holmes performing death metal vocals, which hadn’t been heard in the band’s work since their third album, 1992’s Shades of God. Already having proved they could still deliver monster slabs of death-doom, Obsidian now seems comfortable to pull from the full breadth of their legacy. The death metal vocals haven’t evaporated, but they’re now accompanied with the sort of gothic overtures and vibrant melodies that are just as likely to appeal to fans of the band’s less breakout classic releases like Icon and One Second.
More than several weeks into stay-at-home orders, and with the reality of the COVID-19 world really starting to settle in, I had a chat with Holmes in the twilight hours of 3 a.m. in Los Angeles, which for him was the far more sensible hour of 11 a.m. in the U.K. Rather than the conversation that followed being dark and dreary, I instead noted how joyful Holmes and myself were, oftentimes finding ourselves bursting with laughter over some of the absurdities of lock-down life, the intricacies of family, or fond memories from the past.
As I mentioned before about art being catharsis, for doom metal fans, we wallow in our misery through the music which lets us appreciate the rest of life with a smile and a hardy laugh.
So how are you holding up during these turbulent times right now?
Okay, I think we're on week four now of the lockdown. It's not massively different for me personally because I spent a lot of time at home anyway but I guess it's kind of weird when you go out to the shops or kind of walking around town. Some people are dealing with it better than others I guess, but I don't work nine to five so I don't mind being at home all the time.
So not a huge change for you. How are your family dealing with it?
Well my daughters are adults and luckily they can work from home. My wife works from home anyway as well. We're all sort of in the same house but I've got a man cave, so I can get away from everybody. It's an important part of getting a house for me. It seals the deal with having the man cave [laughs]. I guess could really understand why it would be a nightmare for some people but... I mean, we would just need to get some things open up. Get some shops open and have a bit of commerce going again. I think the longer it goes the worse it's going to be but obviously people are still dying of course, so we can't do that and we’ll have to wait. How is it there? You’re in Los Angeles?
Yeah, Los Angeles. It's about the same as with you having lockdown for about four to five weeks. So it's been trying. It's definitely a weird new normal.
Yeah, it's strange. Obviously it’s going to be interesting to see what it's like on the other side of this. They're kind of strange in the U.K. because they're locking down some things that I don't think they need to while then other things are open. Like the recycling center, they could probably open that up but they're not. So I think when it does open there's going to be like a mile long queue of people just with shit from the garden because there's nothing else to do. It kind of sounds petty but there's little coming together now and everyone is going to get a bit touchy about it. So yeah, the kind of rules so far baffle me a little bit. But anyway, I guess it's just new to everyone.
For you has it been a struggle to deal with boredom or do you find yourself busier than usual?
I've been doing promotion for the new album for the last two and a half weeks. I've never done this much promotion, such as speaking interviews like this. I've never, ever done this many. So I've been pretty full on with that but I don't get bored anyway. I never get bored. I'm only ever bored if I'm with people who are bored or if they say they're bored. Being around that makes me start to feel bored. So if I'm left to my own devices I'm never, no I never get bored. There's always something to do, you know.
Even with a family around? They aren’t going, "God dad, I'm bored."
Yeah, that's why I go to the man cave [laughs]. Yeah, there’s a bit of that when they're not working. I guess because they're obviously in their late teens to early 20's so at that age you want to go out. That's a stage where you want to hit the town and go out with your friends, which they can't do right now. So I would imagine it must be a bit of bit of a nightmare for that age group. But you know, obviously I'm past all that. I’m fine just staying at home [laughs].
Even though you're busy have you been able to find more free time than you normally would? Like have you been attempting to read a book or do something that you've been putting off for a while?
I mean we're keeping the album date the same, the 15th of May, so any time around that's just gonna be focussed on promotion. We haven't really got that many shows. We lost shows for sure. We've lost probably ten shows for PL [Paradise Lost], but we're still kind of looking ahead to this month and then it goes the next month ahead of that. Obviously no one knows how long it's gonna be. I mean I've been trying to get a new computer for the last sort of five years. So I'm sort of slowly doing that. Actually I used to build them myself, so I'm getting all the bits for that and slowly putting that together. However I never have trouble with what I’d call boredom. I run and like to exercise as well. So between that, tinkering around with electronics and all the promotion work I never really get bored.
