Interview: Alex Fitzpatrick of Holy Roar Records

By Ollie Connors

As the ever-influential Holy Roar Records reaches its tenth anniversary, we are delving into their history with a series of interviews and features. In this installment we chat to founder and overlord Alex Fitzpatrick, who once appeared on Sky¬†chatting about the closure of HMV don’t you know.

So, to start us off, could you give us a little potted history of the label? How did you start out?

So the idea first came out when I was at University, in Birmingham, and I started putting on a load of shows late on in my first year, when I was 18/starting to turn 19. I very quickly realised that, within Birmingham and throughout the UK there was a lot of bands who it felt like weren’t getting represented, or weren’t signed, or weren’t getting their music distributed, released and “out there”. So we tried, as an extension of putting on shows and the music website that went with it, which was called “The Communion”, me and a couple of friends released a compilation CD, that age-old thing that’s such an out-of-date concept now, but that classic thing that lots of labels seem to start with!

It had loads of local, national and international bands that we liked, and we also did 2 EPs, both on 3″ CDs for whatever reason, one was by a band called Sika Redem, who went onto an album on Undergroove, which was quite nice, and another one was a band called Numenor, an old band of mine; so the nepotism was there from a very early stage! But that sowed the seeds of wanting to release music, to do my bit to help and support the bands I enjoyed, and then at the beginning of 2006 I moved to London with my girlfriend at the time Ellen Godwin. Her dad offered us a small amount of money – and believe me, it wasn’t “drug company”, Geoff Rickly-style levels of money – a few thousand pounds rather than a few hundred thousand pounds, to put on gigs, which was really odd, but we decided to use the money to start a record label. It was a loan of ¬£8,000 that we paid back, and we used that money to release and promote, to the best of our knowledge at the time, releases by Rolo Tomassi (their first “proper” EP), a band called Phoenix Bodies, a grind/punk crossover band from Indianapolis, and a split 12″ between Kayo Dot and Bloody Panda, which was more on the avant-garde doom end, let’s say.

So the idea came about in January 2006 and those releases came out July/August ’06, moving a lot more slowly than it does these days – I wish I could move as slowly as that now! But there were a lot of other considerations to take into account.

So you got off to a slow start; what were your big turning points, how did you go on to grow from there?

To be honest it’s a combination of luck and circumstance – out of those 3 initial releases, Rolo Tomassi was the one that carried on – it was a slow start (with them) but it was the release that kept turning heads. Kayo Dot and Bloody Panda was the first release to sell out with a big spike of interest initially, but unfortunately Phoenix Bodies flopped (but I stand by it to this day), but the Rolo Tomassi record kept ticking over, so we had this gradual stream of money coming back, so we didn’t have to feel that everything had gone to shit straight away. We then had a stroke of luck when I sold, via the Punktastic forum, 2-3 t-shirts to Lags from Gallows, and we got to talking – things were just in the process of kicking off for them, and we got to release their demo on a 7″ and again, that gave us another spike of interest just as things seemed to be calming down – and quite a nice little link to Punktastic as well!

So that kept interest ticking along, and at this stage in March 2007, along with Gallows we put out EPs by a tech-metal band called Chronicles of Adam West, and a band called Chariots, who put an album out on Big Scary Monsters and we did the follow-up EP – screamo stuff, basically. At that point, the label was very much a hobby, a labour of love – doing some emails every evening and at weekends, but at the time I was working in media buying advertising space which was quite soul destroying – I was getting the train into Victoria from West Norwood where I lived at the time, literally, physically feeling sick to my stomach, feeling ill going to work because I hated it so much, so I quit and just decided to give it a go with the label, with plenty of support from those around me.

It quickly transpired that I was going to have to sell my car and a load of my records, and temp in various jobs, but I’d made the leap and that was the main thing. This is no criticism to anyone else whatsoever, but I chose to pull that blanket of security from under myself; it’s not a sob story either, it was “I am determined to make this work, to make Holy Roar happen” rather than say that I gave it a go and then gave up. From then for the next 4 years I always did other things on the side, whether that was write for Zero Tolerance, drive bands or manage Rolo Tomassi and Throats but when I couldn’t make ends meet with the label, I always managed to top it up with other things that were related to it, rather than just doing something I really, really didn’t want to do. So that’s how it went from the initial idea into being the full-time concern it is today – those 3-4 years of driving bands and doing the label, that was purely trying to get the label to a sustainable level, and it becomes easier the more releases you do – even if you haven’t sold a Phoenix Bodies release in about 3 months, you’ve still got 10-20 copies being downloaded on iTunes or there’s been streaming (moreso a prevalent source of income now), and that ¬£30-40 adds up. Obviously interest wanes with older releases, but you do have this body of work that helps things along.

