Randy Holden is a guitar virtuoso who played a big part in several bands, including Blue Cheer, building up his own songwriting alongside live performance, until the creation of his first solo group Population II, and the recording of what became a very embattled self-titled album in 1970. Holden’s label refused to release the album on a schedule and also refused to let Holden sign with any other label while they deliberated about it over a period of years. The album eventually made its way into the world via bootlegs and was rightly hailed as a major development in guitar-driven Heavy Music. It has since been credited as the earliest demonstration of Doom Metal traits. Population II was remastered and issued by RidingEasy Records in 2020, and on July 1st, 2022, its remarkable sequel, Population III will also be made public.
Population III has its own very specific story. While Randy Holden has continued to record and release music (after departing from music for some time due to the events surrounding Population II), ten years ago Randy Pratt of Cactus suggested that he and Holden might work on a sequel to Population II based on some bass and drum ideas he had in the same mood, rather than in the same style. Holden was inspired by these ideas and the album was written and recorded. Then another major roadblock came up which caused Holden to shelve the project. Having revisited the raw files after ten years, he found the music of Population III compelling enough to release via RidingEasy Records.
I spoke with Randy Holden about his experiences creating both the original album and its sequel, as well as his creative methods in terms of songwriting. His methods go a long way toward explaining the unique freshness and energy of his music, but don’t dispel the mysteries of his creative process.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that the recordings on Population III were made a number of years ago. What made this a good time to release them?
Randy Holden: They were recorded about ten years ago and I had a problem with Pro Tools. I was upgrading that and my studio interface hardware at the same time. The people who were selling me Pro Tools assured me that Pro Tools 10 was compatible with Pro Tools 12. I already had the songs mixed down, but needed to do a little more work on them. I got all this gear, but it turned out that Pro Tools 12 was not compatible at all. That was devastating.
Pro Tools took away all the plugins I had used, and you had to buy all new ones, but the new ones were not up to the same quality. It was a horrible business move for them, because they wiped out years of work. I got so depressed about it that I didn’t want to reopen my studio for ten years. I didn’t want to remix all the materials that I’d already done. The mixes I had were very good, so I was so upset. I just said, “Stuff it!” I didn’t know what to do.
HMS: It’s a horrible story. Now I’m wondering how many other musicians got caught in the same situation and lost tons of work.
RH: A lot of people got hung out to dry by what Pro Tools did. But one day I decided to turn on the studio and listen to the songs to see what they had sounded like. Though I wasn’t listening to the mixes that I had done, since most of that was lost, I was delightfully surprised that I really liked what we had done. Then I felt that it was stupid to sit on it and that I should put it out. I ran it by Daniel [Hall] at RidingEasy Records and he liked the album, too. It sounded very artistic to me despite having lost the mixes. The artistry of it made me excited about it.
I told the other people, like Randy Pratt, about it, and he got all excited too. He had initiated this project, actually. He always had this concept that I should do a follow-up album to Population II. He said that he had a lot of bass and drum tracks and that I could use any of them I wanted if I liked them. We worked from there. I liked what I heard a lot and it was inspiring to write music to those tracks. That’s where the album came from, and it’s a follow-up even though it’s so many years later. Now we have an album that I’m very happy with.
HMS: It’s an amazing story and the album sounds wonderful. Was Population II changed at all when it was rereleased in 2020 by RidingEasy Records?
RH: It was remastered, and Daniel also had some remastering done to it, and it turned out really good. I was happy with it since it was the best version that I had heard since it was recorded. All the original mixes had been lost in the fire at Universal.
HMS: That was such a widespread destruction of audio and video. I’m so glad that both albums have survived. How do you feel about the relationship between the two albums when you hear them together?
RH: I’ve found that the music for Population III is like nothing I’ve ever heard or done before, but it befittingly goes along with Population II. That’s my take on it.
HMS: I feel like I can see a lot of developments and differences, too, so I was wondering about that. You have made and released several albums since Population II, and presumably those are developments in your exploration as an artist.
RH: Very much so.
