Harper Lines on Hiatuses and Homecomings

Phoenix, Arizona dance-pop band Harper and the Moths first took flight in 2015 with their debut EP Love Songs for the Damned, but until this July, they had yet to release a full-length album.

Following a series of EPs, singles, and even a collection of covers, the band took time off from playing live to record Dark Enough to Dance. They pulled out all the stops in crafting a neon-lit monument to the power of a great dance party–in this case, one that also celebrates the evolution of their style from guitar-centered indie-pop to new-wave revival steeped in synths, electronic drums, and even some classic brass.

That nostalgic atmosphere wafts around each track like puffs from a fog machine, but the band’s greatest strength is still their timelessly energetic performance, on full display in the 360 degree video for the anthemic lead single “Your Love.” Even as the album flirts wtih deeper, heavier emotion–from the desperate synth-bass pulse of “Run” to the soulful duet “Move Me”–it never falls out of step or fails to find another danceable beat to raise your scarred spirits and set your feet spinning.

Shortly after putting on a release show for Dark Enough to Dance, lead singer Harper Lines spoke to The All Scene Eye about challenging conventions and writing thematic records.

Friday, July 5, you held a release show for the new album in Phoenix. What was it like presenting that album to a live audience?

It was amazing. We had a packed house. A lot of fans came out, so it was really cool. We released it digitally a week before, so a lot of people knew the words to the new songs, especially “Your Love,” because we released that video about a month ago. We threw a few really fun covers in there too to try and spice it up, and it seems like everyone had a blast.

What songs did you cover?

We covered INXS, “Need You Tonight,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan, and “You Should Be Dancing” by The Bee Gees.

How do you decide what covers are going to fit in your set?

We try to switch it up almost every show. We don’t like playing the same set, and especially with the covers because if your fans come and see you consistently, they’ll come to the show and be like, “oh yeah, I know this cover.” Maybe it was covered really well, but it’s kind of boring. 

We usually try to pick something dancey and upbeat. “You Should Be Dancing” is perfect for that. It’s also something that’s in the range and the vibe of the record or our performance for that night. That’s why INXS was a good pick for that show.

You took a break from performing while you were writing and recording this album. How did you end up making that decision?

We actually had two members leave while we were writing this record, so that [laughs] made it easier to not perform. We wanted to find a new guitarist who was the right fit for the project, so that gave us–David Campbell, the bass player, Etti Bowen, the drummer, and myself–an opportunity to focus on writing together and then find the right person to fill in the guitar as we were further along in the process.

And so you ended up with Salah Moharram. How did that relationship come to be?

We had done a lot of the pre-production, and Etti actually had a working relationship with Salah. They were both instructors at a local music teaching organization called School of Rock, so they had known each other for a while. Salah also plays in two other bands, so we knew he had the skills and we had seen him a few times, and he’s got a great personality. We tried out three or four people, actually had them come out and audition, and we met with a few people we were interested in from the local scene. Salah just seemed like the best fit all around.

School of Rock ended up being involved with your release show, is that true?

Yeah, The Sugar Skulls, which is one of the bands that came out of School of Rock–so those are all 15- and 16-year-old kids–they performed, and we had Sarah–I can’t remember her last name, but she performed “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” with us as well.

What has it been like coming back to the stage after spending all that time rebuilding the band?

We had only performed a handful of shows to just test out the new material; I think last November was our first show after almost a year-and-a-half hiatus. We were just testing the new material to see how we played it and to organize our set in a way that made sense for the audience, and again, just to see the feedback from the new songs, so it was exactly what we needed and it felt like a homecoming. It was wonderful. We had so much love and support from all the fans and all the friends who came out to see us. It was great to know that people hadn’t forgotten about us, and that they were really embracing the new material. It was just a nonstop positive dance party.

This record, Dark Enough to Dance, is sort of bookended with an intro and outro. What made you want to frame the album that way?

We had done three EPs before this, but this was our first full-length, so we knew it had to be something special and thematic. I’m really big on themes. I had done a rock opera sort of thing on my own time outside of the band, so I’m big on themes and theatrics. We have a few musical themes with vocals, key changes, and melodies happening throughout the record, and I knew that we needed something to bookend it. This just felt like a really good way to introduce people to the soul and the darkness and the love of the record. And the outro brings you back to the intro if it’s on repeat.

