Last year we were lucky enough to see EW Harris play an acoustic set at a High Flight Fanzine LIVE event at Nice n’ Sleazy’s, Glasgow. We instantly fell in love with the charismatic and charming performer. His songs offer brilliant, catchy country/folk licks with emotionally charged lyrics influenced by robots, mutants and of course – Deep Space 9. So naturally, we had to get to know him more. We sent Leo to NYC to get the scoop. (Not really, we don’t have that kind of money)
When did you start song-writing?
I don’t really remember when I started song-writing. Growing up there were always instruments around, we didn’t really have money for lessons, and we had no music books so I would just make up tunes to have something to do. I do remember however, when I was 12 or 13 a friend of mine gave me a Cat Stevens tape and I kind of copied it and changed the words and chords around recorded over the tape and gave it back to him and told him it was a secret album not many people knew about. I guess that was really the beginning.
Has your writing always been musical or do you also write other things?
I used to write all kinds of things, I even got grand prize once in a Halloween poetry contest. It was my best (only) trophy decorated in purple glitter with a golden witch on top. I’ve attempted a few fantasy novels, a play, some critical essays on the philosophical dangers of “magic technology,” and am now working on a musical. It’s really only the songs though that have kind of taken on a life of their own.
Other than Cat Stevens, who would you cite as some top musical influences?
Oh man, that’s always a tough question. I find that my influences are for specific things. Cat Stevens (with the exception of the tune Kathmandu) was really just the beginning. I listen to Bjork and David Bowie for style and imagination (not to mention vocal execution), Radiohead for texture and invention, Antonio Carlos Jobim for ambiguous coolness, Gorillaz for presentation and variety, and my hometown heroes the B-52s for irreverence and energy. I guess I really love the rarefied weirdness of all of them, but there’s something else as well. All of their music contains a kind of invitation to share in that strange musical universe they inhabit.
On that note, who or what else inspires you, excites you, gives you itch to create stuff?
Lots of things give me an itch to create. I tend to binge watch nature documentaries and murder mysteries. I also really love post-apocalyptic (mostly non-zombie) films. Assuming that nature is a mystical thing and fictional constructs can be assumed to be real within their invented universes, I guess I’m really artistically motivated by looking at complex systems in motion with mystical underpinnings. To be honest I also read a lot of books (mostly SCI-fi). Pretty much anything by Gene Wolfe, Frank Herbert, Sam Delaney, and Phillip K. Dick, in fact the title track for my last record was based on David Lindsey’s “A Voyage to Arcturus.” Now that I think of it I guess all of these also qualify.
Are you reading anything at the moment? And have you ever met any of your heroes?
As for meeting my heroes, unfortunately I have not. I’m convinced I have sighted both David Bowie (may he rest in peace) and Bjork. Bjork is the most likely, being as to afford to live in NYC I often have to supplement my musical income with some coffee work. One shop I work in just happens to be in her neighbourhood. Gene Wolfe is notoriously illusive. Radiohead gigs have always been beyond my means. I met Fred Schneider in a bar in Athens but didn’t realize it was him till later, and I’m pretty sure most of my other heroes are dead. I was head butted by Wesley Willis… if that counts.
So from your music it’s easy to see you’ve got a soft spot for sci-fi themes, and you’ve told me a little about your literary favourites; do you like sci-fi in other media (TV, movies, videogames, radio plays etc.)?
Short answer, yes, I love sci-fi in basically every context. The long answer is a pretty vast array of things, but I will try and stick to the essentials
TV: I enjoy nearly everything SCI-fi or fantasy themed, but I’d have to say the most influential in my work is Star Trek (in particular DS9). The Twilight Zone, Babylon 5, Black Mirror, Durarara!, Mushi-shi, Cowboy Bebob, and Battlestar Galactica.
