"I don't mean to complain," says John Harrison, the frontman of Chapel Hill rock band North Elementary, sipping from a bottle of beer as he sits in his living room. "But I think this place is too big, really. I don't need this much space."
Harrison is referring to the house he rents with his girlfriend, Heather, just a few hundred yards off of Franklin Street. Indeed, it's big enough to hold the couple's bikes, stacks of records and books, a big-screen television, and, in the attic, Harrison's poster-printing trade. It feels full, not crowded.
But that impression and Harrison's reflections on space could as easily reflect his view of his own music. North Elementary saturates and surrounds simple if elliptical songs with all manner of sound—strings that glide and drums that boom, noises that swell and keyboards that flash. Again, it's full, but not crowded.
We played 13 tracks for Harrison, from the extremely spacious (a cappella Bon Iver and a Tony Conrad organ drone) to the extremely dense (a TV on the Radio anthem and a Pretty Things psychedelic scorcher).
[From 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain by Brooklyn favorite TV on the Radio, "I Was a Lover" opens with an intro that submerses a big beat in ricochets of horn blasts and noise. That beginning feels a bit like the start of North Elementary's latest, Not For Everyone, Just For You.]
JOHN HARRISON: This sounds like TV on the Radio. Is it?
Yes, it's from two albums ago.
JH: I like TV on the Radio, and a lot of it is the sound. They do a lot of interesting things with the juxtaposition of sounds. Especially making [North Elementary's new] record, it wasn't how in-your-face it could be or how on one plane it could be. I almost wanted the songs to be round pieces of music, where you could listen to the song or you could listen to all the things that surround the song, even though it's obvious when you listen to pop songs. You can also listen to them in other ways, I think. But I've also been coming into fascination lately with more simple music. I always fill up spaces with noises, so I'm actually becoming interested in songs that have lots of spaces, maybe just stuff that presents the lyrics and words more than the sounds. I just keep adding and adding stuff onto the songs and just carve a song out of all this noise. I've never just like built a song: "Here's an acoustic guitar. Here are my vocals. This is the song." It's not scary, but that sounds uninteresting to me, even though I listen to tons of records like that.
[From 2002's somber Sea Change, "Paper Tiger" takes advantage of what Harrison mentions—open space that illustrates and makes room for the words. Produced by Radiohead pal Nigel Godrich, the song uses smart stereo effects and quick bursts of strings to color a guitar-and-vocals track.]
JH: I haven't heard this song in forever. I grew up on Spiritualized and Spacemen 3, which are just crammed with tons of stuff. I was always interested in that stuff and how you can make it intimate.
Jason Pierce [of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized] is a master of that. Some 100 people played on Let It Come Down, yet it feels like it could have happened in your living room.
JH: He's amazing. He's mastered the vocal songwriter element of what he does, as well as the sonic expansiveness. Those songs are great. You can play them on acoustic guitar. A great song can be presented a million ways. ... I'm always amazed by people like Beck, The Flaming Lips, Wilco, Radiohead—these super-bands, who make a living doing what they do, and they continue to put out good stuff. I'm intrigued by bands that get to this level, and they're still making good art and making lots of money.
Those bands you mentioned have never been complacent.
[From the forthcoming Blood Bank EP by former Raleigh native Justin Vernon, "Woods" abandons Bon Iver's normal guitar-and-voice template for layers of vocoder vocals influenced more by Imogen Heap than T-Pain. It's a startling but promising departure.]
JH: I've not listened to any Bon Iver, but everyone I know is really into it. I've read about it, but I've not actually listened to it. I have no idea what his other stuff sounds like, but I thought it was kind of acoustic guitar and vocals?
It is, yeah. This is the first track he's released like this—an a cappella vocoder track.
JH: That's kind of awesome in my book, at least, especially taking something I completely hate, like the vocoder, and making it an instrument itself. I personally don't know how it is, but I think, once you get pigeonholed... It's great that he's doing this. The sooner you do anything that's different, the sooner it's acceptable. It really expands your sound.
[From the disc included with 2004's The Wilco Book, this "Hummingbird" is considerably different than the version included on A Ghost is Born, substituting most of the song's guitars with sheets of noise, layers of dulcimer and big keyboard lines. Songs change, it seems.]
JH: It goes without saying I'm a pretty huge Wilco fan.
I've noticed [The Wilco Book is on a nearby shelf], but I'm especially interested in this song with you because both the album version and this song are great, but completely different. Nothing on either of them seems to be sacred for the band. Do you find yourself writing a song and then trying to completely rewrite it?
JH: Jeff Tweedy does that sometimes. It's nice to be so comfortable with the song you've written to kind of give it up, where it's not some protected little song in a case and it's so close to you. One of the reasons I'm always writing songs or always trying to write songs or always demoing is, for every song you hear on the record, there's five you're not hearing. That doesn't mean I'm some awesome songwriter: Most of 'em suck. But they're just songs, they're something I do. I'm not blessed with every song I write being awesome, and I feel like most people aren't. So I've always got to be writing to get to the good ones. The quicker I can write the mediocre ones, I can write the good ones. If you want to be a songwriter, then fucking write songs. Write 'em wrong. Write 'em right. Songs are just recorded things, sounds. I like to take songs and record them different ways, really to see what interests me. I can never guess what people like, and I don't really try. But I feel like if I'm interested, then I think there's at least a chance someone will like it. I don't really know any other way.
[From 1993's For the Beauty of Wynona by acclaimed producer Daniel Lanois, "Still Learning How to Crawl" adds Middle Eastern character to what's otherwise but a little tune for guitar, drums and organ. Lanois succeeds in adding compositional elements while keeping things simple.]
JH: Who is this?
This is a Daniel Lanois track from his second album. He's produced records by U2, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. We were talking about space before, and this guy uses space really well
JH: No, this is a great example. These are just songs, and you have three or four instruments, and it's not trying to be anything more than a song. I think sometimes I want so much from music. I create all these factors to make it more three-dimensional for myself but also for other people. It gives it a chance to be so much more. Think about how many times you've had a lot to drink and you're sitting around the room about to pass out and a song comes on. You've never heard it that way. A lot of times, there are the surrounding sounds, the stuff around the song that puts it in another dimension. You've never heard those. The more things you put around a song, it lends itself to that.
Do you think Not For Everyone, Just For You moves to simpler sounds?
I think it's down the road. I think this is a nice combination. There is a focusing here that's not on other records. I was trying to write a record. In the past, I had these songs, and we had a recording place set up in this house, not knowing what the hell we were doing. But every song on this record, there's three or four demos of it, easily, as a band. That's something I wanted to experience.
North Elementary releases Not For Everyone, Just For You at Cat's Cradle Friday, Jan. 9 at 8:45 p.m. The Kingsbury Manx, Erie Choir and the stand-up comedy of The Popular Kids open.