Live4ever Interview: Slaves’ Isaac Holman on his winding road to Baby Dave solo debut

Isaac Holman (Baby Dave) by Harvey Williams-Fairley

Isaac Holman (Baby Dave) by Harvey Williams-Fairley

Spring is here and with it comes the additional responsibility for houseowners of sorting out their garden.

For circa six months the greenery would likely have been neglected and, while to some weeding and trimming is an arduous task, it does have its benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing.

“You’re just back to basics. You’re keeping yourself busy and nurturing things, back to nature. There’s so many reasons why it’s good for you. It proper sorted me out. I keep thinking that I want to get back into it somehow and do the music. I think I’m going to work out a way to do both.”

So opines Isaac Holman, lead singer of punk-rock duo Slaves and the architect behind new project Baby Dave, during an interview with Live4ever.

Shortly before the pandemic, Holman and Laurie Vincent decided, for a variety of intensely sad reasons, to put Slaves on ice for a period. Both had their reasons; in Holman’s case it was down to what amounted to a mental breakdown, a result of several years of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

“My life was crazy for a long time,” he tells us. “Apart from the touring and stuff I had no real structure. I wasn’t looking after myself, there was a bit of substance abuse going on. I just wasn’t looking after myself.”

“Bottling things up and doing stupid shit, just not feeling good about myself. I have OCD tendencies too. My whole life I’ve done weird things but never really acknowledged it.”

“When all this stuff (lockdowns) happened, it was the perfect storm and my OCD got really bad. I had this meltdown and it was completely debilitating. I definitely think my life in Slaves had a big role to play in me and my head.”

Acknowledging these problems, Holman turned to his family. “I fully lost it, I needed to be looked after for a bit. I was at home with my parents and that was when these tunes started coming out of me.”

“At that point I didn’t really know I was going to put them out, but as the repertoire of tunes grew I started to think, ‘this could be a project’, and it all started coming together.”

The tunes Holman is referring to comprise his debut album under the Baby Dave moniker. Initially written in his childhood bedroom as nothing more than a steadying exercise, Holman was buoyed by the quality of the songs written and approached a certain musical legend (and Billie Eilish’s new best friend) to expand on his ideas.

However, he was surprised by Damon Albarn’s response: “I had all these demos, or what I thought were demos, and I was looking for a producer. I thought, ‘I’ll re-record all the tunes with someone and put them out’. I messaged his manager to ask if he was up for it, half-expecting him to be like, ‘No!’.”

“But I sent him the tunes and he was up for it. I went in for a day in the studio and I was expecting us to start again and re-record everything, but he liked the sound of the tunes and said that we didn’t need to re-record them, he was just going to do his thing on top of them.”

“That was a great thing for me to hear because if it wasn’t for him saying that to me I wouldn’t have carried on with the project in the same light. If I’d have gone to a different producer and they’d have been up for re-recording everything, Baby Dave wouldn’t exist in the way it does now.”

“The DIY aspect of it has become a big part of the identity of the project now. If it wasn’t for Damon saying that to me, that wouldn’t be the case.”

The man’s so fucking clever, he hears things that other people don’t hear. It was incredible watching him work and mad to have him working on my stuff. On one hand it was really chilled and really nice, on the other hand I was pinching myself. Even now, if I’m in a shop and I hear a Blur tune or whatever I’m like, ‘hold on a minute!’. It definitely does feel quite surreal sometimes.

Patronage by one of Britain’s greatest living artists was welcome, but Holman struggled to find a title for his new outlet: “I was trying to think of a name for so long, I was stressing about it. It was keeping me up – ‘How am I going to think of a name?’.”

“I’m such a perfectionist as well, it had to be perfect. I wasn’t settling for anything. Then I was with my family and we were talking about baby names. Like how some baby names aren’t in fashion now. Like Neil or Dave. One of the members of my family was like, ‘You don’t really get baby Daves anymore’, and then as soon as they said that I was like, ‘Sweet, done. That’s it!’.”

Forthcoming album Monkey Brain is equal points tender and hilarious, with minimal guitars and less intense vocal aggression, which will therefore subvert any expectations of the frontman of Slaves, although anyone is familiar with their albums will recognise the more intimate style.

“I’ve always wanted to make music like that,” he reveals to Live4ever. “It used to come out in Slaves and they were always my favourite tunes. I love doing the louder, more aggressive stuff, but this is the music I enjoy listening to.”

