Spotlight Artist: Daniel Harris
I recently sat down with experimental Boston musician Daniel Harris to ask him about two of his exciting new projects, a 3-song EP (with a release date of early December, 2011), and a full-length album with his project 3dCosby (set to release in February 2012). After laboring over his music for months (and in the case of his full-length, years), we rapped about his nuanced process of creation, discussed why a DIY artist’s work is never done, and jawed off about the political (and apolitical) message of it all.
Interviewed by: Dorise Gruber
You seem to spend an awfully long time working on your albums – the last one, Thirty-two Bit Isn’t Really Eight Bits Better, took 1 1/2 years to complete, and the new full-length you’re completing has taken twice as long as that! What is going into these albums that requires so much time?
Hmmm [laughs]. Well, there were actually two albums in between 32-bit and now – FaaFaarminals, Aarminals, and Nick Nolte EP was written, recorded and released in the winter of 2009, and NOops was written/recorded in the summer of 2010, but I sat on it until this past April. The story behind 32-bit is funny in that I didn’t intend on making that album, exactly. From 2002 – 2008 I played in band called Family Junction and after college, 4/5 of the band was living together. During that time, I was steadily amassing a collection of recordings – some super abstract, some very pop – and my friend Seth asked why didn’t put out a solo album. I didn’t have an answer. He said, “You need to put out a solo album to the nines!” By that point, I probably had more than half the songs that would end up on that album recorded, some of which were on the first incarnation of the This Is So Much Better Than Elton John album, but I snagged ‘em off, remixed them. So technically, yes, 32-bit took about 18 months to record – the first song on the album was recorded in September of ‘06 and the last track was recorded in the spring of ’08.
Whoa! I just realized the first song on that album was the first recorded and the last song was the last recorded, ha! Conversely, the other full-length you mentioned has deliberately taken three years. That project, 3dCosby, is with my oldest friend and brilliant musician Matt Ross (aka subPixel). He and I have been in countless projects together, friends since we were 3, but haven’t worked on anything in earnest since Family Junction broke up in 2008. We haven’t released anything together. We started working on this project in the winter of 2008. He lives in New Paltz, NY, which is about 3 ½ hours away so it’s not always the easiest for us to get together on the regs. We plan week-long sessions months in advance, then I trek out to NP and we hole up in his house for about a week, take over a room or two and just work. All the music was recorded in three separate sessions over the course of the past 2 ½ years, totaling about four weeks at most, really. With each session our gear improved…slightly [chuckles], but our playing and understanding of recording and mixing soared beyond the prior session. Also, we both play in other projects on top of our solo work, so we be busy [laughs].
As you found your recording and mixing get better each time, did that cause you to rework things you’d already completed? I noticed that some of your new songs are from previous releases also.
Funny you should ask that, we were a bit nervous about that ourselves for a brief moment. In June, an old friend of ours got married down in NY, so I trekked to NP for the few days leading up to the wedding and Matt and I got to mixing the bulk of the recordings (the initial winter 2008 session and winter 2010). Through that we were able to keep things consistent. Like, because we were mixing those sessions at the same time, our heads and ears were in the same space to allow the songs to stay relevant with one another, if that makes any sense.
I think that makes sense!
Plus, it added a fun family challenge for us – how do we get drums that were mic’d with only two mics to have continuity with drums that were mic’d with five mics?
That sounds like an artist’s calculus problem.
He’s great at math, so we’re in good hands – the result is delish. I’m crazily ecstatic for that album to be released.
There’s a lot of artistry in your work – from the music itself to the self-produced cover art, it all has a very personal DIY flavor that gives it extra character. Can you speak a bit about the DIY-ness of the album?
Surely! For one, I’m very particular, especially when it comes to the music I write. I deeply believe in spending the time music and art deserve to ensure I put out the most accurate representation of who I am at that moment. I think all art and music are direct extensions of the artist his/herself. Even if commissioned and directed by someone else, when someone creates something, he is exposing part of himself. I spend a lot of time inside myself and the music and art I create is sometimes what I find and sometimes what I’ve pieced together.
I heard for your EP you were even thinking about only distributing limited-edition handmade copies of your album?
Yeah. There are a few sides to that. For one, I can’t afford to press up 1,000 or even 500 copies from a professional company. So that’s the simple, pragmatic reality. But I see a beautiful opening to connect with fans on a simple, tangible level – just make it myself. For NOops, I burned 41 copies and created 41 handcrafted packages. Each is numbered and contains a piece of art unique to that particular package. I remember seeing bands do things like that years ago and always thought it was the bee’s knees and gave me an even deeper appreciation for those people. They care and believe so much about their music, their product, that they are going to package it together by hand. Each album package is unique – even if they all look the same, each will have its own characteristics. I love that! And I loved the process of putting them together. It was tiring, my hands hurt, I was doing it alone…but each of those 41 copies is its own. And I receive a lot of positive feedback about that, too.
So how does someone get their hands on one of these limited-editions?
www.iamdanielharris.com, look for the album NOops. For the new EP, I’ll likely do something similar, but a different number, this time.
