Interview: Alex Casnoff of Harriet – The Importance Of Telling The Right Story

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Harriet is (former Dawes pianist) Alex Casnoff’s new band. Their debut EP, Tell The Right Story, features a bluesy-Americana sound with a particular cinematic narrative aesthetic (and it’s amazing). Before playing a show at The Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles (read the concert review here), and en route to SXSW, Alex took some time to talk with us about starting the band, the process of writing songs, and why if someone showed up with a time-traveling Delorean, he would turn them down.

How was Harriet formed?

I had a bunch of songs that I felt I needed to get down on record.  I started playing with Aaron who plays bass and Henry who plays drums and we recorded the EP and then we had all these songs and the guy who had flown out to produce it and also play guitar on it, Sean O’Brien, flew back to New York.  So, we needed to find a guitar player and he recommended his friend Adam. It all came together really easily. Adam fit in perfectly and was amazing. But it wasn’t really a band until after the EP was recorded. It sort of became a band out of necessity of having to play these songs live. Whereas a lot of bands form from high school friends, college friends or something, this was a band that came out of necessity but it ended up feeling as much like a band as anything. It doesn’t feel like a bunch of hired guns or anything. It feels like there’s a real connection between all of us.

When did you know, once the songs were written, that you wanted to do this as your own project? 

I always knew I wanted to do it as my own project, but more than that I always knew that I wanted to do it as a band. I didn’t want to be a solo artist with a backing band. I wanted there to be collaboration, which is something that I think is extremely important in moving songs farther than they could go on my own. I recorded the EP because I just couldn’t wait any longer for that band to come together, and thankfully it came together pretty quickly after the EP was recorded. I always wanted it to be a band.

What was the recording process like for Tell The Right Story?

We recorded it in two different studios. We recorded in Alhambra in a place called Infrasonic where we recorded the bass and drums, some guitar, and some piano all through a tape machine. We did that for three days just to get the basic tracks down and then we went to Sacramento to this amazing warehouse/bunker studio that’s 5,000 square feet. It’s called the Hangar. It’s got 30 foot ceilings, there are skate ramps everywhere in it so we’d skate in-between takes, and we slept there. We would record until seven or eight in the morning, until the sun was out, still doing guitar takes and vocal takes. We recorded there for five days and that was probably the most fun part of it, just because we got to experiment a lot and live in the environment where we were recording.

You can’t get any more California than having a skate park in the recording studio.

(Laughs) No, no. Although I’m not that good of a skater. I was falling all over the place.

You’ve said that you’ve been influenced as much by movies and dialogue in terms of songwriting as you have been by songs and poetry. What movies, dialogue, screenwriters, are inspirational to you?

I think 1970s American movies are my favorite. That’s what I move toward the most. The Deer Hunter is one of my favorite movies ever. Raging Bull, although I think that’s 1980, Taxi Driver, stories that have a strong central character who is put in a situation that is really difficult and has to find his way out. I like a lot of old movies too, Hitchcock, although I don’t know if I have any “thriller” songs yet. I love North By Northwest. There’s so many movies that I love. I love movies. I didn’t base these songs off of any specific movies or anything but it’s just more the concept of how you capture a character and capture a sentiment.

What got you into the piano?

I took piano lessons when I was 4 or 5 and just started playing. My piano teacher was not a classical hard-ass. He was a guy who grew up in Chicago playing with Muddy Waters and would come late to every lesson smelling like cigars and booze and my parents would be like, ‘What the fuck?’ but I loved him so much and he really inspired me. I think I always thought that guy was so cool so I wanted to be like him. When I got older, I started looking at guitar players and being like ‘Dammit, that’s so much cooler!’ and so I started playing guitar too.

Writing can be one of the most frustrating experiences, sitting there trying to get a story out , what was the songwriting process like for you when writing the songs for Tell The Right Story?

The lyrics or the music to it?

Let’s start with the lyrics.

Usually it’s sort of a sub-conscious first draft. Once you’ve written the music, that’s what sort of keeps in the melody until the words start to come and I would allow the story or the characters to enter into the music without trying to control it too much and then it’s a lot, a lot, of editing. If I’m singing and a word sticks to a melody really strongly, I might decide, ‘okay, well what is this feeling? What does it mean?’ and then build the story around that. It’s sort of you start with a blank page and with each word you get closer to finding out what the story is, but I feel like it’s not that controlled of a process until there’s more down. I find out about the story as I’m writing it, and then I definitely go in and make sure every word is cohesive and whole. Some songs take a lot longer than others. I wrote the first version of “Soldier” three years before we recorded it.

Were there any that were written in a sort of spark?

