Freddie Gray died on April 12, 2015. He was a twenty-five year old resident of Baltimore who died in police custody the day following his arrest after being put into a coma and suffering spinal injuries. Shortly thereafter, people organized to protest police brutality and the more-than-a-little-disturbing, prejudicial practices of the Baltimore Police Department. Things got a bit sidetracked when a different group of people, largely high schoolers blowing off steam, began rioting, which is what the majority of news outlets decided to focus on, rather than systematic racism. These riots resulted in a city-wide curfew, which canceled a Holy Circle show shortly after premiering its debut single on Noisey, which goes to show just how far-reaching the effects a curfew foregrounding a shadowy police state are.
Holy Circle itself is an electronic band, the product of husband and wife Terence Hannum and Erica Burgner-Hannum who have been making music together for a long time, having teamed up in Unlucky Atlas before. Perhaps that's why it works so seamlessly. Though the one song they've released is drawn out and downtempo, I'm not quite willing to put money on this being the nature of their future oeuvre. They are putting out a 7" and tape in August on Accidental Guest Recordings and are working on more songs for a full-length record and are playing a show with Azar Swan and Clay Rendering on June 16 at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore.
Jordan Reyes: This is probably a very basic question, but what is it like working with your spouse on music?
Erica Burgner-Hannum: Terence and I have been doing music together for so long, even when we were dating. To me, it’s always been a part of our relationship. It’s just part of who we are and how we relate.
Terence Hannum: It’s in waves. Holy Circle is a new project within somewhat defined parameters in terms of what we’re performing. The creative element is kindled in our relationship for sure - we just needed to write songs together - in some ways we’re used to it, but in other ways it’s new and exciting.
JR: Had you guys been making the more slow-tempo synth music before you announced Holy Circle and made it official?
EBH: There were a few songs we had written or were in the process of writing for years at this point. We’d go away from it and come back and then take a break again. I feel like what we’re doing now started when Unlucky Atlas was coming to an end. There was this shift in songwriting that was happening with Terence, myself, and Andre from Locrian, who was also in Unlucky Atlas. We were getting noisier and incorporating more electronic instrumentation. We had made a lot of rules for ourselves, which I think became rigid and stifling. A lot of the early ideas for the songs that would eventually become Holy Circle songs were in response to that cage we put ourselves in, but I think if it weren’t for Unlucky Atlas, we wouldn’t be writing what we’re writing right now.
JR: The one song I’ve heard, the one you guys have on SoundCloud, is like a six-minute song. Are a lot of your compositions going to be at that length?
EBH: Either-or. We’ve always done this. [Terence laughs]. We’ve always done these epic, too-long-for-the-radio songs or succinct, shorter pop songs. We’re fans of the extremes. I’ve never been a fan of doing anything the same way twice, either. If anything strikes me while writing a song and it stays with me, I know it’s probably worth pursuing. That’s one of the things I’ve learned about myself, and one of the things Terence and I have learned about each other. We used to make a lot of rules and now I just want to make the music that I want to sing and listen to. If it makes sense to someone, then great, but if not, well, that’s what I felt like writing [laughs]. Weirdly, though some are six-minute songs and some are three minutes or less, they’re starting to make sense together, which is interesting. We aren’t necessarily trying to do that, but that’s what happens when you stop trying to write music and just write music.
JR: You guys have a 7” and a tape coming out. Do they share songs?
TH: The 7” will be two songs and the tape will be four, but the two songs on the 7” are on the tape, but each format will come with a download for all four songs. I think it’s around twenty minutes total, with one song being pretty long, a short, two-minute or so song, then four and five minute tracks.
JR: Did you record those yourselves? Do you have a studio of your own, Terence, or did I make that up?
TH: My basement! [laughs] It’s not much of one: we’re learning as we go. It’s stressful for me, but I’m pretty happy with how things sound. It’s part of the process to learn as you go - it can make the songs better if there’s something wrong that you have to fix, or if you have to redo a vocal take, or repair a connection. It ends up making me more confident. We haven’t gone into someone else’s studio yet. We want to soon, but things are more expedient at home, especially as the band develops. I’ve done that a lot on my solo stuff too, recording at home, either on my analog four-track, or my digital eight-track, or audacity.
EBH: At this point, the basement studio has become almost a character in our songwriting. All these weird, external noises happen that become part of the finished product. “Basel,” the song we put up on Soundcloud has a lot of external sounds: we just made them part of the song. I like that happening as we record in the basement - it’s this other element in our music.
JR: Are you releasing the tape/7” yourselves?
TH: No, it’ll be on Accidental Guest Recordings.
JR: When does that come out?
TH: It looks like August. We got the artwork in, but still have to do some mastering, and one track needs a little bit of a touch up. Then we’ll be close, but the vinyl presses are so backed up. The target is August, but we won’t be upset if that doesn’t happen. It’s not Record Store Day or anything, but it’s still chaotic. It’s definitely stressful for some bands and labels. Hopefully with Record Store Day done, people can get a little bit of normalcy, but the demand is crazy.
JR: Yeah, I need some more Aerosmith reissues, though.
