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HARLEM: MUSIC IS PRETTY FUCKING DUMB

February 19th, 2010 · 3 Comments

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dale dreiling

Download: Harlem “Friendly Ghost”

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(from Hippies out April 6 on Matador)

When Harlem moved to Los Angeles, they spent their first day prank calling 911 from every payphone on Hollywood Blvd and lit an American flag attached to a car on fire. Time passed and they couldn’t get a show to save their lives. They’ve moved from one “cockroach town apartment” to another, city to city, settling in Austin, until somebody at Matador finally said, “This band rocks—let’s give them a record deal.” This interview by Daiana Feuer.

How do you navigate the business side of being in a band?
Michael Coomers (guitar/vocals): Well, take today—we were trying to put out a 7” before Hippies comes out in April, but everything has been fucked up with that. I get e-mails from five different people saying seven different things—but I have a glass of wine and a cigarette so I am fine. Not to be totally outrageous, but I thought it’d be like that scene of Tupac flashing $100 bills in front of Death Row. That’s not the case. I do a lot of work. I never fucked around with the internet until we couldn’t get a show without having a MySpace. Sending a mixtape to a club—you might as well throw a message in a bottle and put it in the ocean. None of what we’ve done was in pursuit of success so much as it was all out of boredom and necessity. People think we had a career track. We ‘toured’ across the country getting sublets in towns for periods of time because we couldn’t afford to tour. That was our version of touring. Now it’s a little more legit. People ask me advice on how to do a band and I have no fucking idea. If you consider Forrest Gump to be a way of life, then yeah, we’ve made it from place to place. Austin was not a pilgrimage to the live music capital. We just had three friends with a house. We lived in L.A., too. [L.A. RECORD editor] Chris Ziegler can attest to the fact we couldn’t get a show. I see bands that have a lot more of their shit together; we aren’t supposed to be successful in life. I watched something on the curse of lottery winners. They win the lottery and have all this money, and in all the interviews they say they’ll give money to charity—then they drive to strip clubs with a suitcase of money in the front seat and how do you expect not to end up in a ditch?
Do you watch a lot of television?
Michael Coomers: Hell yeah! TV is basically where I get every idea I’ve ever had. Certain shows give you the idea of the way people think about things and how they interact with the world. I was obsessed with The View, though it went downhill after Rosie left. I watched it religiously and I am definitely not the demographic of that show. I was so into the strangeness of the whole thing. Barbara Walters trying to seem relatable to a lower-class demographic though it’s so obvious she is blue blood. It just seems so surreal at this point. Right now is a weird time period in which the fabric of reality is super fucking thin.
Does that go for your fabric of reality as well?
Michael Coomers: In my own—that too. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and there’s something about the light there—how everything is in massive amounts of daylight and a dusty haze. It feels like the entire town is stoned. They’ve been smoking weed all day. Nothing is crisp or clear. It’s all overblown. Maybe being in a band and touring, not sleeping and being bad to your body helps facilitate that. When I was 16 everything made sense. At 21, things seemed clear. Now I am 27 and the whole world feels like a fucked smorgasbord of animals eating each other. A weird dinner party with Tasmanian devils. A friend of mine called it second puberty. Your skin goes shithouse again. You’re trying to figure out what you should be doing. I saw Garth Brooks in Las Vegas the other day, and there was this weird feeling—am I supposed to propose to somebody right now because I’m old enough on this romantic trip of seeing Garth Brooks? Is Las Vegas really supposed to be romantic? You look around—it’s a fucked up disgusting thing of people gambling and it smells like jail. Why is this romantic? How is this classy? This place. Caesar’s Palace—you go in this gilded mechanical walkway and there’s just beer and leftover potato salad containers next to faux classical sculpture. This is not classy—this is horrible. The idea that this is what you are supposed to think. If I was eating rabbit in some castle in Scotland, I would be like, ‘This is classy.’ Something other than just expensive. I was thinking today … how you record music, and there’s this new thing about these weird epic swells of sound people are doing. They do a backline of a synthesizer and tap this subharmonic frequency—it’s a mind-fuck where you can’t help but be ingrained in the music. It’s an automatic body response. It’s cheesy. It isn’t legitimate but it’s there. Van Halen said a song is good when you get goose bumps. But I thought to myself—this body response to something doesn’t mean it’s good or classy, but some subhuman portion of your body responds to it. Just like if you feel a baboon’s ass you will get a hard-on. It seems more about hypercolor genitalia than making a good song. It’s this automatic thing when something’s put in front of you that’s warm and red so your body goes, ‘That’s what I like.’ It doesn’t mean it’s good.
Is it your body or mind that truly knows what is good?
Michael Coomers: There is no answer to that but when I am searching—this sounds cheesy—searching for better truth through punk music. That seems disingenuous and shitty. What are you working towards? It’s punk music. It’s making a noise. It’s banging pots and pans because you wanna make racket. You wanna find something you respond to well. The difference between something decent and valuable and something that you have an immediate response to is a subjective and subtle difference. I don’t want to reference bands I don’t like, but if you listen to Weezer—the first album—there’s all this stuff that makes them sound like humans, then the later albums are monstrosities. Grilled cheese sandwiches. So disgusting. I have been responding to music lately that’s not any tricks. I like old music a lot and that helps. They hadn’t figured out how to manipulate people’s minds yet. I have been listening to Salem a lot and there’s no frills, no obvious things that will make people react. These are their songs. Me, I’ve been weirded out by everything and this is the sound I make.
What qualifies the genuineness of your music?