Speaking of touring, besides Paradise Lost you're also the singer in Bloodbath and I think the upcoming American dates had to get postponed. That news felt like a double hit because those dates were already rescheduled from the 2018 tour that didn't quite happen.
Yeah, we're really pissed off by it. I mean the last time was no fault of our own as that was a problem with the passport business. Unfortunately it's just really bad luck. It's a real shame as we were really looking forward to it as well but I guess when I looked at the dates I thought, "Oh god, we're definitely not going to be doing that." Obviously America locked down most travel or whatever a few weeks ago, so yeah, it was kind of doomed by now. So, I don't know, you just got to deal with it, you know? Seems most classes are being postponed so of course everything else is postponed in the world.
In 2016 with Paradise Lost you played Maryland Deathfest, which I think was the first time I ever saw you guys live. Then Paradise Lost had a 2018 headline tour and I caught that in California. I think that was the first headline tour of the states for you guys or at least the first one in a long time. What do you remember most from that tour?
Was that the Los Angeles show for you or was that the one kind of out of town?
You guys had one show that was in rough part of Los Angeles, which I skipped but then you played out of town in a place called Pomona.
Yeah, Pomona was the last one. That was a brilliant tour and we really loved it. It also wasn't too long. I mean we've done tours, not that often, but in the very early days we toured with Morbid Angel and it was like seven weeks or something. It was all a bit intense. We weren't really prepared for that because we were very young when we first started. When we first came over to America it was like 1993 and we were very young and inexperienced. It was kind of a long time to be away from home at that age [laughs]. We didn't have any money either. No one had credit cards either as we were just kids really. So We didn't really have a great time but since then over the years we've usually supported pretty big bands in the States and we've had a good time. That said the last one was great at about three weeks or something like that. A very easygoing and relaxed tour. Everyone loved it so hopefully, fingers crossed, we can get out and do something like that again.
I hope so. I mean I had a great time being able to see you guys actually do a headline set, which for some bands just is never something they can do over here.
I mean obviously there's some shows where you know you can pack out certain places and other places there's not a particularly great attendance. That's kind of standard anyway I think unless you've passed a certain level in the States. Still it was really nice like I said to do those headline shows and also Sólstafir were great guys. It was nice to tour with those lads as well.
With tours unlikely till the fall or potentially even till next year what kind has been the conversation within Paradise Lost about keeping the buzz going? Like in trying to sell merch even though you can't tour, play shows, or any festivals? For example one part that was interesting was that in a recent press release you mentioned declining Nuclear Blast's offer to delay the album’s release.
I mean... I just didn't see the point in delaying it because people can still listen to music. Now's actually a great time for people to listen to music. If they find themselves at a bit of a loose end or they want something new to get into then now is probably the time to put out a new album. I think if everyone releases their albums at the same time later it's going to be overkill. I mean it's also going to be overkill for everyone to start playing live again. So as far as music goes, you know I'm still listening to albums I listened to when I was 15 years old. So I don't think we need to worry about the right time to release it [laughs]. Although the younger generation tend not to have the attention span perhaps that guys in their 50's have [laughs] . If my own children are anything to go by anyway. So yeah, I didn't see the point in waiting. If you like an album you’re going to like it all your life. Playing live again though is a different issue I guess, which we'll just have to see what happens there.
Has there been any thought about... like I've been seeing it with Megadeth and some other bands doing an official band mask, like a face mask while out in public with band images and logos on it.
We didn't get approached about doing that yet. I don't know. I guess if it becomes a norm and everyone's wearing them then fine. I just thought at first it was perhaps a little bit bad in taste. But if it does become the norm then it's the norm. I initially had mixed views about it but I started to see them more and more here now. I mean even Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing it now. I guess especially in America they're more the norm than here yet. You don't really see them that much here outside of the hospitals really. I's still something people are negotiating whether or not they work here. That's a big thing at the moment.