Not to turn this too much into a “timeline” thing, but you said that luck and circumstance were big factors in the early days, what helped Holy Roar go from strength to strength from there, at the turn of the decade? At that time we had a fantastic hardcore scene in the UK and HRR bands were a big part of that – would you like to tell us a bit more about that?

As well as having the association with Rolo Tomassi and Gallows, we managed to do one-off releases for Trash Talk, Make Do and Mend, Touch√© Amor√©¬†and all of these things opened doors and made people, whether it was booking agents or people in magazines or distributors, made them take us a bit more seriously, I remember early on in the label, all these people not even replying to me – there was a part of me early on, without a solid grounding of confidence when starting out, which is prevalent in any job or relationship or whatever, that I was doing the right thing all the time, so all these people not replying filled me with doubt, made me think “maybe the music we’re releasing is shit”, or maybe that I’m approaching this the wrong way, but I made a conscious decision to not let that thought process be my undoing or drag me down. I forced myself to take the mentality, a “punk” way of thinking about it, of “fuck you, I believe in what we’re doing, I know this band is great and I will hammer on your door until you give me the time of day and say you hate it”, rather than treat it with indifference.

Still to this day I would rather someone came up to me and said “I’m sorry Alex but I hate your attitude and I hate your label”, rather than say “It’s just okay, it’s 5/10”, I want people to either love it or hate it. I cannot stand fence-sitting and being afraid to have an opinion – I don’t think that anything gets better (that way) and things that are actually good don’t get the chance to rise to their full potential without people being brave and bold enough to say “I really fucking believe in this” or “I love this” – and I hope that that’s something that Holy Roar has never lost, no matter what changes or how people might think we’ve grown (which we have but probably not as much as people think), the one thing is that initial kernel of passion and belief and I think that, more than anything is what has carried us through. I’m sitting here and I know that we’re not sitting on a bank of cash, I worry month-to-month how we’re going to pay each bill because cashflow in the music industry is a very difficult, tumultuous thing, but we’re not gonna stop and I think we’re in a strong position.

I really respect labels like Sub-Pop and Wichita; Mark from Wichita is still out at gigs all the time and you see his passion for the bands he works with, and I feel like that’s a lot less visible or obvious with a lot of hardcore and metal labels, it’s more labels out in America like A389 and Deathwish that display that kind of enduring passion for their bands and integrity and that’s what I use as my benchmark for where I want to be in another ten years’ time. I’m not saying those labels are dinosaurs, far from it, it’s that ability to evolve whilst retaining what gave those labels their own identity.

We touched on bands like Touch√© Amor√©¬†and Make Do And Mend who were The Wave; now I want to talk about HRR’s answer, the “#UKSWELL” scene, which although in essence an in-joke, fostered and engendered a real community. Tell us a bit more about that time, how you saw it.

You’re right, the term was initially a joke, but it did very very quickly come to embody 30-50 people in the bands who had very similar influences, ethics and ideologies all making “non-macho hardcore”. Also, underneath the surface, not that it was ever used as a “selling point” but there was a definite inclusionary, no racism, no sexism, no bullshit attitude as well. I felt like all those bands loved playing with each other, and when they did play with each other it brought¬†people out, but none of those bands were afraid to go and play with some wildly different bands as well. I used to play in a band called Cutting Pink With Knives and after that wanted to start my own thing (initially Betty Pariso, then just Pariso)¬†in about 2009, and within 6-9 months we’d met Kerouac, Goodtime Boys, The Long Haul and Bastions. The friendship between Pariso and Bastions was solidified when we played a gig in Milton Keynes facing an artificial ski-slope, playing to 3 paying customers but we had a fucking great night. That’s what it essentially came down to, friendship and being nice.

It proved that you don’t need to dress things up in scary imagery, scary artwork, or “overtly metal” things, you can be decent to each other and help each other out, it’s not a competition and it was just a good thing with a bunch of good people. There may have been certain characters in that movement who may have done some “interesting” things and I won’t rule myself out of that (!) but, by and large, I thought it was just one of things where a summation of a group of, let’s say, 5-8 bands, was far greater than any one part, and you only had to look at Kerouac’s last London show to get that. Gnarwolves opened that show on a 6 band bill, one of their earliest shows, and people were crowdsurfing from then on and it only got more crazy – people were queueing around the block by the 2nd or 3rd band and I thought that really summed it up.

