Pattern Man: Rick Holland Interviewed

With the release of his new book, Rick Holland challenges the idea of himself as a poet. He speaks to William Doyle in a concrete room in Yorkshire about modes of delivery and capturing inspiration

“the door between us is lilac

and made of something like light

but not”
Rick Holland – ‘Pattern Man’

Despite there being many good reasons why I would be a suitable person for the job, when I was asked to write a feature on Rick Holland my first thought was to not accept the offer.

An obvious touchstone for this commission was that, under my work as electronic musician East India Youth, I’d titled my second album CULTURE OF VOLUME after a fragment of a line from Rick’s poem ‘Monument’. This poem featured in his first collection, Story The Flowers, a book which I’ve read countless times over the course of several tours. A lot of Story The Flowers concerns itself with the mesh of incongruities and excitements of experiencing London, so it was fitting for me to draw inspiration from it as I felt I’d made a record that dealt with my experience of London in some twisted sense.

But it was the other possible reason for my commission that troubled me somewhat. I have now referenced or focused on the work of Brian Eno quite prevalently since the beginning of my near-accidental writing career, and it is the Eno link that Holland is perhaps now best known for. In 2011 Holland released a brilliant collaborative album with Eno called Drums Between The Bells. The album featured Holland’s words set to a wide variety of soundscapes, voices and manipulations, using spoken word as an instrument in an effective and creative way. This Eno link, it appeared, might not escape me and I wasn’t doing myself any favours by perpetuating it.

This anxiety passed quite quickly though. When certain threads appear it feels counterproductive ignoring them, and to add to a conversation and exchange of ideas that form a particular school of thought that you’re interested in feels like a validating thing to do as an artist. It makes you feel like maybe you’re not operating out there alone. It removes the egocentric and outdated myth of an individual at the forefront of a movement or conceptual development. It instead makes it about a number of different people contributing to one idea in their own ways. Sure enough, Eno has a term for this idea too: he calls it ‘scenius’.

There was also a matter of geographic proximity, since I was taking a breather from the toxic smog of London and had relocated myself up in Yorkshire, where Rick also resides these days. Rick was now also collaborating with the excellent Leeds hardware electronics duo Chrononautz for a musical counterpart to his new book, where the two processes of composition inform each other until the space between them as separate products starts to diminish.

I met Rick at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Once there, in artist James Turrell’s Deer Shed Skyspace, a permanent structure that consists of a large square chamber with an aperture cut into the roof. The room produced a wonderfully meditative environment and promised a “heightened vision of the sky”.

I believe that any artist will have a specific thread that they more or less follow from the start of their creative life until the end. Mine, I think, is the organisation of objects in a space, to put it quite broadly. That’s the way I think about the work that I’m making, and the process of making it. What’s your thread in this regard?

Rick Holland: My answer to that might be different if you asked me somewhere else. It’s really about asking yourself why it is you do what you do, and I think all artists are fascinated by that. Presenting words in different contexts is probably mine, or allowing them to work physically on you rather than functionally.

I get the physical sense. Reading Pattern Man I’ve found I’ve had to catch myself mid-line and read back to see if there was something more implied going on, but actually I’m having to deconstruct my own process of reading and let the word’s rhythms and colours have an effect on me. I guess that’s why music seems like such a natural way of communicating your ideas?

RH: That’s what I mean about contexts – there are different ways to allow people to ‘let the effect’ happen. If those words your analytical brain wants to unpick are spoken or sung you are far more likely to forgive them, or allow them on their way, safe in the knowledge there is discovery waiting round the next corner. I love that freedom so deeply, and I found it in Jungle MCs when I was growing up. It is natural to apply that elsewhere, and let it melt together with uses of sound, colour, image, imagination. I want to explore that in written form, like painting, like music, but also as a vehicle for the poetic without all those stuffy or counter-stuffy contexts it is presented in.

I’ve always thought about your writing as both zooming-out and in on things simultaneously. Like in ‘The Airman’ and ‘New York’ from Story The Flowers (and Drums Between The Bells), which deal specifically with this idea; even though I get that sense from nearly all your work. Is this something you think about?

