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More than just a rock opera 

The Floating Men’s cult songwriter Jeff Holmes debuts a new concept piece

“IF WE'D EVER HAD ANY LUCK, we wouldn’t be so far under the radar,” says songwriter Jeff Holmes.

He’s speaking of The Floating Men, the band he co-founded almost two decades ago with songwriting partner (and fellow Furman alumnus) Scot Evans. While essentially unknown to mainstream listeners, the band —which has, over the years, featured a number of top Nashville-area musicians— has slowly built up a small but intensely rabid fanbase that adores their literary approach to mature, off-kilter guitar-based roots and alternative rock.

In fact, their last few albums have been almost entirely financed by loyal fans, who pay as much as $1,000 apiece to serve as Executive Producers, affording them the opportunity to actually hang out in the studio with the band while they record.

While Evans’ relocation to Ontario has made duo or full-band dates extremely rare, Holmes occasionally takes a break from his day job as a conservationist to book solo tours of the Southeast — avoiding bars and nightclubs and instead playing nontraditional venues such as coffeehouses, experimental theaters and recital halls. This Saturday, he makes an extremely rare stop in Savannah to preview the band’s forthcoming concept album No Clocks, No Calendars, by performing a stripped-down version of the entire “opera.”

I caught up with Holmes during a break between shows.

As a devotee of intelligent, literary and challenging alternative rock music, I’m somewhat astonished to say that I was essentially unaware of your band or its output until I received word of this Savannah date (although I do recall Webb Wilder’s drummer Steve Ebe mentioning he played with the band to me once). For a group that is fairly unknown, The Floating Men have won over some influential listeners, and received a pretty sizable amount of accolades for an ultra-indie act that doesn’t easily fit into textbook marketing schemes. What is it about you and/or Scot that has made this a reality? Is it tenacity, vigilance, luck or something else?

Jeff Holmes: Well, it’s certainly not luck. If we had ever had any luck we wouldn’t be so far under the radar. I would have to credit tenacity. We’ve had a lot of tough breaks and very few good ones, so virtually every fan was earned one by one in the trenches of live music where sweat, blood and word-of-mouth are your only allies. I suppose the slow, steady growth is an artifact of our musical tastes as well. I doubt we’ll ever come up with an instant, formulaic radio hit, so the fact that we strive so hard to infuse our work with the kind of richness that reveals itself in layers upon layers with each subsequent listening makes our fan base incredibly loyal and weeds out the kind of short attention spans and fleeting, one-dimensional appreciation that is so often attracted to mainstream commercial popular music.

click to enlarge Jeff Holmes of The Floating Men
  • Jeff Holmes of The Floating Men

You stopped touring regularly (in a band format) in the mid-’90s, and you and your main collaborator, Scot Evans, live far from each other. Tell me a bit about how the two of you maintain a working relationship as far as composing new material, recording it and seeing album projects through to fruition despite the distance between you.

Jeff Holmes: Lots of telecommuting! We stay in touch via e-mail and share musical ideas as sound files via the web. With Scot teaching at the University of Miami, we have to schedule our recording sessions and live concerts around his winter, spring and summer breaks. We also have to make sure that every engagement we seriously consider has enough funding in the budget to not only pay the usual bills, but we also have to tack on round-trip airfare for Scot. It’s not cheap, and it sure as hell isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

You’ve said that you hate the term “rock opera” and instead prefer simply, “opera” to describe this new work. What exactly do you find distasteful about the notion of so-called rock operas, and how does No Clocks, No Calendars skirt that notion?

Jeff Holmes: I suppose that’s the influence of the minimalist punk aesthetic on my musical value system. Rock should be hard, sweaty and sensual. Too much cerebral or emotional complexity turns rock into something other than the primal, visceral release that I hold as the fundamental definition of “rock.” And, to be totally honest, I don’t listen to a lot of rock music. Like any other artistic medium, the popular music genres are crowded with about 99.99 percent garbage and less than one percent genius. My musical preferences tend to crosscut stylistic boundaries and be limited only by the quality of the writing and execution. You’re most likely to find me noodling in that top one percent of the arts, regardless of genre; it comes across in my writing, too. You can expect to hear musical influences far beyond the fundamental angst of rock and roll in the show.

I understand there is a strong visual element to the show in the shape of projected images? Who created these images, and how exactly do they tie in with the subject matter of the piece? Are they synchronized to appear and change in tandem with the performance, or are they merely used as a backdrop to evoke an overall mood?

Jeff Holmes: A modified libretto, including lyrics, imagery and abbreviated stage direction will be projected onto a 25-square-foot screen during the opera debut at The Sentient Bean. It’s the only way to tour solo and convey the story without the luxury of actors, scenery, and theatrical lighting effects. Since I sing all the parts, regardless of which character is speaking, and since the lyrics are intended to be literary supplements to the action and not the primary conveyance vehicle for plot development, the visual action on the “stage” is critical to following the story arc. For images, I’ve selected images from our cover art contest. Some of the South’s finest photographers and artists have submitted entries for consideration as the cover of the forthcoming album and have kindly given me permission to “test drive” their entries in concert for the fall opera debut tour.

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Here's a vintage clip of the original Floating Men lineup from a gig in 1994:

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History and folklore (specifically of the Southeastern U.S.) seems to figure prominently in your work. Did you always aspire to be thought of as a literary rock and roller, as Lou Reed famously claims to have done from his earliest attempts at serious songwriting, or is that a view of you and your work that is more coincidental than overt?

