Harper Blynn is, in fact, not one person but a combination of two people’s names. A state champion baseball player and choir boy.
But it’s more than that. Harper Blynn is a band composed of Pete Harper, J. Blynn, Sarab Singh and a mysterious bass player named Whynot (taking a page from Cher, Elvis and fellow New York rocker Pan, from Suckers). They stopped by Austin recently to entertain a sparse crowd with a few diddies from their new album, Loneliest Generation, and one song that certainly does not belong to them (Beyonce’s “Halo,” which Blynn nailed).
We talked about the album, the potentially terrifying prospect of working with the man who has produced some of Paul McCartney’s latest work and how Blynn ended up hanging off a balcony in Oxford, Mississippi.
So how has the tour been going?
Blynn: It’s been going great. We’ve sort of swung through the South from New York through the Carolinas and through Tennessee and down to Mississippi. It’s been great. We did a handful of shows with a guy named Charlie Mars who is from Mississippi. Highlights were Chapel Hill was a great show. Last night in Little Rock was great too. Oxford was fun.
Word on the street is you ended up hanging off a balcony in Oxford?
Blynn: I did. I ended up hanging off of Charlie Mars’ balcony. He’s got this amazing balcony.
Harper: It overlooks the square and. If he had fallen it would have been a big problem.
Blynn: I was doing something stupid. Doing this Gene Kelly thing and swinging around and I didn’t realize there was this ceiling fan that was on and spinning really fast and I came back in and it clipped my neck.
Harper: When I saw him get hit I went and grabbed him otherwise it could have knocked him out. It’s hard to land on your feet when you’re unconscious.
So you pretty much saved his life.
Harper: Maybe. It’s hard to say.
Blynn: We kind of go back and forth on each other. He’ll just walk into intersections in New York and I’m always pulling him back. We look out for each other.
Paste Magazine named you guys the number one discovery at CMJ 2009. What was your initial reaction to finding that out?
Harper: It was pretty weird because it was the first press we had gotten of any kind. It was the very first thing that anyone had ever said about us. In New York there’s no such thing as local press. But yeah that was a cool a moment just because I think things usually kind of ramp up slowly and you usually have very few moments where you have something tangible where you’re like “Wow, ok that’s something good. That’s something where someone is recognizing us.” It was something that we didn’t have five minutes ago. We were just travelling around North Carolina and I think my mom or someone sent this thing to me and was like “Look at this” and then I clicked the link and thought “Oh cool, we were named one of the top 10 and then we scrolled through and were like “We’re actually number one.” That’s kind of weird.
Do you know any of the bands you were named ahead of?
Harper: Yeah we know Suckers, Freelance Whales and a few others.
Blynn: There were a bunch of other bands. Good bands. Bands that we like so we were in good company and that felt good.
Loneliest Generation was recorded with David Kahne who has worked with Paul McCartney. What was that like?
Blynn: Yeah, he did The Strokes and Regina Spektor and a lot of really legit stuff. He’s really a brilliant dude. He’s a real musician. He’s a real music guy.
Harper: He’s worked on all sides of the business and he knows how they all come together. He cares a lot about the music and he wouldn’t have worked with us if he didn’t. You know, we started our own label so it’s not like we have a ton of money. But he brought things out of us and he brought focus to us and he’s all about singing which works for us because we’re singers. He would say “If I don’t believe you for one second it pulls me out of the performance and then I’m gone. If there’s one moment that feels put on then that’s enough that I don’t care anymore.” And finding those moments is pretty deep. It’s like “Okay, this is the moment where I’m not accessing the real emotion. I’m trying to do something.”
Was it the kind of thing where he would challenge you and say “No, that wasn’t good enough. Do it over?”
Blynn: From the first time we met with him we sent him a bunch of demos, that weren’t actually demos they were songs we had recorded before and a lot of them were the songs that we were going to rerecord with him. And he was just going through the songs being like “I don’t believe you here” or “You sound affected here” and just calling us out and sort of just I think to test how we would react to criticism. He was basically seeing if we could rise to the occasion and accept his criticism without having too much ego. Because a lot of musicians would be like “Whatever I’m just doing what I’m doing and who the fuck are you to tell me how I should sing?” When really, a guy like that can bring something special to your music and bring something out of you that you don’t really know that you have. So that was really great and we were looking for that kind of friction.
