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Turning Life-Changing Grief Into Powerful Art: Q and A with Holy Wars’ Kat Leon and Nicolas Perez
Sitting down with Kat Leon and Nicolas Perez of Holy Wars at an upscale cafe in Los Angeles, it’s quite easy to see how willing they are to open up and discuss the music they create together.
The pair has been a creative unit for a few years now, chasing the muse as all artists do … but their latest project takes its inspiration from something very primal and emotional: the loss of Leon’s parents, both of whom passed away in 2015.
Intense, all-encompassing grief is something we all must face at one point or another, but that doesn’t mean it’s “easy” to handle — such a term has no bearing under those circumstances. How do you deal with such sudden, unexpected and unwelcome upheaval? How are you “supposed” to feel? Is that even a fair question?
It’s a confusing, frustrating, and profoundly sad circumstance that can shake us to the core. These are the feelings at the heart of Holy Wars, and it makes for affecting, visceral music that haunts the soul, with Leon leaving no emotion unexpressed.
With an EP out last year and a series of singles in the plans for 2019 and beyond (and an opening set ahead of Reignwolf’s sold-out show in Los Angeles on March 4), let this be your introduction to Holy Wars and what the project is all about.
Rock Cellar: Vulnerability can inspire really powerful music, and that seems to be the case with Holy Wars.
Kat Leon: Yeah, most definitely. All of our music is always personal — sometimes too personal for some people — we sing about a very important subject in my life, losing my parents, and that actually has helped me connect with a lot of people because of that. But I’m sure for some people, they’re like, “I don’t want to think about that,” or whatever. But yeah, it’s very vulnerable, I don’t know how to write or sing any other way.
That comes through in your music, pretty much on every song, but especially with tracks like “Back to Life” and “Born Dark,” one of your newest songs. That one had some involvement from Hunter Burgen of AFI?
Kat Leon: Yeah, he produced that one and our next single coming up.
So with these new songs, then, is an album on the horizon or are you not necessarily looking down that path?
Kat Leon: More like a couple songs, yeah.
Nicolas Perez: Yeah, we did some songs with Hunter, but we don’t really have plans to do a full album right now. Our plan is just to keep releasing songs for the time being. Our sound, we’re into so many different kinds of music, we’re still coming up with different things that we haven’t tried before. It’s all new and interesting to us, so doing a single allows us to try something out and see how we feel about it and how it’s received. And then we can keep releasing music like that.
Holy Wars opened two of Papa Roach’s recent shows at the Roxy in Hollywood, and that was my introduction to your music. The performance seemed to elicit some “whoa, who’s this?” reactions from the crowd, myself included.
Kat Leon: Especially a show like that, yeah. Most of the people didn’t know us, since the shows were already sold out before we were added to the bill, so any of our fans who were there had to go through Stubhub or whatever to get there. But it was a really great experience. Pretty much every time we play, there are people in the crowd who haven’t heard of us, or haven’t seen us before. I call it the Wall of Indifference that you have to penetrate through. People sometimes automatically look at you up there, not necessarily wanting to NOT like your music, but they sit there with this “OK, you gotta impress me,” thing.
I think because we carry out something so vulnerable, we kinda don’t really care? It comes off as you either love us or hate us, but you’re going to listen to me for the 40 minutes that I’m up there talking about something that is in my DNA now.
If you meet me, within the first five minutes you’re going to learn that both my parents passed a couple years ago. It’s just who I am, you know? But yeah, the Papa Roach shows were an incredible experience.
Both nights, we met people who stayed after the show and said hello to us, took photos, and through the whole week we were getting personal messages on our social media. The biggest thing that makes me feel the most full is when they’re like, “My mom has cancer and I’ve been listening to ‘Back to Life’ ever since,” things like that.
I tend to get emotional about it. You know, writing a fun song is one thing, and it’s actually hard to just write a song that people like, I applaud anyone who can do it and do it well, but to write a song that makes somebody connect to it when they’re going through something, when it’s a song so personal to what I wrote about, and what he lived through with me, so it’s personal to him … so when they’re telling me they’re coming back to life, it’s just amazing.
It’s cool to see … some people, it might go over their head, but I feel that the right people connect with it, they understand.
Nic, the Beta Machine, your other band, opened for A Perfect Circle on a big tour recently, so you know all about the concept of the fans not really being very interested in the opening act. Fans of Tool or Maynard are definitely of a certain type at concerts.