HMS: How do you then work on something like Population III? Did you feel that you had to go back to an earlier mindset, or did Randy’s ideas help kick things into a new direction?
RH: They did. I think that Randy really understood Population II and it was his idea to do a follow-up. The material that he submitted to me was the sort of music that would go with that feeling, I think, although it was completely different.
HMS: So the mood and the feeling were the most important thing?
RH: That’s right. That’s what most of my music is based on anyway, a mood or a feeling. If there had been a follow-up made back in the day, this would have characterized the direction it would have seemed likely to go. That’s my sense of it. It astonishes me that it is such a different kind of music from anything I’ve heard.
HMS: I feel like it’s different from anything that I’ve heard, too. One of the things that stands out that may seem basic, but is a big deal these days, is that it feels fresher and more emotionally engaging than a lot of music I come across. I’m not sure how you all accomplished that, except maybe stopping yourselves from over-Producing it.
RH: I’m kind of a minimalist in that regard. I like a live feeling and sound to my recordings, so I try to do as little extra as possible. I go with the bare guts of the emotion of the song.
HMS: When listening to Population III, I did feel like I was encountering the songs live. Did you capture it live?
RH: We all played together in one room, which is basically how I always record, anyhow. There’s very little bleed-over. I’ve always come from the school of thought that whatever a band sounds like live, that’s how it should sound on a recording. Back in the day, that’s just what you naturally did. I was doing music when there were only two tracks! I still don’t need a lot of tracks to record with.
HMS: That’s getting rarer, though some bands are rediscovering it. When you recorded Population II originally, were you intending to tour it?
RH: Oh, definitely. We rehearsed endlessly for a year, maybe 10 hours a day, prepping it for the live stage. Unfortunately, we just got crushed by a god-awful record company and record deal, and it only got released years later. When it did get released, there was bootleg after bootleg, and I didn’t know any of that was happening until much later. It was a big surprise to me.
But the worse part of it, too, was that the label refused to let me out of the contract. I had another label interested in me, and the first one refused to release me. It basically ended my career, because if you can’t sign with a label, and the record company you’re with isn’t going to do anything with you, you’re really in a mess.
HMS: I’ve heard occasional stories like this, and it’s almost incomprehensible what a label would be thinking in that situation. What did the label think they would gain by doing that?
RH: I’ve never understood either, but I suspected they had some kind of investment in it that they felt they’d get out of the situation. But the best thing they could have done would be to let me sign with another label, attain success, and then they could have piggy-backed on that. I don’t think they had the intelligence and earnestness to think in that way.
But I have a question for you: Did you find any particular songs on Population III that you liked more than others?
HMS: I’m intrigued by several of the songs. I really liked “Sands of Time”.
RH: That one is my bass-player’s favorite, too.
HMS: I also really liked “Money’s Talking.”
RH: That’s an interesting one, too.
HMS: These songs made me realize that you never seem to have adhered to traditional song lengths or song structures easily. Why do you think you’re someone who has never fitted your songs into boxes like that?
RH: I never fit in the box! I think I know exactly where that came from. I just started playing my guitar more and more, and it soon became a creation process. I just couldn’t stop playing. So I played until I was done. Way back in the day, like 68 or 69, a couple of English bands were starting to do longer pieces of music.
I think Eric Clapton even said back then that there should be a long-playing album that was just one song. I thought, “That’s interesting.” So that’s what I started doing. I started writing songs that would just go as long as they felt like they went. So a lot of my music is made of longer songs, but I’ve always been told they were interesting. They certainly aren’t for the mass commercial market.
HMS: On Population III, “Land of the Sun” could just about be one side of a record.
RH: There are two versions of that song, actually. On the LP, it’s a ten-minute song. On the CD, it’s a twenty-minute song. That was one of those songs that just had an intriguing, haunted, melody structure that just felt right. I liked the feel and the chord structure. I make up chords. My theory always was that the music came first, not the written part of it.
HMS: I guess that you have to appreciate that experience, or you wouldn’t bother creating those longer songs. It must hold your attention, too.
