Grouper Interview

Carole Stephens
• Friday, 01 January, 2021
• 11 min read

There is something characteristically Grouper about this dynamic: withholding an album from friends whilst preparing it for release to an adoring listener ship of thousands. Whether exploring long form, shadowed ambience or a frail kind of bedroom pop, this contradiction powers Harris’ activities.

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Her music is intimate in scope, but extremely broad in reach; it refuses to gesture at specifics, but its aching emotionality invites the listener to apply their own. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the social networked age, where it can seem more natural to broadcast your private thoughts to a hundreds-strong follower list than to open up to a close friend.

A song like ‘Clearing’ is simple, lilting, almost nursery-rhyme like, Harris’ usual shroud of reverb only hinted at in the way its sustained piano notes smear together like lamplight on a rainy night. Opener ‘Made of Metal’ consists of a single, steady drumbeat, so muffled that you’re compelled to reach for the volume control.

Having had the residency lined up through Lisbon’s Valeria He dos Boys, Harris cut off all her hair and left for Portugal. Not to mention the ruins of collapsing political and financial systems: Portugal was hit hard by the financial crisis, and the residency almost didn’t happen when the gallery’s funding was cut at the eleventh hour (in the end, Harris stayed in the house of music director Sérgio Hidalgo’s aunt).

It’s tempting to see this slowness as a calculated strategy on Harris’ part; an attempt to escape the hectic rush of contemporary life and enter a slower slipstream, where music from three years ago feels like it could’ve been recorded yesterday, or a decade prior. Ruin closes with ‘Made Of Air’, recorded much earlier, in 2004, in Harris’ mother’s house.

Following the simplicity and clarity of much of the album, it is lengthy, withdrawn and cryptic; it seems intent on disappearing beneath a cloud of its own reverberate. In order to give you the best experience, we use cookies and similar technologies for performance, analytics, personalization, advertising, and to help our site function.

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Through headphones on the bus, in competition with the diesel engine, doesn’t count, nor playing it in the background as you bleed minutes into the internet. I realized I hadn’t done this for quite some time as the final seconds of Grouper ’s new-old album ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ Cranky faded away a few weeks ago.

In the five years since its release the Portland artist has turned her head from the guitar toward the more ambient-focused work of ‘A A : Alien Observer’ and ‘A A : Dream Loss’ , and the almost-choral reverb of last year’s ‘Violet Replacement’ . ‘The Man Who Died…’ is a look back, then, but a timely one; a chance to reflect on her radically different circumstances it transpires as we chat.

I say chat, I mean email back and forth as this is how Harris prefers to conduct interviews. Just as her music engulfs and enthrall, her openness is overwhelming and actually kind of humbling.

I had no perspective on what it was at the moment, but in retrospect I feel that the songs on ‘Man Who Died’ and ‘Dragging’ were a sort of outside force moving through me, a relieving/healing process, in the way that blood-letting is. I think a lot about how helpful it can be to let an energy leave your own body, and return to you in an independent form, or costume.

Shamanism talks about a sort of soul departure that happens when we encounter something too traumatic for us to handle. Having respect for that energy as its own independent force, acknowledging it and listening to what it has to say, is one of the tools for inviting it back into the whole.

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It was like someone reached into the control panel of my brain and literally slowed me down, rooting me in my body in a way I couldn’t have planned. Being inside my body forced me to feel how badly it was doing, which gave me more incentive to initiate the process of trying to heal.

The only way to calm the anxiety of their pace and intensity, was to focus my gaze on theirs, at which point they would fly straight through me. The sensation was overwhelming, but it felt much better than watching their random flight patterns and erratic behavior.

One with Lawrence English is pretty landscape-oriented, one with Were Cantu is all emotion and lack of sleep. Cranky release Grouper ’s new album ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ on 4th February 2013.

