The Harrow. A band that simply showed up in the catalog at Function Operate, last year. Having just released their self-titled EP, their first offering from the realms of shoegaze meets coldwave and post-punk. It might actually sound like a great combination, and it might also be commonplace – but somehow, The Harrow is something different. There is something about their music that is so eloquent, that is so simple, but it feeds into something different. It’s pretty easy to say that something is different, when there are so many bands and different constellations out there. But I’m telling you that they are. Most of the members, if not all of them – come from different constellations. Frank, who plays the bass, synth and program their drum-machine – have that background. He’s also been in numerous different bands. I asked him about different topics, ranging from art itself to the band, but also New York and what it’s like to be a band in the Big Apple. I sincerely hope that you enjoy this interview.
Considering that your history is basically very hard to grasp, you’ve been around for quite some time, but didn’t get anything released until Function Operate picked you up under their wing in late 2013. You’ve got a lot of different things going on besides The Harrow, but what is the real intention with The Harrow as such?
– I’ve spent a lot of time in other bands, mostly as a collaborator. My resume is long and sordid, but includes Dream Affair, Frank (Just Frank), Revel Hotel, Blacklist, The Hunt, and a two year stint as the touring bassist for The Chameleons Vox, not to mention a weekly DJ gig for WIERD records (RIP) and blogger for Systems of Romance. Having such a storied resume also comes with the added bonus of burning out over the years, and I took a year off from music, unsure as to whether or not I’d continue with it.
The Harrow originally existed as a solo project conceived in 2008 after I left my first major band. The only recordings that exist from that era are a handful of dusty, unfinished instrumental demos and a remix that my friend Ed and I made for another sorely under-appreciated NYC band called Bell Hollow, who split shortly after. Greg, their guitarist, is now a member of The Harrow. Anyway, exactly a year ago, my grandmother passed away, and my means of coping was to throw myself entirely into this project, in hopes to rekindle my creative spark and create that perfectly encapsulates my tastes, interests, nightmares, passions, etc. From death comes life, always in cycles.
Once I decided to get serious about the project, everything came together quickly… I was in touch with Julian from Function Operate about his previous releases, and upon sending him a few works in progress, he invited us to contribute a track to his second various artists compilation. I didn’t have a band or a singer, just a few demos Hayden (of Dream Affair) and I had come up with one winter’s afternoon, so I quickly recruited a friend to handle the vocals and mixed our first track, “Violets” in a week in order to make the deadline. Julian was suitably impressed and invited us to record our EP, by which time I had recruited Greg on guitar, Vanessa on vocals, and Barrett, another former bandmate, on synths. What was meant to be an outlet for loss became a tightly knit friendship between three people I care about deeply, and the response and support of the project has long since exceeded even my most humble of expectations. We have quite a bit on the plate at the moment.
You speak of “capital punishment”, pain and torturous experiences – as describable for your band, care to elaborate?
– Our name stems from Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” which depicts a brutal means of capital punishment- a needle that renders the victim’s punishment into flesh and skin until death, bringing a feeling of euphoria and acceptance. The image has stuck with me for many years, and both the idea as well as Kafka’s surrealist atmosphere perfectly captures the beauty and ambiguity that I’m attracted to. I enjoy both sides of the spectrum- both the vicious and the serene, and the name of the band, our sound & image, and the lyrics I’ve written thus far are an extension of that, I feel.
What kind of response were you getting, and have you gotten?
– As for the response, if anything, it’s been refreshing not to self-release…
That said, The Harrow has received more positive reinforcement from both friends and strangers, than any band I’ve recorded with. With a few exceptions, it’s been a struggle to get people to pay attention, though I chalk a lot of it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with some of the wrong people, and in some cases, compromising my own ideals for the good of the flock. A deep bitterness began to set in over the years, due in part to the difficulty and indifference to gain footing in both New York and beyond, which contributed heavily to my self-imposed break from playing music. That’s not to say I’m not proud of some of the other projects I’ve been involved in, and some of the records I’ve made, but for the first time in ages I am satisfied with our accomplishments so far, and am actually looking forward to what’s next. We’ve been receiving a slew of positive reviews and features, the most bizarre involving a shared cover with Miley Cyrus. People seem to be keen on kindly comparing us to other bands. While this is often a sore spot for new bands (especially those who can’t cope with the fact that everything has been done before), I usually enjoy hearing what other listeners can pick out. I’ve never shied away from my influences, as varied as they may be, so if someone can connect with us via the same sense of passion and spirit as bands that came before, I welcome it.
