Last month Francis Harris released his follow up album “Minutes Of Sleep” on Scissor & Thread. In our review we stated it as one of “the finest ‘electronic’ LP’s of the year”. We were so enchanted with what we heard within, we arranged an interview with the producer, whilst he was in London last December with Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ Sprinkles.
In the interview below Francis Harris discusses “Minutes Of Sleep” in depth. He talks about how the album became a requiem to loosing both of his parents as well as his approach to recording the album. He discusses collaborating with other musicians, including Terre Thaemlitz and Matthew Herbert and also his approach to the art of the DJ.
Why the separation from Adultnapper to Francis Harris?
It’s for personal reasons. When I was working on “Leland” it was going to be an Adultnapper album, released on a label that I was working with at the time. But then my father passed away and it transformed into this requiem.
The sound is different and even the production techniques I’ve used are a lot more organic than the Adultnapper project. It just made sense to do it under my own name. It just didn’t feel like the music fits under the Adultnapper sound.
I feel like it’s my past self, like when you go through a trauma, you have the pre-trauma and post-trauma and it’s like that. The Adultnapper concept is nothing like what I am doing now.
Losing my father changed my perspective on things, and my approach to writing the album. The album was originally going to be an Adultnapper album and my whole thought process, the instruments I wanted to use, it just wasn’t as electronic as my Adultnapper moniker, it was a lot more organic. Instead of using my computer I used a lot of hardware. Once I started focusing myself in this direction it didn’t feel natural to go back to Adultnapper, I don’t foresee myself making music under that moniker again.
Was it by chance that your father suddenly got ill, when you decided to start working on a new album?
I was just about to start working on an album. My father was ill for many years. The two years previous to his passing were quite traumatic because my mother was diagnosed with cancer, so they both had cancer and I was going back and forth to my hometown to care for my parents and my sister so it was a very chaotic, even four years, it was a four year cycle to losing both of them and it was incredibly traumatic, so I guess the record became a requiem in the process of these events.
This album is four years of a lot of pain and distress and I’m sure you were thinking, what if you get diagnosed with cancer as well. How did you deal with that?
It’s a horrifying thing to have happened to anyone, but yeah it’s not something you ever get over, you carry these emotions with you I suspect for your whole life.
Can you describe the shift in your approach to writing the album?
I think my production approach has changed significantly in the last couple of years, since I started writing “Leland”. The new album was wholly written using microphones and samples, recordings that I then sequenced and drum machines. It was even recorded to a tape player. I hate using the term ‘out of the box’ but it has its own life to it.
I’m not so much inspired with computer music these days, as opposed to when I was doing my Adultnapper music. I was using analogue gear but it was still digital music to me. My new material under Francis Harris is almost like electro acoustic, house music or something like that. I have much more of a fascination with microphones and gear than I do with sitting in front of a computer, staring at a blank screen trying to write a song doesn’t inspire me anymore.
Were there any particular environments that helped inspire you whilst writing the album?
Lots of different environments, the sound bed in the entire album are all found recordings I made, even with my phone, when my mum was sick, so there are hours and hours of found recordings that are sort of integrated within the album. It’s sort of like this space that the album is in, that coupled with the tape it’s a very noisy sound. It’s not clean, unlike my Adultnapper music. It’s a lot looser and messy, which is more indicative of my headspace.
Field recordings are real, non-clinical, and for me they give the music warmth and depth. I think it sounds a lot like Terre Thaemlitz’s sound. How did the two of you meet and what influence do you each have on one another’s music?
I don’t think I’ve influenced his music, other than he’s been kind enough to say that my music is easy to remix for him, as in the material is easy to work with. I met Terre through Will Saul as he had remixed a song of mine as Adultnapper for Simple, so we became online friends this way.
We both share an interest in politics and critical theory. Even before I was involved with electronic music I was a fan of his conceptual work as Terre Thaemlitz, and the stuff he did for Mille Plateaux, I was a philosophy geek and he was one of those names of people that sort of are musical icons for experimental music that was deeply embedded in a theoretical approach. I’ve always had a deep respect for what he does and his approach to writing music. I didn’t even know he was DJ Sprinkles until a long time after. I guess I didn’t pay attention to it. I’ve been a fan of his close to 15 years now so we have a lot in common in terms of the subject matter and talking about things.
What about the remix, was it an autonomous decision to ask Terre Thaemlitz, or was there a selection process put in place?
Well I was just lucky enough to have my two top people say yes to a remix, at first Matthew Herbert and now Terre Thermalitz. So I just count myself really lucky to have had a shared project with these two people as I deeply admire their work and that’s a fortunate thing for someone like me.