RH: I think about this less than I did, but yes, that way of seeing was pretty much obsessional for me during the years that made Story The Flowers and Drums Between The Bells and everything else in that time. It really helped me develop skills too, on a practical level, describing the world that way. It is a way of seeing isn’t it? One that doesn’t accept science or system as anything more than another window to look through.

As a method for educating yourself about the world it’s a pretty good approach, it seemed to do okay by Richard Feynman.

So the origins of your latest book Pattern Man have their roots in some readings you did on the same bill as tQ Ed John Doran while on his book tour last year, right?

RH: I had some material that I was starting to collate. I was quite keen to enforce some performance on myself as I didn’t have anything like that going on in my life at that point, so him doing his tour was ideal as a chance to try this stuff out. So I said yes to whatever. We did a gig up in Stockton-on-Tees at Sound It Out Records and it didn’t really work. At least, my part didn’t.

Were you with Chrononautz at that point? That seems to be a collaboration that galvanised you.

RH: No, and that’s a thing that happened by chance as well. I saw that we were on the same bill for the Leeds show of that tour and so I just had a little look and found an excerpt of them, one of their improvised jams, one of those YouTube videos that has about 40 views, and it was quite pirate and a bit chaotic really. There was enough in there that made me think we could combine forces.

Why did you think that would fit with your writing?

RH: There was an element of it that was minimal, so in the crudest sense there’s plenty of space for things to work off of each other. But it’s far more than that, I really appreciate things that are paired down anyway. I really like space. Just responding to the sound, there was a groove there – an undeniable groove that I was drawn to – it wasn’t just straight four-to-the-floor.

To the uneducated – and I count myself in that group – looking at the table of gizmos that they’ve got, it’s quite hard to judge who’s doing what and how much control there is over the whole process. The joyful reality of it is: there isn’t that much control over it. It’s very hard to recreate the same conditions more than once and I am strongly interested in that as a way of offering things to the world.

So given that was by chance, was that something you then thought “that felt good, perhaps we should refine it?”

RH: The material that I performed in Stockton predates all of this by a year or so. It was really just kind of notebook stuff. Then the Chrononautz gig happened and there wasn’t much in the way of rehearsal, I just went to their studio once and had a play around and then we did it in a room. There was enough in there to suggest that it could work. I’m not a natural performer. It’s terrifying [LAUGHS].

In terms of refining it, this process then influenced me to the point that everything I was writing was on a kind of 70bpm framework. The stuff I was scribbling in notebooks tended to fit that. The body of writing that has become Pattern Man grew from that. The music side of it stayed totally improvised and studio-based and it was the recording of the vocal for an album that gave Pattern Man, the book, its final shape.

It’s all about the point of abandonment with those things isn’t it? You can endlessly tweak forever but it’s nice to have an experience that leads you to go, “That’s a good snapshot of that thing that I was trying to do. It might as well be the thing that people experience or consume themselves thereafter.”

RH: Yeah, exactly. The danger then is to fall back into a mindset where you think you have to refine it. The reality is that you made it as an improvisation and the joy is that it can be different every time. But there’s also another reality where you end up getting attached to one recording, which is really weird. We did another gig where part of me was trying to replicate the original recording, except there’s no real way of doing that.

Have you ever thought about a different way to record an idea where the distance between you and the idea is minimised?

RH: I’m really interested in new ones of those, yeah. I’ve dictaphoned. I’ve mobile phone drafted. I haven’t got to the point of a pen on piece of string round my neck yet. It’s not very technological but it could be the best one.

But it’s a very interesting area, that. There are a lot of good ideas that happen, ideas you have in down time, that you have in the shower or what have you, and ways of capturing that kind of stuff.

I don’t record melodic ideas when I’m out because I’ve equated it with being worried that there’s only a finite amount of inspiration and the idea that you must capture it. The anxiety of being constantly aware that an idea might happen at any second changes the kind of ideas that you come up with. I got an idea while I was out on a photoshoot for a new project recently, and it was happening really naturally and felt really good, and of course it got immediately pushed out of my head by another song and I thought, “Shit. I’m completely wrong about this.” How do you deal with that situation, with the loss of ideas, if that’s something that you’re concerned with?

