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The “Or Die Trying Tour,” Pt. 2: Interview with Mike Garmany of The Holdup

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif – Mike Garmany’s just hit the lottery. Well, sort of.

It’s only a few hours before the final show of The Holdup’s “Or Die Trying Tour,” and himself and drummer Eric Bumb have just finished feeding a small sheaf of crumpled one-dollar bills into a brightly lit CVS scratch-off kiosk. Elsewhere in the city, in the South of Market district, fans are already lined up around the block to see the group perform live at Slim’s, the San Francisco club founded back in the 80s by R&B veteran Boz Scaggs. But here in a nearly empty convenient store, on a Saturday night, the two bandmates are hunched over a countertop, scratching away carefully at the graphic-illustrated paper slips. Mike’s head suddenly snaps up. “I won stuff,” he announces, strolling across to the cashier and pointing out the few winning boxes on the glossy lottery card. A good omen, at the very least.

Though it might not be immediately apparent given the nonchalance with which they approach their live shows, The Holdup is shifting, indefinitely, into high gear. Having already released two singles this month alone (along with a campy music video for the second), Mr. Garmany took to social media early in October to unveil an ambitious release strategy: a new song every two weeks, ad infinitum. And although his work has been in a state of evolution for years, ever since the Rootfire-assisted Leaves in the Pool, it seems only recently that the music itself has begun to reflect his own interests. This last year’s cuts (see: “Closet’s All Black,” “Acting Up,” and “That’s Okay”), for example, are steeped in a decidedly slicker R&B vein, with programmed trap hi-hats, 808 bass, and hooks that sneak up on you with their sheer earworm catchiness.

Still, the slew of singles, all of which he wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered at his home in LA, will lead him into excitingly unfamiliar territory. When I ask if he was ever wary of changing up the sound, he’s honest about his initial uncertainty. “I’m surprised, actually—I thought there’d be a lot more pushback,” he says. “We just put out that song ‘That’s Okay,’ and that’s a completely R&B / hip-hop song. There’s guitar in it too, of course, but I was still nervous.”

Now seated on an olive leather couch in one of the dressing rooms at Slim’s, there’s little evidence of that unease. Wearing a camouflage Breezy Excursion hoodie, a bronze green French Connection UK flight bag, and one of The Holdup’s own diamond logo snapbacks, he seems eager to discuss the “new sound,” as it were—perhaps suspiciously so for someone who recently penned the lyric, “No more fuckin’ interviews unless they’re gonna pay me / cause I can’t tell the truth or everyone I love will hate me.” As heavy bass tones from former Aer frontman Carter Reeves’ party-oriented set filtered downstairs, rattling the door that separated us from the rest of the backstage catacombs, our conversation ran the gamut between the unflinching art form of comedy, the importance of effortless cool, and the future of The Holdup itself. Dive in.

 


 

Rootfire: The Holdup has been releasing a steady stream of new music lately, and you mentioned a pretty ambitious plan to release a lot in the coming months. Tell me about the new music, the new sound, and this release strategy.

Mike Garmany: Very excited about the method of delivery and the new music itself, because releasing songs every two weeks, it’s constant interaction. Interacting with the fanbase on a constant basis, that’s how I really get off. With something every two weeks, I’m constantly busy. Plus by the time you’re done writing, recording, mixing, and mastering a whole album . . . it doesn’t make any sense—it’s just gibberish. You’ve heard it too much. But when you release a song and you get to upload it that day, and it comes out two weeks later? That’s amazing. You get to be excited about it with the fans.

 

So you’re aiming to hit quality and quantity at the same time.

Yes! And in fact, [rapper] Russ said that same thing, in a quote. People are always like, “It’s quality or quantity, you gotta choose one or the other,” and he’s like, “Why the fuck can’t you have both? Our mission is to prove you can do both.” I was like, “Yes! That’s it!”

