I discovered Grouper — a.k.a. Portlander Liz Harris — through a friend who described her music as "so pretty, it's like really classical guitar/noisey/ambient/choral music, with a little bit of singer-songwriter in there." Perhaps it was my friend's hesitance in labeling it "singer-songwriter" music that piqued my interest, but I was immediately curious.
One month and nearly one hundred listens later, I saw what he was talking about in 2008's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill — everything except for the description "pretty." While the most recent album certainly has its lovely moments, there's also something particularly dark and disquieting within all its loveliness. If the title doesn't cast a shadow over your listening experience, try falling asleep to this record. Just try it — what at first sounds mellow and lulling easily turns restless and spooky. And it's fucking awesome because of it.
A budding fanboy, I was seriously nervous before chatting on the phone with Liz Harris — who, at first, had a bit of trouble deciphering my jittery tone of voice. Luckily, Harris's confident reassurances of the adequacy of her own responses eliminated a fair amount of superfluous chatting and led to a much more chill conversation: a dialogue touching on Portland zines, Northern California locales, "singer-songwriter ego," her current tour with Animal Collective, and, of course, The Goonies.
The word "beautiful" appears often in reviews of your music. I once knew someone who thought the word was a lazy description — of which I don't necessarily agree. From my perspective, though, there's something unsettling — in a good way — beneath a lot of the stuff that you do. What's your take on people describing your music as "beautiful"? Is there an intention to pursue beauty?
[Really long pause] Oh, I think I'm just making the music that I'm making, y'know? It's nice that people describe it that way. I think it's nice when they notice the opposite side of it too though. I'm not just trying to make something that's all shining light or something.
From what I understand, the name comes from a few different things but also as a "grouper of sounds." Over the last three records you've put together, do you feel this still adequately references your writing process? Has it changed at all over the last few years?
Yeah, I mean it's more of a reference to whoever is making the music than the writing process. And I feel like it would always be relevant... It's like a way of referencing the person making it without specifically referencing the person making it. So it's always just generic.
Kind of less like a "singer-songwriter" as opposed to, say, LIZ HARRIS in all caps, or something. Do you feel like it's nice to have that kind of distance? To have a moniker to work under?
Yeah, it makes me more comfortable. I'm not comfortable with a lot of the — especially with singer-songwriter/one-people bands — like the sort of ego-world involved, where it's not the face of whatever is projecting something other than...
That makes total sense. Not to change gears entirely, but you currently still live in Portland, is that right?
Do you feel like living in Portland is a large part of what makes the music sound the way it does? Do you feel like if you lived in a different location it would sound pretty different? Why or why not?
No, I don't think it has anything to do with the sound except the fact that living in Portland affords me time and a sort of supportive community in which to do music. Because even, I mean, the first couple years I was in Portland making music, like, I wasn't friends with anybody there yet, really. So, it didn't have much to do with the music there or anything.
So you aren't from Portland originally?
No, I'm from Northern California.
All over. I spent a whole lot of time in Oakland and San Francisco. And I'm from north of there — just some sort of sleepy, small community on the coast.
Have you ever been to Mill Valley or Muir Woods?
Muir Woods? Oh yeah. That's like 20 minutes from where I spent a lot of my childhood. Yep.
Oh, cool. That's where —
Do you know Bolinas?
Bolinas. Do you know Bolinas, that town?
I don't know if I've ever actually been there. I mean, my mom and my grandma live out there and I haven't explored a whole lot of... they live on Mt. Tamalpais. Mt Tam is —
Uh-huh. Yeah. Yep.
That's cool, I love that area. I think it's "beautiful."
Yeaaaah. Yeah, it's pretty.
"I work much better if I have like 10 different projects I'm doing all at once."
I recently checked out some of the artwork stuff you have on your one website.
I was curious about if you've kept at that stuff. There's something on there about Fake Your Own Death — is that still an art magazine in Portland? Would you mind sharing a little about that side of what you do?
Yeah. Fake Your Own Death is a little magazine that's really small-run; it usually has lots of hand-done stuff -- prints and whatnot in it. My friend Nissa does that and I have some drawings in that magazine that's gonna come out in July. Also, in July, we're gonna have a show in downtown Portland with some stuff — like a group show. So I'll have some stuff in that show.
Um, yeah I still do tons of art! I have a studio in town... mostly drawing and doing lots of silkscreening. I'm gonna do a show in San Francisco next year with video and drawing.
Cool. That's great. Do you feel — this is a question I like asking musicians who also do visual art — like that side of what you do is just as important as the music side? Or is it just another part of what you do?
Yeah. I mean it's the same compulsion, y'know?
That's interesting. A lot of people I know say "You need to only focus on one thing, and if you spread yourself out in other forms of art, it makes your work suffer." I've never really gotten into that idea.
Ohhh. I feel like it's the opposite.
You can go back and forth. Because, I don't...
Some artists believe it keeps you sane to be able to, y'know, not get stuck in one thing.
That's the thing, you get frustrated with one thing and then the other things, like, usually ready to go, y'know?
I find. But, I mean, that's just the way I work. I work much better if I have like 10 different projects I'm doing all at once. And then I can bounce around and run every burner.
