The Harlem Shakes : Q&A

<img src="" alt=" " />Coming near the end of their tour with Tapes ‘n Tapes and Ladyhawk, the Brooklyn-based Harlem Shakes’ Jose Soegaard and Kendrick Strauch sat down with...

  Soegaard had had to have his appendix removed two days earlier in Ohio, forcing The Harlem Shakes to cancel their New York and Boston appearances, but Soegaard had bounced back for a side appearance with fellow openers Ladyhawk (QRO photos) at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge.  And Soegaard and Strauch were able to discuss that and much more, including how the rest of their tour’s been going (from the great cities to being trapped in Yellowstone National Park), their first tour with Deerhoof, recording their debut, Burning Birthdays (QRO review), their next album plans, their label plans, their rotating saxophone players, and much, much more…

QRO: How’s Jose?  I guess you’re all right enough to play?

Jose Soegaard: I actually woke up on Friday morning at about ten o’clock in the hospital, and the first thing I did was, really groggily, yell for my cell phone.

Kendrick Strauch: So we get this cell phone call, and it’s like, “Hey… it’s Jose… I’m playing the show… in Irving…”  And we were like, ‘Yeah, he’s gonna make it!  Oh wait, Jose’s insane.  He’s on fucking morphine.’

JS: They were gonna let me out of the hospital by two o’clock, and my plan was to get on a four o’clock plane in Ohio, get to New York, play the show, and then pass out.

KS: And die from internal bleeding.

JS: And then die.  But they looked up flights, and the only flight was like with a layover…  There was no direct flight that made sense at the time.  It wasn’t even really an option.

QRO: Was all of this making you more determined to get tonight’s show on?

KS: It was a huge payoff, to actually be able to play this show, as opposed to… canceling our entire tour and breaking up as a band.  We’re really excited for the show.

JS: I’m glad we added it.  The Irving Plaza (QRO venue review) show sold out so quickly, that Ladyhawk – They’re from Vancouver, so it’s not very often that they’re in New York, so they wanted to get a chance to make sure all of their fans could come out and see them there, since Tapes ‘n Tapes (QRO photos from later Irving Plaza show) sold out the Irving show so quickly.

So they said, “We’re going to play Mercury (QRO venue review), you’ve got this day off, you guys should do it with us.”

KS: Hell ya!

JS: We love those guys, so it made sense.

QRO: Pre-surgery, how’s your tour been going?

JS: Pretty well, I’d say.  Some ups and downs.  The downs include obviously appendicitis, losing my glasses – that’s why I’m wearing prescription sunglasses.

KS: It’s really creepy.

JS: It’s fine during the day, but it’s a little bit weird at night.

We have a windshield that’s cracked about halfway across the windshield.  It’s about two second away from being a worse tragedy than appendicitis.

KS: Decapitation.

JS: But we don’t talk about it.

KS: Our van was towed, the first day of touring, with all our equipment in it.  That was fun.

QRO: Where was that?

JS: In Williamsburg [Brooklyn].

KS: We were about to like, ‘Let’s go and do it!– Aw, fuck… We don’t have a van.”

We lost horrible things.  We lost all of the money from one of the shows on the second day.

JS: We’re focusing on the bad, though…

KS: We got the van back.

JS: In like, an hour.  We’ve had it towed before, so we knew where it was, so we took a cab there immediately.  We knew it was in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, so we took a cab right there, and we’re like, ‘Give us our car’, and they were like, ‘Give us your duckets.’

But the bad has been like annoying, like ‘life’ stuff, like that.  None of those things are actually bad things that happen to ‘the band’ – they’re bad things that happen to us as ‘people’.  Things that matter for ‘the band’ have been great.  The shows have been wonderful, Tapes ‘n Tapes have been awesome, Ladyhawk’s been fantastic – we love those guys…

KS: Crazy, crazy guys.

JS: It’s been a really, really good bunch of guys.  It’s been fun, driving around the country… especially Montana.

KS: Montana is the coolest place!

JS: If you’ve never been there, drive through it for two or three days.

