Harlem :: The AD Interview

Harlem always felt less like “garage rock” and more like a yard sale: strewn out in the driveway, “as is” stickers, handwritten signs down the street announcing “yard sale, this Saturday” still up the following Friday. There was a devil-may-care-but-I-do mentality to their songs, and a fuzzed sound with raised-voice vocals that belied the underlying catchiness that emanated out of each track. But the (relatively) meteoric rise of the band – accolades and a contract with Matador Records – was either too much or not quite right, and they went silent after 2010’s Hippies.

To hear principle members Michael Coomers and Curtis O’Mara tell it, Harlem the band may have gone away, but Harlem-the-friendship didn’t. And like an old friend you run into, where catch-up quickly turns to in-jokes, it was maybe just a matter of time before we would hear from the Austin-by-way-of-Tucson-by-way-of-a-lot-of-places group again.

Speaking with Aquarium Drunkard, the pair spoke about their evolved sound, and what it’s like to pick up something you’ve put down, but always kept within reach.

Aquarium Drunkard: There is a ton of keyboard on the new record, a sound that wasn’t so in the forefront before. Why’s it such a huge piece now?

Michael Coomers: It would have been insane for us to come in and do Hippies: Part 2 because so much time had passed and we’re not the same people. The influences aren’t the same. When we started as a band, I was living in Nashville with Curtis, on the floor of his living room. I remember one night, we were laying on the floor and listening to music, and that Gwen Stefani song came on, the one with Akon [2006’s “The Sweet Escape”], and I was like, “this is the kind of music we should play.” We aimed for something that was really pop, and because we were broke and had broken guitars, and broken amplifiers, it ended up sounding like “garage rock” or Beat Happening or something. But we were always attempting to do something that was really poppy. Keyboard, as soon as I could afford one, it was like, “why not?” I don’t feel any affinity for guitar, or think “that is my instrument.” That said, there’s a softer-ness to what we’re doing now that different instrumentation was necessary to achieve. We could have pulled out some 12-string acoustic guitar, but I don’t think that would have had the same effect. As for keyboards themselves – Curtis took piano lessons, and I bought a little electric piano a year before we started working on this, to teach myself. Essentially, a lot was written on that, so that became what it was recorded with. I think there is gonna be a certain fanbase – maybe that sounds too egotistical – there’s gonna be some people who like the old records and are gonna come to this and say, “what the fuck happened?”

AD: But you’ve been “gone” as this act for several years. For anyone to demand that you sound like you once did denies one the opportunity to change as a person, so who cares about that opinion?

Michael Coomers: It’s funny, I had a friend who I played the record for and he was bummed. He was like, “yeah, you got somebody who knows how to play drums, you got the little Wurlitzer on there, blah blah, I wish you guys could stay twenty-four.” And I was like, “yeah, me too! Of course!” But like, I’m actually glad that I’m not twenty-four anymore. It would just be so insane to come back in and act like, “OK, it’s 2018, but I’m gonna do this whole thing over again.” As far as bumming out people who liked the other records, yeah, I’d like them to like what we do next, but if they’re looking for that sort of stuff, I think there’s a wealth of material, music made by others, that they can go to that will satisfy that urge.

AD: Curtis, What was it like to return to Harlem, working with Coomers in close proximity again?

Curtis O’Mara: We got a little crazy after the whole Matador thing, the success of Hippies, going a whole year not really living anywhere, just touring nonstop. I was grateful for it, for all of that time, it was fun, but we just made each other a little mad. The process made us a little crazy. No one’s ready to do that. I actually reflect on it, how it’s like working in a kitchen. There might be an hour long wait for people to get in, and the tickets keep coming, you gotta keep pumping food out, it never ends. The night wears on, you don’t know when it’ll end, and when it does you can finally clean up, drink a couple of beers. That didn’t happen for a while. It put a stress on everybody in the band, not to say there’s any excuse for why we stopped doing what we did. We just got further away from why we were doing it in the first place. At that age, I don’t think you have any of the answers.

AD: It’s a trope, perhaps true for some, that close-proximity over time can stifle the creative process – who needs another record about what being on your first tour is like? Or some song about what it was like “in the good old days” when you’re still in your 20s.