I just thought it was interesting how I was already seeing bands doing their own merch versions of that. Anyway, moving on from that... press materials for Obsidian mentioned that the album is quote, "A richer and more dynamic deluge of black shades,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s a much more varied album, especially compared to your two previous albums which were very dark and heavy from front to back. So I think that's true but I don't think the new album is a radical change. Whether the last album or the new one they both still sound like Paradise Lost to me. That said were there changes or a different approach to the band had in mind ahead before recording?
No, I mean the last album was very much a specific attempt to make a death-doom metal album. That was absolutely the intention with the last album where we didn't want to wander too far off. I guess any time we start to write a new album the last one is the model we look at for where to go next and bearing that in mind we just thought we'd vary this one up a little bit. Actually the first song we wrote “Fall from Grace” is very reminiscent of the last album. From there you kind of get a vibe for where you're going after about three songs. I suppose these sorts of influences from different eras are in this album, but I think it's very, very much a Paradise Lost album. I have no doubt about that. I also think it's a very, very dark album as well. In many ways darker than the last one even if it’s not as heavy. I think we don't wander too far away from what we're known for but we still added a few new kind of gothy extra bits which we haven't done for a while. Perhaps a more gothic slant in a couple of songs.
”Ghosts” definitely stands out in that way. It definitely has a goth rock kind of vibe to it. I really like the track but it definitely has that character to it.
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean that's the kind of gothic music that was around when we were kids growing up. You don't really hear that kind of music anymore as no one really does it. Bearing that in mind it still has a massive amount of nostalgia for us. Even though we were probably little thrash metal boys around that time we were still very aware of it because the places where we would go drinking or go to nightclubs were always goth clubs. So we would always hear stuff like the Cult, Southern Death Cult, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and all these goth songs from that era. So I guess they probably had a bit of an imprint on us. Sort of hard coded to make our ears pick up as soon as we hear that kind of thing, the jangly guitar and all that sort of stuff. So yeah, it's nice to put a little bit of an injection of that into what we're doing now, which is obviously quite a bit of a different thing.
Are there any lyrics or memories you have from the writing and recording of Obsidian that given the situation we're all in now have a different meaning or significance to you?
I mean there's so much ambiguity in the lyrics that I do anyway. We've probably got about five songs which you could relate to what's going on now. I mean we've even got an old song called "Isolate" and that’s about 15 or 20 years old. So the ambiguity in songs can be great. I mean that's what I like about lyrics, really. I like specific songs about specific subjects if they're incredibly well written but a lot of the time they're not. So when there's ambiguity in lyrics they're kind of just nice words, phrases, or sentences put together. I don't necessarily need everything to make sense for me to enjoy it. From a writing perspective it's about writing words and lines that create a certain feeling or how I think it will work with the music. So I would never take the lyrics separate from the music. It's part and parcel of a whole package. So that's sort of my approach to it.
In getting ready for the interview I watched an older interview you did in support of the Medusa and someone asked you about your lyrics. You mentioned how, for that album, some of it has been inspired by a general sort of antagonism towards organized religion along with humanity's natural fear of death. Hearing that struck me in terms of how we're all really feeling the fragility of mortal life now in a way that we can't ignore.
I saw an interview with a New York journalist, or could have been a novelist, though I can't remember his name. It was a great interview but he was saying that he's such a nervous person and he's scared by everything in life. Like just going for a cup of coffee freaks him out. Now that the Coronavirus thing is out he's really calm about it because he says he's been building up to this [laughs]. I really like that because I sort of identify with that. I can freak out and I always imagine the worst case scenarios in pretty much everything I do. If I'm driving to the seaside with the kids I think, “Oh my god, we might hit a tree!” I probably just watch too many horror films really and that's all it is [laughs]. But yeah, I always imagine the worst case scenario. It's the same on holidays as well. It's almost like when something actually really bad happens you've got the armor already on. Which is kind of what that guy, whose name I can’t remember, said but I thought that was really profound.
