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Profile: Randall Holt

by: Katharine Hargreaves

Anisovaya is an anise-flavored vodka out of Russia. It was also the AIM pseudonym of one Randall Holt, a boy from Albuquerque who had decided to become my friend after discovering my adolescent livejournal. It was sometime around 2002 that we began to talk, often at night over the internet, about the things we were reading and thinking.

Although we have been friends for going on ten years, Randall and I have only met once in person. For the last four or five we’ve mailed back and forth a ratty striped notebook full of letters and musings, ash-dusted and stained, with tight scrawls barely a scratch (Randall) or in an edging hand (mine). Throughout it all we’ve pondered the spectacular unfolding of our friendship while in the midst of making it. The spun stories our mouths knit from the silk thread of our lives.

What I mean to say is that friendship, like all necessary things, is an art form in and of itself. A deliberate act that informs our lives, deepening them and asking—constantly asking—who we are, what defines us, and what it is we are willing to give. The bits and pieces of lives exchanged in that restless way. Sometimes lonely words fill the void. Through death and addiction, displacement and disintegration, we have born witness to the vast spill of life. And through this wreckage witnessed beauty.

This is what brings us together on a sun spattered day as we sit down to a phone chat. The thought that strikes me the most throughout our conversation is the funny way life has of throwing the right people your way. All you have to do is welcome them in. Earlier in the week Randall had called me to share news that could well change his life.

For most working artists, the adage “It’s not what you know it’s who” calls forth a certain cynicism. We loathe the idea that hard-work is not always rewarded or worse, that the ones who don’t deserve it will reap more. Re-framing the idea however reveals a real truth; which is that we are only who we are because of the those who
have passed through our lives. That anyone makes it to the top alone seems some insidious myth.

I say all this because when we talk about art’s contribution to culture it’s important to acknowledge that this is not ever a solo endeavor. We create art to explain our selves to one another and to prove we are not alone. There are artists who understand and embody the essence of community in their creative endeavors. Randall I count among them.

A classically-trained cellist who honed his chops in the desert, Randall Holt was an experimental musician well-before I knew him. Like many creative folk I know, he has had numerous artistic reincarnations in various groups in and around the Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Austin arenas. He’s been a co-conspirator of Adam
Glasseye as part of Reverend Glasseye (out of Boston), was recently on the same bill as A Silver Mt. Zion, and has had a well-received solo project, RANDALL.HOLT:DEAD.CAT.CELLO, since 2009. Although our conversation is about his new band KNEST it takes us awhile to get there, for although we are good friends,
there is much I have not heard about his art in awhile. I tell Randall to start at the beginning and fill me in.

“It’s kind of an interesting story,” he says. “Couple years back, about seven or so, I was living with my girlfriend and was way young and stupid. At the time I was trying to think of a band name for my solo thing and she had a spiritual experience once while looking at my cel o. She said there was a cat in it. A couple of my friends saw it as well, and so it became my name.”

Haunted or not, the image is fitting for the sounds that emerge from his cello’s belly. Sonorous, slumbering mews, the curled lick of screams, an edge of noise to raise the fur on one’s arms; all looped live and built layer by layer before you. Aching at some points and growling at others these are the sounds we can’t give voice to: this ephemeral emotional void. To be dramatic: the music of life and death filtered through one man’s hands. I am hardly exaggerating. When asked about the names (so much like poems) the album’s emotional arc is revealed. Self-titled and comprised of what he calls “ten half-songs,” this music was mostly written for dead
friends of Randall’s. “I had a lot of friends die in 2008,” he explains, “So this album is basically an exploration of me dealing with all the emotions coming out of my cello and processing them through song. The album is kind of dark and a little sad but it’s also got a lot of beauty in it.”

I reflect on how much time must have passed for him to be able to say this. “But doesn’t sadness give birth to another side of beauty?” I ask. “If it’s there in all its forms we shouldn’t just celebrate the easy sides that make us feel good.” It’s not that I believe sadness is worth more in art, but it does have a certain weight. It is no secret that sadness gives shape and form to feelings we’d rather not feel. Yet the whole point of emotions is not to escape them.

“Exactly,” Randall agrees. “And my main thought about the music I play is that I don’t play sad music to make people feel sad. I want people to realize they are, and do something about it.”

This distinction is important. Listening to the DEAD.CAT.CELLO album I am struck not by despair but rather the understanding of what this emotion signals; a sense of both loneliness and lightness. Two sides, perhaps, of love’s coin. The track “Miseries Optional/All Does Not End” speaks to me of both as well as the existential
choice left in the wake of much death. Expressions of grief are meant to question the meaning of the word alive. The people these songs contain, evoke, embody are no longer their physical selves, yet each is again alive every time someone hits play.