 

Speaking of which, I hear a lot of a hip-hop/rap and R&B sound in your more recent music. Do you have any specific influences or does that just come from whatever music you’re listening to at the time?

I think when I was 18 or 19 and Drake first started getting popular, he was the one that really made me realize that it was not only acceptable but actually the new cool thing to let everyone see behind the curtain. Instead of rapping about having millions of dollars and women and bottles, he was talking about how he was heartbroken over girls, talking about how he had fake people around him all the time. It was a new perspective, and it seemed more real. It wasn’t just the same old success and bravado and confidence all the time, because he was also about insecurity and showing that. So he was an inspiration that way.

 

Don’t take this the wrong way but when I introduce your music to people for the first time, sometimes I tell them that you’re almost like the “Drake of pop reggae music.”

Fuck yeah! [Laughs] I used to try to hide from the Drake thing, because I was so into Drake that I didn’t want people to think that I wanted to be Drake. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how huge of an influence his music’s been. He really changed the way I looked at music. That whole approach of being honest and talking about things, as opposed to being super cocky . . . he did it in a cool way, and I identified with that. I think part of the reason I’ve wanted to be cool my whole life is because I’ve always been hyper aware of that innate insecurity that a lot of people have, and I just didn’t like that. When I look at Drake, I see an insecure person who has confidence. I see a dude who kind of learned what I learned, like, how to be cool.

It’s interesting though that even as you’ve begun to focus more on this R&B and pop direction, with more electronic elements in the sound, in the music you can also hear a renewed interest in just playing the guitar.

I think that I’ve done the guitar thing, and I’ve proven enough to myself that I can do that. In the past, I’ve always been too timid to commit to the hip-hop & R&B-oriented sound, so now that’s kind of another thing to prove to myself that I can do: a full-on R&B and hip-hop song, no compromising, and sound authentic, and just deliver a dope song.

 

Coming from the East Coast, I’ve always thought of The Holdup’s music as very representative of California, and more recently even the city of LA, specifically. Do you think living in LA the past three years has changed the way you look at things?

With LA, maybe in a more subtle way, I think. With California, definitely. I can’t really define in any specific terms exactly how California has influenced the music, but I know it has: It’s influenced who I am. I love California now more than I ever did in the past.

I think, as corny as it sounds, that it’s part of my routine, especially when I’m not on tour. I write journal and I’ll do specific exercises in the morning, and in my journal at the top, I’ll write 10 things I’m grateful for, every day. A lot of the time, because I do it after I run, common things will pop up, and this sounds so hippy, but I’ll say something like, “I’m so grateful for the grass that I’m sitting on, and then the wind, and then the sun, and seeing the palm trees.” So top three are usually like: grass, breeze, California. And after doing that for so many days in a row, you start to figure out what you’re really grateful for, and California is always right up there at the top.

Your personal branding—everything from the album artworks, to the style of photos & videos on your social media feed, to this consistent, calculated release strategy—has been especially on-point in the last year. How did you arrive at a place where you have The Holdup’s aesthetic so clearly defined?

It was a couple things. One, I’ve always known that branding and the aesthetic was important to me, but I think for a long time I was surrounded by people who didn’t care about that stuff as much as I did, so I felt invalidated. I felt like people were pushing me to believe it wasn’t as important as I thought it was, and for some reason it took me a long time to bring it back around, to realize that yes, it’s definitely as important as I thought it was. I care about it, and I didn’t need other people to back me up on that.

Recently, everything’s been on me, and it’s just been motivation to get everything in line and in motion. I just realized I needed to put as much of me into it as I could, and I couldn’t shrug off any of the things that were important to me. Especially in terms of aesthetic and branding, I was like, “No, I’m doing it to the fullest.”

 

In the era of technology we live in, it’s possible people are even seeing those Instagram posts, captions, and album artworks first, before they hear the music, so aesthetic and branding seems more crucial than ever. I always think back to that scene in Jobs, where Ashton Kutcher’s character fires the one engineer because he doesn’t think the font selection piece of Apple’s word processor is important.

