“People have kind of gone, ‘What the hell is this?'” Tim Hollo jokes about the response to the news his string quartet has released a spoken-word musical album with celebrated author Neil Gaiman.
While some may recognise Tim as the Greens candidate for Canberra at the 2022 federal election or by his other day jobs as executive director of the Green Institute, visiting fellow at ANU and a delegate to the federal council of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, he also does vocals and plays viola for the indie rock band-cum-classically trained string quartet, FourPlay.
Tim says FourPlay has become a band of five with the addition of the bestselling author known for The Sandman, Coraline and Stardust, to name just a few of his works.
The unlikely match-up between the Australian band and beloved English author began in 2010 with more than a decade of friendship and creative collaboration culminating in the release of the 12-track Signs of Life album. But long before this star-powered partnership was a twinkle in Tim’s eye, he was a second-year university student at the University of NSW (UNSW).
“FourPlay started life as a group of classical musicians a very long time ago when we were all 18 to 20 at university. We’re approaching 30 years ago now,” he says.
“We were members of the Australian Youth Orchestra … and we started doing covers of rock songs for friends at parties and people loved it.”
Tim says the turning point for FourPlay was winning the UNSW Band Competition the same year the band was formed in 1995, and from there, Tim, his brother Peter and other band members, Lara Goodridge and Shenzo Gregorio, started writing original music and playing backing strings for touring Australian bands, including The Whitlams, The Screaming Jets and The Clouds.
“These days, we all have jobs and children and live in several different cities, so it’s one of the projects that keeps going because we just love it,” Tim says.
The band’s first brush with Neil Gaiman wasn’t until the Graphic Festival, a coming-together of various writers, artists and musicians at the Sydney Opera House in 2010.
FourPlay’s manager happened to be curating the festival and sent Neil records by a range of bands to see if he would be interested in doing something with one of them for the festival.
“The one that he jumped at was us, which was fantastic,” Tim says of the moment that sealed FourPlay’s fate as the band to perform a live soundtrack for Neil’s novella that year.
“Neil flew into Australia about 36 hours before the first performance and we played it with him and luckily he liked it,” Tim laughed.
“It was incredibly daunting, I think, particularly for my brother Peter and myself, who had been fans of Neil’s work for many, many years.
“At that stage, he was a bit of a cult figure. He was famous but not insanely famous, and in the intervening decade, he’s become much, much bigger of a deal.”
Since 2010, four of Neil’s works have been adapted for the screen: American Gods, Good Omens, The Sandman and How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
“We’ve had the opportunity to work with him a lot more over those years, and he’s kind of become this fun, crazy uncle we occasionally hang out with, as well as being a huge deal,” Tim says.
Neil and FourPlay began workshopping Signs in 2014, a suite of original works around the zodiac signs, which are replaced by a new collection of words and objects exploring aspects of life.
“What became clear is that if that ever actually did eventuate, particularly with Neil’s extraordinary busyness these days, it was going to take many years,” Tim says.
“In the meantime, we thought we’d record and release [Signs of Life], which could kind of be a marker along the way.”
The album combines tracks from the Signs project with original poems and stories, two covers of songs from Neil’s previous projects and an instrumental inspired by Neil’s work.
“Neil has an innately musical kind of capacity in his reading as well as his writing, so it was really remarkably easy to just slide together with him,” Tim says.
“He’s an extraordinary writer, but he’s also just a very lovely, gentle, kind person and very funny. So it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to work with him.
“It’s become much more than a simple collaboration. We’re a band of five with him because that creativity kind of runs in every direction.”
To keep updated about live shows and to listen to the Signs of Life album, visit the Neil Gaiman & FourPlay String Quartet website.