questions of doom with liz harris of grouper
In 2008, one record 'Dragging a Dead Deer' by Grouper made its way into our pop subconscious; beautiful, creepy and lilting, it is an easy underground classic. We caught up with Grouper singer and songwriter Liz Harris to discuss her intentions and find out what she thinks of her Grouper experience in this week's Questions of Doom.
What are the secret origins of Grouper?
I’m from the Moon. Excuse me, a Commune on the Moon.
What made you move from being all instrumental too just voice?
Well, to clarify, it has never been all instrumental. There have always been vocals, and the vocals were singing decided and intentional lyrics, it’s just that I guess one can’t determine them. Which is funny in retrospect because I was mortified people would hear the words and know what I was saying, and then people said there were no words at all. As for a move, I just like to change things, and I recently wanted to change the vocals so that I could hear them for a little while.
Its odd, when I have your record cover out, people look at it and think ‘pretty’ and then when they look at it further they usually say its ‘pretty disturbing’ - what were your thought behind the record cover?
There’s disturb like a wind disturbs the mirror of a water’s surface and then there’s disturb like a knife disturbed the structure of the flesh. I’m guessing the record cover you are talking about is the one for DDD. I liked that picture because my mother took it, and I like to use art connected to something thick, like family blood. I used my father’s picture for another release and it seemed like it would balance it a bit. I like the nostalgic reference, and the backwards mirror of that, because really in no way would one actually want to relive most of childhood.
I find there is a balance that you are trying to keep through nature and music? What was the inspiration behind naming the recording ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’? Is nature influential on your music?
‘Nature’ as in the Ocean inspires, the Wind, the Snow, the Rain, the Moon. Whatever entity it is that all of this is is great, and inspiring. The deer reference is a sort of personal recollection, a symbol of fear and familarity, something from the past, decrepit, following like a shadow.
You are a quick writer with songs, I was speaking with Voice of the Seven Woods about his last release and he told me he felt it was hard too talk about as it felt too him, ‘too old’—he’d rather talk about songs not written yet—do you feel the internet is a good tool to get the songs straight out? Do you feel there is more freedom with the CDR underground?
I think there’s a lot more of everything with the CDR underground. I like accessibility on the one hand, but CD’s and especially CDR’s seem like cheap objects, made to break, made to be disposable, made of gross material—plastic, and I find the ease with which they’re made to seem to inspire people to put out anything and everything they ever record. It’s done away with the filter. It is too easy, and it has amplified peoples’ egos. I think if you really feel you have something you want people to hear, and you spent that much time with it you may as well put it out on vinyl. Make it last forever. If you’re thinking of burning CDR’s might as well just skip it and put it online, as it would reach more people that way anyway, and cost you nothing. If its an expense issue, and you still want an object to hand to people, which is nice, do a tape instead of a CDR. They’re prettier as objects, and last longer, and sound better too.
As for my song speed, part of it is quick, and part of it is very slow, slow to where you have to make excuses and cover it up.
I read alot of reviews before purchasing Dragging a Dead Deer - one thing that I felt was the returning adjective of ‘sleepy’ or talking about sleep, yet, the record feels rather disturbing? What was your intention behind the record? Was it too capture the nether world of sleep?
Who intends to be the person they are or think the thoughts they think, and what’s behind those intentions? I don’t know myself that well, not sure anyone really does. My nephews told me my music makes them sleepy, also that it wasn’t loud enough. I would prefer to go to a different world and the closest we have to that besides space travel is an inner world. Its not so much that I really love the act of sleep, but that I love that escape from reality, the potential for the impossible, removing myself from the stress of today’s culture world, from people talking all the time, etc. I like being somewhere alone that is very quiet. Sleep is one of those places. The intent of the album is a fishing net cast out and reeled in. It is an expression of a certain person in a certain language at a certain time about some piece of their world. The world being pieced, though, is not my own and not certain. Its a simultaneously internal and external one that we all are connected by.
A friend of mine (Cherrystones) was raised on a commune in the early 70s and produces music, he told me the way he views the world changed because he spent his time inside the commune and feels more comfortable being outside the music industry rather than in (despite several lucrative offers) - how has your childhood commune experience affected or influenced your songwriting and methods of being a music maker?
Whether or not its because of the Group, I am a shy person, and I prefer recording to performing, which also doesn’t fit well in to any music industry. I am much much more comfortable outside of a situation, looking in on it. I love to watch. Having an audience, at least for a solo act that is vulnerable, is very uncomfortable for anyone probably.
I never want money to be the motivating factor for playing music or art, i.e. I’ve got to put out this record to make rent. Expectations are a great ruiner.
The values the Group was in to go directly against most elements of the modern music industry, most of modern culture. Need for attention, lack of care for others, strutting like a peacock, motivated by money. It’s like a cheap magic show. Pleasure in surveillance.
What is the biggest musical misconception of Grouper?
I feel when I meet people that they meant to meet some other expectation of me, and that in that regard I disappoint. It is very hard to know what people think about you, and thus know which thoughts are right or wrong. People think I did not sing on the first album, that maybe the biggest. Often they think there is more than one person in the group, which is also untrue.
Was it difficult take to the stage with the vocals? Did it make you feel more exposed rather than usual (or unusual) layers of noise?
Taking stage was way more uncomfortable when I first started. I did have vocals then too. But I never thought about having to play when I first recorded. Awful panic. It’s been a painful growing process. As a child we were taught to do the things we most avoided, and I was made to play the lead role in plays that we performed, because I was so shy. It felt like that all over again.
I see it differently now. It’s still distracting and disruptive at times, but I have more of a handle on certain things. I like to try out a challenge. And I get to go to new places. It’s nice to feel that someone wants you to go somewhere and play for them. I just try to be honest, to be exactly what I’m being, and it helps with nervousness. Nothing to be nervous about if you are being true, don’t claim to be something you aren’t. Just me up there singing the way I do, playing guitar the way I do, singing those songs I wrote. That’s all it is.
What have you been listening too lately?
I have been listening to very loud wind outside rattling the metal siding of my house that is coming loose near the door. My landlord doesn’t fix things. How about…an old Outkast record, Red House Painters, Hercules and Love Affair!