Speaking of different projects, you mentioned San Francisco a little bit and that area. I was curious about how you did that collaboration — a split with [Xiu Xiu's] Jamie Stewart.
How did that come about? Had you known him before when you were living in California?
Yeah, we were both living in Oakland at the time. So, he had moved there, I was living there. And he had an offer — he sort of reached out to me because he had an offer from Slender Means Society and States Rights Records to do part of a series where artists do something they don't usually... they do something very different from what they usually do.
So, his whole theme around that was "I'm going to collaborate with someone." And so, we tried it out — we weren't sure how it would go, if it would just be one song or something. We tried out one song and, pretty instantly, both of us were pretty into it. So we just decided to do the whole thing.
It's an interesting pairing, because a lot of what you do is the solo-thing — not the "singer-songwriter" thing we talked about, of course. Had you ever considered working within a larger format? Or what do you like, particularly, about working, recording, and performing as a solo artist?
What do I like about recording alone?
Well, I mean the performance aspect of being a solo artist. Would you ever foresee yourself working in a more collaborative format similar to the stuff you did with Jamie?
I don't know. I feel hesitant about predicting any kind of future with music. I don't like to think about it too much. I get kind of superstitious. I don't know. There's some people I know I enjoy playing with that I probably will do something with more in some capacity. Like my friend [Ilyas Ahmed] who I play guitar with sometimes. We've been playing guitar and piano together, and that's been really nice.
Yeah, I mean, hopefully! It's really hard to be in a band with other people and still, like, figuring out how to do that in any capacity. I really like playing drums though. I've been trying to figure out a way to work that into something. It seems like it should be with other people if you're a drummer.
A lot of people have said this last record, in comparison to the first two, feels more stripped away to them — I'm not sure I necessarily agree — but I was curious about what you make of that interpretation. Was there a thought about wanting to do something a little different? To have, not necessarily things stripped away, but to have things cut through a bit more? Was it coincidental?
Y'know, it kind of just happened. But I'll say that the first couple songs I recorded — kind of early on, like, a long while ago I recorded the [song] "Heavy Water" and the song "Stuck" that's on that album — both times it was like this weird thing. Like, I came home and it was really late — it was like three in the morning — so I ended up using an acoustic guitar just with, like, a room mic or something, and I really liked how it ended up sounding. On some level that informed what I ended up doing with a lot of the rest of the songs. Because I hadn't really done anything with that sound. But everything feels like it was just natural though.
That's interesting because I didn't know if I was speculating too much, but, to me, when I listen to your last record, it sounds to me as if it could be recorded late at night or even the early morning. There's a certain atmosphere to it that I can't really put my finger on and that's the best way I could describe it. Is that true? Do you usually record at night? Or is that just me?
Yeah, my creative side doesn't wake up until, like, ten o'clock at night. [Laughs] And I've also been working a nine to five job the last... for a long time! [Laughs].
Do you still do that?
Record late at night?
No, no. Yeah, work the nine to five.
Uh, yeah, I keep trying to work less and, if something happens, then... In September, supposedly for real, I'm really not going to have a regular job. So we'll see how that goes. I think that really will happen though. I mean, I moved to Portland because I wanted to not work very much and I knew I could do that there. And it's been like three years, and I still haven't done it. [Laughs]. It's hard for me to not — once I'm working — not to, like, throw a bunch of energy into it, so... yeah, it'll be an interesting experiment.
I'm actually going to be visiting my friend Sam who lives in Portland in a couple weeks. Is there anything I should check out while I'm there?
Oh, yeah. You should go to Exiled Records, Mississippi Records, um... Powell's, but that's pretty obvious. If you get a car, or if your friend has a car, you should drive out to Estoria on the coast.
It's a really pretty little town right on the water where they filmed The Goonies.
And there's a big [stone] with a shipwreck on it that you can walk out on.
Someone was telling me about that, actually. I love that scene for some reason — with the pirate ship and all that...
Yeah. [Laughs] And it's a pretty drive out there.
Awesome. Well, I'll have to keep that in mind. I should probably let you get back soon, but you're still on tour right now with Animal Collective, is that right?
Yeah! Yeah, I'm on tour. It's a bunch of fun! It's not like anything I've ever done. [Laughs] I'm living on a bus! [Laughs] And they have, like, y'know, one to two thousand kids coming out like every night to see them...
...that have to sit through my set. [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, but it's funny! I've gotten some unexpected reactions — [It's] nice. I'm almost out of all my stuff. And I feel like it's a special thing. It's not the kind of medium for playing shows that I'm usually into or probably will do again. But I get to dip my toe in and go on this summer camp adventure for a little bit with some really, really nice people. They're — yeah.
That's cool. Had you known those guys beforehand? How'd you come in contact?
I met Dave a bit. I met Dave in... y'know, a long time ago because I lived in this warehouse in Oakland and they came out with Black Dice and played the first show we ever did. It was a super fun show. They remembered it really well. He [David Portner] didn't remember meeting each other really, but they remembered the show pretty well because they said it was "one of their funnest ones on that tour." But I met some of those guys then, but it's mostly through meeting David in New York. His wife [Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir], I played a show with and we had done some music together.