Speaking of gaining a foothold in New York, what’s it like to even try to become something in that city? All I can think of is the platform given to “hipsterish” (if you excuse my language) and inane bands to begin with, and not those of the caliber as The Harrow, or like it.
– It’s one of the most difficult cities to get a foothold in. A constant uphill battle. You’re always fighting against something, whether it be indifferent and fickle crowds, hip venues with terrible sound, trendy scene politics, or “pay to play” shows. It’s not a very kind city to unknown bands, especially if you don’t have the right connections or subscribe to whatever the flavor of the month is at the moment.
Do you believe that this is inherently a character of the city and its inhabitants as such, or could this be applied to (generally) everything? I seem to have a bitter taste when reading Pitchfork, which seems to cater to these abominations and the times that are right here and now.
– Well, it’s tough out there in general, but New York is its own breed of difficulty. That said, I’m not really in this for fame or notoriety, it’s a release for me, and it’s only a bonus that people seem to be enjoying it.
Yeah, let’s get away from that. Could you tell me about the process of recording your first EP-release for Function Operate?
– Since it took some time to bring Barrett, Vanessa, and Greg on board, the EP was recorded in bits and pieces across the span of the year, with blurred lines between who played what. The opening track, “To a Figure,” was the last song written for the tape, written and recorded in one session with our newest drum machine in my living room apartment, which was, for a time, our creative space. Barrett and I wrote “The Fall” in one session as well, both sharing drum programming and synth duties. “Milk and Honey” dates back to the original sessions for “Violets,” written on a TR606 soon after completing the latter. Hayden also plays guitar on this track.
“The River” was a leftover from a previous band, salvaged from the wreckage of an ugly breakup just when we were finally getting somewhere (typical, no?). While the band it belonged to had little in common with The Harrow, centering the song around a steady drum machine pattern and layering synth after synth made it feel right at home with the rest of our tracks. Barrett was in this band with me as well, so it seemed only natural to rescue it and make it our own. The final song, “Requiem,” was entirely Vanessa’s construct, composed shortly before meeting us. The first time we hung out, she played me some music she was working on, and the instrumental track struck me. Soon after, we asked her to join the band as a full time vocalist and put the finishing touches on this, with only Greg adding a series of droning and delicate guitar lines.
All of the lyrics were written by me for the most part, though Vanessa wrote the vocal melodies, and also composed some key lines for both “The River” and “The Fall” that fit perfectly. I recorded everything myself, mixing all of the tracks except “Requiem,” which Vanessa mixed. Hayden was kind enough to master the EP for us. We have a few unfinished demos from these early piecemeal sessions, some of which we *may* finish up and release digitally as a means to tide people over while we work on the next record.
We also have two new recordings that will see the light of day in early 2014. One is a re-recorded version of “Violets” with Greg on guitar and Vanessa on vocals and the other is an entirely new construct we recorded after the EP was finished, which will be released on a split 7’’ on aufnahme+wiedergabe with La Fete Triste.
What kind of equipment do you use and why do you have a drum-machine instead of a real drummer?
– I enjoy the juxtaposition of combining both electronic instruments (drum machines, synths) with both bass and guitar, so there’s never too much focus on one over the other. Greg uses a rather detailed pedal board with a variety of effects, stemming back to his past work (before Bell Hollow, Greg played guitar in seminal NYC deathrock band the Naked and the Dead), while I keep things simple with just a bass chorus and a delay pedal. Our main synth is a Juno 60 that I’ve had and used for a while now, and I swear by it. As for machines, we record the majority of our earlier tracks with a TR707 (with the exception of “Milk and Honey” which was the 606) and we now primarily use the Roland R8 mkII, which is very versatile and has become our mainstay. Live, Barrett augments the drum machine with a few pads to add some extra pizazz. Though he plays synths for the band, he’s a drummer by nature, so it’s great to have some live percussion on top of the electronics.