RH: There’s a psychology element there about how much you value the seeds of your own ideas. If you get the seed of an idea down, that will help you revisit it. If I don’t get the seed of an idea down then it will be gone. I don’t spend too much time mourning that, but it is frustrating. You need to have a process that fits yourself.

What I liked about you talking about that was that it seemed you were trying to actually flip your own process in a way, to make what you made more interesting or to stop you going down routes that you’d already been down before. I’m keen to surprise myself like that and try different ways.

“pattern man, the roof got low

spark a seed, believe the reed it blows

it grows on, the time is gone

gone is the time in this green world

warming as your self reveals

in the layers it replaces each seven years

until none of you hangs

on the frame you generate from nodes”

Do you set aside time to write? How do you go from having an idea to actually creating the space to develop that idea?

RH: There is the school of thought that says you have to religiously protect some time and that time is defined somewhat by the responsibility in your life. Famously, Sylvia Plath would get up and write between four and seven or something. I don’t get up that early, but I do find that I work best in the morning in terms of having a clear head. The discipline side is then reviewing those seeds, and in the process of doing that I will get linked into something and then the discipline of writing is actually no problem. I just kind of shut the world off until that thing is done. I’m either fortunate or cursed. I work very fast, anyway.

I think it was the painter Miro that talked about spending time on a composition, then leaving it alone – and I think he had a set amount of time that he’d leave it for, maybe three days or something – and then going back and finishing it in a very quick and instinctive [manner]. I’m a believer in that as well. The ability of your subconscious to solve a lot of the problems while you’re away from it.

Yeah, you do most of your work when you’re not physically or mentally engaging with it. Maybe that was part of the reason I thought about not recording ideas when I’m out. Revisiting them naturally allows them to ferment in an interesting way. Whereas when you make a recording of it, it’s very locked in that one moment. Perhaps not recording the idea allows it to develop in your mind in a different way. I don’t believe in a finite amount of inspiration per person. I believe more that it’s a river that is always flowing and you have to kind of stop and tune yourself into it.

RH: The idea of things being a river and that slow growth approach is really valuable; it’s a really good lesson to learn. It’s one that I’d kind of reached before the Drums Between The Bells record, but I think I lost it for a little while during it because there’s a part of your brain that says, “I need to now replicate this, or grow from this” or that this is a defining, fixed point.

“This is a milestone that I have to then work from.”

RH: Exactly. There was a time during the genesis of some of those tracks where we’d reach a point in the studio and I’d think something was good and my tendency would be to stop the process there and say, “This is it, this is really really good.” Whereas Brian [Eno]’s more in the school of thought about things where you say, “No, there is now an opportunity do something else with it. It carries on.” It doesn’t curse you into being like that forever though, I think it’s something that you can teach yourself out of as well.

It’s a far more enriching and fulfilling experience to do things in the way that you’re talking about and that’s kind of what’s happened with Pattern Man. Material has existed and there are bits of it that have spoken on a deep level, and then there are other bits of it that are maybe trying too hard, trying to encapsulate everything. To then leave that material and try it out in a few different ways, for it to be laughably bad in some areas, but then to hook onto something where there was no pressure of audience or marketplace is a really enriching and great experience. Selling Pattern Man to people that have signed up to the mailing list is fine for me in that sense.

Is that why, through choice or not, self-releasing it is so you don’t have that weight of expectation?

RH: Self-releasing is the natural way for me. I don’t understand any other way. The natural way seems to be to make it with real people that I have a relationship with, and then give it to other real people that I have some kind of relationship with too. I physically post the books that I sell to people around the world and that feels fine, occasionally annoying, but that feels the best way. I’ve had insight into the other ways it’s done, through publishers or the more formal world in poetry of periodicals or magazines. I respect all that but I don’t really understand it, it doesn’t work for me.