Can you walk me through that arc of the album–of the themes your talking about?

First off, there’s a few chords that we use that resonate throughout these songs, and specifically arrangements. There are “oohs” that happen throughout the record vocally, that are in–I think seven of the ten songs. We had these little cues going throughout the entire record that are repetitious, but not to the point of it not feeling like an original composition. You’ll hear some of those kind of mirroring throughout the record.

To be clear, how dark is Dark Enough To Dance?

[laughs] I think it’s raw and honest where it needs to be, but even in the darkest of songs, there’s this light of hope. It’s more this cathartic experience of release than it is a dark or emotionally dark record, you know? There’s a lot of that in there, but I think it’s more raw honesty about experience, trying to convey that to the audience so they can relate to it. And then again, that’s mirrored with positivity and dancing through that.

You don’t want it to be *too* dark to dance, in other words.

No, no. Just dark enough. [laughs]

You filmed a 360 degree music video for the single “Your Love.” What inspired that format and that approach?

Well, you mentioned earlier that we had kind of a hiatus while we were working on the record, so we knew we had to have a big impact with whatever we released first. That had to be really visually interesting. We tossed around a few ideas, and our drummer Etti showed us a few 360 videos that were really interesting and that we thought we could make inexpensively, or not inexpensively, but cost-efficiently on our own without having to do something wild with a whole plot.

A few other artists had done treatments for us, but we thought it was best to take it in our own hands, so we hired two directors we had worked with before on the “Walking Through Fire” video from our last record. We pitched it to them, and they thought it was a cool idea. We spent a lot of time on the pre-production. We actually mapped out the stage and the movement of it, and we had our friend Chelsea from Fairy Bones help with the choreography for the actual dancers. Then we just threw it all together, built the props, and rehearsed it for about a month.

Had you ever worked with a choreographer before?

No. [laughs] No, and it was interesting too because she didn’t actually come out and work with the dancers. She just came over to my place and listened to the song a few times. I recorded her on my phone, sent that to the dancers, and I mean, the dancers literally–we had one rehearsal with the dancers the day before. They got it really quickly. Everything else was all us. We did our own movements.

You spent a month preparing for that shoot. How long did you actually spend recording the video itself?

I would say about four hours. We did three takes. Well, there’s two different takes in the video. There’s one edit stop that goes into the last chorus and the bridge, so we did three takes of each part–six total–over about three and a half, four hours. It was all done in an afternoon. 

Do you have a favorite memory from the making of that video?

There’s one scene in it where Dave, our bassist, gets hit with a balloon in the face, but he just kind of looks at it. [laughs] He’s been one of my best friends since we were kids, so it’s fun to see his personality come out. That’s on a personal note, but other than that, it was just a blast. The dancers had a good time, we had a lot of positive energy, and everyone was really on the ball. We had, I think, like 23 different extras, including the dancers. Everyone got there and knew their parts, we had some beverages, and had a good time.

You and Dave are the original members of the band. As things have grown and changed, and as people have come and gone, how has your relationship as artists grown?

I think we just really trust each other. We trust each other’s writing. We call each other out on the things we don’t like, and we’re fiercely honest with each other, so we have a wonderful writing relationship, but I think it’s definitely grown in depth because on this record, we relied heavily on myself and Dave to just write everything, and then we filled in the guitar. We had Salah bring his personality to the parts we had envisioned, and he wrote his own parts too.

There are also co-writing credits on this album from some of the additional musicians outside the core band lineup.

Well, we had written two of the songs before our former guitarist and former keyboard player left, so we gave them credit on those, and a few of them–I think “Dark Magic,” our old keyboard player Kelsee Xastle wrote the synth hook on that. We were still in the writing process when they left, and we finished writing the record, so that’s why they’re co-writing credits on those.

You worked with ESCQ on production. Tell me a little about that relationship.

Eric Straube and Chris Quells are great–both brilliant musicians and producers as well, and I had–it’s a long story. Eric and I, we used to be in a band years ago called Vitruvian, and it was kind of a prog-rock-y band, kind of like Coheed and Cambria meets Thrice. He moved out to L.A. and happened to meet up with Chris Qualls, and they had a musical partnership together. Chris, coincidentally, I had known from–oh, god, I can’t remember the name of it, but he was in an L.A. band which a friend of mine in Arizona was managing. It was kind of serendipitous how they all connected and became really close friends. Etti lived with Eric when he was in L.A. for like, two years, so we all–you know, it’s funny.