Michael Coomers: I can approach this question two ways. One, it’s more along the lines of how you manipulate people into feeling something and what your message is—is your message to force-feed an emotion out of someone through bells and whistles that simulate a romantic feeling? Or do you say, ‘This is what I do—how I deal with melody and rhythm’? ‘Lo-fi’ is not the term. When people say that, well it’s just not over-produced and over-done. A lot of writers say write what you feel and don’t make it more precious or wordy. Music is pretty fucking dumb. You can only do so much with it. Pick up a guitar—unless you’re the Shaggs and have no reference point, you are going to find patterns that others have found before. Comparisons to the ’60s doesn’t mean we are listening to a Shirelles song and decide to rip it off. There’s a naive starting point: How do you write a song? What sounds pretty? As opposed to a big epic statement of what technology does to music. I can’t play guitar. I don’t care to learn. I don’t know what a D chord looks like. The way I look at it, there are these hand patterns to make sounds. The idea of making a descending scale, diminished fifth, I have no idea. I listen to old rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s in that—it’s the basic realization of equipment to make songs, and there are certain patterns that are natural or inherent. That’s the genuineness of what we do, and what they did.
If not for the sake of musicianship, why do you think these songs need to come out of you?
Michael Coomers: I don’t think I can do anything else. I’ve been fired from every job. I don’t think I’m a visionary—there’s not much ego. I don’t think I am better than anyone else. But I do this because what else am I going to do? There’s only so many hours you can spend pursuing getting laid or eating or sleeping. The other hours have to be spent pursuing some goal that will last a little more than you. When we first put out a record, it was to put out a record some friends would buy. We weren’t trying to tap into a greater market of people we can relate to. We want people to come down to the party and have fun, but it’s not about how talented we are. ‘Watch me wail on guitar.’ What I would say about the ’60s comparison is we believe in ‘giving them a little of what they want.’ In old and early ’90s country music, the performer does not have to be this icon. It is supposed to be background noise for everyone to get drunk and dance and potentially get laid. Why do I have to play this music? I am better at making drunk people have a good time than I am at building a road or putting aluminum on the siding of a wall.
Can you live off music at this point?
Michael Coomers: We do alright but not really. We can live day-to-day and maybe come home and pay rent. I am not going to bitch—we are in a better position than most. You go on tour to have fun and goof off and it makes the days you work at the coffee shop worthwhile—making lattes for douches. But I am sitting here in a house with dead raccoons in the walls for ventilation. There’s no pie in the sky. It’s kind of shitty because there’s no fucking difference between us and any other band trying to make it. It’s timing or some weird idiosyncratic band that plays rock ‘n’ roll and gets a chance. Rock ‘n’ roll has been played for ages. You can buy a new record every day and you’d never have to buy anything beyond 1980. But if people like us and don’t try to make broad comparisons and will help us along, that’s awesome. We’re stoked that anyone likes what we’re doing. Otherwise, we’d be doing it, but with nobody being stoked about it.
Is struggling a genuine component of rock ‘n’ roll reality?
Michael Coomers: Being hungry for whatever it is—‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ If you’re comfortable you are not going to push anything. We played with a band in Santa Cruz—they were a good little band, a bunch of guys—they surfed all day, they had beautiful girlfriends and live by the beach and make rock ‘n’ roll at night. If you have that nice lifestyle, that doesn’t need to be shaken up. You’re not going to push anything to be any better than whatever it is that comes first to you. We’re not tortured, but we don’t have it easy. And you know what? It is hard to write simple pop songs. I’ve played in noise bands and fucked-up dissonant whatever bands and to write something that is far more simpler is way harder than people give it credit for. As dumb and straightforward as a song sounds, there’s a lot more attention to it than just sitting around and mimicking Pink in guitar riffs.
What about people taking you too seriously or not seriously enough?
Michael Coomers: We could go down a dark path talking like we are, and then people will find out our songs are about Ren and Stimpy. Everything is so serious. People see things so black and white and straightforward. This band is serious because they write songs that have lyrics about gun barrels or what Sylvia Plath died of. If you feel it, and it’s dark and it’s in your heart, and that’s what you need to talk about, OK. But the same ennui can be described in how your TV doesn’t work because they changed your converter. It’s the same thing. It’s about feeling dissociated with the way things are and how things look. We are not that dark. We’re sorta well-adjusted. We don’t have girlfriends that need to hold us when we cry on cold nights. Someone responded to Curtis’s song ‘Friendly Ghost’ as a song about a ghost. But I am pretty sure it’s not about Casper. I can guarantee he alluded to that because it sounded cool to him in lyrics. It’s not as straightforward as trying to get on the Haley Osment remake of Casper.
Where is that guy?
Michael Coomers: Last I saw him he was thuggish. No, that was the Jerry Maguire guy. He’s this homie kid now trying to be all hard. But, come on—the human head weighs five fucking pounds. Give me a break.

HARLEM WITH DANTE VS. ZOMBIES ON SAT., FEB. 20, AT SPACELAND, 1717 SILVERLAKE BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 8:30 PM / $8-$10 / 21+. CLUBSPACELAND.COM. HARLEM’S HIPPIES RELEASES ON TUE., APRIL 6, ON MATADOR. VISIT HARLEM AT MYSPACE.COM/HARLEMDUH.

Category: Features
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  • 1 Chilo Rachal // Feb 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    The coaches already know where my heart is. I say he’s the best nose in the game. You turn on the film and nobody plays with better technique, nobody knows the game better than he knows it. He keeps my head from getting busted on every play and I’m thankful for that.

  • 2 Dale Dreiling // May 10, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    This and other illustrations which I did for LA Record during 2009 are currently being exhibited at Echo Country Outpost until May 20th. ECO is located at 1930 Echo Park Ave, LA 90026.

  • 3 The Stickler // May 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Coomers Explosion!

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