Monday, May 18, 2009

Old Harriet

The Old Harriet show last week at the student center on the campus of George Mason University was not a major campus event. Mason's graduation had already happened and the campus was nearly deserted. Summer term started yesterday, which means that the residential students have been replaced by commuters, who are less likely to show up at 10 PM on a weeknight to hear an obscure rock band. There was a small cadre of black-clad hipsters, drawn by the explosive debut EP by the Akron trio (which was, inexplicably, released only on vinyl.) And there were a few Mason students who'd come to see the novelty of an ensemble of three girls under the age of 16.

But Old Harriet are no novelty act. Nor are they a corporate package (eg The Jonas Sisters or something). Songwriter Harriet Anderson (guitars, harpsichord, occasionally vocals) fronts the band with a demeanor equal parts confidence and boredom. It's a good thing that she arranges her harpsichord parallel with the stage; otherwise you get the feeling that she'd wander off into the shadows and stay there for the entirety of the show. And the music, though dance-y in it's own deranged way, is dense, and structurally and harmonically complex.

Ten minutes into the set, the de Vocke sisters kicked off their single (insofar as this teenage noise-pop act has singles) "You Dastardly!" with a propulsive and mammoth bass and drum intro. Anderson leaned way out over her harpsichord ("It's a contemporary recreation of a 17th century model," she said later. "I leave the original at my mom's house.") and, holding chords on the keyboard with her left hand, used an ebow to generate an incredible series of overtones. As the harpsichord feedback faded gently down as Anderson removed the ebow, she leaned over to the microphone, and in a raspy alto sang,"You dastardly devil you/Is this as far as you'll go?"

The Mason students in the back watched for a few minutes, and went out to grab a smoke. After the set's final song, "Do You Do You/Will You Will You," an off-kilter 70's-punk inspired number, played at a furious pace and louder than God, Anderson kneeled down to her pedal rack and dialed up a blizzard of feedback. Then she put her guitar down on the stage and took the phone book off the harpsichord bench (Anderson clocks in at about 4 foot 9 inches) laid it across the sustain pedals and literally tossed the engaged ebow on top of the strings. It rattled and buzzed and hummed around inside the harpsichord shell, causing the sound guy to fly into a tizzy, fading back volume knobs to keep George Mason University within noise code. 

I managed to track down Old Harriet after the show. They were sipping Coronas in what I guess passes for the dressing room at the Student Center--a small conference room off the coffee shop. The de Vocke sister rhythm section contingent sat in the corner in lazy boys texting and laughing. Anderson offered me a beer. I politely declined. 

"The first band I was in was with my boyfriend," says Harriet Anderson. "He played guitar, and his friend Vijay had inherited his older brother's drum set, and I had been learning drums, and they needed a bass player. I had been taking piano lessons since I was little, so the bass came pretty easy."

UPS: "Who wrote the songs?"

HA: "Well. Rick did at first. My now ex-boyfriend. But mostly he and Vijay would smoke up in the backyard."

UPS: "You didn't smoke with them?"

HA: "No. It was the only time I got to play drums."

UPS: "Wait, how old were you at this point?"

HA: "12."

UPS: "Ah."

HA: "So but after a while, Rick quit writing songs altogether, so I started writing songs on the guitar but Rick wasn't crazy about them."

UPS: "Fear of emasculation, I suppose."

HA: "Well I don't know, I mean, my song writing has gotten a lot better. At the time songs were, you know, like two three-chord progressions and melodies that kind of lagged along behind. For the EP we were really focusing on melodies that drive, and harmonic progressions that are, I mean, certainly tonal, but disguised, I guess, through inversions and pedal tones and that kind of thing."

UPS: "And timbre."

HA: "Yeah, that's a big part of it."

UPS: "How did this band get together?"

HA: "Well after a while  Rick and I broke up and so the band broke up. Hard to say which came first, really. There came this moment where Rick said something to someone like 'and my girlfriend's in my band, and she learned bass in like a week.' It can be hard to feel like you're being taken seriously when you're always being introduced as 'The Lovely Harriet.' So I've known the de Vocke sisters since they moved next door, so the day after Rich and I broke up, I marched over and told them we were starting a band, and they said they were going on a date with these guys that night and were busy. I ended up inviting myself along, and they actually wanted to go to Guitar Center to show off their Zeppelin riffs to the de Vocke girls, so while they were doing that, I managed to sneak a bass and most of a Pearl drum set out the side door."

UPS: "They didn't see you?"

HA: (laughs) "No. I think they were busy trying to get the boys to turn down their Marshall stacks. So for the next couple of weeks--this was during the summer--I spent a couple hours a day teaching the girls how to play. They really had an ear for it."

UPS: "I'd say so."

The de Vocke sisters: "Thanks."

UPS: "Here's a different question. I know for me, like 90% of being a musician is getting to know other musicians. You sort of cultivate this isolated genius thing on stage--you're the frontwoman, you write the songs, you and your gear take up all this space on stage. But it's also about relationships, and I know for me that mostly means sitting around at band practice drinking and talking about boobs. Was it hard to get into the scene, being so young, and being three teenage girls?"

HA: (thinks for a minute) "Yeah, I think so. I mean, luckily we have the drinking thing down. On the one hand it's kind of a novelty, like three teenage girls making all this noise, you know. But I think people are often expecting something different, which can work against us. And also it's sometimes hard to hang out with other musicians, which is crucial, obviously. I think we sort of interrupt their usual sex drugs and rock and roll banter, and so we have these really terrible halting conversations. Or they just proceed like normal and ignore us completely. Things are generally less awkward after we play because, luckily, we're really good."

UPS: "You are really good--"

HA: "--Thank you! I'm glad you liked the show!"

UPS: "I definitely did! And it's amazing because Old Harriet is the closest thing I've ever seen to this sort of abstract ideal of what pop music should be--danceable, accessible, infectious, but also contemplative, emotional, and serious all at once. I sometimes feel like I hear this stuff in my head, but then I sit down and try to play, and I get--well, something unrelated. It makes me feel like that music I have in my head isn't music at all, but more like my emotional attachment to music abstracted from actual sound. It's sort of like, when I was a teenager, I had this idea that you could become cool simply by playing good music. That it was literally possible to make undeniably great pop music, songs that no one could listen to and dislike. But that has to be incorrect, right? Doesn't it have to be about the scene and what's in fashion and that kind of thing? No matter how good you are? It just seems like the history of music is littered with people who were under-appreciated because they weren't the right race or in the right scene."

HA: "You're saying even though you were blindingly brilliant when you were a teenager, the cool kids still didn't like you?" 

UPS: (laughing) "No, no, I don't mean that."

HA: "I'm kidding, I think I follow. Like Antennae--do you know them?"

UPS: "No."

HA: "They're this French band from the '70s, and they made this incredible fusion of Kraftwerk and Bossa, that's really compelling and fun and not at all cheesy. But they sort of got left in the dust because while they were turning towards their latin krautrock, the rest of the world discovered punk."

UPS: "Exactly, and then what does that say about music as any kind of meritocracy?"

HA: "No, you're right. But the thing is, you have to know that, and know that people think certain thins about you because you're a teenage girl or whatever, but if you love music, you have to do it anyway. And you have to believe that if you're good, and if you work hard enough and long enough, you can be successful. Because that's kind of the only hope we have."

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