You recorded a lot at Premier Studios in Phoenix. What was the atmosphere of that space like and how did that influence the finished record?

We worked with Jeremy Parker, and he’s got some really great engineering credits, but we had worked with him on the first Harper and the Moths record, Love Songs for the Damned, and he did a killer job for it. He’s easy to work with, he’s really quick, laid back, and we just love working in that studio. It’s really comfortable. The space is fun. We also rehearse there. But yeah, we recorded all the music there, and then went to Big Bear for a week and did all the vocals, did production, then we came back and did all the backup vocals [laughs] and the horn parts at Premier. So we went to two different studios in two different states to do it.

It was really neat to see it come together in pieces, in little waves like that. Every couple of months, we would chip away at it more. The Big Bear experience was great. We stayed in a cabin and really got to know each other well, and it was like a beautiful, hardworking vacation. I think the coolest part was layering the pieces: doing lead vocals, coming back and doing the backup vocals with the girls, and then the horns on top of that. I think that last day in the studio where we were wrapping up horns–that was where we could see it taking shape, and it just felt natural, like it was something bigger than us.

There are a couple moments on the album where the lyrics are talking to the music, like in “Every Bit” where you say, “clap your hands if you’ve been hurt,” and then all these claps that come in. When do those things occur to you in the writing process?

I’ve always been a theatrical performer and I like call and response-type activities on records. I think it’s a good way to break that wall and let the audience know you’re talking to them, you know, when it’s on the actual record. We have a moment on our first record, Love Songs for the Damned, where I do a similar thing. I wanted to bring it back and make it an homage to that, and that felt like a really appropriate moment to do it, so that was my pitch. I did it live and I did it in pre-production, and the band said, “yeah, that’s cool, let’s do it.”

You mention the theatricality of it. Are there any performers that have inspired you in that mode of artistry?

Yeah, I mean, everyone says Bowie. A more modern artist who does something similar would be July Talk. I’m a big fan of theirs. They’re not just singing lines, they’re singing directly to the audience, you know? I try to pick up on that kind of energy.

“No Thanks” is a pointed song, where you say “we’re having a good time, and it’s no thanks to you.” Was there a specific kind of person or experience you were thinking of when you wrote that?

For me, it’s the archetype of the authoritative leader or figure in your life that doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, or has a specific value construct that doesn’t align with your own, so you’re trying to break that down. I wouldn’t say a specific person. I try to make it pretty general so other people can interpret that and say, “oh yeah, that reminds me of this person.”

You start the album with the idea of meeting your maker, and that’s one kind of relationship to authority, and then there’s this other one you’re talking about here. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing this album?

Oh, definitely. I will reference Bowie now, but even in, like, “Modern Love,” you know, when he says “no religion”–I think it’s important for rock and roll to challenge conventions and get people thinking because a lot of people, if they’re hearing something for the first time, it’s incredibly important. There might be people that hear something that I’m saying, and they’ll interpret it in a way that’ll challenge their perspective. That’s definitely what I’m trying to do, and that is intentional.

Things like using female pronouns for God, say.

Yes, exactly.

It rings as rock and roll in that way for something that seems like it shouldn’t be controversial. Do you know what I mean?

Absolutely. It shouldn’t be, but some people don’t even think about it. This way, hopefully, if it’s just me saying something as simple as that, they’ll relate to it and say, “oh yeah, that kind of makes sense,” or “why do I believe that?”

The last full song on this album before the outro is “Move Me,” which has a duet section near the end. Had you ever done something like that before? What made you want to end the album on that note?

No, never really a duet with our former keyboard player–she also contributed a lot to the backup vocals and the vocal styling. Because of her contributions, we realized we wanted two female backups on this record. That gave us the opportunity to dive a little deeper. 

There’s a lot of things that I say on this record that are very emotional and from one perspective, which can come across as too much in the moment, you know? I think that female vocal and having that be a conversation kind of breaks from that. Maybe it’s just me talking to myself, and it’s not–does that make sense?

In other words, you’re not going unanswered throughout this album and the process of unpacking these feelings.

Exactly. I think that gave us the ability to do that, so that’s something we definitely talked about.

