Six degrees of Chris Holmes: Obama neighbor, Beck sideman, more
“Being Chris Holmes means a million things,” says Alex Ebert, frontman for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. “He’s sort of made a career and life out of being Chris Holmes.” That was clear in our recent profile of Holmes: The L.A.-based musician and high-profile DJ recently released "American Sunshine," an album with the collective Ashtar Command, which he co-heads with Brian Liesegang -- but Holmes is as well known for the six degrees (or less) between him and many crucial pop-culture moments and figures as for the music he makes.
Indeed, there proved so many fascinating instances of Holmes’ notable connections that, quite simply, they wouldn’t fit in a single article. Therefore, we’ve compiled the best of Holmes’ intriguing intersections in music history. Read on below.
In the '90s, Holmes co-helmed a show, “In Advance of the Landing,” at the radio station of his alma mater, the University of Chicago, in which he explored extraterrestrial phenomena. His vast knowledge of UFOs and alien lore became so well known that My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields summoned him to England. “Kevin is a UFO obsessive, and he wanted me to break it all down for him,” Holmes says. “I went to his house, and after our discussion he played me My Bloody Valentine’s follow-up album to 'Loveless' that never got released. It had all these weird jungle beats -– it was so bizarre.”
While a student the University of Chicago, Holmes lived across the street from a then-unknown Barack Obama. “He was a really nice guy,” Holmes recalls. “I first met him when a bunch of professors had a party next door. They were like, ‘This is Barack -– he lives a couple houses down the cul-de-sac.’ I was the weird dude of the neighborhood, always lighting off fireworks and doing crazy things, and he’d always just be sitting on his porch, smoking and thinking. He was such a chain smoker, we nicknamed him ‘Smoking Guy’ after the character on ‘The X-Files.’”
According to longtime Chicago music critic Greg Kot, the memorable title of Liz Phair’s era-defining 1993 indie opus "Exile in Guyville" could also be traced to Holmes.
“Holmes was the guy who dubbed [Chicago hipster neighborhood] Wicker Park ‘Guyville,’” Kot claims. “That made him semi-famous with the crowd that was paying attention to rising artists like Phair, Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins and Red Red Meat in the early '90s.”
In addition to creating his own music, Holmes also worked variously as a sideman for Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins. “I played mellotron on some stuff, and then Billy asked me to play keyboards on the 'Machina/The Machines of God' tour and the farewell shows,” Holmes says. “I also did VH1’s 'Storytellers' -- I brought all these modular synths, sitars, and toy pianos to make things weird and bring another angle to the songs. I told Billy, ‘You can go to Guitar Center and find 50 better keyboard players than me -– I’m the worst person for this.' I’m not a chops guy – I’m more Eno than Rick Wakeman. I ended up doing it, though. It was really fun and Spinal Tap absurd, playing to stadiums of 60,000 people.”
Holmes moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2005, where he discovered “none of the clubs played music I wanted to hear at all."
“I ended up DJing at a lot of the same parties with Franki Chan and Steve Aoki, who were playing hip-hop then,” Holmes remembers. “One night, I was DJing in the front room with Danny from Ladytron, and we were playing stuff like Soulwax, Whitey and Mylo -– and they complained! They were like, ‘Stop playing house music!’ I was like, ‘Do you even know what house music is?’ Four months later, they told me ‘You were right about this electro stuff’ –- and were playing all the songs from my set.”
Noted producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney, Beck) notes how, when Holmes introduced him to the DJ software program Serato, it proved “very important” to his production approach. “Chris taught me how to use Serato, and then I took it to Thom [Yorke],” Godrich says. “I ended up using Serato to make music, as a physical way to manipulate sound, which was exciting.”
Holmes also produced Joshua Radin’s breakthrough 2006 album, "We Were Here" (Radin also appears on "American Sunshine"). “Josh and I met through our college girlfriends,” Holmes says. “I had no idea he did music; then, four years later, he sent me a demo he’d done. I discovered he had one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and the songs were beautiful. We spent two years working without a label, figuring out a set of songs that were true to him and gave him a unique sound. This was more than producing -- it was years of my life. Josh is great, but I haven’t made a penny [from the project] ... It was a frustrating situation: It made me think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this stuff for other people -- maybe I should do something for myself.’”
In 2009, alternative-rock icon Beck decided to start a project called “Record Club,” where he and various associates would cover another artist’s entire album, completing the whole recording process in a single day. The first “Record Club” attempt was a revisiting of the Velvet Underground’s classic 1967 debut "The Velvet Underground & Nico"; naturally, Holmes was involved. “It was a weird thing,” Holmes says. “Nigel [Godrich] called me up and said, ‘We’re doing this thing -- come by.’ When I showed up, they were trying to decide what record to cover: It was between 'Sex Packets' by Digital Underground and the first Velvet Underground album. They were looking for a girl singer, so I called my friend [Thorunn Antonia Magnusdottir of the band Fields] who was in town from Iceland. [Beck/Yorke/R.E.M. drummer/percussionist Joey Waronker] was also there, and we’ve been friends for a really long time. I met Joey from when I played a show in Chicago with his band Walt Mink. When I moved out to L.A., Joey was one of the few people I knew here. Covering that album was the most fun I’ve ever had playing -– we felt just like little kids.”
Holmes currently tours with Paul McCartney as his warm-up DJ. “Paul is the least disappointing, most inspiring human I’ve ever met,” Holmes says. “After shows, we’d have conversations about modular synthesizers and how he rewired his Rickenbacker bass.” Holmes commenced with McCartney at the former Beatle’s 2009 Coachella appearance, for which Holmes worked up a special set. “Basically, I played remixes, re-edits and obscure and different versions of Beatles songs and Paul’s solo stuff,” Holmes says. “I’d play R&B covers, for example, and then Diplo’s version of ‘Twist and Shout’ and Radioslave’s remix of [McCartney’s track] ‘Temporary Secretary.’ I altered the set, however, for the South American tour. When we were playing Chile and Peru, I substituted Spanish versions and samba covers of Beatles songs; then for Brazil, I played Portuguese-language stuff -- like songs from this album of Beatles covers by Rita Lee ['Bossa’n Beatles'] -– mixed in with my favorite Brazilian tracks.”
-- Matt Diehl
Chris Holmes holding a DJ's control vinyl in front of his home on Oct. 25. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times.