On a chilly recent Tuesday evening, Tyler Holmes meets me on the porch with all visible body parts painted red, wearing glowing colored contacts shining like reflectors. Even though I grew up on Marilyn Manson and regularly watch horror movies, I can’t help but feel slightly spooked.
That feeling dissipates when Holmes (who uses the pronoun “they”) cracks an easy smile and tells me that their roommate, the drag performer and musician vainhein (who is out of drag and bustling in the kitchen), just finished painting them for my arrival. As we sit down on the couch to talk, some red makeup smudges onto the collar of Holmes’ puffer jacket, revealing a bit of the person behind the costume.
Holmes puts on the new Kelela album and asks me about my day, excitedly chit-chatting about their job teaching art to fourth graders at an after-school program. As I settle into the mundane, weeknight rhythm of the house, charmingly cluttered with art and musical instruments, it becomes easy to get used to the musician’s shocking appearance.
“I’m never gonna be Brad Pitt, that’s not my thing,” Holmes jokes.
Holmes, who is originally from Novato, has been a prominent figure in Oakland’s experimental music scene since Ratskin Records — the local label celebrated for its roster of forward-thinking, diverse experimental musicians — released their album, Invisible Island, last year. The project is a fever dream of glitchy samples, industrial synth lines, and full-out deconstructed noise. Its harsh, digitized elements dance around catchy synthpop melodies and Holmes’ raps and R&B vocal stylings. With Holmes’ savvy splicing of these disparate influences, the adventurous project makes its challenging content accessible through playful, poppy fun.
“I’ve always responded to variety, so I think expressing variety in a way that is palatable and pretty is really what I would like to do,” Holmes says.
Holmes built on that foundation for their new EP, DEMO, which came out last month digitally and on cassette through Ratskin. It takes its name from the idea that human beings are always evolving — a demo version of ourselves, never a finished product.
Holmes made the project in the wake of a four-year relationship. “Invisible Island had a lot of things with video games and drugs, being lit,” says Holmes. “DEMO is a little bit more introspective; it’s more about me viewing myself as a demo or an almost finished version and being okay with the different demos instead of being any one thing.”
Unlike the hodgepodge of sounds on Invisible Island, DEMO narrows its focus to experimental pop with an interplay of textured electronics that shift from soaring and melodic to gritty pounding to droning. The project is eclectic in typical Holmes fashion, but the artist swaps the rap and R&B elements of their previous work for a deeper exploration of electronic subgenres like noise, synthpop, and industrial.
Holmes’ unusual, technologically ancient recording process — which relies on primitive software, distorted and looped vocals, homemade instruments, and field recordings — is as inventive as their sound. “I still have my old desktop computer that’s probably 20 years old, a computer mic, and I use Sound Recorder 1994 or 1995. It records 60 second blocks of sounds but it has really good control because you can double it, reverse it, chop it to a quarter of a second, so I use that to sample drum sounds or make drum sounds out of random things.”
The in-between-ness of Holmes’ music exemplifies other aspects of their life that defy classification. “We change everyday, so trying to pin that down is hard to me,” they say. “I’m a lot of things: I’m a queer person, I’m a mixed-race person. For me, trying to attach to any of those like, I’m an R&B artist or I’m a rapper — even when I was a rapper, I’d sample Grouper for my beats because I wanted more texture and more stuff in there.”
Fittingly, Holmes runs with a circle of gender non-conforming artists who are constantly reinventing the wheel of — well, any and every art form they can, really. Jader, the San Francisco performer and makeup artist whose otherworldly looks make Parker Day’s photography seem tame, created Holmes’ technicolor, bug-eyed alien getup for the album art of Invisible Island. For S P O R T, Holmes’ 2015 project Ratskin reissued on cassette last month, Jader painted Holmes green and turquoise and smashed their face into a piece of glass; their face paint splatters against the two-dimensional surface, making Holmes look more like a watercolor painting than a flesh-and-blood human.
This past summer, Holmes went on a cross-country tour with longtime collaborators San Cha, Sister Mantos, and Reyna the Ripper. (San Cha, Holmes, vainhein, and San Francisco drag queen Persia once had a group called Daddie$ Pla$tik, whose anti-gentrification electroclash song “Google Google Apps Apps” made a splash in the local scene in 2013.) Unfortunately, the tour ended in an unexpected tragedy: Reyna the Ripper was shot in the lung during a random attack in Puerto Rico, and San Cha and Holmes missed their flights back to the mainland to care for their friend.
“San Cha and I were sleeping on an air mattress in a hospital in Puerto Rico for a month,” says Holmes, breathing out a sigh that their friend is recovering and has returned to the States. “Puerto Rico ended kind of abruptly, and that whole experience was so scary and so much drama that I said, ‘I want to come home and teach my kids and that’s it.'”
Still, they agreed to two final shows before taking a temporary hiatus: They played a release show for DEMO at ProArts Gallery in Downtown Oakland for Ratskin Records’ residency there, and they have an upcoming performance at the San Francisco gay bar the Stud alongside several other experimental electronic artists and drag performers, including Persia.
“This is what I’m here for,” Holmes says. “To bring the freak everywhere and tell people and show people and share their freakiness with them. Like, ‘Yes, y’all!'”
Tyler Holmes performs at the Stud in San Francisco on Nov. 17. Details here.