Francis Harris answers the phone in Las Vegas. He has lived in Brooklyn for a dozen years, but he's back home in the suburban desert looking after his mother who is ill. "This has been a difficult week, getting her stable, figuring out her care," Harris says in a tone that is afloat in a turbulent moment but anchored in a timeless serenity. “I haven't booked too much just in case,” he says, referring to his sparse touring calendar and a few canceled gigs. This is a familiar position for the punk rocker turned electronic composer better known in DJ circles as Adultnapper. Two years ago in February of 2010, Francis's father passed away.
I value process much more than result. Result comes from process. The better your process, the higher quality your result.
Harris's new album Leland (released February 28th, on his new label Scissor & Thread) is named in his father’s memory. Francis steadfastly describes it as a requiem. There is an earnest plea in his voice to recognize the seriousness of his intent. Explaining the incongruity between this theme and his music genre, Harris says, "It didn't start out that way. It was going to be for Poker Flat. It was going to be a club album. But during this period [my father’s] health declined rather quickly and it became a whole different album. It was obvious in the process that it wasn't going to come out on Poker Flat, it just wasn't that sort of sound anymore."
The kind of sound it became is a mix of live instruments and synthesizers, its arrangements treated with an indie sensibility. Strings, horns, and melancholy vocals flit and weave over and through dubby beats, free-range rhythms are infused with ethereal melodies. It all adds up to an impassioned suite of songs that's introspective but still dancefloor-friendly.
To underscore the transformative nature of the album, Harris is performing under his given name for the first time in several years. And possibly for a while to come. “I am not sure if I’m going to continue Adultnapper...you grow out of a certain sound. I’m not going to be a DJ forever. I’ve had some amazing times. But at some point, you want something else. I like being myself again, seeing my name on a record. I started out under my own name, so I'm coming full circle.”
His alias wouldn't be very appropriate for such a personal project anyway. Adultnapper, created in 2004 is supposed to be an anti-hero inspired by graphic novels; his label Ransom Note is supposed to tell his tale in episodes. "But no one really got the joke," says Harris. Who can blame them? Adultnapper's minimal tech-house bangers can distract the most disciplined disco scholar. That someone who once disliked dance music became one its most influential promoters speaks to Harris’s regenerative malleability.
Untethered by artistic pretense, on Leland Harris pushes his imagination, and with it the elasticity of electronic music. “I was really hearing cello on some of the songs. My apartment’s all wood floors, big living room. I put [the cello] in the middle of the room. There are no reverbs on any of the cellos. It’s three different microphones, blended, for a more natural sound. On most of the instrumentation, there are no overdubs, everything’s live performances, live guitar, live cello, vocals–it has a very natural feel.” In the case of guest vocalist Gry Bagoien, a Danish singer with Björk-like tonality, the feel is a bit more supernatural. Her bittersweet voice haunts as it soothes.
After all that handcrafting, no way was I going to drop an MP3 before the vinyl. This album was made to be listened to on a good stereo, with good friends.
The organic approach resonates in the mixing and production as well. “There was an old SSL console that no one was using at a jingle house where a friend worked. I played the album for the studio manager. He said ‘It sounds good already. Why do you want to mix that on the SSL?’ At the time I was nerding out on recording at a really low level. I was really fascinated by the idea of going in the opposite direction of what you hear on bust-your-ears-out dance music. This album, it’s a very soft, pretty, polished sound; we were going for a ‘70s Peter Gabriel style, really polished. I went to Joe Lambert (who produced Washed Out, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors), because I wanted that finished sound. It’s expensive, and we really went out on a limb, constantly putting money into it. I value process much more than result. Result comes from process. The better your process, the higher quality your result.”
Emphasizing the impact of the extra effort on the listening experience, he adds “Doing a clean mix on a SSL, regardless of how clean it is, the bandwidth of what you’re EQing is much wider, less specific than what you can do on a computer. Traditionally you shouldn’t be able to cut such specific EQs. You should be writing songs so you don’t have to do such radical EQing to fix your music.” He was so insistent about the quality that he pushed back the release date of the album to wait for the vinyl to be ready before the digital. “After all that handcrafting, no way was I going to drop an MP3 before the vinyl. This album was made to be listened to on a good stereo, with good friends.”