KS: We were just like, ‘What the fuck is this?  Where are we?  This is America?’

JS: One of the bads we forgot to say was we got trapped in Yellowstone.

KS: For like three hours, at ten o’clock at night.

JS: It’s about ninety miles by ninety miles.

KS: It’s not like a highway; you can only drive thirty or forty–

JS: There’s little, windy roads.  There’s only about five exits, and when we were leaving, three or four of them were closed.  So we kept getting to one, it was closed, and then having to back to the other one, ‘Oh, that one’s closed’, and turn around and drive like forty miles to the north, which is like way the wrong way…  Oh, it was horrible.  Horrible.

But seeing Yellowstone, Montana, that drive through the mountains, Earthquake Lake, Old Faithful…

KS: Also like the moon.

JS: Yellowstone looks like the moon, with bison.  We were like two feet away from a whole group of three, four?


It was a play-date of four mommy and baby bison couples.

QRO: Have you ever toured this much – and/or this far?

JS: This is our second tour.

KS: And our first tour was like, a month-and-a-half ago.  So yeah, this is really new to us.  Especially not this far.

JS: I first tour was with Deerhoof, at whose feet we worship solemnly.  It was a really great ‘first tour’ experience, because it was short, it was only two weeks, it was just right up and down the coast, all the way down to Miami, and sort of looping back…

KS: The fans were so nice…

JS: This tour [with Tapes ‘n Tapes], I think, is something about like fourteen thousand miles.

QRO: So you’ve never done anything this big before?

JS: Never.  I think there are rumors that we might be headed to the U.K. in the fall.  It’s looking pretty good…

KS: The gossip columns are saying so.

QRO: How’d you get on Deerhoof’s tour?

KS: We met Deerhoof and played a show with them in August at the Pool Parties Festival.  At McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review), the Sunday shows.

JS: Which are gonna be awesome again this year.

KS: So rad.  [Last year] we went to every one we didn’t play.  It’s a huge, abandoned pool that looks like a Roman ruin.

JS: It was built by the WPA in The Depression, in like 1938.  It’s very Art Deco; it’s very like, ‘A Great Public Work’.  It holds about seven or eight thousand people.  It’s enormous, but it’s been out of commission as a pool since the mid-eighties.  So, a couple years ago, some people got together to try to figure out what to do with it.

KS: And Sarah Hooper, the great visionary, collaborated with others…

JS: A bunch of people collaborated, and they’re now using it for…  There’s a group that has film screenings there, and Clearchannel does shows there, and Jelly NYC is doing those free concerts.  It’s being used pretty multi-purpose.

KS: So when we played, we played on a bill with Beirut and Deerhoof, we got to be like friends, and we just kind of corresponded.

JS: And we somehow got a phone call a couple of months later from Deerhoof, and they said, “We’re going on this tour, and we’d love for you guys to pick up a leg of it.”  We did our CD release parties right before we left for tour with Deerhoof.  Those were really fun.

QRO: You mentioned Beirut.  Jon Natchez, who did saxophone on your album, he’s with Beirut.  So who’s the saxophone guy now?

JS: We have a rotating cast of characters.

KS: We have hired gun horn players.

JS: This guy, his name is David Kant.  He went to school with us, and is actually a little brother of a friend of mine, and a friend of Lexy [Benaim]’s.  We played a concert in New Haven a couple of months back, and he played with us then…

KS: He was just there, and we were looking for a saxophone player.

JS: He was really great, and we were like, ‘Hey man, we should take you on tour some time.’

KS: And he was like, ‘Yes!’

JS: We were talking with him in like March or April, and I basically just asked him, “When are your finals over?”  And he said, “My final ends this day”, I was like, “Get on a plane this day, meet us in Chicago…”

KS: He met us in Chicago, and would have played all the shows this weekend.  Instead he got to hang out with my family in Ohio.

QRO: What have you been doing before Chicago, with regards to saxophone?

KS: Begging people to play with us, and we’re batting about .500.

