All photos by Cara Robbins
It’s been an hour since LA indie rock quartet Harriet arrived at the Los Angeles Zoo on a crowded, unforgivingly hot President’s Day afternoon, and nary a lackadaisical sea otter has yet to rear its head.
They're on a mission to see a lion—that much will have rendered the visit a success, it's decided—but as lead singer-songwriter Alex Casnoff notes, “The people watching at the zoo is much more interesting.”
Amidst the screaming children, selfie sticks, and a guy in Cookie Monster costume who may or may not be peddling conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and the FBI, it's hard not to agree.
His bandmate, guitarist Matt Blitzer, offers an alternative theory: “Maybe there are no animals, and it’s just the people we’re here to watch.”
He’s joking, but it suits the LA indie rock quartet, whose debut LP, American Appetite, offers synth-laden melodies anchored by observational songwriting that captures the peculiar nexus of isolation that is navigating young adulthood via social media and a post-Recession job market. Its subjects meander from heartbreak to Enron, unafraid to look it all in the eye.
Rounded out by drummer Henry Kwapis and bassist Patrick Kelly, Harriet has been making a fuss in the local scene for a minute now. Casnoff formed the band, along with high school pal Kwapis, in 2011 as an offshoot from Casnoff’s stints in other rising LA acts like Dawes and Papa. Along the way, Harriet has fielded lineup changes, an evolving sound, local residencies, and good old fashioned meticulousness.
"I think the fact that you don't make money from records anymore, you only make money from live shows, has really inhibited creativity in the recording realm," Casnoff says. "Like all my favorite artists were making an album a year back in the day. All of them. And all of them got so much better at making albums than I think people do today."
At a particularly unforgiving moment for guitar bands, American Appetite—out now on Harvest Records—emerges as a formidable underdog from a band unabashed in its commitment to old school recording as much as its live sound, even at a time when that might be much to the chagrin of those who hold the purse string.
Taking refuge in the shade, we talked about the road to American Appetite, navigating the evolving music industry, and, inevitably, our love-hate relationships with social media.
NOISEY: This record took quite a long time to come out, and now that it is out, what do you guys want to see happen as artists? How does that contrast with what's expected of you as far as the touring cycle et cetera?
Patrick Kelly: The biggest challenge for me is I come from a background, and I think a lot of us do, from having played music our whole lives and it's like, my whole basis of musical experience has always been shows and performing. And just getting out there and being in front of people. So much stuff is internet-based now, or content-based. Or if you're playing live, it's for a video of something. And just getting used to that new world, I guess.
Matt Blitzer: On a more personal note, first of all, the four of us spend an insane amount of time together. We get into a little room, pretty much every day of the week, especially if we have a show coming up, and everything happens in there, and we all express ourselves to each other. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we all laugh, and the whole process of getting this record out has been such a long and tumultuous thing, that when we played this album release show at the Troubadour on the 29th of January, I think this real big weight was lifted off all of our shoulders, where it was kinda like, we don't have to figure out all this business shit anymore. And now it's kind of up to the people who have decided to work with us to kind of help us get into the position that we want to be in, and at this point I think we're all just really excited to really spend more time focusing on making the music. So that's been a huge relief.
Henry Kwapis: There have been times in the course of the band where certain relationships have become kind of toxic, certain things have been very difficult to work through. Now we can just sort of reset a little bit and move on and not be bound to some of those dysfunctional tendencies from the past. And I'm just really excited to make new music because we had kind of been laboring over things that in some cases were very old to us, and it's so great that they're new to others, but we learned more in this process than anything. So I think that it will be reflected in the new stuff.
MB: The band kind of had like a phoenix-type thing, where everything kind of burned down, and then we figured out this new thing, and then we had to spend a lot of time in that little room in Alex's house, figuring out the roles that we all have in the group, and what we all can offer. And it's become this point where we've all sort of accepted what each of us can really contribute, and figured out how to respect each other's ideas and opinions and allowing us all to be individually as creative as we can to make something really collaborative, and try to make something really interesting and different than a lot of the stuff that I feel like I hear in LA.
The album takes on some themes that artist tend to shy away from these days, as far as trying to take inventory of what's happening around us. Calling an album American Appetite is kind of a heavy thing. Tell me about that choice.
