The Harlem Shakes have already toured with high-profile bands such as Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, and Beirut. After their debut album, Technicolor Health, drops March 24, they’ll likely have to search for opening acts to accompany them on their own headlining tours. The Ivy league-educated, Brooklyn-based quintet has a refined sensibility toward rock and pop, combining highbrow and lowbrow aesthetics in its exuberant music. The A.V. Club spoke with singer Lexy Benaim and guitarist Todd Goldstein about the Platonic ideal of pop, overcoming personal struggles, and performing with their heroes.
The A.V. Club: Despite being a pop record, there’s a lot of tension—almost darkness—on Technicolor Health. What was the mood going into it?
Lexy Benaim: Resilience. We were coming out of a bad-ish time with personal stuff involving sickness and some professional things that were kind of difficult. I think [Antonio Gramsci’s] slogan, “Pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will,” reflects the album pretty well.
AVC: What was the recording process like during that time?
Todd Goldstein: Basically the entire process, from when the first song was written to when we had the album in hand, took about a year. Maybe more.
LB: That is not really true. [Laughs.]
TG: Let’s just say it was a long, protracted process that was entirely worth it in the end.
AVC: How do you split up writing duties?
TG: It varies from song to song. As a group we’re all creative, thinking people. The majority of the record was written by Lexy messing around, bringing in songs, sections of songs, and little pieces of melodies, then the band as a whole runs with that and we collectively turn it into the tightly arranged tracks that are on the record. Some start with Lexy being like, “Here’s the entire song, it’s basically finished” to me being like [makes guitar sound] “deedly-deedly-doo.”
AVC: You use a lot of horns on the album—who did you bring in for that?
LB: Stuart Bogie was opening for us once, playing with Dragons Of Zynth. I was so struck by this one solo that he played that I realized that we had a future together—it was musical love at first sight. We also had Eric Biondo, who’s played with TV On The Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kelly Pratt from Beirut, and a bunch of other people I like and we’re friends with.
AVC: Your music has already been favorably compared to Vampire Weekend’s sound. Was this a deliberate nod on your part or a natural progression?
TG: We’ve been fortunate enough to find ourselves in a position where we’ve been able to go on tour with bands that we just love. When you go on tour with a band, you get really close with their music and you allow yourself to express your love for those bands in certain ways. I don’t think it’s necessarily that we decided to sound more like anyone, it’s just that these things happened to coincide with the writing process.
AVC: What makes you such strong proponents of pop as, in your own words, a “vital” and “enduring” force?
LB: I think there’s a certain irony in that, but I just love listening to pop records. That’s pretty much how it goes for me. I like either extremely weird or the purest of pop. I’m listening to a lot of Cat Stevens these days.
TG: There are always going to be bands writing catchy songs. There’s almost a Platonic ideal. If you can get to those upper echelons of pop music then you transcend the idea of pop as this disposable thing. We all love the kind of music that transcends just being pop. All Things Must Pass, the George Harrison album, sounds great, you hum it all day, it makes you feel something—and it also just happens to be called pop.
AVC: The D.C. scene is definitely still coming to terms with pop.
TG: Well, I think part of that is probably from the Dischord scene.
LB: I can see how there’s a lot leftover from the intensity of hardcore, and I think there’s a real ethos around that. We definitely didn’t come out of that ethos though. I personally feel like the scene I came out of was my parents’ car.
TG: [Laughing.] It was a small scene, very intimate.
AVC: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
LB: I like to have a little bit of quiet, meditation time before a show.
TG: Lexy usually takes a walk and then, when we all get together, we usually do a sort of primal scream. [Both laugh.]