I’m really glad, and I don’t think that anyone has actually said this, but I like that it hasn’t dragged on and on – I think that Kurt Cobain phrase “It’s better to burn out than fade away” (PT: It’s actually a Neil Young lyric that he put into his suicide note. AF: Well, obviously the reference was lost on me because I grew up on Kurt Cobain rather than Neil Young, I just assumed someone in Camden slapped it on a t-shirt) holds true, because it was something that burned bright and disappeared almost as fast as it came about. It truly ended this year with Pariso’s last gig and Bastions’ (probable) last gig, and those who are left have either evolved their style into something almost unrecognisable like Svalbard, Employed to Serve, Ithaca or Vales, who are still going but came a year or two after. There’s nothing left from it, which is good, because there’s a great body of work for someone to discover there, it hasn’t become muddied, it’s very clear what it was and it was allowed to be a nice little thing.

I also wanted to discuss the collaborative approach you took with regard to Pink Mist – tell us a bit more about that and where you’re at with it now that it’s been going a little while.

So, for anyone that doesn’t know, Pink Mist is a co-operative, or a loose collaboration between Big Scary Monsters Records, Tangled Talk Records, Blood and Biscuits and Holy Roar. We came together in 2011 to try and pool our resources both in terms of meaning we could afford an office together which none of had done before, we had all worked out of our bedrooms before that, and also pooled together to get a better distribution both physically and digitally, and also pooling our contacts and resources and it was great. We achieved many of the things we initially set out to do together; we got ourselves a little office in Dalston.

People’s various individual circumstances dictated that Pink Mist became a looser entity over time – people had to move out of the office, Andrej (Tangled Talk) went travelling, Kev (BSM) now has an office in Oxford because he got married and his life became far more focussed there and Simon (Blood & Biscuits) got a job as the label manager for City Slang. So, while we got together quite closely to start off with, we went off in our own directions, but we still exist. I think the greatest things that came out of Pink Mist, other than furthering the cause of all of our own labels to start with, is what Ross Allmark has done; he runs all of the Pink Mist live gigs as an extension of the brand (God I hate that word!) to put on shows and include some of our bands where appropriate, supporting bigger touring artists. Tonight (when the interview took place), for example, we’ve got Conrad Keely from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead supported by Alan Welsh from Tangled Hair and Eugene Quell (ex-MMISL/Shoes and Socks Off) (both BSM acts)¬† – …Trail of Dead are one of those bands I’ve been into since I was 16 and I still respect, they’ve always done what they wanted and used to major label system for all its worth and are still going.

The great success of Pink Mist has been Ross Allmark’s drive and dedication for the live gigs, and it is his baby now, the labels can’t lay any claim to Pink Mist Live more than the initial platform and help for setup. He’s probably now one of the best punk/emo/hardcore promoters in London if not possibly the best; certainly the “coolest” or at least the most credible, consistently filling out rooms with great bands. Just to add to something we discussed earlier, the key turning points in Holy Roar history, in addition to the growth of Rolo Tomassi and going full time with the label 2 years later, the next one was the formation of Pink Mist.- it has enabled our releases to be more easily available and it allowed me to focus even harder because we had the office space, it made things feel super serious and like it was something a lot of people seemed to give a fuck about.

Coming together with those other labels was great because I learned so much off BSM and Blood and Biscuits; I learned so much off Kev but he learned a lot with regards to merchandising off our label – we all learned so much off each other and while we don’t share a physical space anymore, I still talk to all 3 guys quite a lot, I bounce ideas off them and ask for advice, like last week when I asked them for advice on a contract I signed with a band last week, we still implicitly trust each other and help each other, which is something the music industry needs. Independent music shouldn’t be out to try and get one over on everyone else, we should all try and help each other because it’s not an easy industry – sounds pretty hippy but it’s true!

2015’s been one of the best years you’ve had in a while, because of a wide range of artists from different areas of heavy music releasing great material, from Svalbard and Employed to Serve to OHHMS and Slabdragger. Obviously you’ve never exclusively been a “hardcore” label, but how do you feel about the current crop of HRR bands and is this all-encompassing approach something you’ll continue to take forwards?

