Francis Harris was reborn under his own name upon the release of his album Leland in 2012. It took the death of his father to finally shatter the strictures of dance music for the New York-based producer, who then pieced together experimental, jazz, house, and even rock music influences into a more personal, intimate sound. Harris lost his mother in 2013, and the last days of her life serve as the foundation of his recently released second album, Minutes Of Sleep. This ambitious step forward weaves samples from that period into heavily improvised string and horn performances; gentle, beat-driven sketches; and even full on anthem material in “You Can Always Leave.” The album offers an eerie and compelling marriage of texture, tone, and emotional resonance that’s rarely found in contemporary dance or jazz music. LWE interviewed Francis Harris via email to find out more about the thought process behind his complex sound design, which influences poked through on the album, and the ethos of his Scissor & Thread label.
Your recent productions have featured much more organic instrumentation. Have you worked with live instruments before in the context of dance music?
Francis Harris: For dance music this is really the first foray, from Leland to Minutes of Sleep. I think before this, the type of production and the process by which I made my music didn’t really call much for electro-acoustic recordings. I think there is an intimacy with using microphones. In a lot of ways, the music I created as Adultnapper lacked this type of personal intimacy, so I think live instrumentation was not necessarily appropriate for it. I’m a big fan of being in the present when creating. I find that ambition and “looking forward,” so to speak, are symptoms of a culture of impatience and, ultimately, a system that values end results rather than process itself.
Minutes of Sleep is really an album that’s as much about jazz as it is dance music. Is this something you’ve always wanted to do or is this a more recent turn for you?
I certainly love jazz. It’s by far my favorite genre of music, at least at home. I think this album feels like jazz mostly because the raw writing process was largely improvised both in the sound beds and with the musicians whom I recorded. Getting back to the idea of intimacy in music, I find jazz to be the most intimate of genres, save for maybe really lo-fi folk, a la Palace Brothers etc. Jazz to me always feels immediate, up close and personal. Being that it is never planned, I find it to be somewhat of a direct reflection of environment. This is probably the reason why there are so many brilliant live jazz albums.
What was it like working with Gry Bagøien on “You Can Always Leave”?
Gry has become like family to me. We recorded “You Can Always Leave” together in my studio in Brooklyn where she also slept for over a month long stay here with me and my partner, Shannon. The emotion of this song is not only a reflection of the subject matter, but also of our friendship. To date, Gry is by far the most talented singer I have had the luck to work with. Her ability is only shadowed by her singular originality.
One facet that seems especially considered on the album is that of texture. How did you choose the textures you were working with and what did you want to suggest by using them?
There is a distinct difference with this album as opposed to the last in that it has a clear and considered conceptual framework. Instead of making an album that was a requiem, like Leland, I was more interested in an album that documents moments of grief not so easily conveyed in conventional language or form. Thus, where to start became intertwined with an ability to remember. However, a difficulty was apparent from the beginning of this process because so much of what I remembered was and is complicated with narratives of nostalgia that worked against my ability to document moments as I lived them.
For instance, as with most trauma, I think its natural for the mind to block out the most intense moments perhaps for survival purposes; so if I wanted this to be a part of the composition, I felt I needed a process to help hold the experience in tact, so to speak. To address this, I approached the album from the onset with multiple sound beds of found recordings that provided an environment to begin composing. These found recordings were mostly taken from the final weeks of my mother’s life. I think these snippets of sound provided a great deal of atmosphere to begin to build the whole piece from start to finish. From there, the first music was mostly guitar. Getting back to the guitar felt like getting back to my childhood, so it felt the most natural.
For me, I hear the influences of Matthew Herbert, St. Germain, and Terre Thaemlitz on the album. Would you agree, and if not, what would you say were some sonic touchstones?
I would say in terms of process I look to Herbert as being a great influence. Terre, however, falls into a different category altogether. I think our circles cross a bit more on the socio-political spectrum then necessarily in music. I admire his music greatly, but I don’t see much of a similarity. I think, however, we are all influenced by the music we gravitate towards. In my case, its a mishmash of old indie noise/hardcore music like Slint, Unwound, Karp, and Universal Order of Armageddon, more daring experimental house music, whole lot of neo-classical and ambient/noise, and at the core a love for Roedelius, Eno, Steve Reich and the like… too many to mention in one interview.
I know politics and philosophy are important to you personally; do you have any inclination to try to integrate your thoughts on those things into your music? It’s a tough task, one that many electronic music producers in particular steer clear of.
I think everything we do is informed by politics, not necessarily because we choose it to be but insofar as forms of production in a capitalist society must by necessity extract surplus value from any form of labor. Thus, the existence of commodities and all the baggage that comes with it. What is important is to implement a level of commitment to a critical process that informs all work. I think that if we get caught up in the culture of what we are doing in music with all the usual trappings of charts and hype etc, we further the prevalence of a commodity fetish rather than really attempting to engage on another level, one that values process over product or end results.
On a more literal level, I find there is somewhat of a danger with any form outright political representation in artistic commodities, as these forms of protest end up almost exclusively on a discursive level and don’t necessarily lead to any direct political action, but lead, instead, to a proliferation of online vitriol and virtual debates that lead nowhere fast.
I know there are at least four people involved in running your Scissor and Thread label. I wondered who handled A&R and how those decisions are made with a group of people? Do you think having several people involved helps the process of releasing music?
I think we have been really lucky so far with our process, as it seems to have no process at all. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot of debate when it comes to the music we put out. For the most part, the label has been a direct reflection of the friendships we have amongst each other and those in our immediate circle of friends and our community. Every time we have tried to step out of the box and consider an outside artist through a more traditional “A&R” approach, it has generally come back to bite us in the ass, so I think we will steer clear of this model.
One of your stated aims with Scissor and Thread was to focus more on artist albums, which is one of the more difficult avenues to pursue. Why is the LP format so important to you and the label?
On paper, yes, we would love to focus more on artist albums, but the reality is much different, as to do this sort of thing right and consistently, you need the time and the finances to do it properly. Ideally, however, the LP is central to the label’s future. As stated many times before, relationships are central to the ethos of the label, and what better way to keep this moving forward than to take the journey with an artist through a long player. From my own perspective, I learned a great deal about myself both personally and artistically through the process of writing, producing, mixing and eventually releasing an album. I think there is a great deal of satisfaction in conceiving and realizing a project of this magnitude.
Currently, I feel like the long player has taken a bit of a back seat to singles, which is a reflection of the culture in which we live, a flash in the pan popularity contest that works within a framework of quantity over quality. Taking in an album is a commitment for the listener and, in my humble opinion, one worth taking. I can really trace my “coming back” to truly writing music again in the past four years not just as the result of personal tragedy in my life, but also a return to a veritable desire to listen, and there is no better way to do so than with a great album.
What’s coming up from you in the next 12 months?
Some tour dates for the LP, a Frank & Tony album with Anthony Collins, and a major refab of my studio set up… and probably a lot of new books read and albums listened!