She relocated here in 2013, the latest in a series of northward moves up the coast over the last two decades, most recently from Portland. Thirty-seven now, she has lived solely from her creative work for about seven years: She makes ingrown and visionary Grouper records outside traditional studios, designs her album covers, mails out her own limited vinyl editions, tours without a manager, and in the process has become a kind of exemplary DIY artist, at some personal and emotional expense.

The Grouper project generally takes the form of songs, but it is also a mood, and maybe even a collective mood in a metaphorical room: a contemplative and cathartic space involving simple technology and difficult emotional processing. If you have seen Harris cross-legged on the floor, often below projections of experimental films by her friend Paul Clip son, singing while managing her guitar and pedals and tape recorders with great concentration, you have seen someone who would prefer not to perform.

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It is a working-class town with tall trees and Victorian houses and terraced gardens and a six-mile river walk along the old railroad line. It is also a wildcatters’ terminus that has experienced a fair amount of trauma beyond what the plaque’s passive-voice, manifest-destiny constructions skates over.

Two great fires, in 1883 and 1922, decimated large areas of the city, whose pavement had been built over wooden pilings and planks. Some fishing business remains, embattled by sea lions, who gather by the hundred at the town’s docking areas, damaging power and water lines, and eating the salmon.

I see Harris later on that rainy day at a restaurant where I’d been served a very good martini and magnificent local oysters by a bartender with neck tattoos. After having witnessed her talk with ease and lightness to local friends in town and, by contrast, express so much struggle about her work to me, I can’t bring myself to interfere with her Saturday night.

Cranky, her label, at first worried that listeners would feel short-changed: Among distributors, that is considered short for an album. The album is a set of songs recorded in the winter of 2014 during a music residency at the Across Foundation, in Northern Wyoming, where she was basically confined to a room with a piano during a cold snap: One day the temperature fell to 18 below zero.

A press release for the record quotes Harris saying that the songs are inspired by “the idea that something is missing or cold.” Not unusual: death, sleep, water, family, and weather are common themes in her work. Her 2013 record, The Man Who Died in His Boat,takes its title from a shipwrecked boat Harris and her father once saw on the beach in Molina, California; Harris wrote an anecdote about it in a prepared statement for that record.

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Much of the community dynamics revolved around Anne Haas, one of the Sonoma group’s founders and its instructional paragon. One of the precepts of the Work involves doing the opposite of what is natural or comfortable to you, and so for instance Harris, a shy kid, was made to play a leading role in a “bent version” of a Christmas play as a Mi wok Mother Mary, with singing parts.

At 11, she left the Group to live with her father in Molina, 50 miles south, and started public school. On the first day, she remembers, girls surrounded her on the schoolyard and asked her what kind of music she listened to.

“I wanted something contained that was purely about calming me and being enjoyable.” Hence, patterns, which she especially likes because they are not perfect, but you have to get up close to them to see the imperfections. In 2009, Animal Collective invited her on tour with them, just as they were finding a considerable audience with the record Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Now she’s beginning to question that decision for basic reasons of balance, and is still working through the after-effects of her early life. It was at the warehouse where she lived: Robot, named after the surrounding Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland.

(She had a terror and fascination with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as a child and later, in college, forced herself to watch them as a kind of trauma therapy.) She did the whole set from the back room of Robot’s performance space, such that everyone there had thought they were listening to a DJ.

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She later called herself Grouper, she explains, because she wanted “a reference that was all mine and completely personal, and also the opposite, at once. Grouper records once were murky and crypto-symphonic, eerie and intense but relatively gentle within the spectrum of the Bay Area noise and experimental music scene of the early aughts.

Some songs on Way Their Crept were inspired by what she calls “Krueger-esque nightmares” or “demon dreams.” She feels, ultimately, that the music came out on its own. Harris has no musical training other than piano instruction from her father, who also made her mixtapes of classical music when she was young, including various pieces by Argo Part, Janacek’s piano cycle “In the Mists,” and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.

I think I’ve spent much of my life feeling like I was a mistake, needed to change myself in order to fit in, which of course would involve talking more or better. I suppose in the silence there is a lot of trying to come to terms with myself, examining a need for slowness and space.

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