Harper: We had recorded a lot of these songs with a guy named Malcolm Burn who’s a really amazing producer himself. He’s worked with Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel and all kinds of amazing people. But he has more of a dreamy washed out vibe and it’s really amazing and we ended up keeping two of the tracks from those sessions for the record. But for the punchier more upbeat stuff after sitting on the recordings for six or eight months, we just found that some of the recordings weren’t quite right. And the band started to play a lot louder live. So there was a big difference between the way that the recordings sounded and the way the band was sounding. So Dave seemed like the guy to go to. He’s worked on Nas tracks before. He knows how to drop a big “BOOM.”
Blynn: He’s got a lot of middle finger to his stuff. That’s part of the essence of what everything is I think. If it doesn’t have a little bit of that defiance it ends up being limp.
What was it like going from the mostly acoustic duo Pete and J to Harper Blynn?
Blynn: It happened pretty naturally over time. Our writing sort of led us there.
Harper: We were writing a lot of folkier stuff and actually doing well and we kind of got the whole thing going under that name but we love Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and we would write more and more but didn’t just want to write songs. We wanted to entertain people. Doing that with a couple of acoustic guitars is just a different experience. And we started drifting in that direction and so we decided to just write what we want to write. We’re always going to write ballads and have mellow stuff. But we want our music to be fun and social. We’re always going to write songs that have melodies but there are a lot of different ways to do that.
What was it like starting out in New York? It seems like you would be duking it out with other bands almost in a shark pit setting.
Blynn: We went right to Williamsburg. We were kids out of college and we thought “Well I guess that’s the hip place to go for a band.” But we were making the farthest type of music from what was going on.
Harper: It was like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, dance rock. And were sitting there with our acoustic guitars. Of course you wait a few years and then it’s really cool and Bon Iver is the biggest thing. You’ve got to stay true to what it is you want to do because you try to chase that and you’re never going to catch it.
Blynn: We did feel like a fish out of water. It didn’t feel like we were competing with other bands but it was like we didn’t identify with any of the other bands. I like Williamsburg but I felt after a while that there’s got to be a community of musicians doing what we’re doing and it’s not here. So we actually moved to the East Village and started hanging out at the Living Room and Rockwood, more songwriter rooms and that was where we started to cultivate a following and play with our band more then we moved on to Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom and the rooms that make other bands blow up.
Harper: We didn’t fall square into any of those scenes, which for us was a good lesson. It’s like what everyone always said “If you don’t fall into a scene make your own.” That’s what the best bands do anyway. They do what they do and if you do it well, people will move around you. From that scene we were really the only band that went up to the Bowery Ballroom. We don’t really sound like any other band in New York because we write our own music. We’re not trying to sound like any of them. We’re not really in competition with anyone. Either you like it or you don’t.
Blynn: That has it’s own issues with trying to get traction in a place like New York because if you don’t fall into any one scene that’s sort of happening you don’t have that community necessarily. And that’s not to say we don’t have a a great group of people around us.
So it’s not really about catering to anyone. It’s just about doing what you guys feel is right.
Blynn: Trying to write as many songs as we can and then playing the ones we feel will come across the best.
Are there a lot of songs that never see the light of day?
Harper: We probably have about 50 or 60 songs just floating around. Because we’re songwriters so it’s really just a question of what is the next direction we want to take. It’s just “What do we want to do?”
How prevalent was music for you guys growing up? I know you got the choir boy and the state baseball champ so was music always the number one priority?
Blynn: I sang in a bunch of choirs basically. My parents got me a guitar when I was in third grade and then by the time I was in seventh or eighth grade I was singing in choirs and a capella groups. I was always doing both. I was also in rock bands.
Harper: I never sang. I grew up in Chicago. To play baseball is a much easier thing to do when you’re 14 than to sing in a choir. Like I was good at it so I was like “I’m gonna do this” and I always had rock bands but I never sang in any choirs or anything. Then I went to college and I went actually to play baseball and it didn’t take very long for me to be like “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to spend all my time playing baseball. I want to play music.”