Michael Coomers: If you really think about, it’s so rare that the second album of any band is good. We’re not just talking about some band that never improved… I like some of the songs on Television’s second record [1978’s Adventure], but it’s really just their first record, and everything after that doesn’t really matter… and that’s somebody who’s really talented, who wrote stuff that was really gorgeous. Most artists, the number of them who actually have a dynamic career, that made varied and interesting work, no matter the medium, where they didn’t just go back to the same stuff over and over – it’s pretty minimal. To some degree, we can only define how much we like a record by how much we like it. There’s gonna be a certain group of people that think, “this sucks, next!” For those people, we should have probably just made the same records again, or say we’re gonna go on a tour where we just play our old songs, that’s it. For those people… this is probably an annoying footnote. But for us, what’s the point in making the same thing all over again? I don’t even think that you can make the same thing over again, accurately. The way I’ve heard it said is, you’ve got fourteen years before your first record, so it’s every idea you’ve had for fourteen years, and then you put that out. You’ve poured the cup out and you need to fill it back up.

AD: Like a proto “greatest hits.”

Michael Coomers: Yeah. I don’t know how much of this was a conscious decision. It’s just that there’s a sort of wanderlust that I have, at least, and I think Curtis has as well, to just throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks. Had we gone the other way, it would have been far worse – that’s not a glowing review of my own material, but there it is.

AD: Yeah, but it’s not a knock, you just know your place, your skill set, or what you’re capable of stomaching. You know what you can do now, as opposed to aping shit.

Michael Coomers: Or just aiming for something that is unachievable and seeing what it actually lands on.

AD: But obviously it was a very conscious decision to make this record, to put out new material. So… why are you doing this? Why now? Is this it?

Michael Coomers: Well, I don’t know about the distant future… but the impetus for it happening was that we got asked to play some festival in Australia, and I had never been there, neither had Curtis or Jose [Boyer, bassist], and so we said “okay, yeah, sure.” And it was fun, which the tail of Harlem was not. A lot of the touring towards the end was not fun. And then Curtis came and visited me in Tucson, Arizona, and we were just playing music. I thought, “this sounds pretty good… do you have any interest in recording any of this stuff?” And he’s like, “yeah, sure.” So divine providence just happened, and I was able to come out to Austin for six months, make a record. I don’t think it was as easy as I thought it would be. We had to find a way to make it happen, it wasn’t just fluid and all-easy. But ultimately, we decided it was something that was important to us, that we wanted to see through. The catchier thing to say would be to say that we did a cover of Lana Del Rey [“Cola”] and that she was the one that got us back together… that’s a far funnier and cuter version of why we got back together.

AD: I don’t want to ask if you have regrets from the first go-around, but when you look back, do you begrudge how you went about certain things? Was it just too much, too compact?

Curtis O’Mara: When I reflect on it, I get a little freaked out, cause I never finished high school. I have a fear that… people who did finish and get their diploma, there’s this sense of finishing something, an accomplishment – I’ve never had that. A fear is that… you know, is this how I live my life? I quit jobs, I don’t always put in my two weeks, don’t see things through… is that how I was with the band? It just kinda went away, into the air, became pixelated, for a good amount of time. But Coomers and I, we’ve remained friends, we’re always gonna be friends. It’s just the working relationship, with a label… like, how the hell do I get back to normal? To where I can just be a guy with my bandmate, in a room, writing songs again? Since then, we’d always hang out, we’d visit each others family, stuff like that. Then we’d start picking up the instruments again. We did that Lana Del Rey cover. That was just fun, just being our normal selves. “This is us, this is what we do.” We got offered the thing in Australia, it went really good. We thought we could manifest that into something else, something new. I had “Blonde On Blonde” going, and we did that at his house the next time I visited, made a little demo, and again, it was fun. That was a few months before Coomers moved in with me – thinking, I got songs, he’s got songs, move in with me and let’s track. My roommate was moving out, Coomers took a break from college, and we wrote the rest in the living room of my house.

AD: You talk about feeling like you haven’t always seen things through, but we’re talking about something you’ve actually gone back to. So if your pattern really held true, you wouldn’t be coming back to something from seven years ago. What’s different here for you, that you could do that?

Curtis O’Mara: It’s passion. There’s something to be said when me and Coomers start writing stuff, start doing our thing, our voices sound good together – we just know. We’re pretty in tune, like a brotherhood, which is good and bad. But you love like brothers and you fight like brothers, but we always got each others backs. Coomers mom once said, she’d always see us hanging out in the house, see us watching TV or listening to records, she could tell when something really magical was gonna happen, cause she would see us with our guitars and our knees would turn in to each other, that’s how she knew we were locked in. I always appreciated that.

AD: Did you get back to that place, or fall back into it, making this new one?

Curtis O’Mara: Like, I used to own a motorcycle, I used to drive it around. I’m sure, in this lifetime, I’ll probably own a motorcycle, even though I kinda can’t believe I would drive mine around the way I did back in the day. Next time I’m gonna have a helmet and stuff, but it feels good to ride a motorcycle up and then down a mountain.