Alex Casnoff: It was more just about little things within that that affected me, or affected us. Like the title track about Enron was not like a statement on our feelings about politics or economics or Wall Street, it was about one guy who I saw a documentary about who really pissed me off. And I felt like I had to dig deep into that. I don't think there is a big political statement on the record.
MB: We all sat down together and tried to kind of make it into a visual interpretation of our idea of what's happening in Los Angeles with young people today. And especially for me, not growing up in Los Angeles, it's very clear when people have their personal inhibitors but find themselves living in a city where everyone is being watched by this giant celebrity eye, and it gets in the way of the way that people communicate. So I think that the whole video that we made for "Inheritance," we were kind of going against this big-money, celebritized idea and trying to kind of convey this ttitude that was like, "We're a part of this, but we don't want to—" and there's no contentment or anything or aggression, but we wanted to kind of expose that we're living here in this thing, and we sort of feel a certain way about it.
AC: For me I thought it was a little simpler than that. For me, like that video is just literally about being pissed off about, like, these people who don't know what they're talking about being in control of your future. You know, we've had conversation conversations with booking agents who have come to our shows and been like, "We thought that was fucking amazing." And they're like, "Let me take you back to the company.'" And the company's like, "Well, this is great, but you guys need to get up your social numbers."
You've been told that?
AC: Told that. Literally. And I feel like it's—I think the culture is not promoting artists. And somebody recently showed me a quote that was about, like, nobody supports artists any more, only creative entrepreneurs. I think the problem with that is that people get spread too thin. Like, I want to just focus on writing music. So I think we all love playing live, and I know different people have different desires in terms of how long we stay on the road and stuff, but I think the fact that you don't make money from records anymore, you only make money from live shows, has really inhibited creativity in the recording realm. Like all my favorite artists were making an album a year back in the day. All of them. And all of them got so much better at making albums than I think people do today.
HK: I think it is just a matter of practice, and when you're not given the opportunity to really practice that craft it's gonna suffer. Because playing live shows is really exhilarating and amazing, but also playing the same songs every night for a long time does sort of distract you from the fact that you have the ability to constantly be creating new stuff, so, I don't know. It's gonna be interesting to try to find that balance between the live stuff and the creation of new stuff, because there obviously is a financial reality to that situation, so.
AC: And I think that's something in terms of what you were saying about about the album taking a long time. I think, you know, some of the album was recorded more recently, and some of the album feels like it was a long time ago for us. And feeling like we're expressing who we are now, and who we will be in a year from now... The normal album cycle these days is like two years. So that's like, I don't want to be two years from now having started the album three years ago, five years later, playing the same set, you know what I mean? We'll see what we can do because we'll need somebody to pay for us to be in the studio, so. [Laughs]
Because of that, do you feel like that's something you have to temper a little bit in your songwriting? It feels like bands are just increasingly scared to write about being pissed off, because it can become a business risk.
AC: Yeah, I think so too...There's something that I've been thinking about a lot, which is when I've been on Twitter and stuff, I'll have a thought—and it's so fucked up that I'll have this reaction—like, "Oh, can I put that? Will this person see it? Is that gonna fuck up our career in the future?"
MB: When in actuality social media is the ultimate platform to do that exactly.
AC: Kind of, except I don't want to be on social media.
MB: Yeah, but you can use it to your advantage though.
PK: Playing music [today] requires being good at social media.
AC: But that's such a business idea.
MB: No, no, you don't have to look at it that way, I don't think. I love the idea of being extremely intimate with people through the internet.
AC: I don't. I want to get rid of it all, I fucking hate it.
MB: It's just the times we live in.
PK: It freaks me out too, because I feel like I'm not like, a cool guy, and to be good at that stuff in some ways everyone is creating this false life or this false cool image to seem amazing, when all we want to do is be making shit.
AC: The funniest part about the music video though, is because all labels want to do is be cool, too. Like, we sent it to them, they loved it. Even though some of them made some jokes, like, "Is that me, is that me?'" [Laughs] It was funny, some guy commented [on our Facebook] on this song "Bring Me When You Go," which we had done a live version of before. And he was like, '"The live version's way better.'" So I just commented back, "Well the Facebook version of you is way better than the real version.' [Laughs]
MB: I think I would have said, "Thanks."