To answer the first part of your question, I feel it has tangibly been one of our best years – I don’t feel that’s something that can ever be calculated beyond a degree, it was all dependent upon We Never Learned To Live, Svalbard, Employed To Serve, Rolo Tomassi, OHHMS turning in great records, which they did, but that has nothing to do with us, all we are is a facilitator. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or big-headed but the feedback on those records has made it feel like this has been one of our strongest years – we had to repress Svalbard’s record the day it came out, we’ve ordered a repress of WNLTL, the ETS record isn’t far behind now and that hasn’t happened before. It’s still small limited numbers, as it the nature of the sort of music that we release and the sort of label we are, but that does feel like a sense of progress. It’s quite scary in the sense that it’s a chunk of money you have to spend to make these things available again but it has felt like a really great year, which you attribute to the bands and the great music they produce and I’m eternally thankful to them.

I would also attribute it to taking on my first employee this year, Justine. She started working with me from around February, but just having someone else around to bounce ideas off, see if she thinks I’m doing the right thing and also to push aspects of the label that I might have otherwise ignored due to being bogged down in the day-to-day stuff – I would never have time to make sure our catalogue was on YouTube or tidy up our Bandcamp.

So we’re coming up to the big tenth anniversary; what have been your favourite memories over the past decade?

That’s a very big question! Off the top of my head so apologies if I miss anything or have forgotten anything glaringly obvious. The time we curated the hardcore stage at Offset Festival; you look back now at that lineup, which I think was in 2010, and the lineup was incredible, the action was amazing and that had a lot of great sets, that was pretty good. Rolo Tomassi selling out The Underworld when they put out ‘Cosmology’ is another one – they weren’t on the label then, but there’s such a strong association, that was incredible. Throats playing Sonisphere was another one – it was the summer we released the mini-album, which was just a 7-song record (and you’d struggle to get noticed for putting out a mini-album now), and they played Sonisphere to a good few thousand people and were incredible and they got nominated for a Kerrang! award up against what I would personally¬†consider, nothing to do with the label’s perspective, a bunch of guff. I thought it was great that the horrible British child of Napalm Death and Converge were getting nominated and invited to the K! Awards.

It’s not that we yearn or strive for those things, but when they happen it’s a really nice happy accident and a validation from somewhere that you wouldn’t expect it. Those things all stick in my mind; I’m still ridiculously fond of those first three releases and it’s nice to see Rolo Tomassi return to the label and put out what I think is, hand-on-heart, the best release of their career, selling out Oslo with Employed To Serve supporting and Employed to Serve doing incredibly well. It’s the same with Svalbard, the reaction to that record has been amazing for what is, for all intents and purposes, some sort of metal/hardcore record with other bits and bobs bolted on, but for that record to be recognised by so many non-heavy music people has been a real validation of songwriting and creativity without looking at those boundaries.

Loads of indie record stores (and I mean that in the musical genre sense) got behind the Svalbard record and they got a solid review from Drowned In Sound, and it’s lovely that our bands continue to get recognised in places they perhaps shouldn’t be. That’s something I’ve always strived to achieve, I’ve always not wanted to put people off, I’ve always wanted it to be a label where you don’t feel like you’re trying to provoke your parents; it’s not rebellious for the sake of rebelliousness, it’s very inclusive and 10 years on, we get a lot of, for want of a nicer way of putting it, vinyl nerd middle-aged men into the label as well. I think that’s really cool, because they’re clearly appreciating the technicality and the musicality, the presentation and the production of our music – I want the 55-year old vinyl obsessive bloke and I want the 14 year old girl to have an equal chance and opportunity to get into the label’s bands as each other, I don’t want to say we’re just for 22 year olds who wear Touch√© Amor√©¬†t-shirts and I want us to appeal to whoever. I know that’s impossible, but that’s always one of the things I vaguely have in the back of my mind.

Who do you think are the most underrated band you’ve ever put out?

