Slam Dunk Festival 2023: The Big Review
Running down the best of the best from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2023 kicks off the most jam-packed UK festival season ever…
Holding Absence have been on an upward trajectory to rival Santa’s sleigh, and it shows no sign of stopping – even with a pesky pandemic getting in the way. As they prepare to (finally) take their latest album The Greatest Mistake Of My Life into the nooks and crannies of the UK, Lucas Woodland reflects on their incredible journey so far…
After almost two years during which it seemed as if the world was swimming through quicksand, this time last year Holding Absence were a band who were struggling to catch a break. As December hovered into view, the quartet from Pontypridd, in the valleys of South Wales, had performed little more than a dozen concerts in support of their critically acclaimed second album, The Greatest Mistake Of My Life, released back in the mists of April. They knew that their problems were universal rather than personal, and that an airborne toxic event had stymied the hopes and dreams of music-makers up and across the globe. Them’s the breaks, kiddos. Pick the bones out of that, Planet Earth.
But with Christmas cheer filling the air, in December of 2021 the group headed out on the road in the United Kingdom as special guests to Creeper. At last, they thought, a bit of good news with which to see out the year. Yes, okay, there was this thing called Omicron that had made its way to Camden Town in north London only two days after having been discovered in Johannesburg, but never mind that. And never mind that the first date of the tour was at the O2 Forum Kentish Town, barely a mile up the road. Focus on the positives, they told themselves. They’d be playing to an audience of 2,300 people in London Rock City. Well good evening England, and how are you doin’ Britain? Hello hello, it’s good to be back.
Yeah. See if you can guess what happened next…
“We were three days into the tour with Creeper when lots of us got COVID,” recalls Lucas Woodland, the group’s singer. “It’s crazy to think that at the beginning of this year we were all still in the grasp of COVID. Also, and this is only a minor detail, but my birthday is on December 29, so I finished last year with our tour getting cancelled… and with me getting another year older. And I remember beginning this year thinking, ‘Ah, I’m older and things haven’t changed after the past two years.’ I wondered if  was going to be another year where you start to run and then get tripped up by something. Then you start to run again and you get tripped up by something else. Because that’s how the two years prior to that had been.”
He needn’t have worried. It may be telling that Lucas begins his review of the year with bad news from the year that preceded it – because who knew that the 2020s would have programmed us for pessimism? – but 12 months down the line Holding Absence are at last riding a wave. Hitting the road like a proper rolling rock band, the quartet spent the summer in Leeds and Hatfield under the Slam Dunk umbrella and at Download. They released The Lost & The Longing, a four-track EP with Australian metalcore group Alpha Wolf. And, as we shall see, as the world opened its doors, they even seized the opportunity to get out and about a bit.
“I think this year was our first year without any bad luck,” Lucas says. “It was so wonderful for us because [we had] the trajectory and freedom that we’ve always wanted for this band. But for one reason or another, we’ve always been held back a bit.”
Well, not anymore. In a throwback to the days when groups such as Iron Maiden and Motörhead would embark on domestic campaigns that saw them appearing in halls in all corners of the country, come 2023 Holding Absence will be steering their van in the direction of locales that are these days too often overlooked by travelling bands. The caravan in support of The Greatest Mistake Of My Life may be two years late, but it is at least coming to a town near you. Not for them a three-date jaunt to Glasgow, Manchester and London that trades under the description of a ‘UK tour’; instead, in January and February, the Welshmen will be saying good evening and good night to audiences in clubs – and, in some cases, pubs – in (among other places) Ramsgate, Sunderland, Carlisle, Colchester and Lincoln.
“I’m from a small town that’s next to a small city,” Lucas explains. “So [when bands toured] I wouldn’t even get Cardiff shows – we’d have to go to Bristol. Basically, I’m well aware of what it feels like to be left out when one of my favourite bands does a tour and they don’t come near you. I think the hard thing is, when you’re a band like ours, you do need to play the game sometimes. You can get stuck in the rat race. So we have done tours where it’s just Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and London. But I never want that to be the precedent.”