HK: I think an issue with the social media stuff is that, now the bands you like, the music you listen to, everything you associate with is just an instrument with which to kind of curate your own image. Because people are so aware of what you like based on the things you click and post on your Facebook or whatever. And I think that has led people to be even more hyper-judgmental. Because being super judgmental almost allows you to feel certain power or authority over the art or music that your'e consuming. And you can listen to an album and trash it on your Facebook, and the fact that that will actually have an effect on how your friends perceive it is very dangerous, because for one thing, you're not giving people the opportunity to experience things from a clean slate. When people have really, really strong opinions about things like that, especially in a city like LA where everyone's very aware of how their opinions reflect on themselves, I don't trust it so much because it feels like such an attempt to build yourself up. I don't want to try and do that.
AC: I'm the opposite. I'm very much into hyperbole. I personally am extremely reactionary.
HK: But why? Why do you say something's bad? Nothing is inherently good or bad.
AC: I don't know. I don't want to have a philosophical discussion in this interview.
I think it's a little late for that.
MB: Yeah, it's far too late.
PK: But this is what we do every fucking day. You're getting a clear-cut image of us.
HK: Seriously. Why would something ever be bad or good?
AC: You live in the middle ground. The middle ground—if you want to, that's fine, and I think a middle ground—
PK: That's so mean!
HK: I live in my personal opinions.
AC: No, but I'm saying, I'm giving you the option. I would rather not live in the middle ground. Look, I just think that, to me, I like when people have strong opinions because it gives you an ability to have a conversation. And I think that if you don't, if people don't express themselves fully then you can't actually communicate. And sometimes pissing people off allows there to be a conversation.
HK: But I think you should be able to express yourself fully in the context of just your personal opinions, rather than a blanket statement about the quality of something in the world. Something is good or bad for you, not for everyone.
MB: Well, this is an interesting conversation.
HK: I'm just getting too fired up by the zoo right now.
How did you know when you kind of found the right lineup and it was time to finally go for it?
AC: The band fell apart a bunch of times during it. We lost a guitar player, we lost a bass player right before we started it. And then Pat joined the band, and then we were recording—basically, we thought we finished it a bunch of times. And then we wanted a record label for whatever reason, and we tried to find one, and we couldn't. And in that time we kept writing, and so...
MB: It actually turned out to work out better than any other way that I could have imagined it. We all spent so much time getting to know each other. I didn't even know them—Alex called me. He got my phone number from a mutual friend of ours. And I was walking into a class when I was in my last year of college, and I got a phone call from him asking if I wanted to come and play at the residency that they were doing at the Echo in March of 2013. And then that's when this whole shitstorm started. [Laughs]
HK: I think I'm really happy that it took long at the end of the day because I think it's a much more real representation of the four of us, despite all the different stages and member changes and stuff like that.
The question of knowing when something like that is done is a big challenge. How do you know, versus continuing to edit and tweak ad infinitum?
AC: Nothing's ever done.
PK: Well for me, it's just like, now everything is so much more permanent than it's ever been before. Because it's like—everything you've ever done, you can go and find it on the internet. It's like something someone said on Twitter like two years ago, they go and dig up.
HK: Things are more permanent but they just have a much shorter lifespan I guess.
AC: I think we're also a band, like you were saying, that lives in the edit. Like, we constantly are rewriting things and making new versions and when we play live, we don't play the old version. And so I think that it's something that's hard for us to commit to, "This is the album." Because we have like five versions of the song "Inheritance," and we have a dance version of "Up Against It," from like four years ago.
HK: Right now it's a time of a lot of quantity over quality in that, especially if you look at a lot of rappers and stuff, the model is dropping mixtapes like every month, and it doesn't really even matter necessarily about the quality or how composed the album is as like a piece, it's just about a constant stream of stuff sort of constantly checking in with this person's life, in the same way that Instagram does that.
MB: I went to go see a Mike Kelly exhibit at MoCA, about a year ago, and the work is all amazing, and the whole space was filled with it, but when I walked away from it, the number one thing that I took away was that I was so thrilled by how much work he had throughout the span of his life. And as much as I enjoyed everything that I saw, that was the most impactful thing for me. Was just seeing this person's entire process was like the coolest thing, and it felt so genuine, that I was like, that's the way that I want to approach everything.
AC: Bob Dylan has like 60 plus albums.
MB: And multiple, he has millions of versions of every song...Basically what we're trying to say is that we're really excited to make another record already. [Laughs]
HK: Me and Alex hung out the other day. We went through so many things, so many sketches and ideas that we've been fucking with over the last year or so while this album has been incubating. And there's just some really swag shit there. I'm just really excited.
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.