When I read the Steve Jobs book, and I’m sure a million people said this, but I was like, “Oh my God, I totally identify with Steve Jobs.” It’s probably become pretty cliché to say something like that now, but I get it, man. He was all about quality. I watched an interview where he was talking about Microsoft, and he said something like, “The thing about them, is that they make a good product, but they have no fuckin’ taste.” He said that, in an interview, and it rang so true to me. That taste is so important. I don’t think it’s good or bad, necessarily. I think you either have it or you don’t.

 

Does that manifest in your music as well?

Yeah I think that’s made me want to always make cool shit. That’s why I like hip-hop more than anything else—because it’s cool, it has edge. There are some other genres, like a lot of indie rock . . . I like indie rock, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of the time they’re not fucking cool. It’s just about the music, which is great, but I don’t like that. I love The Strokes because Julian Casablancas is fucking cool. And The Strokes are cool. They dress cool. They act cool. I need a little bit of that edge. That’s why I make music like that. That’s why there’s that hip-hop influence, with bravado.

For the new songs coming out, would you say there’s any kind of guiding theme, or essence to the music that holds it all together?

I think my new mission is to be the most authentic me I can be, because even though I’ve always been transparent and honest about things in my life, it’s been more filtered into the vein of just being cool. I’m more confident now, so it’s more important to help people, and be relatable. I know it feels good to relate to people in music, but I mean really try to help people through their pain. I used to be too cynical to think that that was something I could make part of my mission. I used to think it was a little egotistical, but it just occurred to me that because I’ve been through my own pain, if I talk about that, it could help people through problems, insecurities, or whatever it is. I think that’s important, that if I have a platform to do that I absolutely should do that. So that’s more important to me now than ever. But, I’ll never lose the fun part. I’m always gonna keep it fun, like, let’s have a good time.

 

I actually think a lot of people connect with The Holdup because there’s an honesty and vulnerability in the music that’s mixed with that edge, an attitude slick enough to make you feel like you’re slouched up against a wall under some neon lights somewhere. It’s how I imagine crazy or strange nights out in LA.

Right, and that’s why I love LA so much. LA is the pinnacle of good & evil. There’s both. There’s a lot of real spirituality, open-mindedness, love and progressive momentum there, but then there’s also complete self-centeredness, gluttony, etc. Sometimes it feels like LA is all about success, and it’s slimy and there are a lot of liars and fake stuff. It’s both. But LA’s so exciting for that reason.

 

You seem focused, though.

For me, yeah, because I think I got all my partying out when I was younger. I started really young, and luckily I never went off the rails.

 

“The Drugs” is still a flagship song for you, though, a fan favorite at the very least.

It’s definitely bittersweet. It’s so trippy, too, because I did not expect that to happen when I wrote that song. I didn’t know it was going to get that big. Actually didn’t even know it was as big as it was until years later. But that song is weird for me because I don’t feel like I conveyed my message properly, which is a blessing and a curse.

What was the message you were trying to convey?

Drugs are not great. They can be fun, to be fair, but I saw a lot of bad stuff happen because of drugs, and I talked about it in the song, but it still just sounds like it’s celebrating drugs rather than having a more nuanced perspective.

 

We talked about [Kendrick Lamar’s] “Swimming Pools” yesterday.

Right! “Swimming Pools” sounds like a party song, but it’s really about alcoholism.

I always wonder how many people actually get it, about “The Drugs.” So many recovering drug addicts come up to me and tell me how much they appreciate that song, but then on the other hand, people will just say something like, “‘The Drugs’ is the shit, dude! That’s my party anthem!”

It’s trippy that it can be both things at the same time. It’s also weird that Mac Miller posted that video on his Most Dope blog, years ago. I don’t know who ran the Most Dope blog, but they posted the video back when it was a big thing.

