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Francis Harris: “I wanted the album to have the dirt and noise of existence”

Francis Harris’s beautiful new Minutes of Sleep conveys grace and sadness in equal measure.

Photograph: Lexi Lambros
Francis Harris

People deal with loss in all sorts of ways; Francis Harris deals with loss by making beautifully emotive music. His 2012 album, Leland, produced in the wake of his father’s death, marked a digression from his earlier output, most of it released under his Adultnapper moniker. His previous work was readily identifiable as house and techno, albeit a beautifully realized, heartfelt version of house and techno—but Leland was an exceedingly mature and expressive work, far more heartbreaking and far less “clubby” in nature. Soon after the LP’s release, Harris’s mother fell ill and passed away, a tragedy that led to the making of his new Minutes of Sleep. Having moved even further from the dance floor, Harris has succeeded in creating a work that sounds like little else, its rich ambience even surpassing the melancholy of even Leland. But it’s no downer: Featuring Gry Bagøien on vocals and No Regular Play’s Greg Paulus on trumpet (both of whom appeared on Leland), along with Emil Abramyan on cello, Minutes of Sleep is an exquisite, lovingly rendered accomplishment, defined as much by grace as by sadness. The record just came out on Scissor & Thread, the label Harris runs with Halcyon’s Shawn Schwartz. Jordan “Black Light Smoke” Lieb and Anthony Collins (who also works with Harris under the name Frank & Tony); Harris will be celebrating Minutes of Sleep’s release with a deck set in Output’s Panther Room on Friday, February 28.

Your past two albums both deal with loss and grief, but Minutes of Sleep seems to be more musically explicit about those emotions.
Leland just sort of happened. I was already writing the album when my father passed away, and his death transformed my direction. There were also a lot of random occurrences involved with that album.

Like what?
Just things like meeting Gry and meeting Greg, and all these changes that were happening around me. There was a lot of synchronicity involved with Leland, and I hink that’s why it sounds kind of innocent and effortless.

And the new album came about differently?
When I began working on Minutes of Sleep, my mother’s health was seriously declining. That actually started when she was visiting New York; she was hospitalized i the November before she passed away, and she ended up being in NewYork-Presbyterian for five weeks. While that was happening, I wasn’t able to tour or anything, so I ended up doing these sound beds and field recordings. I was recording the hospital room she was in and all these things that were happening, and that’s when I started to conceptualize the idea.

And what is the idea, exactly?
It has to do with the representation of grief in any kind of art form, and the difficulties involved with that representation. Cycles of grief don’t ever really stop; they’re outside of a concept of time. So basically, the idea was to have the album be less of a requiem, and more of a capturing of all these emotions within an album. Which, no matter how you look at it, is a closed field of representation; that’s just the material condition of any art.

You were thinking about these concepts before you actually started working on the album, right?
Yeah. This one was a lot more considered, and a lot more conceptual, than Leland. And this one is less overtly melodic, and more based on implied melodies and harmonies and layers of found sound and noise.

It is a rather sonically dense and interestingly textured album.
It’s pretty layered, and that’s intentional. In starting the album with the sound beds and recordings, it creates this atmosphere that you enter into, and you come out of it with varying degrees of intensity of the atmosphere itself. That goal went all the way down to the final process of recording it, down to an Ampex tape machine. I’m bringing the album into the real world, and I wanted it to have a life. I didn’t want to feel like it was cleansed and perfect. I wanted the album to have the dirt and noise of existence. The experiences that my sister and I went through were, at best, horrifying.

But yet there are moments of real loveliness as well.
I wanted there to be these little pockets of prettiness and beauty as a kind of relief, and then—because there’s no real resolution—dive back into it. Even when the album ends with [title track] “Minutes of Sleep,” it sounds like it should continue. It just kind of fades out, as if you’re turning the volume down on the radio. It represents something that’s unresolved.

Until fairly recently, you were thought of as a club-music artist, albeit a pretty thoughtful one—but not many club-music artists of any sort would tackle themes like this. Do you think that you’re surprising a lot of your longtime fans, both with Leland and this record?
I guess, though I try not to think too much about it. I’ve always had this side of me, though I guess it hasn’t come out or been obvious for a long time.

Why not?
I think it just boils down to the culture we live in, where there’s this pressure to produce, and pressure to be in charts, and pressure to be involved in a community where you have to do this and that to get bookings. One of the big gifts that was given to me by going through these traumatic events is that those kinds of things don’t really factor into the way I exist anymore.

But you haven’t given up on the dance-music scene entirely. You still play in clubs, and the Frank & Tony stuff is quite clubby.
The Frank & Tony stuff is really rooted in a passion for records. There’s no pretense, and we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; every single record we’ve done is just done in homage to the fact that we’re obsessed with buying records, basically. It’s not some revolutionary thing—it’s mainly fun. Frank & Tony is a representation of my friendship with Anthony and how much fun we have together.

