The Harlem Shakes : Q&A, Part II

<img src="" alt=" " />In the second half of this wide-ranging interview, The Harlem Shakes talk about their favorite cities they've played, rehearsing at the 'end of the world',...

QRO: You guys have played all across the country.  Were there any specific places you really liked, or really didn’t like?

KS: There were a lot of places we really liked, yeah.  We found the crowds in Asheville [North Carolina], just the people, awesome.

JS: Asheville ruled.

KS: This little pocket of people…

JS: With this hidden, little, artsy aspect.

KS: Where else did we like playing?

JS: San Francisco…

KS: We loved playing in San Francisco; it’s a beautiful stage.

JS: Austin was great, Nashville’s been pretty good to us, Athens was great, L.A., pretty cool…

KS: Yeah, L.A., we’ve been there a few times, people are starting to know us.

JS: Chicago was exceptional.

KS: Chicago was, far and away, our favorite place to play.  We just love being in Portland, we loved being in Seattle…

JS: I’m a real urbanist…

KS: Well not ‘real’.

JS: I mean ‘real’, by a lot, and so my favorite places have been Montreal, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Austin…

KS: I’m from right around Cleveland, so I’m predicting we’re gonna like Cleveland.  We basically liked a lot of the places we’ve played.  We had a few… rough experiences.

JS: I think there’s two or three places we haven’t liked…

KS: It’s kind of circumstantial.

JS: We won’t call them out by name.

KS: We’re gonna give them another chance, because they were probably just having a bad day.

QRO: How did you all meet, and what happened?

KS: Brent [Katz] started the band in high school, and then Lexy joined.  Then Jose and me at college.  And then we were looking for a guitarist, and we heard this band Arms, which is Todd Goldstein’s project.  Talked to him, and he came to rehearsal…

JS: And hung out with us, and he wasn’t a creep.  That was the number one prerequisite.  He wasn’t a huge asshole.  ‘Cause everyone else had been…

KS: Everyone else that we’d tried…

JS: Looking for a guitarist is like…

KS: The most miserable thing ever.

JS: I can’t even think of a metaphor that’s appropriate.  It’s horrible.

KS: We were gonna to shoot ourselves in the genitals, any second, but then Todd came along, and were like, “This guys amazing!”

JS: Riding on horseback, with a shiny sword.  And an axe.

KS: And he just really liked our stuff, and we really liked him.

JS: We’re engaged.

QRO: You’re all now in Brooklyn – Where in Brooklyn?

JS: Carol Gardens, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights…  We rehearse on South 4th and Driggs, which is considerably nicer than our former rehearsal space, which was South 11th and Wythe, which is basically the end of the world.  It’s like, you know where a cartographer draws the map, and at some point stops, and there’s this little sea monster?  ‘Uh, we don’t really go there…’

KS: It’s a picture of a car on fire…

JS: Oh, definitely, an abandoned car!

KS: There’s a sign on our old rehearsal space, a ‘Tenant’s List of Grievances’.

JS: ‘There’s no hot water in this building’, ‘There’s rats and roaches’, ‘The mail doesn’t come frequently’…

KS: ‘The landlord doesn’t do anything you ever ask him to’…

JS: And it gets worse and worse, until ‘There are mugging’s on this street’…

KS: Frequent muggings.

JS: ‘Frequent muggings on this street’…

KS: ‘There are frequent car thefts’…

JS: Blah, blah, blah, worse and worse and worse, until finally, the money shot is, ‘

There are frequent car burnings on this street

’.  We live in like the Paris suburbs…

QRO: The banlieues…

JS: Exactly.  The race riots…

QRO: You often get lumped in the sort of whole Brooklyn/Lower East Side indie scene that everyone’s talked about since The Strokes and Interpol.  Do you enjoy the comparisons, don’t like ‘em, or don’t care?

KS: I think that was more ‘apt’ ‘cause we used to be basically a different band, and around that time, we did sound more like those bands.  But basically, since Todd joined about a year ago, it’s basically like the band’s reformed and reconceptualized, and that’s like not what we’re doing at all, anymore.  So now I don’t think that comparison even makes sense.

JS: My feeling is that people are always gonna make comparisons.  Like, just generally the way people think about, well music specifically, but just everything in general is like, people like to compartmentalize and categorize and simplify to make things fit logically.  ‘Oh, this is like this, so it makes sense, and it fits here.  I’m gonna move it here.’  Not in like a reductive sense, but in a like…

QRO: Sorting things out.

JS: Exactly.

KS: That’s exactly what it is.  It’s not good or bad; it’s just like placing…

JS: To create order out of chaos.  Because that’s what the music industry is: it’s total chaos.  So people need some semblance of order to not freak themselves out about what they want to listen to.

KS: It doesn’t seem to make sense anymore because I think that we draw on things like Phil Spector, old girl group stuff, and Brian Eno, rather than The Strokes.  We love The Strokes, so it’s not like a band we don’t like…

JS: We love the old school Strokes.  I, for the record, didn’t like their most recent album, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s like, you know, they tried.  They did what they wanted to do, and that’s great for them, it’s just not, personally, for me.

That’s what music is.  There’s no good or bad.  Well, I guess sometimes there’s a bad, but more often than not, there’s no good or bad.  It’s all about preference.  If you want to do this, and if people want to listen to it, if they don’t want to listen to this, if they don’t like it…  That’s great.

KS: We’ve kind of gotten more specific; we’ve have a more specific sound now.  We’re doing our own thing …

QRO: You recorded your EP, Burning Birthdays, last year…

JS: We went into saying, ‘These five songs (which we had written and prepared to record) are going to be the EP.’