Nicolas Perez: On that tour, we had a slight advantage because of Matt (McJunkins) and Jeff (Friedl), who are in A Perfect Circle, so there was definitely already a curiosity, a familiarity there. So we had a free pass, in some ways. And that’s also a totally different setting, since those were big arenas and large spaces. Even if people are giving you the Wall of Indifference, there’s a good ten feet between you and them so it doesn’t really make much of a dent. But at the Papa Roach shows, they’re right there, since the Roxy is so small. That can be really difficult to play through, but we’ve always performed the way we’ve performed since we started two years ago. So we weren’t really trying any harder, necessarily, at those shows to “win over” Papa Roach fans. We think it went over pretty well. Like Kat said, so many people came up to us and were complimentary.
We had a band a few years ago that we did before Holy Wars. We’d play, and we’d be just as emotional about it, putting in just as much effort, and kind of get ignored? When we started this project, then, we were like, “Man, we’re tired of being ignored. We’re just going to shove it in people’s faces, like it or not, but they’re going to know that we were there.”
I think part of the reason that worked so well at the Papa Roach shows has to do with your message and the whole aesthetic Papa Roach has had for years. Sure, when I was in high school I liked them and all that, but it seems like they’ve endured now more than 15 years later because they speak to themes of resilience, keeping your head up despite the issues life throws at you, and all that. There’s a communal sense of believing in yourself that probably has helped them keep their fan base as strong as it still is.
And then Kat, your speech at the show about your parents, and about what Holy Wars means as a musical expression, that probably helped in that regard as well.
Kat Leon: It’s funny about the speech, because I almost wasn’t going to say anything. When we perform for our fans, it’s a totally different vibe. I feel comfortable talking on the mic. But opening up for somebody else, there’s almost a sense of “just play the songs and let the music speak for itself.” But when I talked about why we do what we do on stage at the Roxy on the first night, I did it again the second night since it felt right, it felt good.
Hunter came to our rehearsal before the Papa Roach gigs and he was almost kinda like psyching us out. He was like, “OK, these aren’t your fans, you’ve gotta really –”
Nicolas Perez: It was basically a pep talk, but it kinda scared the shit out of us. (laughs) “Because if something goes wrong, you’re gonna have to move through it,” or whatever, and we’re like “something goes wrong? What’s going to go wrong? What are you talking about?”
Kat Leon: He’s become like family to us, so he was only speaking from like a position of love and personal experience. He shared some AFI stories where they had to deal with some stuff, or whatever, but he’s right. We didn’t do anything differently, and I think it’s because we play every show like it’s our last show.
I’m so aware of death now. Before, when I was younger, like we all are, we think like we’re immortal, unstoppable, nobody can touch us. But then once you lose anything in your life, it could be a dog or a cat, whatever you hold dear, you see death for the first time and it’s intense. I’d been through so much death but it wasn’t until my parents passing where I looked at myself and thought, “I’m going to die, this is going to happen.”
And how that benefits us, I guess, as morbid as it is, is that we play like that. If this was our last show, how would I want to leave it? Am I going to phone it in? No, I’m going to play like it’s the last night of my life.
One of the elements of your music that comes through is the concept of music as coping, or as healing. Writing any songs at all seems tough from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t write anything, but is it especially tough to channel that grief, those emotions into music, or does it just flow?
Kat Leon: Yes and no. I think, if I’m in the right state of depression, no, it comes out really easily. But also yes, because there’s no right way to say how you feel, and you hope you say it right. You hope you get close to it. I’ve said to Nic before, we’ll be onstage, we’ll sing these lyrics, but then when I come home, this is my life. I’m living what I’m singing, but even when I’m singing it, or writing it, it still doesn’t fully capture the depth of what I actually, really feel. So in that way it’s hard.
Especially after Mother Father, it was difficult for us to write after that album, especially writing “Born Dark” and the other new songs we’ve been working on, because for a period there we were like, “what could we say next that’s as important?” I can’t keep saying, “hey everybody, my parents are gone,” I can’t keep writing the same stuff over and over, but what is just as important now? We’re not going to write that fun, Friday night party song, that’s not in us. So that was difficult, but I think we broke through that.
Speaking of your videos, there’s definitely a common thread thematically going through them, almost as if you filmed them all in the same day or short period of time.
Kat Leon: Well, the Mother Father ones, probably.
Nicolas Perez: It was over the course of about a year, maybe. We had six of them, but it was like as soon as one of them was finished, we’d start getting the next song mixed, then go make another video, and so on. Kat likes to keep it moving, so yeah they were definitely pretty consecutive.
Kat Leon: And also, too, a trick is when we rent gear, if you rent it on a Friday you get it until Monday, so when we have it for a few days — we did this for I think “Mother Father” and “Back to Life” — we did all that in two or three days, with the same cinematographer.