And the Francis Harris stuff is the outlet for your more serious side?
I don’t really take any of it that seriously. I mean, I take the concepts seriously when I’m making a Francis Harris record, but I’m not doing it because I have any end result in mind, or because I think I should be getting a pat on the back or that the press will like it. I’m doing it just because I want to do it. I’m much more into the process than the result.

I guess that would help explain why you don’t really buy into that competitive culture anymore.
My girlfriend actually used to make fun of me, asking me why I didn’t just have a scoreboard where I was keeping track of everything—the culture forces you to do that. It’s a really negative aspect of the industry. Every industry, really.

You feel that somebody’s productions and deejaying should just stand on their own.
Exactly. I mean, look at the hoopla around year-end charts, and how much that affects bookings. It’s crazy! And it never used to be like that. I’m old enough to remember when charts were just a way to find out about cool records. They were never meant to be hype builders.

Why do you think the charts’ purpose has changed so much?
I think it has a lot to do with the ubiquity of social media, really.

We’ll save that potentially lengthy discussion for another day. But earlier, we were talking a bit about the album’s textures. A lot of that texture comes from Greg Paulus; I saw somewhere that you rank his playing right up there with Miles Davis’s—that’s strong praise!
I did, and I really believe that. He blows my mind every single time I hear him; he makes his instrument sound incredibly emotional. He has such a singular voice.

And he makes it seem so effortless, too.
What’s great about what he does—and this might be because he’s such an accomplished musician—he has this ability to lighten up the more serious minor chords. It’s kind of a melancholic sound, but it has a lightness and a levity, and I think that comes from his jazz background. It brings an enormous amount of depth to the songs, and I’m really grateful to him for doing that. And I usually don’t like trumpets in dance music! He’s a master player, and I say that without hyperbole.

As I was listening to the album—even before I realized there was a cello on a few of the tracks—there were points where I was reminded of some of Arthur Russell’s compositions, though your music is more fleshed out than much of his work.
A few other people have mentioned that as well. I am one of the biggest Arthur Russell fans around, and I’m sure that I’m influenced by him. I’m constantly listening to him, to the point where it’s actually kind of sad. [Laughs] Every dinner party we have, he’ll be on the stereo.

You have some vocals on this album as well.
Yeah, from Gry. She was on my last album, too, and she’s someone who gets better and better. This time around, we were able to work together a little more closely. On the last album, we were working remotely because she was living in Europe, but for this album, she was staying with me for a couple of months. We were able to dig our heels in, and the results were quite remarkable.

She sang on the lead single, “You Can Always Leave.” That cut has a remix from Terre Thaemlitz in her DJ Sprinkles guise; she also remixed “Dangerdream” for the album. You’ve built up a pretty strong relationship with Thaemlitz over the past few years, right?
Yeah, we definitely have a nice friendship. We have a lot in common in terms of our critical-theory interests and political interests. I like her approach to her art form in general, and she’s just such a remarkable person. I really vibe with Terre.

Do you foresee working with Thaemlitz in a more full-on way at some point?
We’ve chatted about it, and I don’t see why not. If the time is right, I would love it.

When you play out nowadays, do you ever find people still think they are going to get a more Adultnapper-style, tech-housey kind of sound?
I think the Adultnapper thing is finally waning. Which is great! I find that I’m now getting people who know what to expect. Like, I recently opened a set with 15 minutes of a mixture of [electronic-music composers] Tim Hecker and Donato Wharton, and people were going absolutely crazy before I even put in a beat. It feels great. I can open a set with a Roedelius cut, and people will be into it.

Do you feel that the Frank & Tony project sates your more overtly clubland urges to some degree?
For sure. I’ve gotten to the point where I almost feel a little bit naked when I’m deejaying and he’s not there. After doing so many shows with him here in the Panther Room, I’m spoiled—the shows are so inspiring and so much fun that it’s hard to top. They’ve been some of the best clubbing experiences I’ve had in my career. Some people will show up at 11:30pm, and they’re still there dancing at 7am. And they’re really listening to the music.

That’s always a plus when one is deejaying.
Yeah, right? [Laughs] We’re actually starting a residency there in March, where we’ll be playing once a month on the weekends. I’m very excited about it. I’m really feeling a passion about buying records and deejaying again. I had kind of lost that towards the end of the Adultnapper stuff, but now it’s back. I guess I’m having a bit of a second coming.

That must be especially fulfilling, considering you certainly have never taken the easy route.
You know, I’m enough of an optimist to believe that hard work eventually pays off. If you focus on the process instead of the result, and have the patience to see that process through…it might take you longer than it would if you’re skipping steps and just going for the pot of gold, but the success will be so much more satisfying.

Ben Klock + Francis Harris + Valentin Stip play Output Friday, February 28.

Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum