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Kirstin Roby


Dead seas and haunted looks – how Grouper's pool of the wild made underground pop's most revered symphonies

TextOwen MyersPhotographyKirstin Roby

The story to electronic musician Liz Harris' sixth full-length album as Grouper began when she was a teenager, walking with her father one day along Agate Beach, Oregon. Spying a sailing vessel washed up on the shore, the young Harris moved closer and peered into the cabin of the boat. She saw the remnants of a man's abandoned life: maps, coffee cups and articles of clothing never to be worn again. It left an indelible impression. 

Grouper's new record The Man Who Died In His Boat takes its name from this disquieting discovery. The album was recorded about five years ago in the same sessions that bore 2008's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and forms a kind of companion to the earlier record's textural noise patterns, vocal loops and drone-ish delay. The first track to be premiered is 'Vital', where Harris' vocal melody is smothered in reverb among textural tape hiss and the squeak of fingers on a guitar fret. Elsewhere, Harris sings out on 'Living Room' as her voice is relatively unobscured and tells of a deep unhappiness, and the looped coos of 'Cover The Long Way' are devastatingly beautiful, as if Harris is singing with herself 'in the round'. 

For all the gossamer beauty of The Man Who Died In His Boat, its roots are strong and sure, anchored to corporeal exploration as well as straining at its bodily anchor. In an exclusive interview around the new album, I spoke with Harris to find out more about the overarching concept to the release, her thoughts on "feminine electronics", and why she's "just the clumsy butler".

Dazed Digital: Why do you think seeing the abandoned boat stuck with you all these years?
Liz Harris: The sailboat wreck was an intersection between two worlds. It occurred in an exterior environment that there was already a version of on my interior. That proximity, and the morbid nature of the story lent a lot of symbolic potential to the experience. I like the idea that our thoughts and feelings already exist as items in a symbolic landscape somewhere close by and we can find the answers to things just by coming to know the lay of the land.  In the book Solaris, Stanisław Lem talks about psychological landscape. He describes a conscious planet that forms a huge baby in the clouds of its atmosphere, and terrorises the astronauts in the space station floating above them by replicating the ghosts of their dead lovers and friends. Discussing the boat is one way of talking about the human body as a loose container for our spirits, memories and these other entities that cross the same intersection.

DD: What's the story behind the artwork to The Man Who Died In His Boat?
Liz Harris: The cover is my mother in Bolinas in 1969 pregnant with her first child. I love that picture. I always wonder what is on her mind.

DD: You recorded your 2011 album A I A over the course of two years, in contrast to the rapid sessions of Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and The Man Who Died in His Boat. How did the conditions differ?
Liz Harris: Around the time of Dragging I took on a demanding job and didn't have much spare time as a result. I started singing ideas in to a tape recorder and making a long list of songs I planned to work on later in my notebook, some of which I came back to and recorded, most of which I didn’t. I went through a break up, quit my job and moved in to a shitty apartment where I spent months in the basement dumping old tapes, trying to record things and listening back to notes. It felt like being trapped in a graveyard. The apartment was next to a power-station, and I could hear the buzz coming through my headphones, through the refrigerator, through the lights. A I A and parts of The Man Who Died In His Boat both came out of that process. I honestly don’t remember making a lot of the songs, I just found them again later and knew they went together.

Do you consider the new album a follow-up to Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill as opposed to A I A or Violent Replacement (2012)? Is the idea of lineage through your work something you consider?
Liz Harris: They’re all related in some capacity at this point. It’s not linear, but the placement and pattern is something I do consider.

DD: In 'Living Room' on the new album, you sing: "I'm looking for the place that spirit meets the skin/ Can't figure out why that place feels so hard to be in". Was it a conscious choice to make these some of the most audible lyrics on the record?
Liz Harris: I don’t plan much out while I’m doing it, I focus more on context and arrangement later. That song is about being lonely and sad. I didn’t want anything to do with myself. I felt awful inside of my own body, like it was someone else’s problem that I was trapped in, stuck hauling the lump around.  I just felt like I was made wrong, and was overflowing with this caustic mixture of self pity and self loathing. I thought I’d been abandoned by the world, though it was really me wanting to abandon myself and projecting it on other people. I didn’t understand the nature of the problem or that it was mine to solve. 

DD: Last year, you collaborated with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma on Circular Veil,  a 7-hour installation and performance that mimicked a full sleep-cycle, and the concept of sleep recurs in your work. Have you ever experimented with lucid dreaming or a sleep diary?
Liz Harris: I have experimented here and there.  Most of the time I'm not tempted to try because if I’m aware I’m dreaming it's often part of this repeat nightmare about demons that I’m pulled out from by the actual sensation of being thrown across the room or dragged along the floor by some unknown force.  A few years ago I had a really positive experience with lucid dreaming though. I woke up and then returned to sleep over and over, going back in to the same vivid world. It had a holographic dimension, and I could zoom in on peoples faces close enough to see their pores. It was a landscape of trees with ruins, and I was looking for the same person each time. I could feel incredible warmth and love radiating from him, and each time I found him I’d hug him out of happiness and then wake up. 

DD: How do you feel about the term "feminine electronics"?
Liz Harris: It doesn’t mean anything to me, it sounds like an outdated word for a vibrator. Pretty sure gender is not a genre (but if it is you can file me under Old Man). 

DD: Your new song 'Vanishing Point' is very striking for its play with space. Is it important to you to create moments of silence in your work?
Liz Harris: I like the potential of a long pause to let the song out in to the room. Music has an intimate presence when it moves at the speed of real life.

DD: What's your very first building block when you begin working on a song?
Liz Harris: Well, I’m just the clumsy butler. I scrabble around trying to open the door and help guests with their coats.

DD: You've described yourself before as a perfectionist. Does this mean that it's hard to judge when a song is finished?
Liz Harris: No. I think they tell me when they’re done. It’s a relief from perfectionism.

DD: Do you consider yourself to be a drone musician?
Liz Harris: No.

DD: You don't give many interviews. How come?
Liz Harris: I’m not exactly sure. On one level I just feel nervous getting direct focused attention, and don’t like talking in person. It just seems absurd to try to describe something that is constantly moving and changing. The more I try to, the more I feel like an office manager trapped in the bureaucracy of my own mind, conducting a kind of horrible reverse magic. 

DD: If Dazed Digital came to Portland, where would you take us for a night out?
Liz Harris: I’d take you to play pool and drink whiskey. The best bars with pool tables are on Interstate and Lombard—Nighthawk and The Mousetrap.

The Man Who Died In His Boat is released on Kranky on February 4