You know, I definitely relate to that. I for sure have a pessimists' streak in terms of always thinking the worst and my thought is usually if that doesn't happen then it's like, “Oh, good. I was wrong.”
Yeah [laughs], it's like a treat for yourself. It's like you've got some cash back [laughs]. Yeah, I mean my wife and I when we go on holiday and we say go to some nice place but I'm like, "oh my god, the tsunami hit this place." I'm looking around thinking that [laughs]. It's kind of not the best way to be but I suppose it prepares you for when it actually does happen.
I guess in a way for doom metal fans it's like we've been preparing ourselves for this, emotionally at least, for a while.
Absolutely. I mean I'm a massive fan of horror movies as well and I do actually watch too many horror films. Over my whole life I've watched so many. I watched one last night actually called The Cave, it was a 2005 film, but it wasn't until the last ten minutes that I realized I'd already seen it before. I just couldn't remember it and then I went, "ah fuck! I've seen this!" Like, I really do watch too many of these films, you know.
I watch plenty myself. Speaking of which, I'd never seen 28 Days Later until about a week ago.
Holmes: Ah. What did you think?
I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I mean, the lower quality camera was an interesting method to use in filmmaking.
Yeah, I watched it recently because my kids were on about it, so I let them watch it but it's kind of over time held up a little bit, though maybe not as well as I thought it would have done. I recently re-watched The Road with Viggo Mortensen and that really held up well, that film. I think it’s timeless. You know, it's fucking pretty dark but still a really good film.
Yeah, I’ve seen the movie and I read the Cormac McCarthy book. That one is really bleak.
During the beginning of the lockdown I said to my kids, "look, you know, it's not that bad. Just watch this fucking film.” It's like you got a fridge full of food there, you know what I mean? Try being these guys [laughs]. Some of them get eaten.
Sounds like a good dad response, "oh, it could be worse."
Yeah, just telling them, “watch this film and look at that fridge,” [laughs].
It seems mostly journalists have kind of cobbled together calling you along with My Dying Bride and Anathema as the “Peaceville Three” even though I think some of you guys have said you never considered yourselves part of a scene together but rather that you guys were just different bands. That said, you all had a hand in creating the early 90’s death-doom metal sound. So it's interesting looking at all the different kind of trajectories all three have taken, for example how with vocals Aaron Stainthrope in My Dying Bride has still been doing death metal vocals for a long time and then you kind of returned to that after what was maybe a 17 or 18 year absence. While Anathema I don't think could ever do that considering the kind of music they've been making for a long while.
No, I couldn't see it either. I was actually discussing this the other day with someone, they were saying could you imagine them turning and going back to anything like their older sound? I really couldn't see it. Then again, you never know. Very unlikely but yeah, they’re the least likely of a lot of bands I could think of.
I could sooner see it happen with Katatonia than Anathema. Do you have any reflections from those years, being so many years later on, looking back at being a kid in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
I mean, we were always fans of tape trading. We were kind of into the original underground tape trading set. That's where we sort of came from and then we started the band by the late 80's. By the time we'd done our Gothic album, which saw us starting to change a lot as a band anyway by that point, I don't even recall even knowing what My Dying Bride or Anathema were doing then. I had no real recollection of anything they did for at least 15 years [laughs], so I was completely out of touch. Once we left Peaceville I didn't even know what else was going on with Peaceville as I didn't know who they were signing.
I mean once we signed with Music for Nations and got proper management around that time it just completely changed for us as a band. We kind of just started doing so many tours and it was like three years non-stop. I don't recall what anyone else was doing you know and certainly not anything particular at Peaceville. So yeah, if you speak of the “Peaceville Three” I just don't know what that means because we pretty much left by the time they came along. I think it was certainly around that time. I don't recall ever being on the same label as them at the same time but I'm sure someone can set me straight on that.