I guess it feels like quite a closed audience and then it feels like a real distilling and condensing of practice. It’s like in academia where people start to get really deep down, subatomic, into what they’re doing and in order to follow them you really have to have gone on that journey yourself. I respect that hugely, but I came at the world from a slightly more open-source view. I want to be transported by things. I don’t want them to be easy but I don’t want them to necessarily rely on in-depth specific knowledge of certain worlds.

Do you feel like that’s an idea that’s prevalent in the larger poetry community then? I guess the question I’ve asked myself regarding you or your work is whether I really think about you as a poet. It’s a useful term to assign to you and your work because it’s easily categorised then, but I don’t really think about your work in that way.

RH: I’m glad that’s the impression you got because it shows that I’m doing things right for me. There’s also other things going on, there’s bits of painting there, bits of music here.

It’s interdisciplinary, not in a forceful way.

RH: Yeah, not self consciously. ‘Poem’ and ‘poet’, they’re just words really. I guess maybe in the wake of Drums Between The Bells I tried to explain too hard what those words meant to me. I thought it was important to place myself somewhere.

That record came out on Warp didn’t it? I don’t suppose you had a say in that really. I mean, great! Warp. Excellent record label. But I am always confused that someone like Brian, who is very forward-thinking about the relationship between art and the music business, would still choose to release music traditionally through a record label. So when you’re coming in now with quite set ideas about the way you release things, all of a sudden you have to go through a very outdated form of release. Was that disappointing to you?

RH: It was very interesting. I mean it was back in 2010 now and at the time my philosophy was fairly well set but not well tested. I’d never released something on a label before and so I was excited. But then I was disappointed, to be frank, and not because of Warp being bad people or a bad label or anything, but it gave me insight into what I knew already and that is that it’s a dying way of doing things [LAUGHS]. However forward-thinking you are as a label, there’s no getting beyond that very stark point. The chapter of buying sheet music or royalty based artist relations, and money working in that way, that chapter is closing.

People make more money from publishing or live performance now.

RH: The recorded artefact is no longer the meal ticket. It takes a lot for people to believe that.

There’s a reluctance to accept it, probably. All we’ve done with streaming is rather than introduce one specific idea as a technology for which releases pass through, we’ve now got several different providers set up that all use the same principle of the technology but all act in their own different ways. Now there’s this incredibly complex and layered process. So with you doing something the way you’re doing it, it’s really asking yourself, “How many layers can I cut out?”.

RH: I’ve got relationships with people with this new book, with a printer who employs old-fashioned printing techniques, with a guy who’s a book binder who sews books together and then a worker’s cooperative who are in Chapeltown in Leeds who are a collective of people who share the money they get and they like to do projects that are a nod to the history of printing as a revolutionary thing, as a communicating thing. That’s the transaction I feel happy with. It probably makes me an idealist or stubborn, or both, but that’s what I’m willing to do.

If someone like Faber came along and said, “We really like your work, we want to put it out”, then I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to think about it. I’ve sent work off to them before in my youth, because they were the types of things available. Similarly, with the work of the Pattern Man record with Chrononautz, those guys are punks in the most brilliant sense of the word. They’re fantastically good at what they do but it doesn’t sustain them at all. So if a label came along and said that they’d like to put it out, then I’d have to think quite hard about that, because that’s ostensibly what they want, they want the ability for it to pay for them to live. The reality is, though, that even a record that does well is not going to make that the case.

When did you give up on the idea that your writing was going to sustain you in that sense?

RH: Quite recently really. I’ve always had to do different things but I’ve tried very hard to do work that just improves me, or if I have any doubt about it at all then I just keep myself in the shadows until I know that it’s worthwhile. I realised that life decisions should all be about your growth, and I don’t mean that in an evangelistic way. I just mean that you reach an age and you realise that actually what do you want to be remembered for, or what do you really want to achieve while you’re around? Those things change. When I was younger I certainly felt the pressure to make it work on a financial level. The fact is, that stuff doesn’t really mean anything. It’s very freeing to realise that and it’s very freeing not to have an audience as well. It’s freeing to do things because of a deep love and joy for them. We do set off like that but sometimes we get sidetracked. It’s really good to get back to that.

Pattern Man is out now and available to buy direct from Rick through his Patten Man website

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today