AD: Coomers, you and Curtis have both had other projects since 2011, you didn’t go totally silent. And it’s not like any one of them, or Harlem, is or was a “persona.” So what has the music you’ve made since Hippies – for you, with Lace Curtains – done to inform for you what writing a song for Harlem is? I could imagine that, back then, anything you wrote went into the band, but perhaps since then you’ve written more for just yourself.

Michael Coomers: When Harlem started, comparatively with some bands, we weren’t that young. But I felt we were really young, and we had no idea how to write a song or begin a band. I remember asking some club if we could do a show, and they asked if we had a MySpace. I was like, “no, do we need to get one?” They said, “you could put a tape in a bottle and throw it into the ocean, and then maybe… of course you need a MySpace.” We had no idea what we were doing. And not that we learned anything over that time period, but I think a track was laid down, and we found something that worked for us. Then other projects come along, and it’s back to some sort of square-one. Going into this new record, the idea was that, as long as it’s me and Curtis, it’s Harlem. Generally, I tried not to say “we should go to these types of sounds” or whatever. We tried to approach it relatively organically. The fact that it is us means that it will be, somewhat, cohesively like it was before. It’s still us.

AD: Curtis, you mentioned the song “Blonde On Blonde” earlier. There’s a lot of very personal writing on the record. Vulnerable or mature may not be the right words, but a lot of the record felt, well, funny in the way Free Drugs and Hippies were, but also serious in a way those were not. That song, in particular, felt really heavy. What allowed you to go to that place now? Is that the type of song you could have written seven years ago?

Curtis O’Mara: I feel I’ve had many a muse, usually girlfriends, good and bad. I don’t try to write any mean songs, but I just try to express myself. It’s really one of the only outlets where I can express how I feel in a relationship. It’s prettier in a song, it’s easier. There’s no right or wrong in a song, it’s just a song. My favorite songs are about love and relationships. They’re the ones that hit you hardest, cause they’re the ones that everybody can understand. No one wants to hear you croon – you have to have other people relate to your stuff, otherwise it doesn’t have the pop sensibility that pop songs have. That’s why everyone loves pop. You write songs for people, no for yourself. It’s important for me, as a songwriter, to write songs people can relate to. That they feel like, “That’s me, man, that’s me!” Cause that’s how I feel about my favorite songs.

AD: You seem super-aware, self-conscious about what you write. Is that an awareness you feel you’ve always had, this whole time?

Curtis O’Mara: I’m super hard on myself when it comes down to it. You don’t want to sound like a cornball, but you don’t want to sound too cool. I’ve played a lot of types of music, in bands since I was sixteen, and I’ve seen a lot of it – in hardcore, in emo, mathrock, all this stuff. The best sound, that works for me, and gets the best response from people, cause a good response is all you want, is to write kinda sweet love songs. What else is there to write about, you know? Like, “I rode my bike down the street the other day,” man, no one wants to hear that.

AD: Something that attracted a lot of people to the sound of Harlem initially, and something people who are attracted to this new tack might feel as well, is that there is an element of female vocal groups of the 50s and 60s, as one amongst many touchstones.

Michael Coomers: Oh, for sure. That’s also The Ramones, right? The Ramones wanted to be the Shirelles or something. They missed the mark by a huge margin, but they made these really great records trying to approach that sound. In my minds eye, I would open my voice and it would sound like Aretha Franklin or something. That’s what I want at least, but I’m so, so not there. It’s this constant disappointment to myself that I don’t have that kind of charisma or talent. Drawing from those influences is this impossible goal, but I definitely feel it. Way more so than some scuzzy guy playing guitar as an influence. A lot of people misjudged us and thought we really like garage rock. We were into The Clean, and all this weird pop stuff that was going on. We weren’t trying to be retro, we just had shitty instruments that we bought at pawn shops. Of course, we benefited from there being some kind of scene that was like a, “retro” thing, but if I could have turned on a dime and make music like Selena Gomez, I’d do that. I don’t know that opening my mouth and Aretha Franklin’s voice not coming out was an influence, but it certainly guided some of the choices I’ve made.

AD: Right. You didn’t let it deter you from trying to make something that was through your filter, the filter of your ability. It’s easier perhaps to think of it in the context of non-American bands, who might attempt to sound like their American influences, but for whatever reason, are confined, however big or small, by language or other influence. But it doesn’t stop them from making what, to them, is there own version of it.

