SINGER-SONGWRITER FROM PORTLAND IS FED UP WITH BEING HAPPY
I met Holcombe Waller through our mutual friend, dancer, singer and former BUTT pin-up Stephen Galloway, with whom he was writing and recording in Amsterdam. One night Holcombe came over and we sat singing folksy songs around an imaginary fireplace. I remember him doing something by Gillian Welch, and Dolly’s Jolene, and his own beautiful songs about how the end of the world was looming and how he fucking hated Condoleeza “Condie” Rice. At the time, Holcombe had just moved from San Francisco to Portland. Now, a year and a half later, it’s morning in Amsterdam and way past midnight in Portland as we pick up our conversation.
GERT: What are you doing in the middle of the night?
HOLCOMBE: I’m doing some graphic design stuff for my sister. She started a business that makes nutrition bars for pregnant moms and I did the logo and the wrapping and stuff.
Have you tasted her bars?
Yeah, they’re good. How have you been in Amsterdam?
Good. Very busy. Work work work work work. I guess you, being independent, know that feeling. Being constantly busy with a million things and hardly having time to sit down to do what you started out to do, like writing or recording.
I’m constantly revisiting that cycle. I spend so much time promoting, booking and stuff. I do it all myself. That’s why I haven’t been playing recently — I’m trying to put all the energy that would go into booking and touring into just recording. I’m also rehearsing in this theatre piece called Tao Soup that takes up a lot of my time. It’s fun. It’s kind of theatre-meets-dance-meets-performance-art. It’s really intense. We’re rehearsing like maybe twenty hours a week. It’s a chunk of time.
Have you done theater before?
Last year I did this musical here in Portland called One. That was my whole fall, like two months of ten hours per day, six days a week. It was a cast of nineteen. It was like going to camp. I fell in love with someone in the group, I was heartbroken, and then we had a four-week run and it was all over. Well, I’m exaggerating; he didn’t really break my heart. It was more that we hooked up once and I wanted to hook up more but the show was over and he left. He wasn’t even out, so nobody knew.
What did you do today?
God, it’s been a long day; my brain is fried… I woke up, I did some flyer design for a party that I’m putting on with my friend Zebra — we’re doing a night of performances inspired by Björk and Dolly Parton. Then I hung out with a friend who just returned from Hawaii, and we went to this thing called “Last Thursday”, which is a monthly street party in this bohemian artsy strip in the former low-rent north of Portland. You know, all the hippies and hipsters and Burning Man party kids meet on the street and compare each other’s styles.
What was your style tonight?
Me? I looked pretty horrendous. I was in sweat pants and a hoodie, and this leather coat that when it started raining began disintegrating, so I turned it inside out and it has this wild psychedelic bamboo pattern on the inside.
Sounds almost fabulous.
Well, it was more like I couldn’t be bothered.
How long have you been in Portland now?
A year and a half. It’s beautiful here in the summer, that’s why I came. But in the winter it may rain for a month or more without stopping, and that’s kind of hard to bear.
Are you “seeing” somebody?
Not so much.
Portland is not a city for lovers?
Actually, since you ask, it’s kind of a small town when it comes to dating — everyone knows everyone here. Which is not to say that my time has been uneventful to say the least. Right now I’m technically single. But I’m also going through a lot of introspection about sex with men and relationships. I’ve had a string of boyfriends over the last seven or eight years. They were all wonderful, but I’m tired of repeating old patterns, tired of falling into socially imposed modes of relationships. You know, the heterosexuals have it so bad, I don’t feel like the homosexuals should play into that shit. It’s like, how do I balance my need for freedom and my belief in free love with my need to be safe and secure and stable? That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I guess I can say I have many good friends and lovers.
Can you be a bit more specific?
You know, I have to be a bit discreet about some of them, since it seems like lately everyone I’ve been sleeping with has been a big secret. But memorable lately was a hot, brief tryst with a man named Meadowdreamer, or Joe, at a Faerie Gathering last month. He worked in ecological restoration. I have to say, there’s nothing sexier than someone who puts forests and marshlands back together with his own two hands and has an encyclopedic knowledge of a whole ecological habitat. He was so passionate about the wilderness, and he had a pony-tail to boot.
Wow! If you had two minutes to convince me to come and live in Portland, what would you say?