Because, as well as much else, audiences in the biggest cities can sometimes be spoiled little bastards…
“London blows my brain, and it frightens the hell out of me,” admits Lucas. “It’s such a wonderful place for music, of course, but you’ve got to wonder if people skip out of shows because they went to two other shows earlier in the week. It feels a lot more special when you play a place like Milton Keynes or Nottingham, [places] that get skipped over a lot… we played Bedford a lot, we played Hull a lot. If I drew a heat map of where we’ve played in the UK, you’d see us in Chester, in all sorts of small places, [because] those are the fans you keep.”
Not just that, but “those are often the best shows, too”.
It’s hardly as if great bands, or strong scenes, happen in big cities anymore, anyway. In what is a quite brilliant image, aged 10, Lucas recalls being approached in a branch of TK Maxx in Merthyr Tydfil by a curly-haired adult who wished to congratulate him on his decision to wear a T-shirt bearing the legend ‘Sex, Drugs and Sausage Rolls’. “Cool shirt, little dude,” said the stranger. “That,” his mum told him, seconds later, “was Stuart Cable, the [late] drummer in the Stereophonics.” The Stereophonics, of course, were just one of a multitude of Welsh bands that were making a splash in national and international waters. From Manic Street Preachers to Bullet For My Valentine to Funeral For A Friend to The Blackout, at the turn of the 21st century and beyond the southern sector of Wales was without doubt the most vibrant and varied musical community for bands that gave it a bit of welly.
“I have had no right to see and do the things that I’ve done, even in the past 365 days,” says Lucas. “The fact that me and my friends were able to book a venue every two weeks and sell it out when we were in high school, because it was fun and because music was encouraged, I don’t think that would be possible if we didn’t have bands like that to look up to.”
There was one specific evening, though, at which the idea of making music truly coalesced. It was a summer’s night in 2008 on which The Automatic (from Cowbridge) and The Blackout (from Merthyr Tydfil) united for a concert, under the banner No School, No Rules, at the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd. As it just so happened that the much-loved ‘Muni’ was but a 15-minute walk from Lucas Woodland’s front door. It was also the first gig he attended without parental supervision. Unbeknownst to him, others in attendance on that August night would be the people with whom he would form Holding Absence some seven years later. Recalling this serendipity, the singer likens the moment to the Sex Pistols’ pivotal appearance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, in 1976, from which the groups Joy Division, The Smiths and Simply Red would subsequently form.
“It’s funny because without that night at the Muni, I don’t know when I would have been exposed to the local scene, you know?” Lucas says. “[Later] I went to see Paramore, one of my favourite bands of all time, and Kids In Glass Houses [from Cardiff] opened that show. Even things as silly as seeing Aled [Phillips] in a bar in Cardiff and thinking, ‘That’s the guy in Kids In Glass Houses’, you know? Him being on the lash in the city that I live in just showed me what was achievable and real. I got a Funeral For A Friend CD for Christmas one year. I sung the Stereophonics in my Year 8 talent show. It’s just so hard not to be imbued with pride and this sort of…” and here Lucas searches for the right word “…this sort of dream that you too can do this.”
At first the dream was a little slow to get going. But three years after being refused working visas with which to tour the United States – “It was probably because we weren’t making enough [money] to tour America at the time,” reasons the singer – this year Holding Absence completed not one but two U.S. and Canadian campaigns. Prior to their first appearance on transcontinental soil, Lucas patrolled West 7th Street only to discover that the crowd queuing for entry at the Teragram Ballroom to see a bill headlined by the local post-hardcore quartet Dayseeker included fans of his own band. One concert-goer even had a Holding Absence tattoo.
