"Here are my 'too-long' answers..." opened the response to an email exchange we've kept over the past few months. Between and after some extensive travel and touring (Grouper performed shows in Australia and worked on a project in Russia this summer), we arranged some questions which prompted a series of thoughtful responses.
We could not be more pleased to present our second interview (the first being for Alarm Magazine in 2011) and subsequent second conversation in Love Lion's interview series with Oregon's own Liz Harris.
Most recently, Grouper followed the grainy and dreamy Paradise Valley 7" by sharing an unreleased track titled "Children" from the Ruins sessions. The release coincided with Bandcamp's call to action for and donation to the Transgender Law Center on August 4 of this year.
"Towards the end of making RUINS I wrote a song that never made it onto the album. Though it felt aesthetically similar, something about the content and energy felt distinct in a way that didn't fit the rest of the music. I pushed it away, unsure what to do with it, and eventually forgot I'd recorded it. This year, amidst chaotic and painful political times, while working on another project, it reemerged and made more sense."
If you are lucky enough to be near any of the three locations for the upcoming tour, we (highly) recommend seeing one the following live sets this fall. Sparse, restrained, and precise it is unlike nearly any other live performance we've seen.
Love Lion: You release in small editions and routinely on your own. Do you have a preference in keeping your projects self-released?
Liz Harris: It’s the only time I can come close to controlling exactly how an object ends up. There are things I literally can’t do with most labels that I want/need to — have an album cover without any text on it, for example, or no song titles or band name on the album at all, or skip doing press altogether. I enjoy the release process and take pride in knowing how to do it, pride in doing it with extreme care and in my own way. I get to hire and pay friends and interact with people directly. Studying art and printmaking gave me an appreciation for the vehicle and a love for making editions. When that album leaves and enters someone else’s life it is no longer yours, it’s theirs, and has to carry its own life force.
Sometimes it's nice to do both, as I have a few times recently with Kranky Records, pressing about 500-1000 for YE [Yellow Electric] that I sell through my own distro or Bandcamp. I like that I know how to, and could if I truly desired, but when it comes down to it I don’t want to deal with more than a thousand or so records at a time.
In addition, stubbornness/hatred/lack of patience or interest in press means that YE efforts in the past have consisted of emailing three people the day of a release with one line of text. Plus, I don’t have wide distro which I'm OK with at times. I’ve found it great to work with Kranky on projects for which these aspects needed more emphasis. I’ve also really enjoyed work with some other small labels over the years, like Root Strata and Room40. I’m lucky to also call these people my friends.
Has your music appeared in movies? How do you feel about film scores?
A few times, experiences ranging from shit to bliss. Being picky about licensing has kept me from working with a proper publisher. Most of them want you to be open to commercial work which, for the most part, I am not. I recently licensed a song to a television show [you guys are going to flip] It was one of a handful of times someone offered me an appealing, respectful and professional contract right off the bat. The times a genuinely compelling context and fee align are few and far between.
Perhaps my most enriching experiences working with film have been with Paul Clipson [director of Cruel Optimism & Feeler]. We made a feature length film and score called HYPNOSIS DISPLAY a few years ago. We have a mutual inspiration that is easeful and intuitive. We’re making another film/sound piece for CineChamber soon.
In addition to recording music, most know you are a visual artist. Which have you been focusing on lately or do you generally do both at the same time?
I go back and forth. At times they feed each other. I do most of the album artwork (exceptions including the beautiful photos Sarah Meadows lent for A I A and several photos my father took.) I guess the last few years have seen more of a drift towards prioritizing music. I did some epic (90 x 38 feet) mural work in Portland a few years ago and it gave me pause, to be honest. The amount of stress and time involved. I dream of having as much time as I want for both. Often now, I remember a comment in conversation with my friend Sergio quite a while back that, at the time did not but now, makes sense. How I must be making sacrifices trying to do justice to both. I feel pain at that, at the death of ideas — they are beings, so heavy to fail them but I also want to go for a walk or sit with my dog, go on a date, or show up for a protest. The balance can feel hard, I guess for anyone.
Do you find you work best at a residency/away or can you be creative at home?
I’m still working my way back to enjoying casually playing at home. In 2008/9 a balance changed and for a year or more instead of recording I would add new song titles to a list. All the while more people trying to talk to me about this thing I was still denying that I was doing -- making music. It felt like a knife stab when anyone asked me about music. I was living next to a power station and forcing myself to dredge old songs in a basement studio everyday. All of this combined into a crushing weight. The songs like people, friends, and that list were a symbol of everyone I was letting down. Folks talking about my practice to me was a constant reminder that I was being watched and judged throughout. I still have this list and I would like someday to burn it. I developed a phobia of playing music casually. When there is a new song, there is such pressure to follow through and do it justice. It’s draining without management. For a long while I mostly longed to shut it off.
Residencies allow me to compartmentalize and contain it all; they’re helpful for this reason. There are the nostalgic and thought-based stimulants that travel and emotional/physical distance give. I’ve had residencies where all I did was sleep, ones where I felt too pressured to work on anything good, and four now where I recorded a release. I’m a little reticent at this point to continue to say when something was made at a residency because the physical landscape has the potential to overcrowd the story of the music, which is always so internal. At this point, the place-refrain feels a little repetitive or absurd.
What are your feelings on venues? You are primarily playing galleries this summer. How do you choose where to perform your music?
I don’t like playing in classic club venues. It’s not about a pristine environment, crowd, place -- noise can be a perfect murmur in the background almost like another layer of tape hiss. Some where with history, with windows, where one can hear the cars passing or a train roll by, with wide and reverberant acoustics, an audience who came to listen, conditions that allow the audience to listen comfortably, a graveyard, a chapel, a house or an art space, seems a kind of poetic residue that adds to this music.
Once I started being invited to play such places it just felt hard and wrong for the music to go back to the black box, loud bar and fog machine. So as I began to feel more confident about making requests about shows I started asking to play in accessible venues without bars, without smoking, and with seating for the audience.
What are you looking forward to working on? Projects you're excited about?
I’m excited for Nivhek, I’m excited to be home more and chill with my 16 year old dog, and I’m researching getting a small boat with bio-diesel or electric trolling motor on it.
What is your dream job outside of playing music?
My dream job is not performing music. Most of my job ideas are more non-paying adventures than careers. I took a career test in my twenties and remember “related to the spirituality or the occult/religious leader” and “sailor." I’ve followed through on “sailor” --- I love very much being on the water. I do sailing races on my friend’s boat every summer in Astoria and am looking into getting a small boat with an electric outboard to toot around the Columbia River.
I’d like to get a shit job on a container ship or find a sailboat to crew on and do a trans-oceanic voyage at some point before I die. I volunteer at a National Park here in Astoria. Basically, I just pick up trash and kick rocks off the trails but I get to wear a uniform and use a walkie-talkie which is about 80% of the pleasure if I’m entirely honest. I’d really like to drive in a car race or demolition derby. I’d like to be paid to walk around or hike. My month-long hiking trip in New Zealand two years ago definitely cost me money though so still some work to be done there I guess. So far, as paying jobs go -- I spent my 20’s working with differently abled adults and I miss it every day. I love care-work, with children, elders, animals, whomever. It feels challenging and rewarding in a straightforward way that music doesn’t.
Hike, beach or long train ride?