Chris Holmes in his home studio. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
Assessing Chris Holmes' place in popular music often results in cinematic comparisons. "He has a Zelig-like ability to insert himself into any event that matters," explains Greg Kot, music critic for the Chicago Tribune. "He's Forrest Gump for all these little subcultures," notes Brian Liesegang, former member of alt-rock hitmakers Filter and Nine Inch Nails and Holmes' current partner in the band Ashtar Command.
Holmes agrees. "I've lived my life on the sidelines of all this stuff that's happening" he says. "I can't go anywhere without knowing 50 people."
Fifty very important people, likely: You may never have heard of him, but the DJ is a ubiquitous character when it comes to L.A. night life. Even Holmes admits that he's only "famous to famous people." He's warmed up the crowds for a former Beatle, worked in the studio with Diddy and hosted the likes of Elijah Wood at the intimate, poolside parties he throws at the Roosevelt Hotel. He has also remained a beloved insider behind the scenes, and such respected artists as Daft Punk, Dangermouse and Radiohead's Thom Yorke have been spotted in Holmes' orbit.
In this same orbit also floats a number of other things that make Holmes, 39, a fascinating, hard-to-place character: There's his obsession with UFOs and end-of-days groups like the Heaven's Gate millennial cult, whose members, before they committed mass suicide in 1997, Holmes had interviewed extensively for a college radio show. There are his Chicago connections (Barack Obama pops up briefly) and a failed attempt at major label stardom, chronicled in a much-discussed Harper's Magazine story. And we haven't even gotten to his wild mop of gray-streaked hair yet.
He's many things: a respected musician, a master networker and a wild eccentric — it's no wonder celebrities and many musicians are drawn to his offbeat charisma and idiosyncratic-inventor vibe.
This month Holmes and Liesegang quietly put out "American Sunshine," the first full-length Ashtar Command album, via Holmes' Privateer label and Shepard Fairey's Obey imprint. "American Sunshine" features a collective of musicians united by Holmes and Liesegang's lush electronic pop. Named after the fictional intergalactic United Nations, Ashtar Command, as Holmes explains, "oversees good aliens battling evil aliens for the soul of humanity."
Equal parts shoegaze, Pink Floyd and cosmic bubble gum, it's probably the only album to feature L.A. pop savant Har Mar Superstar and teen sensation Taylor Hanson. "Chris is a master of time and space — Leon Russell for the new computer era," Hanson says.
Holmes lives in a purple-and-red house on the edge of Silver Lake that contains not only his studio but a Wonka-esque world of toys that populates his creative play space — a Pac Man arcade game, a Bee Gees rhythm machine, vintage Moog synthesizers and various strange instruments. The musician's memory flows with odd stories, and a visit prompts surprising anecdotes from his past. Pointing to a sitar leaning against the wall, he recalls a particularly unique session.
When the Warsi Brothers — legends of the Indian Qawwali music world whose family helped train superstars such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — stopped by to record one of Holmes' songs in his living room, it was the only secular music they'd ever done. "They only spoke Urdu, so we could only communicate through music," Holmes says. "They fixed my sitars and harmoniums with toothpicks and dental floss — it was like having Jimi Hendrix tune your guitar!"
Before he was a DJ, Holmes gained notice as a performer, cutting an idiosyncratic figure in Chicago's mid-'90s alternative-rock scene, leading the group Sabalon Glitz, a krautrock-inspired project that scored a slot at 1995's Lollapalooza. At the time, Windy City acts like Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins inspired label bidding wars. "Remember when Chicago was supposed to be the next Seattle?" Kot says. "Chris was part of that, socializing with all the key figures."
Holmes' next band, Yum-Yum, signed to Atlantic Records, but its sweet orchestral pop confused post-grunge audiences. The group's major-label contract, in fact, brought nearly as much attention as the record Holmes released; it provided the fodder for "Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony," an infamous Harper's article by bestselling author (and Holmes' former roommate) Thomas Frank. Frank painted Holmes as "Gatsby with an artist's imagination and Tom Buchanan's social credentials." Holmes says he gave Frank the lowdown on how the industry worked, "but he just distorted things and used me as an allegory."