Movies: This one is tough. Though I like most SCI-fi movies, I think my favorites are Six String Samurai, The Empire Strikes Back, Barbarella, Ex Machina, Road Warrior (and by extension Waterworld), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, A Boy and his Dog, Hell comes to Frogtown, Wild Zero, Akira, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think Mad Max: Fury Road though deserves honourable mention.
Video games: Shadowrun (pretty much any iteration), Fallout 1&2, The whole Metal Gear franchise, Final Fantasy 3(6), myst, riven, Planescape:Torment, but I think the most influential of all is the game Out of this World (another world), perhaps the first video game that made me feel complex feelings.
Radio Plays: Ha! War of the Worlds mainly, I usually find myself listening to mystery and horror radio plays, I love “Welcome to Nightvale” which is crazy amazing, if you’ve got some to recommend I am way in.
Cowboy Bebop – excellent choice! Have you seen the movie? Vincent Volaju is probably my all time favourite movie villain.
I have! Vincent is a pretty incredible villain. It seems to me that anime is really consistent (when it’s good) about the complex sympathetic, but ultimately unforgivable villain.
Anyway, can you tell me how the sci fi influences found their way into your music? And what’s the reaction been from the rest of the folk scene, or your local music scene, to what you do? Has there ever been any sort of backlash from more ‘traditional’ lyricists?
The thematic introduction of Sci-fi into songwriting was pretty gradual. It started as me using references like Easter eggs in otherwise conventional folk/pop/rock tunes. I think the first interesting thing I learned to do was bait the audience to try and find my allies 😉 Eventually though I started to think about songwriting as a thing, and how the songs that really moved me (like A Space Oddity) employed a kind of “pathos removed.” Being a pretty weird kid, I felt like I could understand alienation and helplessness in the face of a cruel and unfeeling universe 😉 I’ve also been big on simile/metaphor games so the ideas that came to me were things like “that girl constantly getting away and eventually becoming my [social] enemy is sort of like the frog from Blaster Master” or those moments in DS9 where Dax has a crisis involving her Jadzia self and her Symbiont. Not to stay on Star Trek (and I paraphrase) but Gene Roddenberry was often cited for extolling the virtues of SCI-fi as a vehicle for discussing contemporary issues in a fictional (an thereby less assailable) context. It can be difficult (and occasionally uninteresting) to expose the naked self. I guess by removing a belief or personal feeling from its original context, I can cloak these things and commit to them in a performance in a way I couldn’t really otherwise.
This segues well into push-back from the song-writing community. There exists (particularly among country players an folkies) this idea of authenticity. I’m from the south of the US culturally, but I was born in the rust belt and grew up all over the eastern half of the country. Most of the folkies I know are from cities and suburbs, and everyone knows that country music is arguably the most corporatized art form in existence. To me this idea of authenticity in fiction is ludicrous. I am often criticized for being a fantasist, for using “50 cent words,” for being more clever than sincere. These claims are often true, but I have always felt that songs should seem like a bottomless well of interpretive opportunity. Using alternate universes to set sincere situations I feel gives me the power to create a situation that is just right for this. It’s meta textual freedom. If people don’t get it or I didn’t do a good job with the piece, that is what it is.
What would be your ideal mode of transportation?
I want to say teleporter, but I like journeys so I’d have to say some kind of astral transport node, so one could take as long as desired and see anything from any vantage point then re-materialize at the destination. Realistically though, hovercar.
Vulcans or Andorians?
I’d say Vulcans, Andorians aren’t teetering on the verge of Romulanness. 🙂
What’s your favourite flavour jelly bean?
Licorice, for sure, it reminds me of absinthe.
Do you work better in the morning or at night?
I certainly work better at night, I am not really fully conscious till 2pm.
Who’s your favourite Godzilla monster?
Mecha Ghidorah for sure!
I want to give a HUGE thanks to EW Harris for taking the time out to answer our questions, now go do yourself a favour and head over to his Bandcamp and get listening.
Hopefully it won’t be too long until we see him again.
An Interview with EW Harris…