Watching Clouds In The Distance

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On Monday, September 27, Liz Harris is returning to New Zealand to play two shows with support from her friend Stefan Neville (Pumice). Ahead of the tour I asked her to explain her often darkly lit, visually enticing live show; how touring with Animal Collective affected her live set-up and about the unusually morbid themes that run through her music.

Grouper and Pumice; Can you tell me how you and Stefan became acquainted?
Stefan and I did a tour together in New Zealand last year and came to be good friends. I knew him initially from playing with him in Portland.

Can you tell me about your travels in New Zealand, any experiences, memories?
I grew up on the coast of California in landscapes that look a lot like ones we drove through on that tour. The coast, the hills, all felt familiar, that dreaming sort of deja vu of being in a place I’d somehow forgotten I had been to and loved. I made really great friendships on the tour as well. Glad to be coming back.

Last time you played in New Zealand, at Whammy Bar in Auckland, the show was lit very dimly and you set up towards the back of the stage, somewhat distancing yourself from the audience. What is the nature of your live set-up now and how does it reflect your personality?
Similar to what it has been. It reflects a little bit about my personality, but only one facet of it. Being in bright lights doesn’t make sense for this music. The songs are about a world that’s better kept in half-light.

Can you tell me a little bit about your tour with Animal Collective in 2009, how did your two very different styles connect and how did the fans react?
We connected as people, as friends.

I only ever have a dim idea of what anyone truly thinks about my music. Their fans were there to see them. Some came up and said nice things. My records and shirts sold. A couple folks came out to see my part of the show.

My friend overheard a fan of theirs saying how sad it was I was selling my own merch. I don’t know how to approach that. I loved selling my own merch, it felt like one real thing to do each night, one real connection. When your fans expect you to keep a distance, want you to have to employ someone else to do shit for you—not my world.

When I saw you play in Auckland it was in a very dark, intimate setting, but I imagine most of the Animal Collective shows would have been in rather large venues. Did you have to make any adjustments to the way you perform to fit in with the larger setting?
It didn’t occur to me to do so in a very conscious way, but I did get some of my videos together to show for it. I think it was a good idea in the long run to have something for people to look at besides a person sitting still bent over their mixer for half an hour.

Your music relies solely on two instruments, guitar and voice. What other elements/effects do you use to form such a dense, melodic sound?
I don’t use many weird effects. Just old equipment, broken things, bad recording style. I don’t feel ownership of making the sound come out the way it does.

Many of your songs utilize a fair amount of reverb. Do you think reverb helps to give you, as a solo musician, a fuller sound?
I guess it does. I like the way it slows things down and makes them hover. Let’s you hover there too.

“Finding these mirrors and looking into them makes me feel human, a strength in submitting to my own vulnerabilities”

You’re also a multi-talented artist; can you tell me about your drawing, silk screening and visual art?
I like to be quiet and still and alone for long periods of time. Drawing and printing are a place to do that. I use them like a labyrinth, following lines that smoothly curve or straighten as a way of unwinding the confusion of thoughts and people colliding, swimming around together.

The visual projections that you use in your live show, are they all your own designs? How does it relate to the music you’re playing?
Yes. The connection is in the process and in the destination. Gently bending and making an imprint with something that is not mine, sitting with another in our divide for a little while until we have to separate. The video makes it more of an enveloping experience, its own structure.

Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill took a lot longer to make than any of your previous records, have you continued that trend with your current work? Do you now take longer to write and finish songs?
Everything drags out longer and longer. I am working on things I’ve had sitting here for three years now. It’s the sitting still and recording that takes long though. I write things faster than I can record them and then when I have time to record I’m bored with them, or I forget them. This used to agonize me but I feel OK with their passing now. Something beautiful in them fading away, keeping a secret.

What are you working on now, what can fans expect from Grouper in the next 6 months/year?
They can expect a lot of older material finally coming out that is pretty grimy and raw, and some newer very hazy pop. I’ve just finished a lot of new material that will come out early next year.

Your music has a certain lullaby feel to it, but it also always seems to be going somewhere, constantly moving. Do you deliberately try and write songs that have a sense of movement?
The songs tend to be processing change, turmoil, confusion, and all of that subject matter unfolds in a rolling sort of cloudy motion, it’s the way the things I am describing move on their own.

You said in an interview with Drowned In Sound in late 2008 that, “There has to be some blood. Darkness and decay are as fundamental as happiness and longevity.” You reference the themes of death and happiness a lot in your music, can you tell me your thought process behind connecting the two themes?
Acknowledging one without the other feels dishonest, or incomplete anyway. The things that make us happy often are things that make us sad. I think it is part of being human, part of the essence of everything, coming up and coming down. I suppose the best place to be is right in the middle in that blurred area, sitting with the anticipation of something beautiful, watching clouds in the distance.

The title Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill relates to a real event that happened during your childhood, can you tell what it is about the event that has remained in your memory for so many years?
It was the first time I stood in front of a mirror that was difficult to look into. I felt weak and humiliated. Finding these mirrors and looking into them makes me feel human, a strength in submitting to my own vulnerabilities.

Grouper- Myspace

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Posted by Nick Fulton under Oregon, Portland, U.S.A
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