Holmes' Latest Case

David Holmes talks about writing his first theatre music, for Ransom Production's new play The Gentlemen's Tea-Drinking Society

‘Well, is is not something you would normally hear at the theatre.’ In his fifteen year career David Holmes has consistently pushed the envelope, after making his name in club land and on the big screen the Choice Music and Meteor nominee is now creating music to tread the boards to.

The acclaimed Northern Irish DJ, recording artist and soundtrack composer’s first musical score written for the stage features in Ransom Productions’ new play The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society, which opens in Belfast in early February before embarking on an Irish tour and then transferring to Glasgow.

Like Holmes, the play, an energetic black comedy from husband and wife team Richard Dormer and Rachel O’Riordan, has strong Belfast roots. Set in London on the eve of the destruction of the universe, it was inspired by a Lower Ormeau Road mural’s inquisitive declaration “how can quantum gravity help explain the origin of the universe”.

‘It always stuck with me and really got my mind going about the subject,’ says writer and leading man Dormer, who cycled past the image on his daily commute.

Holmes, who once said ‘If I had to choose I’d be in Belfast everyday’, is equally enthused by the city’s visual culture.

‘It’s a brilliant piece of street art, and something that should be encouraged in this town. If you go to places like New York, street art is a big part of their culture. That is something we have here too and we should encourage it.’

Ground-breaking club nights in the art college and influential early records like This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats long ago rubberstamped Holmes’ place in Belfast’s post-Troubles musical firmament. 

So, after hitting pay dirt with Hollywood soundtracks including Out of Sight and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy he might have been expected to stay poolside in LA and pick up the royalty cheques, only venturing ‘across the pond’ to see family and old friends in his native city. 

Nothing, it seems, could have been further from his mind. Today David Holmes is as vital and prominent a part of Belfast music as ever before – he can be found spinning records and occasionally pulling pints at his irregular club nights in the gritty, spit and sawdust Menagerie bar near Queen’s, and last year he released The Holy Pictures, an eclectic, multi-influenced paean to the city he loves, and contributed music to arguably the most important movie ever made about Northern Ireland, Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

Garrulous, inquisitive and fiercely intelligent Holmes is deeply proud of his work on ‘the best film I have ever worked on’ – though he still maintains the Bobby Sands biopic needed no music.

‘When I read the script I said "this does not need music, it is already in the film". In the film the emphasis was already on sound, with very little dialogue. Steve agreed, but he said "it does need something".

‘At the time I was working on a track from The Holy Pictures using a hurdy-gurdy, a Hungarian instrument most people would recognise from the intro to ‘Venus in Furs’. I fed the instrument through my computer and just used that. In the end Hunger got the music it needed – though it did not really need anything.’

His soundtrack career took off when Lynda La Plante asked to use his tracks on a TV drama, and his move to writing for the stage has been equally serendipitous. When old friends Dorman and O’Riordan said they were following up their critically acclaimed debut, Hurricane, a one-man show about the life of Alex Higgins, with a play about origins of the universe Holmes was delighted to come on board.

In Hollywood, directors sent scripts for his consideration but back in Belfast the artistic process is a little less structured. ‘Richard did not turn up with a script. We just went and got drunk. He acted the whole thing out for me and basically said “I would love you to put some music to it.”

‘I got really excited about the project. Next day Richard and Rachel came round to my studio and they started talking in more depth about the project – soberly this time,’ he explains in his broad Belfast patter.

Holmes was soon sending Dormer music and sounds, and from these exchanges a picture of what the play should sound like was built up. In the latter stages the musician worked alone and at night in his studio, finally producing a CD for the eager playwright and director.

‘Eventually they came around to my home and I played the record. They both seemed very pleased and were like "That is the sound of The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society.’’'

He is clearly enthralled by the history of modern music, and his compositions for The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society bear the stylistic imprint of Musique concrète, an avant-garde form founded in the 1940s by Pierre Schaeffer that relies on the manipulation of naturally occurring sounds.

‘Musique concrète is like the first form of sampling, using electronic music to mix human voice and other real sounds. I’ve used it here to produce a very kooky, off-kilter selection of pieces. The music barely hangs together, sort of like the characters in the play itself.’

Holmes, who recently began working with Northern Irish playwright Owen McCafferty, plans to continue exploring sound and texture on the stage, though what regular theatre goers make of his efforts remains to be seen.

‘There is one piece in The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society called ‘The End’ that is basically a cacophony of noise and interference that signifies the end of the world. Not exactly what you would call typical theatre music.’

Peter Geoghegan

The Gentlemen's Tea-Drinking Society opens Friday 6 February at Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast before touring venues across Northern Ireland.