 

That must’ve been huge. I’ve always felt like a lot of people my age, on the East Coast at least, we all grew up with Mac Miller, not just his music, but also his sense of humor, that goofiness and positivity. We took a lot from that over the years.

I remember when he blew up. My first manager was all about him, and I resisted for a long time. It took me until that mixtape Macadelic. When that mixtape came out I burned it to the ground listening to it so much. I wasn’t a Mac Miller fan up until that moment, but when it came out I was like, “This is fucking amazing.” That’s my favorite body of work he’s ever released.

 

It’s interesting because I see parallels in your work ethic, in terms of songwriting. He was well known for moving out to LA, holing up in his studio, and just writing and producing music. He had hundreds of songs and whole albums that will probably never see the light of day.

RIP. That guy’s a legend. I think I learned so much more about who he was after he died, though. I always liked him, cause he was a little weird, but then after he died—I mean, I didn’t realize he was that afflicted, you know?

I didn’t want to say this publicly, because I didn’t want to seem like one of those people using his death as a way to get attention, but he had always been a goal of mine. I always wanted to get him on a record. That was a reasonable, realistic dream for me, partly because he posted my song on his blog. I don’t know him, never met him, but I felt like we would vibe. I could get Mac Miller on a track and it’d be dope and a good fit. It didn’t even occur to me before a couple days ago, I was like, “Oh, fuck.” It wasn’t enough of a goal that I thought about it all the time, or wrote it down, but it occurred to me several times.

In an ideal situation for The Holdup, where would the music live? In other words, if you had a dream for the existence of The Holdup that you could manifest into a reality right now, what would it look like?

Just to be completely independent. It’s hard, because I don’t look at myself as a reggae artist, but I also don’t look at myself as like part of that hip-hop world. This is messed up, but I think I identify with comedians more than I do with musicians, and it’s really hard for me to pick a world within music. It’s hard for me to answer the question of where I feel comfortable. I’ve always wanted to be accepted in the hip-hop and R&B community, for sure, but I have a feeling that I’d feel just as alien there. But every time, I think about hanging out with comedians, that feels like it’d be my home. That’s who I want to hang out with. That’s who I want to talk to. That’s who I relate to.

I’m honestly probably more a fan of comedy than music. And this is kinda fucked up, and it’s not entirely accurate, because I just feel this statement more than I think it’s true, but I think that comedy is a truer art than music. Okay this is what I should say: comedy’s authenticity has been more resilient to the commercialization of comedy than music has.

 

What’s on the cards for The Holdup for the rest of 2018? You mentioned you have a video shoot coming up? 

Yes! That’s another thing, for me, by the way: a dream would be to have the budget to do a music video for every song. Release a song every two weeks and also a music video. I love music videos, but they’re just really hard to do without a big budget, and without the people who know how to do them, and those people cost a lot to work with.

 

Do you think putting out a song every two weeks is a way to get through your being overly critical of your own work, a way to overcome that and push through it?

I think it’s part of my gift, or whatever. It’s hard to say I have a gift, but at the same time I think the reason that anything I put out is good is because I’m overly critical. I’m unimpressed by just about everything, so when I actually like something, I know it’s good. These songs that I put out, it’s not easy. I don’t have this process down to a science, and to be honest, it’s not fun for me. [Guitarist Grant Averill] has a great time writing songs, because he’s just amazing—it just pours out of him. But for me, it is painful when I write a song. Every single time, it’s an uphill battle. But I’m just good at it, I guess. So I keep doing it. To keep working. And it pays the fucking bills. And it makes me realize my potential as a human being.

 


 

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Gabriel is a writer/photographer from North Beach, New Jersey. He studied abroad at the University of New South Wales in Sydney during the Spring of his junior year at Georgetown and hasn't shut up about it since. He thinks 'Unlock the Swag' by Rae Sremmurd is the single greatest song ever recorded and listens to it several times a day. Ask him about his time on tour with Lil Pump.