Awesome. Let’s chat for a bit more about your style of music. I’ve heard you describe your music as “anti-folk,” before. What does that mean to you, exactly? And how does your new music fall in line with that genre in comparison to the music you’ve already put out?
Ok. Anti-folk. I first heard that used in 2006. What I took from it is: you got your acoustic, singer-songwriter aesthetic, but lyrically and song structure-wise it’s not folk and not singer-songwriter. Anti-folk tends more towards an avant-garde approach to the folky, singer-songwriter traditions. Lyrics are more abstract. Song structure tends to follow suit, but it’s done on an acoustic guitar. 32-bit is very much in that realm. The new EP is, too. Well, 2/3s of it. The first song,” Spending Money,” is only four lines, really. At most [laughs]. The verse is simple: “I’ve been spending money, maybe not as wisely as I should/could,” and that repeats. And the chorus is: “I can’t see anything worth saving towards” and that repeats. That’s it [laughs], you know? That’s not folk.
“Spending Money” has some especially cool alien-sounding effects toward the end, too. What instruments are making those?
Guitar, glockenspiel. The guitar is run through some effects pedals, and during mixing I threw a fun panning effect on the glock to give it that back and forth sound in the ears.
And are you playing all of those instruments yourself or is your long-time pal Matt playing, too?
On “Spending Money?” That EP is just me on everything. Guitars, banjo, glock, bass, drums, vox. No guest spots.
So if you do a live set, what do you do about playing all the instruments? Do you bring in guests, or mess around with looping?
Great question! And this harkens back to your DIY query. I write different arrangements, sometimes on the spot. One of the beautiful things about music, just as with any language, is that it evolves. Definitions aren’t concrete. This is very much something I picked up from being a Zappa fan. He used to rearrange his music regularly, and often on the spot. With the new EP, for example, “Nishikot,” this will be the…third or fourth recorded version, and each is very different from the last. The basic structure is there, but I add/subtract parts, and live I get to futz with dynamics and effects pedals based on my mood in the moment. I love that.
Do you have versions you like better than others?
Hmmm I’m quite partial to this latest one. I feel like I finally got to hear it actualized in a recording. Family Junction used to play it and we had started recording a version, but it was never completed, unfortunately.
So what’s different about this particular version?
The first recorded version (on Pop Says A Lot) is just one guitar and doubled vocals recorded through a computer mic. The second version (on This Is So Much Better…) is with drums and guitar all mic’d through pedals and recorded onto a 4-track cassette recorder and sounds like a Ween song, like whoa. I wanted this version to sound tighter, for one – it’s very tight. And I saved all the sonic tinkering for the mixing stage, something I don’t always do. A big part of the experience of working on this song for this EP was the mixing process. There was a mix on my site from the summer, but I wasn’t thrilled with it and wanted to go back at it. I spent so much time on a 1min song, it’s insane! My roommate Luke Sullivan (Left Hand Does, Night Fruit), who mastered the EP, worked with me on that mix. We were both stumped a bunch, so I let it sit for a week, then went back in and I’m quite very happy with the result.
In line with the anti-folk concept, tinkering, and remastering, it seems you like challenging your listeners a bit. Your songs border catchy/poppy, but there’s enough there to challenge normal conventions such that they are interesting listens, but not easy listens. How do you feel about your music being a “challenging listen?” Is that intentional?
[starts cracking up] Awesome!! Um, it’s not intentional…all the time…in the sense that I write to perplex, but I’m pleased when I hear that. But yeah, there are definitely times when I’m working on something that I’ll actually say out loud (and Matt and I tend to say this a lot), “Oh man this is really gonna fuck with people!” I’m not out to make enemies of listeners, though, [laughs]. Like I said before, and I truly believe this, music is a direct extension of the musician. When I write and perform, I am sharing what’s going on inside of me. If you like it, that makes me happy and I have plenty more to share, and if you don’t, that’s cool, too. There’s no accounting for taste.
What message are you hoping to share with your first new release?
You know, until you asked that, I didn’t even think about the politics of this EP… “Spending Money” is about just that. I think we have serious issues in this country with regard to our relationship with money and the Occupy movement is a beautiful display of Americans coming out to confront this head-on, and that it’s spread across the globe is wonderful. “Nishikot” (aka “The Lesbian Song”) is a funny take on my experience with lesbians when I was in college. They didn’t like me, and I didn’t know why, so I wrote a song about it. I always wanted to play the “Hey, I have gay friends!” card, but knew that was not a good idea and just silly. I was never a person who used the word “gay” to mean stupid or threw “fag” around, so I couldn’t figure out where this disdain came from, and thus my love song to the gay community was born. The song was titled for a dear friend of mine (the “dike” in the song) who ends every conversation with “Nishikot,” which means “Kisses” in Hebrew. “Mourning Tea” is not political in the slightest – it’s about a dream I had about a crush I had on a friend a few years ago. So the message of the EP: we have money issues, it’s ok to have crushes on your friends, and gays are people, too!