For me “Minutes Of Sleep” has a similar aura to DJ Sprinkles’s “Midtown 120 Blues” LP. Do you think it has any similarities?
I never thought of it in anyway sounding like that album, it’s been a while since I listened to it – I’d have to listen back. To me the only correlation would be that it’s not a very compressed sound.
The album features a lot of instrumentation, did you get help from other musicians?
I had quite a few players on this one. On the last one I only had Emil Abramyan and Greg Paulus – but there have been some nice additions to this one like a pianist and a classical composer. Leah Lazonick and Brendan Golle; he’s on keys piano, who I met through Black Light Smoke in New York. And then one of my closest friends from childhood – the guy that actually inspired me to make music – Gabe Hedrick.
He does some guitar on the album, which is quite special to me. He’s an incredible guitarist but never did anything with his musical career (he became a lawyer) so I’ve been trying to coax him back into music. Unlike the last album there’s quite a bit of guitar on this one. He was quite shocked with the results of how it ended up sounding, there’s quite a few layers of guitar work that don’t actually sound like guitar.
One of my goals on this one was to get the sound of the guitar right, I didn’t want it to sound like guitar necessarily, but more like a pallet in the song rather than a feature. For me one of the more special performances was by Leah on Dangerdream, which is one of my favorites – she’s such a phenomenal musician I was pretty much in awe when she was recording.
She’s so specific, she actually printed out the music for the song. It was a real pleasure to have her on the album. She’s actually an artist we’re going to be developing for the label. She’s done this 18 min classical piece called ‘Into The Forest‘ which I’m going to be helping her produce and release. It was nice to have her on the album because it’s going to lead to her own solo project. It’s more of the neo-classical, ambience side of the label.
Who is the vocalist that features in “You Can Always Leave“?
The vocalist on the album is a very close friend, Gry (It’s Danish). I don’t think either one of these albums would have turned out the way it did without her – she’s such an essential part of the sound that I’m going for.
She has this melancholic sound to her voice that reminds me of Billie Holiday – when she performs she gives me chills. She has this give. I’m not interested in working with feature vocalists; I like the idea of investing in a few artists I think it gives you more interesting results. We’re going to be releasing her debut EP in April, which is really exciting. She’s going to be touring with our showcases.
Her solo stuff is a lot more aggressive…badass. I think that she taps into a really special voice when she’s singing on my tracks, which really touches me. There’s a special connection between us when we work together, which is rare I think.
Do you classify “Minutes Of Sleep” as a deep house album?
It doesn’t matter to me. I’m obviously drawn to beats; there will always be beats. If you want to call it house you can call it house – I try not to get into genres as it pre-supposes the listening to me.
Leland is very personal – I think it’s executed in a way that’s almost less personal in a way. It’s different from Leland in that the songs are very contextual together. It has to do with the process, along with the grief of losing my mother – I think that the album is not necessarily expressing the sadness but the difficulty I have dealing with my emotions. I could call it more mature, but not really, as that’s not the intention.
Do you think the concept of listening through an album in its entirety has been lost with digital formats?
I’m a big fan of listening through albums; it’s almost like a lost art because people are so impatient. I get the impression that people aren’t even patient enough to listen through whole song before voicing their opinion on it. Jordan from Black Light Smoke talks about having a get together where we all bring an album along and just sit down and listen to it – I think it will really help us as producers by actually talking about it with other producers.
Tell me about the beginnings and reasonings behind setting up your record label Scissor & Thread?
Scissor & Thread began, as a necessity because that album I made ‘Leland’ didn’t really fit anywhere else. When I started talking to other labels about it they all wanted something changed and I just didn’t have the desire to do it.
So I figured I’ll just put it out myself. At the time I met Black Light Smoke who helped me mix down the first album – he was a big driving force behind starting the label.
At the time I met Anthony Collins and he was about to start a label and we listened to the music and we thought well why don’t we do a label together? I think the most fortunate aspect of the label is that everything has been so easy and organic.
We’re not seeking out artists or new material and keep wondering what’s going to come next – we have so much material from the small circle of friends that we have, that it’s easy to have records for the next year and a half. Generally when demos are sent in I have to tell people we don’t have room. It’s not really about the traditional model of seeking out new talent.
What’s the release plan for Scissor & Thread?
There are a lot of great records coming up, the first half of 2014 we’re debuting Grys first EP – which is such a masterful debut. I‘m so incredibly excited for her and to see her get out and perform more.
Black Light Smoke has a new EP coming up, which is by far the best work he’s done which is really exciting. And then the Bob Moses EP, which will probably lead to their new album.
