by Rob Mair
In Oliver Stone’s gladiatorial American football drama ‘Any Given Sunday’, its most iconic scene sees Al Pacino’s bilious head coach Tony D’Amato bring the heavy-hitting sport of gridiron down to a battle of inches – the fine margins and small battles that all add up to victory.
Sat around a kitchen table on a video call to the trio that makes up Derby’s Holding Patterns, it’s not hard to be reminded of this rousing team talk as they laugh, joke and swear their way through a recap of the past few years. “On this team, we fight for that inch,” says Pacino in his rallying call – and it’s a reflection of the trials and tribulations faced by Jim Cork, Oli Craven and Ian Draper to get to this point, as they discuss the collapse of the revered Crash of Rhinos, the need to rebuild friendships, and starting again from scratch.
First though, to fully understand the ties that bind Holding Patterns together, you have to go back – way back – to the turn of the century.
The friends have known each other since their college days, making music together, on and off, for some 18 years, through projects like The Little Explorer, Penny Arcade and most notably The Jesus Years, where all three featured at the same time. They would be joined by Paul Beal (also of The Little Explorer and The Jesus Years) and Biff Birkin (who had collaborated with both The Jesus Years and The Little Explorer) for Crash of Rhinos, arguably one of the UK’s most influential indie acts of the last decade.
“You must be really confused,” deadpans Draper, after the full convoluted history is teased out, including stories of aborted projects that featured Lightyear’s Chas Palmer-Williams, and of shared houses where all five members of Crash of Rhinos would live together.
While The Little Explorer and The Jesus Years enjoyed modest underground success in the UK, Crash of Rhinos could’ve gone much further – and indeed promised to – off the back of debut full-length, 2011’s critically-acclaimed Distal.
But, with Crash of Rhinos starting to seriously take off, the pressure told during the making of LP2, Knots. The band had gone to Liverpool to record, spending a fortnight in Whitewood Studios. But, with Jim dealing with some personal issues, the group found the whole situation testing.
“I think the balance was all a bit out of sync,” confirms Craven. “That’s no disrespect to anyone else involved, but because Jim was going through so much stuff at the time and then wasn’t around as much, it threw me off a bit. Also, as a drummer, I like following the guitar more than I do bass [Crash, of course, were known for having two bassists], so that was weird as we weren’t on the same page or in the same room.”
The band limped on until 2014 before calling it quits – even if they could never quite put Crash of Rhinos to bed permanently. “lt ended amicably,” says Cork. “We all got together in the pub and had a big chat about it. I remember that night well – it was a horrible night. We all laid our cards on the table. But long story short, it was just the same shit that happens with every band eventually. You’re in each other’s shit all the time.
“By that point, we were just fucking sick of each other,” he laughs. “We’d all taken different paths and made different career choices… It became really stressful. We’d be butting heads about stupid shit that we shouldn’t have been butting heads about. Oli and I – we barely talked for a year and a half. We were the two that were most sick of each other’s shit.”
“Even though it ended, I think for all five of us, no-one really wanted to let it go,” counters Craven. “So even though no-one spoke for ages, and there was no jamming and no gigs, there was no communication that it was over. There was no last gig or anything. I think, because it always felt unfinished, there was no definite end point to it.”
Which, appropriately enough, brings us to the monolithic Endless, and the birth of Holding Patterns. Following a reconciliation over a few beers between Craven and Cork, the initial talk was about getting Crash of Rhinos back together – something that did, at one point, look a possibility, with both Beal and Biff in on initial reformation discussions. At one point, Biff was even tentatively on board and had brought guitar parts into a practice, before deciding such commitment would be hard to maintain in the long term.
Yet Holding Patterns exists as its own beast, even though the through-line from the previous acts is clear to see. What was much harder for the trio was finding a way to make the noise they wanted with two fewer people in the room.
Initially, the group started to write using loops and effects but found the focus needed to make the most out of the extra equipment was throwing off their spontaneity. “There are times with Crash, Explorer and Jesus Years where it sounds like it’s going out of time – but that’s just the energy we’re playing with,” says Cork. “But with these loops, we were constantly worried about the precision.”
Such challenges meant they were unable to nail any of the songs and this, in turn, was putting a strain on their recently rebuilt relationships. “We’ve kind of learned how not to piss each other off,” says Cork. “If we were the same people going through the shit we did with Holding Patterns during the last two years of Crash, I think our relationships would have gotten really sour. We’ve learnt that it’s okay to get frustrated, but just don’t take it out on each other. Be frustrated about what’s happening.”
Then, after a stressful jam, they hit a wall – literally – with Craven throwing his drumsticks in a pique of frustration. Urging his bandmates to rip out the loops and take everything back to the bare bones, they had an epiphany. Focusing on just a couple of songs, they were able to drive through and hit the sound they were going for.
