San Holo Breaks Down His New Sound On Deeply-Personal 'Album1': Exclusive

Haley Lan
San Holo

"Ambitious" is a word many artists might like to call themselves, but when it comes to electronic-folk-pop producer San Holo, it's almost a necessity. The Dutch talent, born Sander van Dijck, spent months tinkering with analog tape recorders, jacking his sounds into reverse, recording and re-recording samples, guitar melodies and loops until they folded in on themselves into something more beautiful, like musical origami. 

The result is Album1, his deeply-personal, self-released debut album. It took him about a year to write and record, and there were plenty of nay-sayers along the way. It was too sweet, too focused on guitars, and too artistic. He's talking about feelings, trying to make some kind of organic, back-to-basics sound. Who was going to 1-2-3-jump to this?

Van Dijck took a gamble that he and his friends at his label bitbird could follow their hearts and make the music they wanted. He hopes fans follow him down this ethereal new path.

It shouldn't be hard. Album1 succeeds in its attempts to break new sonic ground. It's joyful, emotional, airy and hard-hitting. It's all those things he hoped it would be sonically, and now he hopes it will resonate with fans, as well. To that aim, we caught up with van Dijck to get the real story behind each track. See how Album1 came together in the album breakdown below, exclusively on Billboard Dance.

1. "Everything Matters (When It Comes to You)"
The first four-note melody of "Everything Matters" kind of functions as the start and end of a special time in my life; the six months I spent in an Airbnb on Vestal Avenue, L.A., where I wrote, recorded and mixed my debut album. One night, I was scrolling through music and heard an old song from my friend Appleby. When I heard the line “Everything matters when it comes to you,” it touched me deeply. It felt like the perfect line for this song, so I sampled it and used his words to give this song the final touch. I love sampling music and putting it in a different perspective. To me, this track felt like a perfect way to introduce my listeners to the new sound I’ve been working on.

2. "Lift Me From the Ground" Feat. Sofie Winterson
This song is one of the many songs that started out on guitar. This song always felt like a banger to me. I wanted it to feel very energetic and uplifting, and sound massive when played out live. I wrote the lyrics with my dear friend The Nicholas, who has been an important person to me in the entire writing process. I just love working with him. We’re on the same page, and I really appreciate his taste and musicality. Originally, I also planned on singing the vocals myself, but I just didn’t like my voice on this track. Then I heard Sofie Winterson’s voice on it, and I knew right away that this was a match.

3. "Show Me"
I wanted this album to introduce people to a new kind of sound; a warmer, organic, and less polished version of EDM. "Show Me" is a good example that represents this new sound. I recorded a lot of guitars on cassette tape, to give it that warm, warbly, lo-fi sound. You can clearly hear this in the guitar intro of the song. The beauty of recording actual instruments on tape is the fact that you can never record the same thing twice. I wrote the lyrics with an old friend, Sean Christopher, and I decided to sing this song myself since the lyrics felt very close to my heart. My other friend David Gram, a great pedal steel player, added his sounds to the drop which resulted in a combination of sounds I’ve never heard before: a sparkly guitar melody, pedal steel pad with fat 808 bass, and drums underneath it.

4. "Brighter Days" Feat. Bipolar Sunshine
I wrote "Brighter Days" with Bipolar Sunshine a week after I met him at Coachella. I had an old little melody on my computer that we looped 'till we found a nice vocal melody over it. Once we figured out this melody, the lyrics came quite easily, and we were totally on the same page in terms of direction and taste. For the drop, I chopped up some of his vocal takes into a melody and ran it through a Roland Space Echo (an analogue tape delay) while playing with the tape motor. It gives the vocal chop its unpredictable warbly character. The Nicholas and I share a deep love for lo-fi, imperfect, analogue sounds, so playing around with sounds like this was pretty much like a party. I liked that the vocal chop was very dry and "in your face," but I also wanted to it to have a very nostalgic vibe to fit the lyrics and theme of the song, so I ended up adding spacious reverb-y pads in the background of the drop which made everything more emotional.

5. "Always On My Mind" Feat. James Vincent McMorrow & Yvette Young
I met Yvette Young on tour last year when I played a show in Santa Cruz, Calif. She sent me a piano EP she was working on, and there was this song that I kept replaying, so I sampled it, re-pitched it, and produced a beat around it. This became the foundation of "Always On My Mind." She’s also an amazing guitarist, and she did a really great guitar breakdown in the middle of the song. When I finished the production, I still felt like something was missing. Fortunately, James Vincent McMorrow was in L.A. while I was working on this, so I invited him to come to the Airbnb to work on the song. Within an hour, we found the right words and melody, which we recorded on the spot in the kitchen. James is a great singer and all around musician who I admire a lot. I’m very happy to have him on this record.

6. "Go Back in Time"
There are a lot of songs that I write that never see the light of the day, and it’s always fascinating for me to revisit these old projects. I usually try slowing them down or speeding them up, but once in a while, I’ll just reverse them. One night, I was doing just that. One of these old unreleased songs just happened to sound truly magical reversed, and that’s how "Go Back in Time" came about. The verses are literally the mp3 WIP reversed. I wrote words to it and recorded them with an SM7 mic going through a classic Tascam autotune on the most extreme setting. I love that sound. The drop was also produced based on the melody I heard in the reversed mp3. For the bridge soundscape later in the song, I sampled a great track by Zorch called "Cosmic Gloss," a band Yvette Young introduced me to while we were driving along the coast enjoying the view. It’s little things like this that make Album1 so personal to me; everything you hear on it is inspired by my personal experiences over the last year. I think this song could be considered as a sad love song. I don’t really like talking about the meaning of songs too much, I want people to listen to my music with their own imaginations, which is one of the reasons why I called this album Album1. I don’t want to put words or images into people’s minds before they hear the music. I want the music itself to create the imagination for them.