There were ones that happened fairly quickly. “Send ‘Em Up” I wrote most of in one night, but because there’s a narrative that goes through chronologically I had to be careful about, because you don’t have a lot of words in a song when you’re trying to tell a story, I had to be very careful about which ones I used so there’s definitely a lot of editing, but most of that came together in one night.

What is the process of writing the music? Do you have the melody, write the lyrics, and then compose the rest of the music around that?

Usually it’s almost always the music first. It sets the scene. Obviously sometimes they can both affect each other, for example the lyric might call for a bridge. The music is definitely a sub-conscious process. I just shut my mind off and play and usually I’ll have some kind of recording device with me, whether it’s my phone or my computer, and just capture ideas. And I’m singing along with it, most of the time nonsense words. Yeah, it’s usually always the music first.

You’ll sing nonsense words to the music?

Yeah to get everything in place and see what feels right. That’s why it’s sub-conscious because it’s just about what feels right, there’s no thinking. I don’t think you can choose ‘Oh, you need to go to an A minor chord here.’

What’s the story that you want the EP to tell?

I sort of think of every song as an individual thing but I think if there is a concept, it’s that truth is more important than fact. Even when I write a song that is more or less autobiographical, usually I allow it to change and shift as the story needs. The feeling, and expressing that feeling, is more important than what actually happened and sometimes bending the fact is important for the truth.

What are the differences between being in a band that someone else put together and being in your own, being a part of someone else’ “baby” as opposed to being a part of your own?

The largest difference is that I am directly expressing myself more, which is both good and tough. I think it’s mainly just different because I’m writing the songs. I still show up to rehearsal and do the same things that I would do in a band practice with any of the other bands that I’ve played with, except now I’m singing. And I guess how every band works and how every band is led, I think in some ways this band is a little bit more collaborative than those other bands I was in, in terms of the writing process. It wasn’t that way on the EP but going forward it has been.

What about in terms of pressure?

Yeah, definitely, but we’re only three months old or so, so I don’t know if there’s really that much pressure. I feel like mainly we’re just trying to write as many good songs as possible. I think most of the pressure, if there is any, is put on by ourselves, just to keep writing better songs.

Which do you like better: touring or being in the studio?

I love playing live. I like being in the studio better. I think touring, itself, is fun in a lot of ways and I love when you get to play the shows, but most of being on tour is sitting in a van or if you’re lucky, a bus for 10 hours a day, which I don’t think is that inspiring of a lifestyle, but I do think playing the shows are amazing. I’ve just always loved studios and studio experimentation. All my favorite bands when I was in middle school and high school, The Beatles and Radiohead, all these bands that would experiment in the studio and I just sort of loved the stories about that.

What is your dream concert?

Right now? How many bands do I get?

I’ll give you five bands in the line-up.

Right now it would probably be St. Vincent, The Weeknd, Wilco, LCD Soundsystem, and Grizzly Bear right after they release their next album.

That’s an awesome bill. The Weeknd is an interesting choice in there. His stuff with Frank Ocean was sick.

I love how cross-genre it is. That excites me. I would love for music not to have to be held in sections of the music store anymore. I feel that with the first EP that he made, House of Balloons, he created such a complete story. That whole thing contained something so specific and cool.

What would you consider your “made-it” moment?

I don’t think we’ve had it yet.

What do you think it would be? What would have to happen to where you could say, “We’ve done it.”

When I get to quit my day job.

If you could talk to yourself when you were just starting out, what would you tell him now?

I don’t know. I think I made a lot of mistakes but I don’t think that necessarily I would be in a better place, you know, ‘If I knew what I knew,” I think I just would’ve made different mistakes. Here’s the thing, I could’ve gone off and done my own thing earlier, but I just sort of feel like even though there were times when I wanted to and times when I was frustrated that I wasn’t singing my own songs, I think that I really wasn’t ready. I’m sort of lucky that I did wait that long, even if it was because I was scared or whatever. I think it was a good thing.

It’s the Back To The Future parable. If you went back and changed things, you could potentially create an alternate, worse timeline.

(Laughs) Yeah, totally.

What is the plan for Harriet in the months coming up?

We’re going to South By Southwest which we’re really excited about because it’s sort of our first long drive and then when we get back we’ve got a residency in May at The Bootleg Theater, and hopefully in the beginning of the summer we can get back in the studio. I’d really love to record a full-length album, but we might record a single or a 7 inch or something first.

Thanks to Alex, who should be able to quit his day job any day now, for the interview. Harriet is playing the White Iris SXSW 2012 show on March 13th and the BuzzBands LA Dear Austin: Love LA show on March 14th. Follow Harriet on Facebook for more SXSW announcements. Harriet plays The Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles on March 27th.





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