I always have a special place in my heart for that Phoenix Bodies record, but it was a 10-11 minute grind-punk record from a band that were gone as fast as they arrived. More recently – I dunno, struggling to think. I think that Rolo Tomassi should now be headlining to at least 1,000 people a night because they’ve got the musical chops, they’re interesting, they’re inventive, they work really hard – I remember when they played the Radio 1 tent at Reading a few years ago at 12:30 in the afternoon and it was absolutely rammed, that was another highlight. But I think at the moment Employed To Serve are very underrated, they’ve got some very vocal champions in Metal Hammer and various other good places, but I now think that that band should be on tour as first on supporting Architects or Bring Me The Horizon to 6,000 people – I think they could appeal to so many metal fans and hardcore fans and every time I’ve seen them on a bigger stage with a bigger PA they’ve sounded even better rather than them losing that intimate power. I truly believe in that band and truly believe that they should be afforded the chance, the right luck and opportunity to grow.

A lot of our readers may not be immediately familiar with the label and its releases – would there be anything in particular you’d bring to a novice’s attention? What are you personally into right now?

I think if you’re a complete novice, or your music taste has been piqued by this article, then I think the newest Rolo Tomassi record is a great place to start; it’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s melodic, it’s progressive, it’s technical and direct. A few people haven’t been 100% on it¬†but I think it’s a great place to start without delving too far in any one direction. They were there at the start and they still encapsulate what we are in a way. Of this year’s crop, OHHMS, We Never Learned To Live, Svalbard and Employed To Serve are all really representative of all the facets of Holy Roar.

In terms of what I’m into, it would be a huge lie to say that I listen to, day in/day out, the same sort of music I listened to when I was 22 when I started the label. I am a firm believer in not denying your musical past, I have much more respect for people that just broaden their musical horizons but never lose sight of what they grew up loving, and just bolting things on to have a widening palette; rather than people that took a sudden turn and say “Oh, I was into metalcore but now I listen to Foals” or something – it’s a bit weird to me and it seems insincere and faddy, you’re too self conscious about what other people might think of you, rather than being true to yourself.

I was listening to loads of dunderhead beatdown bands yesterday, but then today I was listening to this Icelandic black metal band called Mys√ĺyrming. I also really like half of the new Justin Bieber album because of the production and I also love a lot of electronic stuff, like Rustie’s new album was great. There’s quite a lot of things I’ve found via BandCamp as well, there’s a guy in Germany called HNRK who’s like a woozy electronic version of Burial, a chilled-out guy called Drip 133, there’s also this 16 year old in Dubai called Misogi, and his stuff’s incredible. I like the new Cult Leader record, I’ve just pre-ordered the new Conan record (who we once did a split 12″ for) – so all over the shop! I remember being in my late teens and early 20s, thinking “Oh my god, I’m so upset that when I hit 30 I won’t listen to heavy music anymore” because I’d seen it happen to loads of other people in bands.

I’d put on bands with older dudes in like ZAO or Throwdown and there’d be dudes in these bands in their early thirties and they were like “Oh yeah, I listen to The National and nothing else” and I remember the passion and energy I got off those bands in my teens – I was terrified of getting to that age and only listening to calmer, quieter music, but that hasn’t happened and I’m really fucking happy about that! I still get off on the energy on that easy, simple, direct heavy hardcore sometimes, but I also like ridiculously esoteric pseudo-intellectual black metal bollocks or electronic weird stuff… I don’t really know where I’m going with this but I think you get my point!

What does the future hold for Holy Roar Records?

As far as the future, I want us to be a label in another 10 years time. I think Sub-Pop’s a great reference point, because they still to this day release records that could loosely be termed “grunge” and they helped start that whole thing, and I would like to think that we’ve potentially had a part in shaping the next generation of UK underground rock, especially in terms of #UKSWELL and Rolo Tomassi and all the offshoots of both as the forefathers. I would hope that people would view that and also in the same way as Sub Pop have now released everything from Shabazz Palaces to Wolf Eyes and no-one bats an eyelid, I would like us to be in that same situation. They have the all-encompassing approach, and you see with bands like METZ and Pissed Jeans, they’re still keeping in touch with their hallmarks but still managing to stay relevant in 2015 and push things forward.

We’re releasing an album from a band called Giants who are essentially a punk band, and probably more melodic than most stuff we’ve done. You can probably draw a line from them to Make Do And Mend, but they came to me with this amazing record which sounds, to my ears, like a cross between really early Offspring, Alexisonfire and Backtrack. They’re good dudes, they seem like they’ve got their shit together and they work really hard and I can see that they’re going to fit in ideologically and in terms of ethos, but they will be edging out the parameters of what Holy Roar is just a few more inches and I find that exciting – if we weren’t doing things like that any more then we shouldn’t be doing it, we should be pushing the boundaries of what people think we can do.

Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]