Oh gosh. I’m not sure if I’d want to convince you to move here. I’m not sure you’d be happy here. OK, one thing about Portland is it’s changing fast, and no one here is too excited about it because it’s perfect as it is, and the fear is that it will go the way of San Francisco or Seattle and lose its charm. So in one sense, I’m afraid to convince anyone to move to Portland. But the straight answer is that Portland does almost everything right. It’s a totally progressive city, one of America’s most liberal towns with a pragmatism that might even be a bit like Amsterdam. Across the board everyone here is committed to environmentalism, sustainability, quality of life, and sexy personal priorities. On the gay tip, it’s in the water — even the straight guys will sleep with you, it’s like bi is default. The economy and job market sort of suck, apparently, but that’s part of what lends it its charm; it’s very cheap here, so there are tons of young people doing cool shit. People are friendly and open minded, and there isn’t quite the prison of hipster fascism that descends around all the quality work like in New York, San Francisco, LA. In other words, yes, Portland is fabulous.
Are you still into yoga?
Not at all.
You’re kidding! You stopped doing yoga?
You know, I had to stop. I injured my spine. Actually, I injured my spine in Amsterdam on the hard floor of that hotel where I stayed and I basically couldn’t do upward dog anymore, which is one of the more integral movements of Ashtanga yoga, so I had to quit. And, honestly, it’s been really great. I’ve learned a lot doing yoga and I’ve learned a lot quitting it.
Really? You hardly ever hear of the bad sides of yoga; you only hear of people who do it and are completely into it and are always trying to convince other people to do yoga too.
I think people are always convincing other people to do it because we increasingly live in a global American culture where everything is about doing, doing, doing. And so a lot of people approach yoga like they approach their fucking gym membership. It’s one more thing they do to prove themselves and change themselves. “I’m doing it, it’s great, you should do it too!” But just the fact that I stopped has been a great learning experience. I had to let go of a lot of highs that I got out of doing yoga every morning. I had to let go of a lot of the positive factors that it brought to my life. Does that make sense?
You were fed up with being a happy guy?
Well, I think there’s different ways of being happy, and if doing yoga is what makes you happy, that’s great. And maybe just waking up and being mindful of the things you do makes you happy.
Right. Is there a typical kitchen in Portland or a special local dish that you recommend?
A kitchen? Like, you mean, a cuisine? You know, Portland is the kind of city where absolutely every single restaurant has a vegan or vegetarian menu. I don’t know if you would call that a cuisine but it’s definitely a common thing here. Also they love their fried food. If you really want to know about the cuisine you should call my friend Michael Hebberoy. He can talk for an hour straight about the local cuisine and it’ll all be erudite and intelligent and wittily put.
Are you a good cook?
I used to be a total food snob, but since I’ve been in Portland I haven’t really been dining out or anything and I’ve been cooking and eating a lot at home. My favorite restaurant is my local health food store — this guy has this kick-ass organic salad bar and sells whacky old-fashioned 70s vegetarian dishes, like tofu walnut balls.
Tofu walnut balls? How are they? I hope they’re spicy. You have to be really creative with tofu or it’s a total bore.
Yeah, well personally I can’t stand tofu. I’m more a tempeh kind of guy.
Are you a vegan?
No. I used to be a raw-foodist for two years.
What’s that? Nothing cooked, boiled, steamed or fried?
Yeah, everything you eat is raw.
I gave that up and I’m decidedly not a vegetarian or vegan anymore. But I don’t eat a lot of meat.
What’s the connection between your name and Truman Capote.
Well, is there a connection? You mean that In Cold Blood happened in Holcomb, Wyoming? That’s Holcomb without an e. Mine’s with an e.
How are your new songs coming together? Is it, like, one new song per week and an major struggle?
Yeah, god, it’s sort of an ongoing saga. I’ve been working on it for quite some time, it basically became two albums and I can’t decide which one to focus on. One’s very atmospheric and folk-oriented; the other is all about me and my new Hammond organ and it’s more of a psychedelic thing. I have more than an album’s worth of songs, but I’m just really picky about which direction it takes.
Why not turn it into one amazing mix of musical directions?
That’s sort of what I did with my last album, Trouble Times — the acoustic stuff and this electronic thing. We’ll see. You know, being thirty and a totally independent artist, the deadline is basically when it’s fucking great and finished. I’m hoping to have something done in a month or two.