“I love Baxter Dury and stuff like that. I’ve always wanted to explore that side of me. This is just what naturally came out when I started making the tunes, so I guess this is what I must have wanted to be doing!”

As for meeting any resistance, Holman is indifferent: “I’m not concerned because I know I can still do that stuff. I could easily make a punk record, and I probably will go back to that one day, but I feel like it’s so far removed for that, it doesn’t really matter. It’s totally different so I’m not really worried about that.”

The opening track, I Love Gardening, lulls the listener into a false sense of security, starting as it does with a pleasant commentary before evolving into something more intense.

“When I wasn’t doing too well mentally I got a gardening job,” Holman explains. “I couldn’t do music; I was writing a bit of music but I couldn’t do it properly.”

“While I was doing that gardening job, maybe a few months down the line, I had this realisation that I wanted to do music again. But without the gardening, I don’t know if I would have come to that realisation.”

“The gardening did sort me out massively, mentally, before that. Weirdly, gardening has been a big part of my recovery and this album, so I wanted to talk about gardening on the album somehow.”

Other tracks include the soothing ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), which is a relaxing sensation one feels when hearing something pleasant, otherwise known as a brain massage (“It’s a tune about really loving the sound of someone’s voice and how the nice sound of someone’s voice can be ASMR to you.”).

Meanwhile, the gentle strum of the title-track, which closes the album, neatly summarises the theme, as Holman explains:

“Monkey Brain was a term I heard in therapy when I was doing CBT when I wasn’t very well. My therapist was talking about my monkey brain, my chattering brain, which is jumping about. I made the tune Monkey Brain and I was trying to think of a name for the album and it made sense. It summed up the whole record for me.”

The Baby Dave project was unveiled last summer, with several videos having been released over the last nine months. Charmingly homespun, they feature Holman in a number of different-yet-familiar scenarios.

If anything, he’s more animated when speaking about the videos: “The guy who does my videos is wicked. His name is Jude Harrison, he’s just turned 18 so when we were doing those videos, he was 17!”

“He’s a local skater from Tunbridge Wells. I used to see him around all the time, filming all the other skaters, and I was saying to my girlfriend, ‘I wish I had the bollocks to go and ask him’, because I wanted to work with him.”

“Then I put something up on my social media about looking for a local videographer and thankfully he messaged me straight away. I sent him the tunes, we started working on stuff and immediately hit it off creatively.”

Indeed, one track on the album (Robert) is an ode to someone who’s clearly influenced Holman’s life positively but, when asked about the identity of Robert, he implores us to be patient:

“I can’t really say yet as I’m going put that tune out and there’s going to be a video for it which will explain it. I’ve played that tune live and a lot of people have asked me who it’s about. I’m not going to say!”

Another topic which Holman is understandably reluctant to discuss is the status of Slaves, although he is kind enough to give us some background on their current hiatus:

We just decided to park it. There was a lot going on with Laurie, and I was struggling as well. We just needed to stop. When we did stop, we both realised we wanted to do other things as well. We’re very close and it’s not over, but right now we’ve got other things we want to do. I’m not going to say too much about it, but we might be back soon.

Positive news for sure, but that’s for the future. In the here and now, one gets the impression when speaking with Holman that his experiences over the last few years have made him stronger but more sanguine.

If and when Slaves return, the duo are sure to bring their experiences on different projects with them which, for Holman, will include live shows, as he explains: “I’ve got DIY Fest, which will be good as it’s my first festival. I want to try and get busy now I’ve got the record done. I want to get the shows to a good level and tour in the summer.”

“I’ve still got the same agent as when we were doing Slaves stuff thankfully. He stuck about while I wasn’t doing much which I’m very grateful for, and he’s in the process of booking stuff for me now.”

The prospect of a second album is very much in his mind too: “I’ve been thinking about this. I think I’ve probably got half another album written. I’ll probably record stuff. I’d say I’m definitely going to do another album quite soon after this one.”

“I like the idea of banging them out now, I feel like I’m on a bit of a roll with writing and stuff. I want to keep them coming. I always like doing that with Slaves as well, be quite prolific.”

It’s incredibly heartening to see someone who has worked through their issues, looking towards a positive future, but for rock stars the temptation will always be there. Does Holman foresee any relapses when he does hit the road?

“It won’t be like it was before. I’m going to get my Dad to support me on tour. He DJs, so I’m just going to tour with him in his car and stay in nice hotels. Not get off my nut in Russia somewhere being an idiot!”

Isaac Holman releases his Baby Dave solo debut Monkey Brain this Friday, April 22nd.

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