Given the way so many things like that were influenced by the resources you had, what’s your dream setup? If there were no limits, where does your head go?

Electronic drums, real drums, synth, at least two female backup vocals, at least a trumpet and a sax, maybe a full horn section, and we already have backup male vocals, so yeah, I think that’s ideal. I love the rock and roll, Motown setup.

Have you been able to have the horns when you play these songs live?

Yes, we’ve been lucky. We have a trumpet player and singer named Danny Torgesen, who plays in a wide variety of bands. He plays in a band called Captain Squeegee, where he’s the main writer, but he is a musical virtuoso and a good friend. The bigger dates, the bigger venues, we call him in.

You’ve been around for years and you’ve released a lot of music. Does Harper and the Moths feel like a different thing or a more substantial endeavor now that you’ve hit this debut album milestone?

Yeah, I think it was just a really different process for us. We were so used to releasing singles, then compiling the singles, adding a few more songs, and making an EP out of it, or just being stuck in that writing where we’re like, “let’s just work on six or seven songs and make those as good as we possibly can.” 

Some of the records did have themes, but I feel like this album gave us the ability to be bigger–to actually make a 35- or 40-minute listening experience where it takes you through a really different emotional roller coaster, as opposed to the EP format, where you’re really excited about the single, you want to play that single again. I’m hoping we made something pretty timeless, and it gives us the opportunity to have these conversations and to have this record reviewed. It’s a body of work as opposed to an EP, so hopefully we can get some national buzz.

You mentioned that you had done a rock opera in the past.

[laughs] Yeah, I wrote a comic book and a screenplay and a record called The Sunset Rider and the Skeleton Army. I played piano and guitar, sang, and did all the arrangements, and it was basically rock and roll Faust. It was the story of a guy who sells his soul to save the life of the woman he loves, then kind of comes back as this undead devil’s arm who writes music that influences people to join Satan, basically [laughs] it was kind of high-concept. It had a very Elton John, Billy Joel kind of musical vibe to it.

What inspired you to work in that other musical style and conceptual framework?

Well, this was–before Harper and the Moths, I was in that prog-rock-y band for years, and I was tired of feeling like I was backed into a corner of just being the frontman or the lead singer, so I quit that project and really wanted to put something out on my own where I wrote everything. I think it was more of an exercise just so I could prove to myself that I could be the band, you know? I could organize everything. I love writing and being a storyteller, so it kind of came naturally to me.

What’s a song that always makes you want to dance?

I mean, there’s a billion. Anything by Hall and Oates. I would say Let’s Dance by David Bowie, that record specifically. Anything Motown, especially The Temptations, Diana Ross, Supremes, Jackson 5. If you have a soul and you listen to those Hitsville records–if you’re not moving, you’re not living.

On the other side of the spectrum, do you have a favorite concept album?

It depends on what you call a concept album. Not a record, but like, Loving the Alien, Bowie, or you could even do, like, Glass Houses by Billy Joel. There’s a lot out there. Or you could do My Chemical Romance. Killjoys, that’s another My Chemical Romance–they were really good at that. I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I love the idea of thematic records. I love that artists can immerse themselves and create a world.

I love that you said My Chemical Romance, because when you first said The Sunset Rider and the Skeleton Army, I thought, “oh, you know what that reminds me of.” 

Yeah. [laughs]

In a very superficial kind of way, but you know what I mean.

Yeah, Gerard Way, Umbrella Academy, that sort of vibe.

Are you a fan of Umbrella Academy?

I am, yeah. I thought the adaptation was very well done, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Gerard Way, I think he started at Marvel doing the kids line of toys as a sculptor, and he went to an art institute–he’s always been a really good artist–so I think it’s important that he’s had the freedom to make that happen on his own outside the band. To see that translate and see people love it, I’m sure that’s incredibly rewarding for him.

If you got a blank check to make something in another medium besides music, what would you want to do?

Film. I draw as well, and I paint–I’m a halfway decent artist–but I love cinema. I’d love to write and direct something.

Does the rest of the band share your interest in visual art?

Absolutely, especially Etti. Dave does as well, and Salah–they’re all very artistically talented in different ways. Etti does choreography and a few other things too. He plays in a group called Blood Drums, where it’s kind of a performance art drum group, and they’ve played at Coachella and EDC and all over the place. He’s very immersed in the performance art world.


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