The function of grief is a one-way street: to purge this burden (the shadow of love’s light) we must be present to the pain, but how? While making the album Randall remembers going to the grocery store and “seeing all these deadpan faces. I was there with a smile, about to cook food with friends, and everyone around me
looked really sad. In the grocery store, in the bookstore, in public. Everywhere we have to wait in line.” Which is everywhere, I point out. He explains “that’s why my music is not about furthering this making people sad but exposing it.” Or in other words, waking up to it. Because once you acknowledge the pain can it begin to
transform and go away.

There are some songs we don’t talk about, such as the one for Skye, the girlfriend back in Albuquerque Randall didn’t get to say good-bye to. I ask instead about the song “New Movements, Like Glaciers”, one of the only songs on the album with words. A writer without the means to make sound, I am immediately drawn to their stark imprint on the music and curious about their making. Rendering the finite on the infinite, that sort of thing. If all the songs contain stories, where do the words fit? And why these?

Randall explains how that song is not about “a close personal friend but a fellow named Vic Chestnutt.” What follows is quite the web of events that have shaped his life in their aftermath. For starters, it was the very last show before Vic died of a drug overdose.

It was December 16th, 2009 and Vic was playing Austin along with several backing members of Godspeed You, Black Emperor! and A Silver Mt. Zion. Randall describes in detail how “before Vic played he was introduced by a fellow who looks like a very large, homeless Santa Claus. With a big white beard and trucker hat. He’s now one of my close friends.” This man I come to find out, is Thax Douglas, self-proclaimed (and semi-famous) rock poet who has introduced a slew of musical greats and indie favorites.

“He was living in Austin at the time. What he does is write poems for bands. He gets us onstage and introduces us with poems written explicitly for us there on the spot. He’d actually come into my work earlier that same day and we’d chatted then, although I didn’t know who he was at the time. Nobody around knew Vic was going to die.” (He died nine days later, on Christmas of that year.)

“So I met Thax after the [Vic Chestnutt] show and told him I’d heard him read and told him it was a beautiful poem. We kept on seeing each other around and then I asked him to come to a show after my first recording and asked if he would do a poem for the track. The track didn’t have a name yet. After mixing and mastering I gave it the name “New Movements, Like Glaciers” after the poem.”

It goes like this:

The loneliness of
parched wood beneath
your cliffside might
be imagined except
you’ll touch it
before you touch
any rock. A glacier
of loneliness pouring
down the sides
like but er melting
too fast clouding
the atmosphere
so you won’t
be able to see
if it congeals
into a river
at the bottom
or not.

The poem couldn’t be more perfectly placed, we both agree, and it feels surprisingly at home amidst the tension and inflection of notes in the song that are doing this backwards descent against themselves, a terse tug of war between sounds. I comment on how the poem informs the song and Randall agrees: “Because the poem that Thax wrote was haunting and he started recording in exactly the right place and ending in exactly the right place it fit so well. The way he paced it and where he ended coincidentally changes where the bass line does. The only thing I would change is to have him read another section where I’ve added another layer in the song. I would love him to have two poems on the track but it’s amazing as is.”

Putting the right words to what some might dub the perfect majesty of classical music is no easy maneuver, but somehow Thax gets it right. The poem fits the song like a velvet glove. While Thax and Randall had only just met, it ended up being a crucial collaboration that not only opened new doors but also helped close some
difficult ones.

“It’s kind of a special moment because Vic’s music was amazing. He was a paraplegic from the time he was 18, so he played every show in a wheelchair with his acoustic guitar and he basically brought his life with him; in that he had a dark, funny humor about playing his songs. Just really touching. And I was happy to be there
at that time after everything I had gone through [with his friends] and then [Vic] ended up dying. As much as a person who didn’t know a guy can feel about a person who passed away due to depression it hit me pretty hard. After that I was just happy to have Thax come on to the album.”

For awhile the Austin music scene struggled to come to terms with so many young lives lost. Esme Barrera, a Kindergarten teacher and wife of one Ted Leo, was another local figure whose death that year the musical community gathered around to collectively grieve. While tragic, the kinship shown selflessly in these moments
are the reasons relationships are integral to the artist’s emotional welfare and indeed, survival. While not an acquaintance of this woman, Randall recalls his reasons for playing the benefit show in the wake of her death. “Because in showing up you support the people that have supported you in hard moments.” As in the case of Vic’s death and Thax’s poem, the integration of tragedy into art serves to birth more beautiful things. In coming together to make art collectively, artists both transform and transcend trauma.