I originally chose to use a drum machine as I have no drumming capabilities and couldn’t fathom recording live drums in the band’s early stages. While nothing beats a real drummer when it comes to post-punk music, I’ve always enjoyed the cold rhythms that drum machines have to offer. In short, I don’t favor one over the other, but as the band developed, I found using a drum machine suited the works, and certainly has helped in keeping the recording process in-house. As an added bonus, it’s nice not lugging a giant drum rig everywhere you go.
How come that simplicity is the key nowadays, in regards to yesteryear’s plethora of advanced and technical progressive rock-bands? (for example).
– I honestly don’t have anything against something that is well recorded and produced. While we have a simple and very DIY recording aesthetic, I still prefer music to be well mixed. Not necessarily arena-style production, but I generally dislike sloppy, thrown together recordings on principle. The whole thing feels rather amateur to me, which I know was the basic nature of a lot of the music I enjoy, but that was part of the charm back then. With the ease and affordability of home recording these days, there’s no reason not to make the extra effort to make something sound as good as possible.
I also don’t mind layering – I’m as much of a shoegaze kid as I am a minimalist. My only goal is the serve the song as best as possible, whatever that may entail. As far as composition is concerned, I’m not so interested in gear worship so much as I am interested in writing a great song. The problem I have with a lot of modern synth/post-punk bands is that there’s too much focus on the technical aspect and capturing/cloning this band or that sound, but not enough memorable songs to justify it. For example, if a band sounds like an amateur version of The Cure, *BUT* has the songwriting chops to back it up, I’d prefer that.
There are always exceptions to every rule though…
This is a question that every interviewee seem to ask, but it would be interesting to know of what influences you and the band as such?
– I won’t deny I love a good list…
Musical: Lycia, Cocteau Twins, Dif Juz, Trisomie 21, And Also the Trees, The Church, In the Nursery, Suede, The Chameleons (naturally), David Bowie, Slowdive, Breathless, Sad Lovers and Giants, The Shangri-las, The Cure, Simple Minds, Section 25, Scott Walker, Wire, Peter Gabriel, The Sound, Red House Painters, The Names, Curve, Modern English, Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra, Asylum Party, dusty requiem masses, etc. etc. etc. Essentially, if it was on 4AD, Factory, Creation, or Lively Art, it’s part of my life blood.
As far as new bands, we love Deathday, Tamaryn, Void Vision, Blablarism, Ashrae Fax, Further Reductions, Dead Leaf Echo, La Fete Triste, Winter Severity Index, [aftersun], Tiers, and of course, my old alma matters Frank (Just Frank) and Dream Affair.
Literary: William Blake, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, J.G. Ballard, Charles Baudelaire, Vladmir Nabokov, Lewis Carroll, Clive Barker, e.e. cummings, Robert Aickman, T.S. Eliot, Harlan Ellison, etc.
Did you enjoy any of the lists that came out in 2013, or did you have your own personal top-something?
– aufnahme+wiedergabe asked for my favorite records of this year. There’s a couple I forgot to mention, but I still stand behind this list.
Regarding the art and symbolism of your EP, you’ve had Barrett do the art of the release itself. What is the meaning of the symbol and how did you work when deciding how the cover should turn out?