Endless is the product of this endeavour, with each of the songs getting rewritten at least twice, in some cases from the bottom up, and recorded on three separate occasions. Standing at nearly an hour long, with serpentine structures and labyrinthine textures, it’s easy to see Holding Patterns’ sense of pride and satisfaction at this achievement considering the obstacles they’ve faced. They’ve had to fight for every single second on Endless, but there’s no doubt the struggle was worth it.
Naturally, some moments were more challenging than others. One song in particular was a real nightmare – the massive slab of indie-rock that is ‘House Fire’. Running close to eight-minutes long, it’s post-rock in scope but hardcore in intensity. “It took fucking ages to write, and that went through loads of edits – even without going back into the whole loops thing,” says Craven. “And that’s not necessarily because of the length – although that maybe had something to do with it – but because the heavy parts need to come in at the right time, and it also needed time to breathe enough.”
Indeed, it also shows how the group deal with problem-solving, thanks to help from producer Andy Hawkins and, bizarrely, some fruit…
“There’s a bit where it drops down to be really quiet,” says Cork, “and I’d always played it by smacking the guitar strings. We were doing it in the studio, and it was sounding a bit clumsy. And Andy turned around to me and just handed me this banana. I was like ‘what the fuck am I supposed to do with that?’ He told me to play it with a banana and I was like ‘fuck off’.
“Anyway, I started playing it with this banana and was like ‘this is fucking perfect!’ It was just the right amount of control and bounce. I got through two bananas,” he laughs.
The group displayed a similarly creative approach when it came to singing and writing the lyrics for Endless. One of the most striking aspects of the album – beyond its run time – is how the three distinct voices work together, sometimes overlapping, sometimes working in harmony. With Crash of Rhinos, Cork, Draper and Craven took more of a backseat to the lyrics, with Biff taking up the heavy lifting. Here, it’s much more collaborative. Indeed, the process sounds something of a jigsaw puzzle, yet the results are spectacular.
“Doing that was a massive learning curve – but it was a lot of fun,” says Craven. “We put all the lyrics on scraps of paper and threw them into a pile in the practice room floor, and had the demos coming out of the PA and we were just taking it in turns to try the lyrics. So, even if someone had written a part, they’re not necessarily the person who sings it on the record.
“We definitely all have a tendency to write vocal parts that we can’t sing ourselves,” jokes Cork. “For me, that’s the hardest part. I get super insecure about writing lyrics. I’m always saying ‘man, I fucking hate this, this is really stressful,’ whereas these guys tend to send lyrics for entire songs around while I’m scratching my head for half a verse.”
The results make for a stellar debut, even if the musical landscape of 2019 is vastly different from the DIY scene in which Crash of Rhinos found themselves in at the start of the decade. Even for a band like Holding Patterns – coming with the pedigree of their previous bands – there were concerns as to if they would find an audience, whereas before, they found themselves swept up with the emo revival tag.
“We had a few conversations where we thought ‘is anyone gonna give a fuck about this?’” says Cork.
But if the response to Endless is anything to go by, people really do seem to give a fuck. Sure, there’s still that emo sound which many gravitated towards with Crash of Rhinos – this is, after all, passionate music played by intelligent people – but there are just as many nods to classic noughties British indie-rock acts like Stapleton, Seafood and Aereogramme than there are to modern emo.
Even then, Draper will acknowledge that they never really felt part of that whole emo scene. In that respect, Endless is in no way beholden to the greats of the so-called emo revival – even though the group acknowledges being blown away by early records by Snowing, Algernon Cadwallader and Get Bent.
“The emo revival thing got on my nerves a little bit,” says Cork. “That type of music never went away – it was always there. But we played in bands all through that time. The term emo, whether you like it or not, you’re always gonna see interesting guitar bands with heart.
“So when this whole revival thing was going on, it was like something people were trying to latch onto. When Crash was around, we could have really tried to latch onto that hard… But it never felt right. Just play your fucking songs and be yourself, and if you like doing it, that’s all that matters.”
There’s the briefest of pauses. “Basically we’re just a bunch of miserable bastards” says Cork, to laughter.
They may be miserable – or at the very least self-effacing enough to laugh at their own grumpiness – but after two decades they’ve earned every right to cast an eye over the state of the industry. Their story of friendship, intertwining histories and overlapping narratives is refreshing in a business that is always looking for the next big thing before it moves on to pastures new. That they’ve achieved all this whilst by maintaining a fiercely DIY ethic is a testament to the bands’ ethos.
“Before you go, can I ask you a question?” asks Draper seriously. “Is that a Norwich City shirt hanging up behind you?” “It is,” I reply (for clarity, I have a signed and framed Norwich City shirt from the 2004/05 Premier League season hanging up on my wall – a discarded bit of set dressing from a short-lived YouTube football channel).
“I’m a Notts County fan,” (for any non-football fans, Notts County have just been relegated from the football league for the first time in their history, losing their status as the oldest professional club in the country).
“Now you know where all the dark shit on the album comes from,” he laughs.
It’s further proof that the wins, no matter how small, should be celebrated. There’s no doubt Endless is one such triumph, but it’s also clear they had to run the hard yards and battle for every inch to achieve it.