JS: We did pretty well.  Matt, from Tapes ‘n Tapes, has a euphonium that he played a couple times with us.  But it’s kind of annoying, to keep bugging him to play.  He was playing for us a lot when we were second of three, when they were right up next, but now that we’re first of three, two bands away from them, they’re always off getting dinner, or something like that.  We don’t want to sort of ‘tie him up’ for the whole evening.  But he’s great.

JS: Before the tour, we played with Jon Nanchez a lot, he played on our record, and he’s a ‘Jack of Many Trades’ and a wonderful human being.

KS: He’s fantastic.  I forgot to call him – oh, I was under the knife…

JS: Colin Stetson has played with us some times.

KS: He’s in Anti-Balas, and is currently touring with Arcade Fire.

JS: Kelly Pratt.

KS: Kelly Pratt, formerly of Beirut, and now is touring with Arcade Fire.

I don’t know if you heard anything about the Radio City show, but there was a trumpetist who came out and played trumpet from the balcony, and that’s Kelly Pratt, who is a spectacular musician, and an equally spectacular human being.

JS: Definitely a high-ranking horn person.  [Colin] looks like his name is ‘Colin Stetson’.  Kind of a rugged…

KS: He’s big…  He looks like a football player.  He doesn’t look like he plays for like afrobeat and transcendent indie rock.  But looks can be deceiving.

JS: He’s a great guy.  And we played with all sorts of other people too.

QRO: Was there any difference between Deerhoof and Tapes ‘n Tapes playing, touring with them?

KS: Well, of course, the music is completely different.

JS: I think we hung out with Deerhoof a lot more, because, circumstantially, they had a van, and not a bus.  So Tapes ‘n Tapes, not that we don’t hang out with them, but when they have their chill time, they’re usually just chilling on the bus, ‘cause it’s home.  With Deerhoof, we had a lot more time outside, like on top of each other.  We were in each other’s hair – in the best possible way…  I would creepily cut locks of Satomi [Matsuzaki, Deerhoof's singer]'s hair and keep them in a jar.  I’m a stalker.

KS: It’s been cool ‘cause members from Deerhoof played on stage with us, Greg [Saunier] played drums with us on a few songs, and that was awesome, and then Eric [Appelwick], the bass player from Tapes ‘n Tapes, played with us too.

JS: It’s cool that we just have this attitude, ‘Everybody come play with us.  We can always you a little extra of whatever you got.’  Whether it’s like banging on our drum–

KS: It’s usually banging on something.

JS: Or accordion, or shaking this thing, or playing this instrument, or doing whatever.

KS: Just yelling, dancing.

JS: And it worked out really well.

QRO: Did any of you guys get to play on-stage with them?

JS: I tried to insinuate Kendrick into playing on stage with [Deerhoof].  On the latest record [Friend Opportunity], there’s this one song on it called “Matchbook Seeks Maniac”, which is basically a beautiful soul song, with that really traditional sixties girl-group beat, ‘Dum, dum-dum, kish, dum, dum-dum, kish’ beat, and beautiful organs and this crazy, little, sparkling melody.  In my estimation, the best song I’ve heard this year, and I’m going to stick to that.

But they, unfortunately, were not playing it on the tour, because they didn’t have anybody to play keyboards.  So, I said, about a week into tour, “I love your set, I worship you guys, but where’s ‘Matchbook Seeks Maniac’?  Can you please, just do it once for me?”  And they were like, “Well, we don’t have any keyboards,” and I was like, “Funny you should say that, because we have a guy who learns really quick, and he plays a keyboard or two.  He’s a really nice guy – he’ll do it if you want him too.”

I think they were just like being nice, “Yeah, that’s sounds cool…”  I think they probably just didn’t want to disrupt the set.

KS: And that’s perfectly fine.  And I happily didn’t have any complaints.

JS: We did get walked in on once, sort of sound checking to “+81”, which is the single off their new record. 

It was like getting caught by your parents, you know… ‘doing the thing’ in your room by yourself.

KS: Doing ‘the thing’ with ‘the thing’.

JS: It was really embarrassing.

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