Jeff Holmes: I’ve always considered the four-minute pop song to be the most natural vehicle for my work, but I’m almost always disappointed in the depth of literary value and the breadth of vision in most pop lyrics. So my evolution as a songwriter and composer has not been by accident. I’ve always made it my goal to cram as much literary value into any given song as it will hold and am dismayed that everyone in the field doesn’t do the same. I’ve also found the tight, neat little pop song to be a tad limiting for my vision, which may explain why nearly all of my repertoire is comprised of songs that, while complete and fulfilling in and of themselves, shine even brighter within the context of a longer-form, over-arching conceptual thread. So, from concept album to opera was not a stretch, just a lot more work!

Your last few albums have been financed by your diehard fans. In exchange for this patronage, they are allowed to sit in on the recording sessions. How does that work in actual practice? As someone who has made many records in studio settings, I know that sometimes having other folks around who are not directly involved with the creative or technical side of things can be a real distraction and affect the quality of the finished product in a negative way (or simply cause things to take much more time than they otherwise would). Is that a concern? Are there some sort of ground rules that these financial backers must adhere to when visiting the sessions?

Jeff Holmes: Fans that provide financial support for our albums are permitted in the control room only while the specific song they sponsor is being recorded. They are encouraged to remain quiet and comfortable while they are present. So far, we’ve had absolutely no problems with disruptive behavior. In fact, the mere fact that we are being observed inspires us to work harder and be on our best behavior as well.

Whose idea was this approach to fund-raising and what sort of discussion went into trying it out? I would imagine there must have been a lot of trepidation over whether or not folks would receive the idea in a positive fashion or see it as some sort of scheme. Was that initially a concern?

Jeff Holmes: I don’t recall who originally brought up the idea of fans paying for our recordings, but I do recall that I was certainly the most cautious when this idea was first discussed. All the nightmares and disruptions I feared never materialized. I was wrong and I sure am glad, because this process has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Upon hearing recordings of some of your solo performances, it brought to mind the cockeyed, distinctly New-Southern Gothic reportage of The Swimming Pool Q’s front-man Jeff Calder filtered through the musicality and clever wit of Steve Forbert. Do you follow the work of either one at all, and if so, do you feel any kindred spirit with their catalogs?

Jeff Holmes: Not particularly. When I do choose to listen to popular music, I am back and forth between absurdists like Beck and some of Tom Waits’ more surreal later work. Other than those two and the occasional dip into other artists’ catalogs, I’m pretty much making this up as I go. The newer, more decadent, sprawling urban South and the older, more pastoral South butt heads frequently in my work, but that’s all from me; there are very few artists who inspire me when it comes to deconstructing my beloved South. As far as wordplay goes, I’m also a lone wolf. I just lock myself away with my own thoughts and, if it works likes it’s supposed to, emerge with what you hear. I really do function, in large part, in a vacuum of influences.

You’re doing only a few of these solo dates in support of the new record. I was surprised to see The Sentient Bean on the list. How did you come to book this show? What is it about this venue that intrigued you? Have you been there before, or were you merely interested in visiting Savannah?

Jeff Holmes: As a South Carolina native, I really wanted to debut this show somewhere in the Low Country, since the folklore and ambience of the Low Country culture play such a key role in the opera. My other goal was to avoid traditional nightclub venues for this tour. The ungodly hours, distractions and drunken audiences of typical nightclub tours simply would not have worked. So I looked at coffeehouses, experimental theaters, recital halls and other multi-use performance spaces when booking this tour. In Savannah, after a careful analysis of atmosphere vs. what I can realistically expect to draw, The Bean was a natural fit. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard it was a great place to hang out and hear interesting music. I hope I’m not wrong! There’s only been one nasty surprise on this tour (I won’t mention the city), but the venue was filled with pool tables, panhandlers and VERY drunk people. I vet venues very carefully before I decide I want to play there and, so far, The Bean is the closest thing to a “listening room” I’ve found on the lower Atlantic Seaboard.

Have you ever spent much time in Savannah? If so, what do you recall about the city? I feel like the Little Saints must have played our old Night Flight Cafe back in the day...

Jeff Holmes: Busted! Little Saints did play at Night Flight quite a few times back in the day. Other than those few visits, I’ve spent most of visits to the area off in the longleaf pine ridges and cypress bottoms enjoying the great southern outdoors.

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Here's an intimate Jeff Holmes solo performance from a small coffeehouse gig:

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I understand that many of your fans travel quite far to see your occasional live shows. Have you heard from many fans who either live here in Savannah or have expressed interest in making a trip to town just for this concert?

Jeff Holmes: The show at the Bean is already nearly a fourth sold out in advance. Most of those ticket buyers are local but, since this is the furthest south and east anything remotely related to The Floating Men has been in over a decade, I expect some of our S.C., Fl. and inland South Ga. fans to converge on the show as well.

Here’s a couple just for fun: Let’s imagine you could have been the opening act on any concert by any artist at any time in history. With that supernatural freedom, tell me your top three dream support gigs, and why you’d choose them.

Jeff Holmes: Number one would be Springsteen at The Bottom Line, 1975. If I could open that show, I’d get in for free!

Number two would be The Beatles at Shea Stadium, 1964. Just to say I was there.

And third would have to be Woodstock ‘99. I would have wanted to play right before Nine Inch Nails, then sit back and watch them incinerate the stage.

If you had to use ten separate words (as opposed to a ten-word phrase or sentence) to describe the totality of your musical output to date, what would those ten individual words be?

Jeff Holmes: Unpredictable, daredevil, fearless, shameless, obsessed, possessed, profane, reverent, mournful, yearning.

Jeff Holmes of The Floating Men

When: Sat., 8 pm

Where: The Sentient Bean

Cost: $10 adv. (jeffholmesentientbean.eventbrite.com) / $12 door

Info: morewisdom.com, floatingmen.com

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