It wasn’t all beer and skittles, mind. On that first tour, the Welshmen travelled the United States in a box-shaped van with a fellow support band and an American sound engineer who was a stranger to them all. Realising that this was indeed hard-going, for their second campaign, on the undercard of a caravan co-headlined by Silverstein and The Amity Affliction, the group decided to billet themselves four to a room in budget hotels in which they would grab no more than five hours’ sleep between vast drives across the American wilderness. You might call this the midpoint between a rock and a hard place. You might also call it the kind of experience to which a young band must pay its dues.
“It was the dictionary definition of a hard slog,” the singer says.
Certainly, along with his claim that “every minute of that trip was magical to me”, Lucas Woodland is willing to admit that sometimes the magic was overwhelming. After five weeks in the field, a disappointing concert in small-town Ohio led to “a moment in my life when I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe this is too much work.’” As a vegan, he was struggling to find something to eat in the cow-country that is the American Midwest. He was missing his girlfriend. Even though the ship was righted within the week following a pair of “insane” shows in Seattle and Portland, it was a timely reminder that decent numbers on Spotify are not always an indicator of true popularity.
“America is inspiring because of the potential it has,” he says. “But if you’re the kind of person who’s scared of heights, [it] is a big ladder to climb.”
Tellingly, Lucas will later say that he’s “not a confident person”. Apropos of not very much at all, he adds that, “I struggle being a frontman, I really do, because I don’t perceive myself as being the main character in anything I do. But because I love singing so much, I know I have to believe in that person. And that very much has pushed me to where I am… I think the vocalist, lyricist, performer Lucas deserves better than shy and uncomfortable Lucas. I owe it to myself and the work I’ve put in to not let people see who I am underneath that. I have no shame in being the way as I am as a day to day person, but it wouldn’t fly onstage if I was as uncomfortable onstage as I am [off it].”
This is what music does, doesn’t it? It allows listeners to experience emotions that might otherwise be out of reach, while permitting its practitioners the chance to access distant parts of their personalities that might otherwise gather dust on an undiscovered shelf. Tonight we’re all rock’n’roll stars, and all that. As Lucas himself writes, and sings, on The Greatest Mistake Of My Life, ‘To the existential dread I let run through my head / The truth is that you hurt me for so long, and here’s my celebration song.’
So here’s a question for you, Lucas. In material terms, what would you like from Holding Absence? How far would you like this to go?
“I’d love to be an arena headline band, I’d love to have a Number One album,” he replies, admittedly after a good deal of prodding. “I watch interviews with bands like Paramore and think it must be so cool to be liberated by success.” But at the same time, “I’d like to be able to feed myself and my family and to be able to live a normal life.”
But even though the answer to questions of success are blowing in the wind, in an artistic sense Holding Absence have already made their mark. Appearing on a Zoom call on the coldest day of the year so far, Lucas is a likeable 27-year-old with a good vocabulary and a nervous streak that can be seen far across the English border. Handed a pad on which to write stridently impressive lyrics, and a microphone from which to broadcast himself to the world, he and his band suddenly sound capable of levelling skyscrapers. It’s powerful stuff, that music. In fact, it’s magic.
So much so that when the singer has a different go at explaining the appeal of it all, to him and to you, his answer drifts from prose to poetry.
“There are some musicians who don’t do wrong because I don’t think they can imagine themselves doing wrong,” he says. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence. But I try not to buy into that because it’s not who I am at the end of the day. It might make me a better performer… but when I think about, selfishly, how big this band can get, I love this so much, it’s all I’m good at, I lie awake in bed thinking about album concepts and T-shirt designs and videos of my lyrics and how my performance can get bigger. So selfishly I want it to be the biggest thing in the world, because it is the biggest thing in the world to me.
"But selflessly, I think, I’ve seen what this band can do for people. I’ve seen how many people have got [Holding Absence] tattoos, I’ve seen how many people have overcome trauma and grief and break-ups and stuff, and I just think, if there’s a way that everyone on Earth could listen to my band once and maybe have [the music] change the way they think a little bit, the way I know it can for other people, that would be great. Because as a kid, music is what helped me.
“And I’d love to be that person for more people.”
Holding Absence tour the UK from January 18, 2023
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