7. "Love (WIP)" Feat. Cassini
French producer Cassini’s track "It’s Almost Dark" means a lot to me. It was one of the first tracks we released on my label, bitbird, years ago. I consider it a classic. One night, when I was getting to the end of writing Album1, Cassini sent me a batch of cool recordings he made on his tape recorder, and I got super inspired. One of those recordings became the foundation for "Love (WIP)." I think a lot about love and what it means to me, and that’s a common trend for a lot of my songs. This song features a soundscape in the middle of the song with spoken words in the background talking about love, which is something I’ve always wanted to do on a record. Like most the other album records, I recorded a lot of sounds on cassette tape first, which I then recorded back into Ableton. There’s something magical about tape. It sounds so warm and compressed, and it’s so much fun to play with the tape speed to create pitch effects. There’s so much beauty in the imperfection on some of the sounds in this record in particular that just sound perfect to me.

8. "Voices in My Head" Feat. The Nicholas
Like I mentioned before, The Nicholas has contributed in so many different ways to the album. Besides being an amazing musician and friend, he’s a great vocalist, too. "Voices in My Head" was written after we visited some vintage guitar stores which is something we regularly do together when I’m in L.A. We were already working on the melodies and lyrics on the way to the store over the beat I made, and once we got back to the Airbnb (unfortunately without a new guitar), we recorded the vocals in the kitchen, as always. I then wrote the bridge with my dear friend Analogue Dear, an amazing pianist and human being -- the chords he put down there are truly magical -- and the song was complete.

9. "Worthy"
For a long time, I had tried to get more guitar in my electronic productions, but it always felt forced and unnatural. I was never really happy with anything I did until I wrote "Worthy." I think this track was a big first step in finding a new sound for the San Holo project. Back in 2014, when the melodic trap bass game was on the come up, I felt like I was doing something new and innovative. I’m obsessed with trying to innovate sonically, break down musical boundaries with my music and help my listeners discover new sounds. I’ve always been very inspired by ambient and post-rock music. Bands such as Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky mean a lot to me, and I wanted to try and channel that post-rock sound into this record. As a guitarist, I was very excited about finding a combination of sounds that I had not heard before; sparkly-clean guitars combined with a big, half-time trap beat. The lyrics were inspired by a real life experience I had. One day a girl asked me, “Do you even need me?” and deep down I knew that the answer was "no." I don’t think you should be in a relationship with someone because you need him or her. You can not make each other happy. You can, however, enhance each other’s happiness, and that’s what the song is about. This is one of the most personal songs on the album, so I had to do the vocals myself.

10. "Forever Free" Feat. Duskus
Duskus was the first artist that we ever supported and released on bitbird. We’ve been speaking since 2013 when I first heard his music, and he’s continued to surprise me over the years with his releases. One day, he sent me a really cool vocal chop that I instantly fell in love with. It sounded kinda like it was saying "forever free," so we decided to call it that. The track turned into a really cool house track with all kinds of cool additions. I added a lo-fi guitar melody to make it blend with the other tracks on the album. In the middle of the song, I decided to throw in a sample of an old song from my friend Luwten. Years ago, she wrote a song with the words, “It’s okay, we don’t have to fix it now.” That line is so powerful, and after pitching it up, it just sounded so cool to throw it in there. Like I said before, I love sampling parts of songs. It’s sad that the art of sampling kind of faded away throughout the years 'cause of the strict copyright laws. I liked the idea of sampling other songs on Album1, so I picked songs from friends that I knew I could talk to easily about clearing the rights. There’s also a violin outro that I wrote and recorded at the Airbnb with Yasmeen Al-Mazeedi, a very talented violinist. I was amazed by her musicality and perfect pitch. I processed her playing with some plugins to make it sound like an old string quartet.

11. "Surface" Feat. Caspian
Working with Caspian was a dream come true, to be honest. I have been into their music for years. The entire instrumental, ambient, post-rock scene has been a big part of my music catalog. A big part of their sound is treating guitars as instruments to create walls of sound with lots of delays and reverb usage to create synthesizer like layers. It was a challenge to merge this ambience with my electronic sound, but I couldn’t be more happy about how "Surface" turned out. The drop is the result of a lot of layers of super fast guitar strumming with delays and reverbs. The middle part of this song is my favorite piece of music I have written so far. Yvette Young ended up playing some extra violin layers which give the track another euphoric layer leading into the second drop. I wrote the lyrics to this song with Fazerdaze after meeting her at Coachella and inviting her back to the Airbnb. Her voice sounds wonderful on this track, and she complements the instrumental perfectly.

12. "Vestal Avenue"
After discovering the works of composers Debussy and Ravel years ago, classical music has been a very important influence in my life. It gave me a different perspective on music, but also on life. I wanted to end Album1 on a classical note, literally. I wrote a melodic trap drop that slowly merges into a full orchestral piece. I wasn’t too happy with the sound yet, so I asked my Brazilian friend Marcioz to give me advice on natural-sounding orchestra plugins. He came over for a few days to fine-tune the sound with me. For the outro of this track, I ran a Fender Mustang guitar through the Roland Space Echo into an amp set up outside on the balcony to play the last part of the album. We recorded both the amp and the surrounding ambience on cassette tape. If you listen closely, you’ll hear birds flying by, dogs barking and a bus hitting the brakes, ringing through the hills of Echo Park. I love how we captured this moment.

In celebration of this momentous breakthrough, San Holo hits the road with a whole new production setup. He's ready to bring this new sound to life on stage, and you can catch him from the end of October until Dec. 21 across North America. You can check the full list of tour dates below, and listen to Album1 from start to finish.


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