From what I recall we did know some of those guys from Bradford nightclubs. Aaron he was around part of the woodwork in our local club that we had. I think Anathema may have done their first ever show with us. It was certainly one of their first shows but it was in Liverpool at Planet X, a little kind of goth rock club. We played there and they supported us there. It could have been their first show, actually. Danny [Cavanagh] always mentions it but it was definitely one of the first, that's for sure. So we got to know them then and they always liked our demos as well. So Anathema we sort of spoke with them more because we played with them more but My Dying Bride, even though they're from kind of our home area, we never really crossed paths that much as a band.
Well in looking back at history again with my last question here, as a publication lately we've been this year doing a lot of anniversaries for seminal metal albums. There was the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath’s debut and then we did a piece on Iron Maiden’s debut turning 40. Your own debut album, Lost Paradise turned 30 this year and Draconian Times turned 25. In the span of five years you guys progressed quite rapidly from where you started but how do you look back on that time about your own development and growing up?
When Hammy [Paul Halmshaw] at Peaceville signed us very quickly we got a record deal. There wasn't a great deal of time in between. I don't even think we had all that many songs when he even signed us. I think he just saw us live and he wanted around then to get more into the extreme metal side of things because he was beforehand only doing indie punk kind of stuff at the time. Back then we also played with a lot more of the UK hardcore bands anyway. Those were the bands we played with because the metal of the time was mostly thrash metal stuff. A lot of bands that tried to copy Metallica around that time but we were obviously going in a different direction. So we ended up playing with Hellbastard, Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, and a lot of those types of bands. So Hammy sort of came from that world and I think he signed us off the back of just seeing us live, really. He was probably drunk anyway. Probably didn't even watch it [laughs].
So he just heard someone say "hey, they were really good." And he was like, "Okay, I'll sign them."
Yeah, it was all very humble. So the first album, when I hear it now, it just sounds like a bunch of teenagers doing a death metal album to me. There's no finesse to it. Even though my voice was a growly voice then you can still tell it's a kid doing it, I think. I don't even know if it's really our debut album. I feel like our Gothic album represents us as more of a blueprint for where we've gone on from there. The first one I find a bit haphazard. I mean I don't think we play any songs from that album live anyway. I certainly don't have any regrets or anything for what we've done because it all represented something for when it was done. It's like a bookmark of your life. At the same time I still feel Gothic was more like a debut album [laughs]. I even think the demos sound better than the first album if I'm honest, but anyway.
I guess you would say that maybe on Lost Paradise you felt like you were emulating some of your heroes and then Gothic you kind of found who you were.
Yeah, I mean even in the studio we were just messing around. I remember Hammy brought a bottle of Jack Daniels and we'd never had liquor by that time [laughs]. It was like, “What?!” and when you tasted it you were obviously drunk after about three sips because you just weren't used to it. I wouldn't even dream about doing that now [laughs]. It was just so funny at the time because I can completely remember the first recording . It was just really ridiculous like just seeing who could get the most drunk which is just the worst thing to do in the studio. But you know, everyone was doing it. Hammy was doing it so all of us were doing it [laughs]. So yeah, it was not an all together experience while with the second album we thought, "Oh, we’re going to make things a bit more serious on this one," I suppose. So it was definitely a better session than the first one.
It's funny you mentioned that with Hammy, because when I interviewed Stainthrope from My Dying Bride earlier in the year for their new album, he brought up Hammy. He mentioned I think when they were recording The Angel and The Dark River. Hammy showed up high as a kite smoking weed in the studio. The whole day got ruined and they just had to kick him out for the next day of recording.
No, with him it was always weed. That's another thing as well. You find out what's your poison when you're younger and weed is not my poison. It took me a few years to establish that. I remember I would have a puff of that and then I'd be like, "Oh my god," and I just felt like shit. Yeah, but I mean Hammy is just completely into that. I don't think he still is but my god, he was seriously into his weed [laughs].
Obsidian releases tomorrow via Nuclear Blast.