A Q&A With Grouper -- One of Portland's Most Elusive Singer-Songwriters


A Q&A With Grouper -- One of Portland's Most Elusive Singer-Songwriters

  • A Q&A With Grouper -- One of Portland's Most Elusive Singer-Songwriters

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    A lot of folks know that the Musicfest NW officially starts tomorrow down in Portland. Saying that there are a lot of good acts playing the festival is an understatement. But for all of the talented national/international acts that are flying in for it, (Girl Talk, Bad Brains, Monotonix, Explosions in the Sky, etc.) there are plenty of solid Northwest bands that are worth the price of admission alone. Portland solo act, Grouper is performing some of her mercurial songs at the fest this Saturday night. Before that hometown show, she'll actually be in Seattle and playing at Neumos on Thursday night, opening up for Om.

    Although it didn't make it into the print section this week, writer Jason Ferguson tracked down Grouper for an interesting back and forth. Check it out after the jump.



    The music that Portland resident Liz Harris makes is often the subject of the pick-the-influence game. Her albums - all released under the name of Grouper - have prompted listeners to proclaim similarities to everything from the Cocteau Twins and Vashti Bunyan to His Name Is Alive or insert-lo-fi-drone-merchant-here. The irony here is, of course, that Grouper sounds like none of those artists ... at least not all the time.

    Over the course of three full-length albums, a slew of EPs and singles and a number of collaborations with the likes of Xiu Xiu, Inca Ore and Jorge Behringer, Harris has established Grouper as a decidedly unique musical endeavor. Harris' wispy, ethereal voice floats over instrumentation that combines rustic tones and fractured, tape-loop psychedelia, resulting in songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate. The latest Grouper disc, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, feels like an expressive sound portrait, but Harris' songs are emotional without being confessional, evocative, yet never explicit.

    That approach has garnered Grouper considerable acclaim in avant-indie circles, and a recent tour with Animal Collective threatened to expose Harris to a much larger audience. However, the soft-spoken musician has little time (or patience) for the machinations of the music business, preferring instead to focus her energies on crafting and collaborating. When she does play live - which isn't too terribly often - a Grouper live performance is notably slim on the trappings of club shows, with Harris preferring a dimmed stage while she focuses most of her energy on the tape loops and effects pedals she uses to generate her otherworldly sounds.

    We recently caught up with Harris via e-mail - her preferred format for interviews - and found out a little about her approach to her work.

    What brought you to Portland? Did you grow up in the Northwest?

    I grew up on the Northern California coast. I wanted to live in Portland the first day I came here. I had been in LA for less than a year and hated it.

    Do you feel like your music is becoming more focused on songs - or at least structure - than before?

    Seems to change a bit.

    You're fairly mercurial when it comes to releasing music - various formats, collaborations, etc. How do you decide which songs work best together for which project?


    Tell me a little more about the collaboration with Jorge Behringer. [Harris and Behringer released a collaborative set under the name "Flash Lights."]

    Jorge is a friend. We were both living in Oakland at the same time and playing together for fun. Mostly improv ghostly sounds.

    Are there any upcoming collaborations or projects you're particularly excited about?

    I have a split 12" with Roy Montgomery. A live recording from our show in Christchurch on his side, and 4 new songs on my side. Well, more like two-and-a-half song-ish things and one-and-a-half more ambient things. I really love his music. It will be a self-release.

    Tell me a little more about your approach to stage performance. You don't seem exactly focused on presenting audiences with a spectacle ... are you shy, or do you just want folks to pay attention to the music?

    Shyness doesn't quite cover it, though I am shy, true. I am not in to the ego of the performer, I dont have the personality of a performer, and actually feel pretty uncomfortable getting attention for anything. I didn't start making music with any idea that I'd ever play it in front of anyone. But I like the challenge of it, the fear, so I've done it so far.

    How was the tour with Animal Collective in May? Exciting? Intimidating? Exhausting?

    I felt oddly zen through it all. I felt like it was someone else's vacation I was invited to come along for. That whole part of the music world is a little intimidating though, yes. It was a window on to a different realm, contracts, money, expectations. Not anything I want to be too near or too motivated by.

    --Jason Ferguson

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