Have you been talking to our dear friend Stephen Galloway recently?
In fact he called me the other day, asking if I’d work on some tracks with him. I hope it’ll happen. With Miss Galloway you never know. He’s a fabulous and wonderful and delightful mystery. I think he should incorporate his dance stuff in his music. I think music and dance should intermingle more in general. To create music out of a process of choreography would be really interesting.
That’s a great idea. I remember going to a Yoko Ono concert here in Amsterdam and halfway through she did this pantomime act. It was both bizarre and fantastic.
I love that. It breaks out of these fucking norms and expectations. Music is such a bore sometimes. You go to these clubs and people do what you think they’re going to do.
Are you dolling up your live shows with a bit of theater or a little dance routine?
Well, recently I’ve basically been performing solo, me and my acoustic guitar, and frankly, it’s a total bore. I don’t know; people seem to enjoy it but I’m getting tired of having just this one dynamic. I want to definitely build up something new here in Portland. There’s so many great performers and musicians in town that I’d like to work with. The theater work has completely opened my mind to new possibilities.
Do you know Sufjan Stevens? I think he has an intriguing mix of performing and singing and doing dress changes. His shows are wildly entertaining. He’s got good songs, a great voice and he’s amazingly cute too.
I haven’t seen him play. What I’m saying is, I’m totally inspired to push the boundaries of what I’m doing. But you know, frankly, most of my inclinations in that direction are totally activist-oriented. They’re completely about political performance and politically oriented music and performance. I’m kind of obsessed with what’s going on politically in this country and in the world. Like, last fall my friend put on sort of a drag show, and one of the acts was me dressed up as a Saudi princess in full burka, and he was dressed up like Laura Bush, and together we sang It’s Raining Men by the Weather Girls, with this video montage of the Twin Towers exploding behind us and body parts flying onto the stage.
…and important! The whole 9-11 thing in this country has everyone trapped in this post-traumatic stress syndrome. If you just show a picture of the Twin Towers in a room full of noisy people everyone will literally fall to a silent hush — it’s freaky. Everyone needs to get over it and get on, ’cause the bullshit that the government has been enacting in the name of 9-11 is just egregious and destructive. I’m so fucking sick of this fucking thing of everybody being scared. That bullshit is taking over my approach to music. I’m really tired of going to clubs and seeing people singing these fucking songs and this whole theme of feeling good. I’m just tired of sentimental music and a lot of stuff. Like, I know that Sufjan is really fabulous, but I’m really tired of hipster fascists. Fuck the hipster fascists! The shit that’s going on in the world is real, and important, and integral to our lives and our future. And it’s not like it’s uncool to admit that. I think it’s fucking really cool to be a revolutionary and an activist, and it’s really dull to have some sort of an a-symmetrical haircut and be obsessed about what type of jeans you’re wearing.
Makes sense. Could you see yourself as a politician?
(laughs) Not after this interview! We’ll see. It really depends on what pictures of me you’ll publish… But actually, you know, I think it’s important to be outspoken about sex and sexuality and all those things. It’s one of the things Julian Beck who founded The Living Theatre always said: the social order is constructed on our private erotic structures. Like, it starts in the home and then goes from there. So if our sexuality is rigid and traditional, then our society will be built on that rigid, conservative structure. And that’s just how it is here in the States. You know, with the Republicans, no one is fucking getting any dick. Condie has been a fucking virgin since, I don’t know, probably college, when she experimented with weed and went home with someone accidentally, and, like, you know… If I ever were to become a politician I’d be proud to say that I was in BUTT magazine.
And we haven’t even properly talked about sex.
That’s right. I love talking about sex, but I’m shy at the same time. And, like I said, lately everyone I’ve been sleeping with has been a bit of a secret and even my good friends don’t know about it. That’s the thing about living in a small town… I’ve been keeping it to myself. A lot of it goes into my new songwriting, so it might be interesting for you to hear my new album.
It’s the slutty album?
(laughs) You know, it’s probably going to be much more intellectual and boring than that! I wish I could be the male Peaches.
Don’t hold back, Holcombe.
Seriously, we’ll see what happens. I’m at a point where I’ll do anything that scares me. That’s what I’ve learned from acting.