KS: We knew exactly what we wanted, and all, except for “Sickos”, were songs we’d written in the past few months.

QRO: You worked with Chris Zane [Les Savy Fev, Asobi Seksui]…

KS: Chris Zane is a baller.  He’s got such a good sense of how to produce and how to record.  He’s so attune to what we wanted…

JS: He’s got a really, really soft touch.

KS: He really took what we wanted, and let it just explode.

JS: He totally gets the nuance we’re looking for, and really understands the importance of subtlety, and minor, minor changes that make a significant impact.

KS: He also does know how to layer lots things, put lots of things along the mix.

JS: There’s a lot of crazy drum parts.

QRO: How did you think your live translates to your recorded?

KS: Completely different ballparks, I’d say. 

I think playing live is, like, maybe the most fun thing to do, in the world

JS: Unless you’re two days out of surgery.

KS: Oh yeah, poor guy.  This guy’s a baller…

We love all the parts our songs, we really hammer them out until we’re really all excited about everything in the song, so playing live is super exciting, super fun, and we love how it translates to album, but recording?  I think we can use the metaphor, ‘it’s the difference between a movie and a play.’  You can do things that you can’t do live.

JS: It’s a completely different process.  You have to think differently about how you play, what you play, when you play, and how to react to what other people are playing.  I feel a little bit looser when we play live, a little bit free to let energy take the playing where it will, and you’re much more under the microscope when you’re recording, where every minute detail – finger slides, should I play this C or just wait and go right to the beat?…  Live, you can just kind of do it, and like, ‘Hey, that sounded weird’, but recording you have to make to the decision.

KS: Recording, also, you have such a fine-tooth comb.

JS: You also have more tools at your disposal.  You can take your brain and turn into music.

KS: We love recording because we can make it exactly what we want.

JS: You have a lot more control, ‘Make it sound more like this’, ‘No, I want a fuller, warmer sound’, ‘Make it more warble-y’, ‘Make it more this’, ‘Punch it a little bit more’, and touch-touch-touch…

QRO: Are you planning doing a ‘full’ album at some point?

JS: We are going to start recording the first pieces of what will be a full-length album, very, very, initial stages, initial tracks, they might even be demos, but like, the very first building blocks that are going to be the album.

KS: Brand-new songs.

QRO: So you’re not going to take Burning Birthdays stuff and put it onto the album?

KS: A couple tracks might make it.

JS: I think we’ll take one or two.  We’re not averse to taking a couple, but we definitely don’t want to just put the whole thing on it.

KS: We’re not transferring anything.  We want the recording to represent what we’re like right now.

JS: And if we put some of the songs, it won’t be–

KS: It won’t be the same recording.

JS: And it won’t necessarily be for lack of material, but just because it fit the cohesiveness – This is our first record, and let’s put our best foot forward.

KS: We got a lot of new songs that we’re excited to record.

QRO: You and Burning Birthdays have gotten a lot of press attention lately [Pitchfork, ‘Band of the Day’, a New York Magazine ‘favorite local act’ of 2006, Stylus, Time Out New York, Playboy, Nylon,, NPR…].  Is there’s anything that’s been particularly special?

KS: I kind of think that if you’re gonna be doing something that’s making bad things and good things, and there’s a lot of a factors contributing to why you’re doing it, I have to take it with a grain of salt, if it’s good, or if it’s bad, because I know that there are so many reasons why people…

JS: We’re waiting for someone to tear us to shreds.

KS: It’s nice to read somebody write something nice about us…

JS: And it stinks to read something mean, but it’s not the end of the world.  The same way it’s not ‘the best thing ever’ when somebody writes something awesome.  It’s just like, ‘Wow, this is a really flattering, humbling thing…’

QRO: Nothing special when you were in Playboy?

KS: I was pretty excited when we were in Playboy.  I actually went out and–

JS: My dad’s coworker mentioned it to him, which I think is really funny.

KS: We were all kinda squeamish about going and getting one, so I was like, ‘C’mon, we gotta read what they wrote!’  So I went out to get the Playboy.  I was misinformed, and so I got the wrong one.  So I actually read a whole Playboy, front-to-back, and back-to-front, because I thought I’d missed it; it was the month after…  So I’ve actually read a Playboy for the articles.

QRO: How’s it all been [with all the coverage]?  Are you all ‘rock star’ now, or are you ‘keeping it real’?

KS: ‘

We’re going all rock star, man – Fuck real!

JS: The next step is finding new jobs.  Oh, it’s more miserable than it is funny.  It sucks…

KS: All of us quit our jobs.  I quit my job for the last tour, and everybody else quit their jobs for this tour.

JS: Fuck being ‘rock stars’, man.  The whole concept sort of grates on me a little bit…

KS: The thing that we would like to do is to be able to do this only, so we could spend more time thinking about it, more time to dedicated to making it what we want.

JS: Yeah, it would be nice to totally concentrate on the music and be able to tour at will, and not have to worry about fucking up school, and work, and all these other things that sort of get in the way…  We have to negotiate some pretty tense waters.

KS: And not being on a label, we have to do a lot of the stuff that people would be doing for us.

QRO: Have you been shopping, looking, trying, negotiating to get a label?

JS: Well, we’ve been chatting, but we’re not working that hard…

KS: We’re kind of doing what we want to be doing, so a label if helped us do that would be nice, but we’re going on tour with bands that we like, we’re putting out recordings we like.  We’re kind of doing it, so we’re in no rush for a label, because the only reason we’d want a label is if they could help us do something we couldn’t do, and we’re doing what we want.

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