Three-headed Hippies: Harlem prepares to meet the world
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At turns blunt, spontaneous, funny, and—above all—catchy, Harlem's new, Matador-issued LP Hippies, which it's promoting tonight with a show at the 7th Street Entry, is a bare-bones blast of primitive garage jangle built around good times, bad love, and the occasional inside joke. And as The A.V. Club discovered when we spoke with the band, its members are just as blunt, spontaneous, and funny in real life, and—as is their wont on stage and record—100-percent confident in sharing the duty of being its spokesman. While on a recent West Coast tour, the band's pair of frontmen/drummers, Michael "Coomers" Coomer and Curtis O'Mara, along with bassist Jose Boyer, spoke with The A.V. Club about unintentionally making Austin their home base, their new label's clout among the major indies, and how they came to write a song about rainbow-colored boobs.
The A.V. Club: Harlem struggled to find a following while living in other music-centric towns like Nashville and Los Angeles. Why do you think you finally found some success in Austin?
Michael Coomer: In general, we're just kind of rolling with the punches with the weirdness of that. I don't like thinking about us as some band trying to make it by moving out to Austin because that's the fucking [affects Texan twang] "Live Music Capital Of The World." If you even call what we've done successful; it's not like we're rolling in Scrooge McDuck's bathtub or something like that. We're making enough money to eat, like, Grand Slam breakfasts or some bullshit.
AVC: How soon did you realize Austin might be a place where you could stay for a while, at least?
MC: Finding a home there all seemed so happenstance. That's sort of the charm of Austin. There's a lackadaisical thing going on, where you can show up and most of the shit you'll need will be easy to find. For better or worse, I think that's why some amazingly talented people still work as dishwashers, because it's like, "Why do you really give a shit?" There's nothing more important to do than hang out with your friends. Austin provides a safe and easy place to do that.
AVC: Jose, you joined the band after it played SXSW in 2009. How familiar were you with Harlem when you joined?
Jose Boyer: My buddy is neighbors with these guys, and he's sometimes their sounding board, so I'd seen them once because that friend came along with me to a show that my other friends were playing and he was like, "Hey, check these guys out—they're my neighbors." But I hadn't really paid too much attention. It's just so hard to keep track of all the Austin bands.
AVC: There was a little bit of time before you entered the studio to record Hippies, right?
JB: I might've joined in March or April, and we didn't go into the studio until July. When I was still getting to know these guys, we started talking to labels, and it took a while to finalize. We had to do all the bullshit, like get a lawyer. It took awhile, but that was cool because it gave us enough time, so I wasn't super-new on the songs when we recorded them. That made me feel like I had a little more input.
AVC: Aside from Matador, who did you guys talk with?
JB: We talked with Sub Pop. They're super nice and cool, but I remember them complaining about always getting outbid by Matador, which Matador denies. They claim they don't really get too many conflicts.
AVC: Did the fact that Matador's Gerard Cosloy lives in Austin factor into the decision?
JB: I think we would've been bummed to not go with a guy we were friends with, but it felt dumb. They were encouraging us to play the field and make sure we did the right thing.
AVC: Curtis, can you describe the Harlem songwriting process?
Curtis O'Mara: You get a lot of ideas when you're in a band doing stuff all the time, like traveling around. And you get a lot of ideas from dating crazy women—me at least. I don't sit down and say I'm going to write a song about butterflies or anything like that. I just think things pop out at you as you're living life.
AVC: So where do the phrases at the center of songs like "Psychedelic Tits" and "Gay Human Bones" factor into that?
CO: Well, with "Psychedelic Tits," me and Coomers were living in L.A. at the time—and he has a different perspective, because he takes full credit for it—but we were just walking around kind of drunk late at night, and we went by this boutique, and the mannequin was wearing this dress, and her tits were all psychedelic. And he claims that he said, "Psychedelic tits." I claim that I said, "Psychedelic tits." We were both partying, so there's speculation. He'll argue about it all day.
AVC: You and Coomers grew up together in Tucson. How has your relationship evolved since then?
CO: We know each other really well, which is a blessing and a curse. Just like any relationship with anybody you've known for a long time, it's good, but it's hard work, too. We're compatible musically because we've been playing together since we were, like, 14. We know what we're doing together, on our own level—if we're even doing it right.
AVC: Do you think you're doing it right?
CO: I'm doing it in the most honest way I know how. At the end of the day, if you did that, then you're doing it right for yourself.
AVC: When is that closeness a curse?
CO: When you get on each other's nerves. Since we switch around a lot, there's two different egos that want to be at the front of the band. Jose was a psychology major, and it's interesting to have him in our band, because he helps rationalize situations. Because me and Coomers can't really do that.
AVC: Because you're too close?
CO: No, because we're both fucked in the head.
AVC: How long do you want to keep Harlem going?
CO: As long as we have fun—we do have a lot of fun—it's worth doing. It's a terrifying thought, actually, because you don't really know. Like, a pitcher in the major leagues has only a couple of good years in him before his arm starts to wither up and not work like it used to. I kind of think in terms like that. What's our expiration date to keep doing something where people are actually still paying attention?
AVC: Well, at least you have the multi-album support of Matador.
CO: Yeah, that's true. But just because we can put out multiple albums doesn't mean they'll be good. It's kind of stressful when you think about it. You don't want to put out a shitty album. It took us forever to put this album out, because we were freaking out about it, trying to make sure it was exactly how it needed to be.
AVC: That's interesting, because Harlem seems like such an immediate, off-the-cuff band.
CO: Well, there's a spontaneity to it, which makes things charming.
AVC: Coomers told the L.A. Record that music is the only thing he can do right, work-wise. Are you on the same page?
CO: Yeah, we're definitely on the same page with that. I usually worked in kitchens as a cook, and I don't like it. Being in a band, traveling around all the time, it's definitely a little harder, but it's not so fucking mundane. Restaurant people are self-destructive and crazy. I guess being in a band and touring all around is kind of self-destructive too. Which brings us back to your question about how long Harlem will last. [Laughs.]