I saw Holy Fuck play on the Main Stage at the 2010 Capitol Hill Block Party, and even though I was watching from a considerable distance they might have been the most impressive band of the festival. Equal parts electronic and traditionally instrumental, the Toronto five-piece uses live drums, bass, occasional electric guitar, and a bevy of effects boards, pedals, mini-keyboards, and even a film synchronizer that they use similarly to a turntable - the film can be recorded on, played back in snippets, scratched, and generally manipulated at band maestro Brian Borcherdt’s discretion. For a supposed electronic band, it doesn’t get much more analog than that. When I saw that they were scheduled to play in The Crocodile for Decibel Fest 2011, I was giddy at the prospect of seeing their amazing live show from a distance of feet rather than from behind a throng of drunk hipsters on Pike Street.
It wouldn’t be a proper Decibel Fest without an appearance by local electronic group Truckasaurus, who was playing one of their typically powerful, in your face sets when I arrived, albeit to a criminally thin crowd. The Crocodile was still severely lacking in patronage when Portland producer, artist, and musician E*Rock took the stage. It’s easy to assume that electronic dance music isn’t really going to work live unless the house is packed, and it’s true that the vibe inside The Crocodile during E*Rock’s set was reminiscent of a weekday open mic night at Motor, but the extra space actually ended up providing fans with ample room to bust out a wide variety of dance moves that wouldn’t have been possible if there was a tightly packed crowd in front of the stage. E*Rock, who was set up behind a laptop and single effects board, played fairly run-of-the-mill electronic music, save for a lively Jason Forrest remix in the middle of his set, and for the majority of festival-goers standing idly around the bar, the set’s primary source of entertainment was the varied gyrating coming from the enthusiastic dancers in front of the stage.
Breathing room was a little harder to come by when Holy Fuck took the stage just past midnight; it was clear that many had planned to arrive just in time to see them come on. Throughout their set most of my attention was focused on drummer Matt Schulz and frontman Brian Borcherdt. Part of this might have been due to the fact that I was standing on their side of the stage, but they were clearly the pace-setters and were both absolutely breathtaking to watch in action. Working in tandem with fellow effects man Graham Walsh and operating behind a huge and diverse setup of equipment, Borcherdt was in a frantic but controlled zone the entire time, hurriedly and aggressively plugging in and taking out cables; feeding film through the aforementioned film synchronizer; banging effects pedals with the palm of his hand; emitting whirring, haunting vocals into a mic that he held inside his mouth; and even occasionally kicking the bottom of his effects table as if it needed an extra physical jolt to cooperate the way he wanted it to.
The band often had to wait for Borcherdt to calibrate his setup, and during these breaks in the action Schulz led improvisational jams in which the band members worked themselves into a groove before Borcherdt was adequately setup for the band to explode into the next song. Schulz is far and away the best pure musician in the band, and it’s hard to imagine Holy Fuck without him. Just listen to Holy Fuck’s music, particularly some of the standout tracks off the 2010 album Latin (“Stay Lit,” “Latin America,” “Red Lights”), which were the highlights of their set at The Crocodile, imagine what it would be like to hear the drums live, and the multiply that by a thousand. I was in awe the entire night. In my opinion he’s one of the best live drummers playing today, regardless of genre.
Though I would have been perfectly content to simply sit back and watch Holy Fuck in action, their music demands to be moved to, and I think it would have been physically impossible not to let loose and fall right in line with the vibe they were churning out on stage - it’s hard to imagine there was a dry body in the house by the time things wrapped up close to 2 am.