Holopaw's latest album, Academy Songs, Volume 1, was inspired by a trip to frontman John Orth's local video store. That's where he rented if...., Lindsay Anderson's surreal 1968 film set in an English boys' boarding school. The movie's two teenage protagonists clash violently with administrators and fellow students and stumble into short-lived, often homosexual love affairs.
On Academy Songs, Orth studies the connections happening within the walls of this institution. All of the themes that the songwriter has dealt with in his more-than-a-decade-long career, like relationships, betrayal, and lust, have found fresh settings and characters in which to play out. Like the boys in if...., Orth studies new love and new sex, loyalty, and youthful rebellion, serving as the narrator to the students' young lives.
"In the past, I just sort of filled notebooks with scraps of ideas and just pored through those sketches and tried to make one song make sense or to build on one line or one paragraph," Orth says. "The idea of setting all these songs in one place and having overlapping characters — a lot of times there's overlapping themes in my songs, but I've never been that specific in my writing — it was a more utilitarian way to just frame or to organize a body of songs."
As Holopaw's icy-haired singer, Orth's fragile, trembling voice anchors an act that's always held an interesting place in the Gainesville, Fla., music hierarchy, not fitting in cleanly with the punk music that dominates the scene. Orth is also an artist and gallery owner, and one of Holopaw's two permanent fixtures (along with Jeffrey Hays). Newly permanent members include Jeff McMullen, Matt Radick, and twin brothers Patrick and Ryan Quinney. "I do feel like at this point we're just a much more cohesive band," Orth says. "We're much more collaborative in our process, so in some ways just creatively, it just feels more purposeful and more vital right now than it used to."
During the recording of Academy Songs, the band shacked up in a St. Augustine beach house where their friend, Jeremy Scott of Brooklyn's Civil Defense Studios, set up a mobile studio. Even though the album was inspired by a movie about a British boarding school, the Florida oceanside setting managed to creep into the final sound of Academy Songs. "Bedfellows Farewell" and the closing track "Golden Years," which were both recorded in one take, capture the sonic atmosphere of the humid evenings the band spent on the porch with beers and friends.
"It was in the middle of the night with all the lights out and the ocean just a hundred yards away," Orth says. "Those songs are so delicate and there's sort of a sensuality to them that was informed, I think, by the balmy night, oceanside." But Academy Songs is not a beachy record — the prep school subject matter still shines through, and there's plenty of "virgin snow" to bring a chill to the motifs.
On Academy Songs, Holopaw manages to juxtapose the sensuality of adolescence with that of the potentially sexy Sunshine State. (Although "I know there's plenty that is not sexy about this godforsaken place," he laughs. "In theory.") That exploration may be continued in an Academy Songs Volume 2. Orth says there are already songs written for the next record, but whether or not it will be as focused thematically is yet to be seen.
After finishing Academy Songs, the band sent out demos, and one landed at Misra Records (Destroyer, Phosphorescent). It's Holopaw's third label in a four-album career, after two releases on Sub Pop and another on the much more intimate Bakery Outlet, based out of St. Augustine. Orth is candid about the early days, when he says Holopaw lucked into opportunities, like touring with Iron and Wine and releasing records on one of independent music's most famous labels. "At this point, personally I feel like I'm still kind of touristing in this world, where I don't play an instrument and so I don't feel necessarily like a musician," Orth admits. Still, he thinks Academy Songs might be Holopaw's sturdiest project to date.