Robert Holmes' musical voyage is unusual. You've heard his guitar playing if you've heard "Voices Carry," a big hit in the '80s for 'Til Tuesday. That band was the launching point for Aimee Mann's solo work, and Holmes went from 'Til Tuesday to playing in Boston-based Ultra Blue with his wife, Glenda Holmes. Now you can catch Robert and Glenda in the Valley and around Brattleboro in the popular cover band Love Bomb and in a duo, playing what Robert describes as more of a "lounge" set.
Robert Holmes is a talented guitar player who's got a knack for complicated tricks like backing up a vocalist without a dedicated soloist, and he and vocalist Glenda cover a wide range of material with ease. He's a veteran of many a recording session, and his laid-back style seems to echo the unflappable attitude necessary to such studio work.
He was born in England (and still retains a trace of British accent), but his family moved to Boston, where he started playing in bands in the early '70s. In a recent interview, Holmes discussed his move to the "GB" (general business) music world and the rigors of big-label music.
Advocate: How did you get started doing covers after Ultra Blue?
Robert Holmes: I've been doing painting on and off during fallow periods, and this guy whose place I painted, from the North End of Boston, he called me up, and he said, "I've seen your band, and you've got the right voice." They wanted me to do this Frankie Lyman kind of vibe. I said I didn't think I could do it. He said, "Thursdays we're at this restaurant, and that pays 120 bucks a man, Fridays we play at this restaurant and that pays 120 a man, Saturday we had a private gig, and that pays 300 a man." I'm thinking, "This is five or six hundred bucks a week, cash!"
I went and did it. I blew off Ultra Blue, tied my hair back and donned ugly tux-type clothing and started doing these gigs. … You know, Owens-Corning, they're doing a New England supper and they're going to be sitting at picnic tables having lobster and we're just going from table to table. … We saved up like 20 grand. I did that gig for maybe three years.
So the money wasn't that good in 'Til Tuesday?
It was the '80s, so there was a big independent promotion business going on. … The big publishing advance that you've been waiting for all along, when you've finally established yourself as being able to write songs and sell some records, we had to turn and throw it back into independent promotion, which is basically payola. They call it independent promotion because you do employ an independent promoter to go around and try to get radio stations to add your record, and whatever methods they do, well, that's what they do.
It pisses me off, actually. It was really a drag. I know we generated well over a million dollars, and at the time, every aspect of the industry has its handout, and the big payoff for the artist is your ego gets fed. You get to be you, and you go on tour, and you get roadies and buses and people take your picture and you disembark from airplanes with your sunglasses on and stuff. That's the big payoff.
But as you're starting to get on in life, it's like, "Hey, we need to get paid here. We need some money. This is terrible." It became so complicated for 'Til Tuesday to do a gig. I remember a neighbor saying they were having some sort of a bank thing, and they wanted to try to get a band. I think maybe they didn't quite realize where 'Til Tuesday was at that point, but I was just thinking, "Wow, it would be so simple to just own a PA and go set up and play. But us, we have to hire a PA company. We need a road manager, a stage manager, a guitar tech, a keyboard tech, labels. We need deli platters."
One year, we did 300 dates in one year. We were just wiped out. We were opening for Rick Springfield. They said, "Rick wants to add you onto three more shows." We said, "The only way we can do it is if we can personally put money in our pockets." And they said OK. We wound up doing it, and we each wound up making like a thousand bucks. And it really felt like, "Wow, we actually generated this money." It just goes into a big pile, and managers are commissioning it, and you're paying payroll, rehearsal space. We were paying ourselves a meager salary the whole time.
How do you feel about giving up original music?
I feel a little sad about it sometimes, but I have to question what my motivation would be. Because there's nobody stopping me from doing original music if I want to. The part that gives you pause is when you expect other people to pay attention to it and, ideally, pay money to hear it and see you execute it. That's when it gets sticky. I have a home studio. I could be making recordings if I want, making a CD.
One way that it's changed me is that in doing this GB thing, sometimes I feel a little bit more like—I don't want to say a McDonald's employee in a little McDonald's outfit. You do "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" on a regular basis, and you launch into it at weddings and fill up the floor and everybody's so happy and they love the band.
On the one hand, I feel a little bit like I've defected. But on the other hand, as a music consumer, I'm really pretty picky. I remember this whole vibe in Boston—"support local music because it can't support itself." I feel like—at the base of it is that maybe some of these artists aren't quite compelling enough to get you out of the house to really go see what they're doing. I did tons of sessions in the '80s and '90s, especially in Boston, and most people doing original music, to me, I don't know that they're quite worthy of all of the attention and energy that they're wanting everyone to put into it. There's a lot of people that aren't that compelling. What's that song, "What the World Needs Now?"?
Love Bomb plays regularly in Vermont. Robert and Glenda Holmes play Thursdays at the Rendezvous in Turners Falls.