TH: [Laughs] Yeah, I need Jethro Tull Aqualung on a 3 LP, 180 gram. I mean, I’m sure House of the Holy sounds awesome, but I can buy it for $3 at a good grading. It’s such a fad, which is interesting, although it’s not very helpful to the people who have always been into it. If you’re into underground music, you probably have a hybrid collection anyway. Buying vinyl isn’t a thing - you don’t need a designated holiday - it’s just something you have at home.
JR: I feel like so much of what I have is only available on vinyl or a tape.
TH: Agreed. Or it’s like, well, you know, I’m an artist, so the artwork on a record really stands out. I’ll look at the art and try to figure out the printing process. I always dial in on that element because it just looks better.
JR: So who did the artwork for your upcoming release?
TH: Michelle Grabner. She’s an abstract artist from Chicago who taught at the Art Institute. She used to run this gallery, The Suburban, which is now in Milwaukee. She curated the last Whitney Biennial too. One of the things that Erica and I were talking about while picking the art was wanting a female artist to be on our cover. We have some of Michelle’s pieces at our house so we dropped her a line.
TH: Yeah, June 15th I think. We might be doing a few more dates with them too.
JR: How often have you guys performed live?
TH: Just once! Our other show had to be cancelled because there was the curfew in Baltimore.
EBH: Yeah, that was a little anti-climactic. We had just had the track premiere on Noisey and then the show was cancelled. Oh well.
JR: What was that like down there? The curfew and everything?
EBH: Well, we live North of the city itself, so we weren’t around any of the chaos, but many of our friends live in the city. The news didn’t do a great job of showing people coming together and helping each other out, though, bringing medical supplies or food to a neighbor who couldn’t get out. The protests became completely negative and destructive.
TH: It became about what CBS is going to bill, which wasn’t the guy who’s spine was broken and later killed. People had been protesting for two weeks. Those people were overlooked.
EBH: Everyone was portraying the rioting, rather than the protests on police brutality. They weren’t even the same groups of people. The sad part of it is that the rioting took the attention away from the very valid position of the people protesting the shady relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and people living in poor Baltimore neighborhoods. There’s this institutionalized racism happening and bias against people living in poverty. Also they were dropping the word “thug” quite a bit. You started to realize as you watched that the news was equating the people who are rioting and blowing off steam, mostly high school students clearly acting out and taking advantage of a situation, with these people who are peacefully protesting.
JR: When you say it that way, it does seem that someone used that to their advantage to not address the underlying issue.
TH: Well, it fed into the media using certain prejudices. Before this happened, the Baltimore Sun had produced a heart-wrenching report about police brutality and how much money the department has had to pay out to people who have been paralyzed and killed while in their custody. So, first off, there’s a track record to this. It’s been a big thing in Baltimore and I think that when you put it in perspective with what’s been happening in Cleveland, or Ferguson, or Staten Island, we’ve reached this point where people need to be more honest with what’s happening with police brutality and racial profiling. In Baltimore, yes, people can take advantage of it and the media can spin it to get away from an important conversation that needs to happen. I’m not the best person to helm that conversation, but I can also understand the disruption and the feeling that no one’s listening when there’s this high-profile violence coming from police and nothing’s changing.
TH: There’s the video of Eric Garner being choked on the street and you think “Well, of course, something has to happen there,” and yet there’s no consequences. You start asking “Why would anything happen?” and begin to feel the hopelessness and empathize. The sad thing is that the attention was taken away from the activists, who had been bringing heat to the police department and legal system.
EBH: One of the things I find interesting is the defensiveness on the part of certain police departments highlighted in the news for having these horrible practices. I’m a public school teacher. When something’s not working, we go to the data. We see where we’re falling short and ask ourselves how to fix it and make ourselves better. Maybe that’s happening, but it seems like a lot of police departments are more concerned with pointing fingers and laying blame. For the most part, it seems like they’re not addressing these things. Why is there this disconnect between police officers and the community they’re serving?
EBH: I think, “Well, I’m a public servant. If I have to use data and look at the facts to perform better in my job, shouldn’t you have to do that?” There’s a lack of common sense and transparency. Using the data, the facts, and what we know doesn’t end up affecting how things move forward. You have to wonder if people realize that pointing fingers doesn’t solve anything. Even as children, we’re taught not to blame other people, and accept responsibility for our actions: obviously, in the grown up world, that’s not really happening [laughs].
TH: The violence is disconcerting, but the cynicism is too. A lot of people have died in police custody - something is wrong. People need the common sense to see this isn’t a one-time event.
EBH: We’re not doing something right. People are suffering injuries or dying in police care. Just some moments of frankness and honesty could do a lot of repair work for what needs to happen, but so far we’re not seeing that much. I teach in a high-poverty area in a country where the community is predominantly poor African-American and my students already have association with police. They bring in stories about “my cousin” or “my brother” or “my grandmother.” It’s always negative. This doesn’t help. How can I tell my students that the police are there to make them safer when I can’t, in good conscience, tell them that? My fifth graders are old enough to know what’s going on. We’ve talked about it a little bit, and I know that we’ve mentioned that there’s some sort of miscommunication that breeds unfortunate and sometimes tragic instances where people are not seeing eye-to-eye, which has led to some good conversations, but do they feel safer as African-American children about to be teenagers in their community? I don’t know. They probably feel even more insecure in their relationship with police officers than they did before this happened, and they certainly weren’t feeling super positive about them before.
