Grouper On Her New Album: “Ruins Helped Crack Me Open.”
The Portland experimental musician on on how solitude and simplicity forged her most intimate album to date.
Listening to a Grouper record can feel like being welcomed into someone's home. It's always an intensely private experience that dredges up all kinds of emotions and rudimentary memories. The live performances of Grouper, aka Portland experimental artist Liz Harris, have a similar impact. At this year's Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland, on a stage in an enormous, spanking new conference centre by the river, Harris sat cross-legged, backed by darting, sped-up video footage—the moon reflected in a pond, the texture of leaves, flowers swaying in the breeze, and a building jutting out against a fogged sky—and made it feel like she and you were the only two people in the room. She was ostensibly there in order to support her latest album, Ruins, though the songs she played were drawn from various points in her long discography.
The piano and vocal-led sound of Ruins is in marked contrast to Harris' collaborative works, from the enveloping instrumental drone she's created as Slow Walkers with Lawrence English, to Helen, her recently formed "pop" group, and the wonderfully bleak noisy rock of Mirroring. Although Ruins is a solo record, hers is not the only voice on the album. Listen closely, and you can hear frogs, the wind, and the beep of a microwave following a power cut. They all contribute to a sense of hyperspecific immediacy, along with her limited setup of piano, vocals and 4-track recorder. She points out the benefit of that limitation in one of our emails back and forth: "I had one room to be in, one instrument to play on, one simple device to record it with." Ruins was almost entirely recorded in 2011 in the Aljezur area of Portugal, where Harris was holed up on a residency. The simplicity of Harris' set-up breeds a specific kind of intimacy: the piano, interjections of natural and unnatural elements, and vocal harmonies all combining to sharpen the emotional hit.
Since 2005's Way Their Crept, Harris has carved out a singular niche with her knack for writing songs that cut to the bone. There are reference points, of course, in the worlds of ambient, noise, and drone music, as well as rock and pop, but such terms seem to stick only lightly to her work. The intensely affecting quality of Grouper's music can be attributed, in part at least, to the profound emotional power that goes into making it. Harris grew up among a community of followers of Fourth Way spirituality, whose practices include moving children between sets of parents to foster a sense of belonging to a large, family-like community. She took her artist name from the nickname "Groupers" for its young devotees, and while her music is certainly not about the teachings of Fourth Way in any sense, many of her songs are heavy with a sense of limbo and displacement, of not belonging. Harris is candid about her experiences with stress and depression, and Ruins is a response of sorts to a particularly difficult period in her life—and yet, as ever, it is proof that there is comfort to be found in solitude, too.
You've said that Ruins is a document of a specific time—namely, a period you spent in Portugal in 2011. Could you tell me a bit about that? I stayed in my friend Sergio's aunt's small cottage a few miles from the sea in an area of Portugal called Aljezur. Pretty isolated there; dirt roads, several small farms and lots of eroded old buildings. I ran or hiked and recorded everyday pretty routinely; walked to a town a few miles away every few days to get food.
What was it about that specific time that made you want to frame it, in a way that you perhaps hadn't on other albums, and how did you go about realizing that intent? It felt important to acknowledge the place this music came from. The material is inextricably tied to Aljezur. Being near the sea, isolated from other people for the most part, exploring old buildings, storms moving through; all of this mixed up with where I was at mentally and physically is what made those songs come out. They came freely. I tried to get down each song that arrived quickly so that I could make room for the next. Writing for me is like uncovering something already there, opening the door for guests at a party. It's time management, not having the right work-space, and lack of tech skills that cause problems for me. In this situation I didn't have to think about those things. I had one room to be in, one instrument to play on, one simple device to record it with.
In your statement accompanying the record you've said that you worked through a lot of anger and "emotional garbage". What was your headspace at the time like, and did the act of writing and recording this album help you with that? I was a few years out of a heavy relationship. We still weren't really talking; things seemed worse than right after we split. I hadn't processed any of it, had instead dived straight in to the basement and worked on A I A. Stopped hanging out with friends; didn't occur to me to try to date, or pay attention to the news, what else was going on in the world. At that time I still wasn't talking about my problems with anyone. I was living by a popular myth, that if I didn't talk about something, it wouldn't be a problem. Ruins helped crack me open.
Sonically Ruins is very different from previous records, and not just by virtue of the instrumentation. There's been a tendency away from noisier recordings, and I was wondering why that was? I appreciate all kinds of space. I've been recording a lot of machines and industrial yards the last few months. [The] Hypnosis Display soundtrack was all boat engines, trains, freeways, doors slamming, children screaming. I'm a mixed bag.
What was it like recording an album in this way, with just piano and voice? Calming. Limits give me the most flexibility. I don't like a lot of options. Especially with recording gear and setup. I relax best when I am alone with a simple setup. I don't think ahead of time about where something will go. In the end it is always clear when work is done and how it should be arranged.
Many of the songs on Ruins have an elemental theme and I was wondering what significance the elements and weather hold for you personally? In Aljezur I was woken up one morning by a loud storm. It knocked the power out through the evening. Storms, waves, repetitive sounds, machine sounds, they're all soothing to me. And they express wide concepts that words cannot. I'm always looking for a more relaxing and expressive language to converse in; I have a hard time explaining or processing my feelings out loud, in real time.
On a similar note, does "Lighthouse" refer to a specific structure you saw when making this record, and what symbolic or poetic implications does the lighthouse have for you? That song describes a paradoxical, pretty common wish that people have, that I had at the time and still deal with—to be sought out spiritually, romantically, emotionally while simultaneously going to pains to hide away. I relate to lighthouses. I have a rotating critical eye surveying my perimeter, a harsh beam. It cuts through the landscape and highlights certain features strongly, monumentalizing them, then drifts off to something else which suddenly becomes just as huge and highly detailed. It's a skewed way to see the world; I think these kinds of vision problems are pretty common.
How literal or symbolic is Ruins' title? That one word has all kinds of emotional implications. The word describes the features of Aljezur. There are ruins in the countryside there. Ruins are a human presence in the landscape. They speak to decay and at the same time new growth; the decimation of one thing makes room for another—the old buildings I visited in Aljezur were alive with wild flowers, bees, these tiny little snails, little streams running through all of it.
Finally, you recently worked with The Bug's Kevin Martin on his album Angels and Devils. He's from quite a different world, musically speaking. How was that experience? I had coincidentally just played [The Bug's] "Skeng" for my mother the day before Kevin emailed me for the first time. I like "Judgment" a lot too, off the same album [London Zoo]. I loved working with Kevin; it was so different. That collaboration pushed me to get over some of my fear of computers—I finally learned Ableton in order to work on his tracks. I love how much he fucked with what I gave him. He's a talented producer. It was like getting to go to a costume party.
Ruins is out now on Kranky.