Michael Coomers: Though, to some degree, it’s probably true for every terrible band that exists on the face of the Earth. That they’re somewhat self-aware, and they’re trying to make something new. There’s people who copied Dutch masters or something like that, and that’s all the painting that they did… but for the most part, every 18-year-old in a painting class at a state university is trying to add their voice onto the history of art. To make themselves some kind of footnote, “and then it went here…” It’s this self-evident thing, where, yes, we were trying to be ourselves and make something that was new, while still not trying to make it out of whole cloth. At the same time, that’s everybody who ever played an instrument. But if other people like it… cool! I try to be accepting of other people’s compliments without necessarily helping shape them. If somebody wants to say something nice, I shouldn’t push them away and say, “no, actually we suck.”

AD: This speaks to something you said in interviews back when Hippies was out, that you didn’t think people really got what you were going for. That people were trying to pin you down, and you didn’t know if they’d ever get it. It didn’t seem like there was anger in that point of view, or that you didn’t think anyone “got” you, but there was a sense that, being lumped in with a trending sound or scene, you didn’t feel akin to it. So when you talk now about receiving a compliment and not critiquing the compliment, it sounds like a softening from where you once were on the subject.

Michael Coomers: To some degree, I think there’s a little bit more sympathy or empathy that has come in. I think there’s this distance between people, where what you say is never going to be directly understood the same way. I had a painting teacher tell me the other day that I might be colorblind, and I’m like, “Well, I might be colorblind, or you might be, who knows? I see these colors as something, but you’re telling me it’s not blue enough, and I’m saying it looks like the color that I think it is.” Now, statistically, I may be colorblind, but these are just wavelengths. There is no actual definition of “blue,” based on some person’s description of what the color blue means.

AD: Right, your eye is required for the whole thing to work.

Michael Coomers: Right. So the person who was saying, nobody understands me or we’re getting lumped in with the wrong influences – I don’t know, I just want like, one person to get me. I don’t really care about a broader spectrum at this point. Within reason though, the point is, even if you make some ungodly noise that is ninety-nine percent of the world thinks is awful, there’s a small percentage that will feel you are speaking to them. Being honest with yourself, and accepting that you’re not as rare of an example of a person as you might think you are, if you’re being true to yourself, you’re also being true some small demographic that feels they’re not spoken to.

AD: Curtis, this record has many of the touchstones that will be recognizable as “Harlem” to people, be they the female-vocal influence or otherwise, but at the same time, it’s not as raucous or punk as the previous two. What do you chalk that change up to?

Curtis O’Mara: I’ve always had the same kinds of influences, cause those are just the songs that I love. Coomers and I have always been influenced by bands that aren’t punk, like The Beatles or Velvet Underground or the Stones – those guys aren’t banging on drums or screaming with heavy guitars. But when you’re young, in your early 20’s, that’s the best way to translate that emotion. Maybe by virtue of getting older, becoming a little more sincere with the music that we play, it translates into that. We just fell into it. You know, in my other band, Grape St., our drummer, he plays loud, so I gotta turn my guitar up, pounding away. It’s fun. It’s just not as sweet and personable – it’s more band band. These songs, we wrote them in the living room, on the couch.

AD: Was going back into Harlem a voice you had to find again? You’ve had other outlets, but were they just different monikers for your voice?

Curtis O’Mara: The moniker has always been there. You know, like trains, the railroads. Guys that work on the railroad put their Monikers on the trains with a street pen. My mom’s boyfriend, a Vietnam vet, he worked on the railroads and showed me his old moniker. You put it on the train and the train goes on, all over the country, but the moniker ain’t going anywhere, they don’t buff the moniker. It comes back around. And people chase monikers, and document them. It’s the same thing with Harlem. Like, “hey, it’s there.” It’s always been there.

AD: There are several songs which touch on men, the role of men – there’s a lot of time spent on boys and how boys behave. The album is titled Oh Boy and it doesn’t feel entirely tongue-in-cheek, but it does speak to some of the attitude of the record. Where did that well of material and subject comes from?

Michael Coomers: The connotation of “oh boy” can be positive, it can be negative. Another reference of where Oh Boy comes from is that my mom did a zine called “Oh Boy Poetry.” So, I’d been thinking about that as a title, this kind of funny, “oh god, they’re back” or “cool! They’re back!” As for the male dynamic, I think that’s in the ether. I’m terrified that it might come across as some kind of man-splaining opus, and that’s not the intention. I have no answers, I’m just exploring ideas of what masculinity is and what relationships are the same way that I did before, just with the different context of being older and, hopefully, some growth. Hopefully I’m not the same person I was when I was 26. I never really felt that the older songs I wrote were from one fixed position – when I’d sing a song that was a heartbreak song, a fuck-you type song, I was not only singing it as me being one who got their heart broken, but also from any number of other perspectives. It could have been from the point-of-view of someone I was dating, and their view of me. There’s a non-linearness that I gravitate towards. It’s a hard question to answer. words / b kramer