JR: Umm…I don’t know how to segue this back into music. [All laugh]. I was trying to think of what sort of question to lead back, but I was just like “Dude, give up. You’re not going to get a good transition out of this.” So are you guys writing more songs for a full-length or something else?
TH: Yeah, we have written a few more that we’ve written and we’re developing new ideas.
EBH: We have plans to do proper recording in a professional studio too in the near future.
TH: And a full-length or conceptual record.
EBH: I think Holy Circle is being referred to as a “project,” but in my mind it’s not a “project” - it’s a band and we’re in the process of making a recording. We don’t think of it as a side-project alongside what Terence is doing with Locrian, obviously, because that’s not my band. We’ve been talking to people about Holy Circle and they’re surprised that we’ve got multiple songs written, but we didn’t just decide a month ago to go into our basement and record a song. This has been in the works for years now: it’s just that for whatever reason the time began to seem write to push it forward. Like I said before, I’m only interested in writing the songs I want to write and perform. The fact that the response to that so far has been positive is encouraging, but it’s a bit of a selfish act too. I needed this avenue to work through these ideas that I’ve had brewing for several years now - it’s finally starting to move forward.
JR: Do you think you guys would be able to tour? I guess you’re doing the Azar Swan one, but would you be able to do a full U.S. one?
TH: We’ve talked about it. Both of us teach: myself at the university, and I’ve got more free time and vacation time than Erica does, but it’s not out of the question. Obviously, it’s always logistics. Where do we put the two small children in our care?
EBH: And we’d have to make enough money at shows to pay the babysitter [laughs].
TH: We’re open to the possibility, and when opportunities come up like the Azar Swan shows, we try and make it work. We’re going to play some dates with our friends Ars Phoenix who are from Florida in August before Locrian does ten to twelve days on the West Coast. It’s a balance, but since Locrian’s record is going to be out, we need to give it some attention. With Andre and Steven having other obligations, it can be tough. I have a long summer off, though, [laughs] so Holy Circle can have a bit more fun.
EBH: We also don’t want it to be crappy, though, where there’s like two people in a basement that smells like cat urine. I’m pretty picky. That’s the first question I ask Terence when we’re going to play “What is the ratio of cat urine to people at this venue? What is the bathroom situation?” [Terence laughs] The public restrooms at some places where Unlucky Atlas or Locrian played in their early days were pretty disturbing. I’m just too old [Terence: “You’re not too old!”] for putting my hand up against a shower curtain so no one walks in on me when I’m using the restroom anymore. We need to be in a city where we can reasonably find a venue or have friends with a place to stay.
JR: Terence, I know you read a lot because we read a lot of the same stuff, but do you guys have much crossover with what you read and write?
EBH: Yeah, we do. I base a lot of the lyrics on things we read. Well, it’s like 50/50 in terms of personal experiences of myself or women I know and literary women that I find interesting. I draw comparisons between the two. My undergrad degree is in theatre so I find that I’m drawn to dramatic, tragic people with interesting stories. A lot of the lyric-writing I do is very character-based. I approach it the same way that I would approach play-writing. Terence tends to write music and experimental pieces based on ideas that come to him and it’s funny because he’ll play something to me that’s idea-based that he’s had and I’ll start thinking of lyrics, but I won’t share it with him right away. I might think “Oh, that would work with these lyrics I’ve been thinking of.” I’ll discover that we’ve been thinking along the same lines, which might be a symptom of being together for so long. It’s a huge benefit, but it’s funny too. It always surprises me in a good way that something I’ve been thinking of is along the same lines with what Terence has been thinking of.
EBH: One of us will say “this is this,” and we’ll both know what the other one of us was referencing. Like, if we brought in someone else to write a song with us, I think it would be a lot more work. We really do sort of read each other’s minds in that way, which is sort of…convenient.
TH: And I’ll come with ideas too - I might come in with something and Erica will say “That’s more of a Locrian riff.”
EBH: I call him out on that too [laughs]. I’ll let him know if something sounds more like a Locrian song or like a Terence Hannum solo piece.
TH: I don’t even try anymore. She’s always right [laughs].
EBH: We do gravitate towards noisy stuff, but it’s funny how we can distinguish the noise that’s appropriate to what we’re doing as Holy Circle and the noisy that is Locrian. The other thing that happens a lot is we won’t just share literary references, but New Wave references. I’ll tell Terence “That sounds like a Depeche Mode riff” and then we have to ask ourselves whether we can get away with using it [laughs]. There’s so many references we have, but we always step back and ask whether we can use it. “Is this too much Kate Bush?”
JR: There’s never too much Kate Bush.
EBH: [Laughs] But we have to ask whether we’re referencing something or just like blatantly covering something.
TH: I’m sure that when we think of it, it’s more explicit to us than like someone from outside of myself or Erica.
EBH: We have a lot of musical and literary references, but I think it makes us work more efficiently.