In Randall’s case you could certainly argue that forty-some deaths over the span of five years might constitute some trauma indeed. “Having your friends die on you really makes you an angry person,” he says, “and I was angry for quite a long time. But then I came up with the words ‘practice graciousness, reject illusions, and
accept it.’ I didn’t want to be angry any longer around my friends who were alive and trying to support me.”

Accepting these deaths and honoring them has proven to be a fortuitous route for Randall. I point out how so much has come full circle from that dark time; and where once waste, now life. For the album that celebrated these lost lives has allowed him to live his in ways previously unimaginable. This is not to justify a terrible
tragedy but to transform it in the only way possible. In the time since he put out his DEAD.CAT.CELLO album, Randall has continued to play with an eclectic assortment of musicians in and around town. Skeptics might find playing in five groups at once overwhelming but Randall just shrugs. For him it’s another day in the life. In the end, hustle pays. After two years of playing co-conspirator for the infamous Reverend Glasseye (out of Boston) among other projects, Randall was handed an opportunity few musicians see. It was after another performance with Thax (now a good friend) that Yann Tiersen first introduced himself. The French musician
and multi-instrumentalist best known in certain circles for his contributions to the Amelie soundtrack, this brief exchange became the door to fulfilling a decade-long dream.

It wasn’t long after their initial introduction that Yann extended Randall an official invitation to headline La Route du Rock with him and his band that summer. Not only would he play alongside a creative hero of his, but he would do so as Tiersen headlined the largest festival in France with over 10,000 attendees. It was, as one can imagine, surreal.

Or, in Randall’s words: painful. Very painful. As in “11 hours a day rehearsing for several days. I had to start wearing my wrist bracelets and taking Advil and drinking lots of wine to make it through every day.” Not that it mattered. “I was maybe 12 years old the first time I said ‘hey, it might be really cool to play cello for Yann Tiersen someday’ and then 12 years later it happened,” Randall confesses. I was curious as to how one sums up what could be called a peak experience with a longtime musical idol. “Well how do you explain getting to play with Michael Jordan on the basketball court?” Randall asks.

“For anyone to be on the same playing field as one of their heroes is a lifetime goal checked off the list. I thought about the possibility for over a decade and then it happened. I felt like the Rookie of the Year, that sort of thing. We had 16 members in the band, a five person choir, three horns, two cellos, and then the regular person rock band with two drummers. It was incredible. I do have to say that my favorite time of the trip was maybe five o’ clock in the morning at the hotel after a long rehearsal and we had to be up at nine to start again. It was just me with a box of wine and a large bottle of Jameson pouring both into Yann’s mouth.
Just the two of us alone. From a box!” And the way he tells it, it almost didn’t happen. He laughs and lights a cigarette. I’ve lost track of the count since we’ve started our conversation.

“I didn’t get my passport until two days before we left. There was a two-month delay. I had my CD release party two days before we left for France and still no passport. Down to the wire. I didn’t even know if we were going at that point.” But it arrived just in time and so Randall went, accompanied by his cello Julia and his sister Barbara (also a cellist). It proved to be both a physical test of endurance as well as proof that Randall’s music was finding its footing in circles well outside of Austin. Several songs off his dead.cat.cello album are now being used in a film touring the festival circuit called Hold Out. Although not yet released or available to the public, it’s become an important vehicle for exposing new audiences to his music outside of America. Again too, the experience of film in conjunction with music helps re-frame the ways in which Randall’s sound can be appreciated Indeed he is an enthusiast of the collaboration, saying “The way they’ve paired my music with the moments in the film is brilliant.” Not all musicians are so lucky to have such profitable pairings, especially when the collaborator has little to no exposure to their music. Thus creating music that for all intents and purposes transcends traditional definition has helped propel-rather then pigeonhole-Randall’s career.

There are many musicians, including Yann Tiersen, who have spent years advancing the sound of historically “classical” instruments with the help of pedals, loops and other digital detritus of the modern age. Yet still there remains the stereotype of stoic (or worse yet, stodgy) music to constantly confront when playing a new
audience.

“It’s interesting to me that you describe yourself as a cellist while avoiding the definitions that traditionally accompany that title. You tend to avoid any such stereotypes while including sounds typically found in punk or metal genres, certainly seen as the enemy of some classicists.”

“I mean, I listen to a wide variety of music like anybody,” Randall explains. “I’m classically trained but I haven’t played classical music for a long time. I left the conservatory eight years ago (he won’t tell me which one) and have been breaking down the classical walls every since, playing with other bands and doing my cello thing which is deeply rooted in history while being very experimental. There’s delay, degeneration so things get noisy and weird. While melodies can be more classically-based with harmonies and such, adding the loop board makes it an interesting journey every time I get to play. I have a very collected idea of the song with both the structure and melodies stabilized but the emotion is organic and completely changes each time. I’ve never played a song the same way twice, but there’s always a certain feeling when I have the song in mind.”

