The music that Portland resident Liz Harris makes is often the subject of the pick-the-influence game. Her albums – all released under the name of Grouper – have prompted listeners to proclaim similarities to everything from the Cocteau Twins and Vashti Bunyan to His Name Is Alive or insert-lo-fi-drone-merchant-here. The irony here is, of course, that Grouper sounds like none of those artists … at least not all the time.
Over the course of three full-length albums, a slew of EPs and singles and a number of collaborations with the likes of Xiu Xiu, Inca Ore and Jorge Behringer, Harris has established Grouper as a decidedly unique musical endeavor. Harris’ wispy, ethereal voice floats over instrumentation that combines rustic tones and fractured, tape-loop psychedelia, resulting in songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate. The latest Grouper disc, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, feels like an expressive sound portrait, but Harris’ songs are emotional without being confessional, evocative, yet never explicit.
That approach has garnered Grouper considerable acclaim in avant-indie circles, and a recent tour with Animal Collective threatened to expose Harris to a much larger audience. However, the soft-spoken musician has little time (or patience) for the machinations of the music business, preferring instead to focus her energies on crafting and collaborating. When she does play live – which isn’t too terribly often – a Grouper live performance is notably slim on the trappings of club shows, with Harris preferring a dimmed stage while she focuses most of her energy on the tape loops and effects pedals she uses to generate her otherworldly sounds.
We recently caught up with Harris via e-mail – her preferred format for interviews – and found out a little about her approach to her work.
What brought you to Portland? Did you grow up in the Northwest?
I grew up on the Northern California coast. I wanted to live in Portland the first day I came here. I had been in LA for less than a year and hated it.
Do you feel like your music is becoming more focused on songs – or at least structure – than before?
Seems to change a bit.
You’re fairly mercurial when it comes to releasing music – various formats, collaborations, etc. How do you decide which songs work best together for which project?
Tell me a little more about the collaboration with Jorge Behringer. [Harris and Behringer released a collaborative set under the name “Flash Lights.”]
Jorge is a friend. We were both living in Oakland at the same time and playing together for fun. Mostly improv ghostly sounds.
Are there any upcoming collaborations or projects you’re particularly excited about?
I have a split 12″ with Roy Montgomery. A live recording from our show in Christchurch on his side, and 4 new songs on my side. Well, more like two-and-a-half song-ish things and one-and-a-half more ambient things. I really love his music. It will be a self-release.
Tell me a little more about your approach to stage performance. You don’t seem exactly focused on presenting audiences with a spectacle … are you shy, or do you just want folks to pay attention to the music?
Shyness doesn’t quite cover it, though I am shy, true. I am not in to the ego of the performer, I dont have the personality of a performer, and actually feel pretty uncomfortable getting attention for anything. I didn’t start making music with any idea that I’d ever play it in front of anyone. But I like the challenge of it, the fear, so I’ve done it so far.
How was the tour with Animal Collective in May? Exciting? Intimidating? Exhausting?
I felt oddly zen through it all. I felt like it was someone else’s vacation I was invited to come along for. That whole part of the music world is a little intimidating though, yes. It was a window on to a different realm, contracts, money, expectations. Not anything I want to be too near or too motivated by.