Another unforeseen benefit of the production process was meeting Jordan Lieb who produces his own IDM as Black Light Smoke. “We immediately clicked. We mixed the whole record live on the board, nothing on computer. The whole process was very meticulous. The result of that was my friendship with Jordan which became the impetus for Scissor & Thread. I want to explore his talent, which is limitless and mind-blowing. It quickly became obvious that the label was the only way.”
Scissor & Thread was launched last year by Harris–along with Shawn Schwartz (Halcyon), Michael Scott (Atlanta’s Soco Audio), and French DJ/Producer Anthony Collin. Harris is modeling it on the old school system. “One of my big criticisms with dance music is always that people are focused on singles and EPs. I just really value the A&R process, as a conversation between people who really care about the music and the artist. The only way to make that worthwhile is to make a commitment to the artist. We’re not interested in just taking demos from people. We’re interested in somebody who wants to do some albums with us and tour and be a part of what we’re doing.” At the moment, that group includes guest singer Gry. Already a star in Europe known for collaborations with industrial pioneer F.M. Einheit, Gry is going to be a part of Harris’s extended family for a while. “She’s amazing. We have an EP and then album lined up for her this year.” There will also be an album by Black Light Smoke and French synth act We Are Knights. “The next few months are pretty full with some very interesting, intense projects that we’re going to love making.”
At this point in my life, I don’t want to keep pushing singles out. It’s a tiresome process. The best way for me to keep doing music is to create something from scratch that isn’t just about me…
As idealistic as he is, Francis is also pragmatic. “It’s not the days when you can just sit back and collect checks on sales. Sales are not enough. If it’s harder to survive, the ones that will are the ones that have a clear vision. We set up a publishing company, we covered every base so that we do everything correctly. Artists feel good about being on our label, they know that they’re going to get statements, they’re going to get paid, represented, our royalties aren’t going up our noses. It’s good energy. Everyone feels confident about what you’re presenting. I haven’t felt this confident about the people around me, ever. I feel we’re going to do some interesting things. I’m relishing the fact that I’m around people I like to make music with.“
The first single from Leland, "Lostfound," features Greg Paulus of No Regular Play and the Matthew Dear Band on trumpet and was remixed by electronic composer Matthew Herbert. “When I thought about my pie-in-the sky remixer, I thought Herbert. We sent it to them, thinking he’ll never do it but he agreed. We were sitting there when the remix was delivered, completely freaking out, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, don’t let it suck!’ 'What if he does some weird orchestral jazz thing?' We were hoping he’d do something clubby because he hasn’t done that in a while. So we were very happy he did and it’s getting lots of love.”
The same can be said for the rest of the album, which has been enthusiastically received. Flexing some of that fresh confidence he’s feeling, he says, “If you hand this record to a reviewer, nobody’s going to think it’s trite. I think this record’s a very honest expression. There’s no bullshit in it. It’s about as honest an artistic expression I’ve had in my career so far. So I feel really good about it, regardless of how it sells.”
All things considered, it’s a sweet spot to be in for Harris. Over the last dozen years, Francis has paid his dues, done his homework, collected good people who are on the same vibe; he has a streamlined vision and a solid business plan. He has created a space where some dynamic musical and personal evolution is going to unfold. “At this point in my life, I don’t want to keep pushing singles out. It’s a tiresome process. The best way for me to keep doing music is to create something from scratch that isn’t just about me, but other people, and doing something more traditional, building a family. You can’t really tear me away from my music, but this has been very liberating. It’s good to be able to put your energy and hopes into someone else beside yourself.” Before he hangs up the phone, Harris, with casual lucidity befitting a former philosophy Ph. D. candidate, concludes, “I’ve had enough darkness in my life, I’m ready for some light.”