Does Holy Wars have any specific influences, or artists that you’ve heard your music compared to, compared to your previous bands and projects?
Nicolas Perez: People say they hear Garbage a lot in the music, and that’s awesome, of course. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we hear that sometimes, but when we’re writing the music I think we’re pulling from bands that you don’t really end up hearing in the songs themselves. The first time around, we were really into Savages, Radiohead, Failure, and then nobody ever hears that in there. Now we’re pulling from different stuff, we’re influenced by cinematic trailer music, lately, incorporating some of those elements in that music.
Kat Leon: Yeah, you said it. There’s also more modern artists like K. Flay, who I really love. I love Nine Inch Nails, too, Marilyn Manson, Nirvana, that’s all part of it.
When we talk about music and coping, and you mentioned depression, we’ve seen far too much recently the devastating effects it can have on artists and humans in general, with specific examples like Chester Bennington of Linkin Park and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave. They expressed their emotions through their music for years, but in the end they just weren’t able to overcome those demons.
It feels like that speaks to the terrible power of depression and how much it can ruin a person, no matter how “successful” they may be.
Kat Leon: When you said that, it reminded me of when I went to a therapist in 2015, I wasn’t even writing music at the time. We were talking about whether I’d write music again, and I told her that I was always inspired by sadness. Even before I lost my parents I was writing from an angry, sad, or self-awareness place, and I was like, “Well, if I get healed, I’ll have nothing to write about,” and she gave me some great advice. She said, “You can work on your life and be grateful for what you have and work toward not being depressed and embracing life and still use that as a channel,” but I think it’s harder for artists like Chester, or Chris, or anyone, really, to divide that up because if you’re a real feeler, you’re writing what you feel.
So when you’re writing about depression, it’s because you’re depressed.
When you have to pump out new album after new album, it’s tough. I think when people feel better, when you’re prone to writing more about this sort of subject, you have writer’s block. I find, myself, often that I’m addicted to pain. Even if everything’s good, I will find something in this room that is making me not happy. But I’ve always been that way, you know?
The music you guys did with Sad Robot, your band before Holy Wars, was a bit different. There was an industrial, electronic-tinged element to it, but it wasn’t as thematically serious or bleak, I guess, as Holy Wars. What prompted a new project entirely, rather than just shifting the focus of Sad Robot’s music?
Kat Leon: I think at that time, we were both kind of ready to move on. I don’t know how far back in the catalog you went, but … we did pop-punk, blues rock, synth-rock, stuff like that. The good thing about that is we were able to sync a lot of those songs. When somebody would call us and say, “Hey, we need a blues-rock song,” we had it. We had a stadium rock song, and so on, so we did pretty well in the licensing world, but it was hard to get a cohesive fan base because we were struggling with who we were as a musical entity. We were so multi-faceted, channeling that into one project was hard.
So at that point we had grown beyond that project, but then mainly because when I lost my parents I was pretty much done with music, period. I didn’t want to go back, and he was the reason I came back. Little by little, he got me back to it, so when we decided two years later to do Holy Wars, we weren’t those same people. I didn’t feel the same, I didn’t look at life the same, so going backwards just didn’t seem right. Starting over just felt more natural.
What’s your plan for the next year, then? Working on new music, shows, stuff like that?
Nicolas Perez: We’re going to release a lot of music this year, a lot more than we did last year. I mean, that’s mainly the plan, in terms of touring we’ve turned down so many opportunities because we did so much in our last band, that we don’t want to do anything in this band that is going to make us feel burnt out or broken or whatever. We want to focus our energy on writing the best music we can and holding out for the best opportunities we can. In the meantime, we’ll keep putting out the best music we can, and playing shows, and seeing what else comes up.
Kat Leon: And we’ll make six more music videos — just kidding! (laughs)
How’s the Los Angeles music scene helped shape Holy Wars’ path so far?
Kat Leon: Definitely, the first show we ever played was February in 2017 at the Echoplex. We didn’t know most of the people, we were just opening for a band with way more of a pulse on the scene, and that led to one opportunity after the other. Then we played Echo Park Rising, and that gave us another push. so that kind of got us in the scene, and we’re surrounded by so many inspiring musicians who are now friends, which is great. And then Nic’s been in the Beta Machine for a while, they’ve been great with us too. Jeff (Friedl) played on “Born Dark” and Matt’s doing some gang vocals on our next single. So yeah, the buzz has been great, people have been receptive.
When we started out, we weren’t really going for that, and I guess that’s a true story of when you don’t care as much, it comes. Maybe that’s what it is, people can just sense when it’s really authentic, even if you don’t realize it yourself.
Life gives you some shit that you go through, and who you become as a result resonates, I guess.
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