Matthew Herbert has always been somebody that I look up to, especially his production techniques. If anything, the biggest influence for my switch in the way I produce was Matthew Herbert. The way he uses samples and how loose the rhythms are, the timing and obviously the vocals – Gry’s vocals are like a nod to that. We asked him to do the remix and we had no idea he’d say yes.
It was such an exciting thing to have on the label. There’s really nothing of his I don’t like – especially from a conceptual standpoint. I would love to meet him at some point but it hasn’t happened yet.
Which record labels do you follow and collect records from?
For electronic music definitely Dial is the quintessential label for me – if there’s any label that has the most consistency it’s Dial. I could blindly buy a Dial release and know I’m going to like it – from the experimental releases to house and techno. I think I own every single record they’ve put out.
For the dance floor I’ve been getting into Giegling. I love their aesthetic, how artful it is. I love how the production isn’t overly loud and compressed. I think they have really nice thing going.
For experimental, I’ve always been a fan of Kranky and Touch Music – Tim Hecker and those sorts of artists. This is basically what I listen to at home; I don’t really listen to dance music at home that much.
I come from loving the Chicago sound like Slant and Rodan and Rachel’s and Tortoise, that’s sort of where I come from and hardcore music before that. I don’t think it’s a really big step listening to this ambient noise; it’s sort of in the same realm, kind of jazz influenced and melodramatic but just enough to not be cheesy.
Whilst you were growing up as a kid, how did you discover new music?
I was always involved in a community of people that listened and shared music. I was into skateboarding and we all knew the records and were obsessed with them, we’d go to the record stores to buy 7”s. So I always discovered music as part of a community, which for me is the best way – it’s a conversation, not a singular solo solitary act of trying to seek out new music.
In the digital age sites like Boomkat are a great way of finding new music it’s like a mixture of being a store and having great music journalism. I’m thankful for these because I find new music all time. As you get older you’re not hanging out with your boys all the time talking about records.
Is your music timeless?
I don’t have a clue – I would like to think the music I’m doing is timeless – it’s based on classical music and jazz. I‘m not doing any cute production tricks or anything, I’m taking a pretty traditional approach to recording. I hope that, my aunt or uncle, even my sister, who doesn’t listen to electronic music, enjoys it. I’d like to think it’s just music not just club music.
Apart from writing music, what else do you get up to?
I’m an avid reader; I collect as many books as I do records. I pursued to be a writer, and still do writing on the side to pay the bills, as everyone knows, to live in New York you have to have 10 jobs to get by living there. I’d like to think that I’ll get back into writing. I haven’t felt the need recently; my form of expression has almost solely been through music for the past 10 years.
How do you compare New York to London?
The thing about New York is that it feels like a small town to me because everything is so compact. Especially in Brooklyn, I can walk everywhere or take the metro a couple stops. London always seems so enormous and huge; it seems so much bigger and complex to New York.
What’s your experience of clubbing in London?
My clubbing days began at ‘The End’ when I met guys like Mr. C and Layo & Bushwacka! I used to play there as well and it was my actually my first club gig – I played the main room, which is a pretty amazing way to start I think. I feel like the experience of clubbing in London is so much bigger, more epic than New York. I think I saw Carl Cox and Richie Hawtin at some big raves in 1996.
I think it’s all part of the cycle of clubs closing down – You embrace the change with new things, fresh ideas and interesting people doing interesting things.
I’m not nostalgic about clubs closing down; everything has a shelf life. The great thing about The End is that it ended on a high note – like ending on a great joke (which is kind of funny because Mr. C is the king of jokes). In New York the cycle is – and I probably shouldn’t say this – people from New Jersey have started to come over!
What’s your take on the art of the DJ?
That’s a vast subject, it depends on the DJ I think. The interesting thing is someone like me playing with Terre, we’re completely different DJs – I’ve always had a hard time playing with other DJs. I’m always in the mix, I don’t really like playing whole records out; maybe it was because I was watching guys like Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin when they’re mixing.
Whereas Terre is a selector, like Harvey, he’s playing whole tracks out, doing effects, really maximizing and squeezing every drop of blood out the track.
The art is just having your own approach to it and owning it. It’s not necessarily about being the technical master and having perfect mixes – that’s why this whole Traktor syncing thing is such a malarkey – it’s not about it being perfect, actually the best DJs aren’t perfect all the time! It’s all about delivery and timing for me.
A bad set is when I’m mixing when I do not want to mix – it’s also better to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.
Photography and video by Jaroslav Moravec for Inverted Audio.