– Yes, Barrett has always been very visually creative, and he designed the logo and cover with little debate, he just knocked it out of the park immediately. He constructed the EP cover to be reminiscent of an old Factory Records release, invoking covers like Joy Division’s Still, The Wake’s Harmony, Section 25’s Charnel Ground 7’’, and some of the early Durutti Column releases. The logo is the letter H, as spelled with needles, tying into the torture device from Kafka’s story. The backwards R as we’ve spelled it on the cover was Vanessa’s contribution, partially inspired by the Raido rune, one that invokes the journey of life. Reversed, it invokes the unexpected, and much more negatively, a lack of progression. We’re not implying that we’re stuck in the past or being completely cynical about our journey, but there’s something to be said about pitting both connotations against each other. I’m no expert on Runes, mind you, nor am I interested in the negative connotations and controversy that bands such as Death In June and Boyd Rice have invited over the years (though I am a fan of the former), but I’m drawn to the imagery from a purely aesthetic point of view.
Meanwhile, Barrett is currently working on a video for our upcoming 7’’ track, which should be finished in a few weeks and will be unveiled in tandem with the split 7’’ on aufnahme+wiedergabe. He filmed it during the first major blizzard in December, taking full advantage of the freshly falling snow. We spent the morning on a beach in Long Island, an experience we won’t soon forget…
Where would you consider to draw the line when it comes to aesthetics, if we regard the work of Death In June and Boyd Rice – for example. And where do you really separate art from intention, in the first place, according to you?
– It’s a complex issue. I’m very interested in aesthetics and symbolism, but obviously to defend either one of these artists or the use of such imagery is an uphill struggle, since the whole affair is really so dodgy on principle. While many of Douglas P’s collaborators have since explained themselves or apologized for their fascist leanings over the years, both Boyd and Douglas have always seemed morally ambiguous, flashing imagery without much explanation, donating money and supporting questionable political uprisings, and fogging up the line that you speak of so you’re not quite sure what side either of them fall on.
The whole controversy with both honestly makes me uncomfortable, even though I like many of the early Death In June records. My enjoyment however, stems from the sound of the records, from a purely auditory perspective. There’s plenty that appeals to me about Death In June’s music, but none of it has to do with their politics. While I’ve always been interested in blurring the lines between sex and death, romanticism vs. nightmare in our lyrics, I prefer to look at it more from a surrealist, literary point of view. I’ve *never, ever* been interested in flirting with controversial or irresponsible imagery or subject matter, whether it be for shock value or for serious intent. It just doesn’t factor in for me as far as choosing what sort of art I enjoy or create. I’m much more interested in what we can achieve from a musical standpoint than I am through the use of symbols and rhetoric. That’s not to say we’re anti-image, as we’ve discussed, and there’s a certain power and simplicity in symbolism that’s worth exploring, but I don’t like to mix politics with art, personally.
To follow up on what you said in the question, do you prefer it to be “clear” when it comes to the message, regardless of the music and symbols? Instead of the constant fencewalking with both “controversial” and subversive music, mostly regarding the symbolic content delivered by the music at hand and the imagery?
– Despite what I mentioned above about being uncomfortable and uninterested in making such powerful statements myself, I don’t mind controversial themes or morally ambiguous messages in music, everything can be interpreted and misinterpreted in its own way. I’m not exactly drawn to it by default nor does it inspire me in any way, but there is an appeal in challenging your audience, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of art. As far as preferring clarity over ambiguity, great art isn’t black and white as such, I’m drawn whatever moves me at any given point, whether it be the darkest corners of the industrial landscape or the brightest shades of pop. The quality of the music is always the priority for me, regardless of what else is at play, and that includes the image, lyrical content, etc. The rest is just a bonus or a deterrent, depending on how I feel about it at the time.
Earlier, we talked about the material you’ve released and the demos. But what is the status for The Harrow right now, when it comes to recording and releasing future material?
– We have two tracks that will be released in the next month or two. A re-recording of “Violets” will appear on the new Peter Out Records compilation alongside Sally Dige, Monument, and Metro Decay, and a new track, “Axis” will be released on a split 7’’ with La Fete Triste on aufnahme+wiedergabe. In the interim, we just started recording some new material. No plans for a release just yet, but we wanted to start the year on a more creative note.
Alright, thank you for letting me do this interview, Frank. Do you have anything else to tell me?
– Thanks very much for the chance to speak with you! Enjoyed it!
Down below is a teaser of their forthcoming material.