RH: That’s right. Sometimes I get so involved in a piece of music that I’ve had versions of a song that are three hours long. I just can’t stop playing. [Laughs] But it’s a creative thing. I think it’s the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever felt, when I get in those moods. I love it when I get there. I think it probably tends to happen among musicians who have matured, in a way.
I’ve always preferred to work on longer songs because you can do more interesting things. It doesn’t have to be the same riff over and over. You can go other places. That’s what I’ve always dreamt of doing, continuously changing in a song. You can take any particular part of it, and you’ve got a three-minute song that can stand on its own. In one respect, it’s difficult to do, since I have to get to a state of freedom, musically, that lets me do that.
HMS: How would you feel about a long song being put with a visual element, like a sound-track?
RH: I’m fine with that. I think my music would be very appropriate for film.
HMS: I could definitely see that with some of these longer songs. When you’re extending a song, and following it, does that extend to vocals, too, or are you just playing a guitar?
RH: It’s vocals, too. The way that I write vocals, with melody and lyrics, is that I record instrumental tracks first, and then I see what it feels like. Then I write, right there on the spot. I don’t preconceive what a vocal might be. I don’t know until I begin singing it. I don’t even know what the lyrics are, sometimes. I’ll just make sounds, and somewhere in there are the lyrics. Then I ask myself, “What am I saying?” That’s how the lyrics can come about, based on what it feels like. It comes from a pure place, I think.
HMS: Do you keep scratch recordings to go back to?
RH: It’s funny because I’ve always thought that was such a good idea, but I have such a long string of recording clips, that I’ve never done anything with any of them [Laughs]. I capture things in the moment because of their feeling, but I never go back and listen to them again.
HMS: I do the same thing as a writer, it’s terrible. So much piles up.
RH: Sometimes it just has to come out.
HMS: Did you write the lyrics for Population III in this way?
RH: Yes, on the spot.
HMS: In the studio?
RH: Yes. I don’t know how else to do it.
HMS: There’s a lot of material in these lyrics, with plenty to think about, so I’m amazed that you wrote them on the spot. But the feeling and the mood are very important, and the lyrics definitely fit in with that.
RH: It comes from whatever source feeling comes from, except on “Money’s Talking”. I actually wanted to do something different with that one, to try to make a statement somehow. I think I utterly failed at that! I couldn’t seem to pull together what I wanted to say. I wanted to say something profound. [Laughs] I don’t think that I did.
HMS: I really liked that one. I liked the feeling of it, and the vocal style. I was looking at the phrases about waiting for someone to save the say, and the idea of waiting for someone to rescue you as a bit of a challenge in there. It made me think about whether people accept the rule of money and accept a lack of power because of that. It’s a good question to raise.
RH: It is. I’ve always had a strange relationship with money. On one hand, I don’t care about it at all. On the other hand, you need it, and can’t live without it. I’ve never been happy about it. I kind of don’t like money, but I sure wish I had more of it. [Laughs]
HMS: There’s a very deep duality there with money.
RH: It’s kind of like the duality of being famous. People have told me that I’m famous, but if you’re famous, aren’t you supposed to be rich? What happened?
HMS: The internet age has made that a bigger and bigger phenomenon. There are so many people who are relatively famous for their art or other things but can’t really make money from it.
RH: It’s the ancient, tragic story of the artist. Artist’s minds operate differently, with the right side and the left side of the brain. I’ve always been more on the emotional side of the brain, but I can switch over if I have to. I used to believe, when I was younger, that if I was good enough, and went on that stage and tore it up, money would just come to me. The times that it did come, it all disappeared before it got to me. I never knew how to control that.
HMS: There are a lot of predatory industries that have sprung up around artists to make sure that happens.
RH: That hits the nail on the head. I think it’s mean-spirited to place money above things like love, shall we say? I’ve never been able to do that. I don’t want to be mean-spirited. I hate that feeling. I can’t do anything that’s going to harm anyone else. It’s not in my make up.