Although not a performer myself, this strikes me as natural. As a writer I revolve around the same idea quite a bit while constantly re-framing it in different words. For a work of art is never static, never fixed. The artist only chooses a convenient ending, a way to frame the story that needs to be told. But an ending is only an ending when we say so.

Randall disagrees on a minor difference in the experience. “Not until it’s hung on a wall. Then there it is. Not until it’s hung on a wall can an onlooker or passerby see that the space is different, that something is where it wasn’t before. Which is kind of like the difference between literature and music—once they’re finished they’re done. Everything is going to change organically in the meantime but once they’re up on the wall it’s there. But as a musician, doing the music I do, every time you experience the music it’s going to change drastically. But the feeling will be communicated each time.”

It’s a difference I have pondered, the endless manifestation that happens with songs over time while stories are rarely re-written once published. I point out that no art should be regurgitated regardless of whether it’s performed or painted. No one should be forced to play something that has become boring or redundant.

“I think at the same time, like everyone else, that my pieces are boring and redundant.” Randall says, and this sentiment I understand enough to laugh alongside. Regardless of what any artist does, it will never be enough.

He explains that “the difference between a recording and live music is the moment you go to a show, and if the band is organic and they play a song that you know and love from a recording but it’s different. Otherwise you could just sit at home. But live music takes you outside. There are always difficulties with performance but that leads to evolution. And I like that. I like that it takes a familiar song and makes it different than what you expect it to be. Like, here I am behind my cello and as scary as that is I’m pretty much bare, with high emotions coming through me and my hardware and going out to you. Depending on how I’m feeling or how the
audience is reacting or what the aliens are telling me it will be wildly different.”

I ask him to tell me about his new band, one of the main reasons we are having this conversation in the first place, besides the fact that we rarely get to hear each other’s voices. Even after touring with Yann Tiersen and crossing a lifelong goal off the bucket list, the formation of this new band, a three-piece called KNEST, is something to crow about. Together with experimental musicians Jonathan Horne (of too many collaborations to list) and Thor Harris (the original drummer for Shearwater and just off a year-long tour with Swans), the full range of instruments comprises a ridiculous spectrum. Randall paints me a picture of what I could expect were I to
catch them in person: “On the songs there is bass, cello, guitar, a homemade hammered dulcimer, oscillator, marimba, loops, pedals, and full drum kit.”

An impressive array and more importantly, a good step in the right direction. After all, what would even the best instruments be without a keen hand to play them? The extraordinary levels of musicianship each member brings to the band is without a doubt the reason for Randall’s giddy excitement. The thrill is palpable as he
describes playing with musicians who have been holding their own in the business for 20 some odd years more than him, who have been around the block with bands that have made it big in many regards but who continue to pursue the edge of music elsewhere. It is a real artist who plays for the visceral pleasure of playing, removed from the pressure of pleasing. Although there is no fear of that when it comes to these three. When trying to describe the experience of playing with experimental music freaks the likes of these guys, Randall states how “I had to pick up my cello and walk over to Jonathan and kick him in the foot to pay attention to Thor. Like “holy fucking shit look at what he’s doing I don’t know what to do with that.’” He means the fact that a lot of the instruments listed above are played by Thor at once. No easy feat for many, the man “will have a dulcimer solo and then walk over the drum set and play left-handed while playing drums with his right and his feet. In time with my beat.”

At the time of this interview KNEST has only played one show. While some bands slog it out over the long run, performing critically acclaimed music that escapes appreciation from the populous (or vice versa), KNEST seems destined for a certain success. The fusion of experimental jazz/prog/punk/weird fucking shit (Randall’s
words) by accomplished musicians can only be a harbinger of more exciting times to come. Randall is mum about the future of his band when probed about a record deal in the works. But after opening for A Silver Mt. Zion this past February, it seems that the right people are aware of what he can do, and are watching to see where he’ll go with it next. For someone who has cut his teeth with major players early in his career, it is saying something indeed that Randall admits to feeling out of his league. Then again, holding his own might be more in the head than anything else. For as he says when questioned about their chemistry “since the first time we
sat down together we felt kinship. We had never played together before, but after ten minutes could have played a show that night. We had enough material for three different albums in ten different styles. It just works that way between us. I get out of rehearsal with them and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is—evening,
daytime—I am emotionally exhausted.”

For a man who has seen plenty of death for one lifetime, that is saying a lot. But that is the nature of the beast, it seems-to give it all every time because any other option isn’t enough. Or at least for Randall Holt that is the case. In the meantime, we’ll watch and wait to see what sounds emerge; a reminder that beauty always waits on the other side.