A Q&A with Sensual Harassment’s Todd Harassment

With the release of their latest effort, the Escape from Alpha Draconis EP, the Brooklyn-based duo of Sensual Harassment have managed to win the praise of several of my respected colleagues, including My Old Kentucky Blog, PitchforkVice, CMJ.com, XLR8R, and others for an electro pop sound that glistens and shimmers. But beneath the shimmering surface, the Brooklyn-based duo’s sound manages to be simultaneously futuristic and yet nostalgic, sounding as though the material could have been released in 1983, 2013, or 2043; it possesses an icy, somewhat minimalist quality yet it pulsates with a sweaty, all too primal carnality; it also manages to have a larger than life, cinematic sweep while being direct, and emotionally intimate. In some way, it manages to capture the fragility of human memory and of the desire for fantasy – and it has deeply influenced and informed the band’s sound and approach. 

I recently spoke with Sensual Harassment’s Todd Harassment about the new album, and how it’s thematically linked to their previous release, Alpha Draconis yet sonically, Escape from Alpha Draconis is a careful refinement of the sound they’ve developed over the last few years. 

We also talk about the stunningly beautiful and very moving video for their summertime single, “Capri Suntan,” and he offers some powerful and pertinent advice for artists everywhere. Check out the Q&A below.

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was the only thing you wanted to do? 

Todd Harassment: [I] Grew up around it all the time, really.  Probably one of the few things that both of us [Todd Harassment and Mike Harassment] did somewhat naturally.  You know it’s the only thing you wanna do when you choose playing music over hanging out with girls.  That’s when you know that it’s serious.  

WRH: Who are your influences?

TH: All over the map.  If you’re not learning from different genres and eras, then you’re probably missing out.  Iggy Pop, Steely Dan, Skinny Puppy.   You can hear obvious things like New Order in our music, but listen closer and you’ll hear a tons of the Ronettes and other quirky bits. 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

TH: Parliament, Empire Of The Sun, Moon _B, Lee Fields and Prince.  And those are fuck[ing] totally random but stuff that’s been great to hear lately. 

WRH: How did the band meet?

TH: Through a friend.  A friend had said Mike would be a great person to work with, but he was living in a different state (North Carolina) at the time.  I flew down to meet him at a bar.  We talked for an hour or so and felt he was pretty serious.  I asked him to fly up to NYC and try out for the project.  He did so a few days later.  From there on out, its history.

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

TH: A nod to the old and twisted embrace of the new.  But we’re probably the worst at talking about it.  But we try to be dramatic and cinematic in some fashion.  Great songs usually have drama and dynamics, and we try and achieve that.  People tell us some of our songs sound like they could be in movies and that’s a big compliment for us. 

WRH: How did you come up with the band name?

TH: I think it was just one of the kinds of pun/word play ideas we were throwing around and it fit a lot of criteria.  Good or bad, we felt it was memorable, and most importantly, we liked it so we’ve stuck with it. 

WRH: How did you come up with the album title? Did you always know that Escape From Alpha Draconis would be it?

TH: Our first EP was Alpha Draconis (a star system), so we wanted to “escape” some of the trappings of our first record.  Do some different themes and make progress.  Also we’ve always liked linked albums, so to reference the first record gives credit where its due but moves on from there.  We hope to grow with every release.   

WRH: The material on this album manages to do something that strikes me as intriguing. Although the material is futuristic and has references to space travel, aliens, robots (in the sense of people being robotic without love) and other things, at the heart of the album is a nostalgic longing – for something that’s now been irrevocably altered. What inspired that? And how much of that came from your own personal life or that of others?

TH: We love space and want to time travel/meet aliens/explore another world.  It’s about the fantasy, the new, the exotic.  And memories are fantasies of their own kind, so we often think those two concepts work well together. Memories are strange things. Because they are never exact and they often cause you to long for the past, but usually the past without the bad parts.  So it’s almost longing for a utopia that never was.  I think it’s human nature to long for better times or try and focus on the positive.  So we hope to drag the best parts forward toward a better future, I suppose.  I think most of our music is pretty personal on some level.  Sometimes we obscure exactly what is personal, but it’s usually stuffed in there.  

WRH: The material on the album is slickly produced and densely layered – it sounds carefully constructed to me. When do you know that you have a finished song?

TH: Good question.  Songs are never finished, on some level.  You always look back and wish you’d done something differently but then you’d never get anything done.  They’re kind of snapshot in time of the song.  Our problem used to be too much stuff crammed into a song (we felt our last EP was grandiose on some level but for the last record we wanted to tighten up a bit while still having a big sound).  There’s a quote from a French writer named Antoine de Saint-Exupery that says, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Our philosophy during the writing/recording of our last record was to make sure if something was in there, it was serving a distinct purpose.  At least for us, being complex was never the problem – we always wanted to sound like ELO or Smashing Pumpkins with something very powerful.  But we started to learn the beauty of simplifying while still getting your point across, hopefully in a profound way.  

WRH: "Capri Suntan” strikes me as being a perfect summer song – it strikes me as having the right mix of wistful nostalgia of summers past and of lovers past while having an innately hopeful feel to it.  And the video, which features two fairly ordinary young lovers in 1965 Hawaii is perfectly suited for the song.  What’s the inspiration behind that song? What’s the response to the song and the video been so far?

TH: Mike had written the basics of the music quite a while ago.  I had it on my iPod for a long time just letting it sink in before we fleshed it out and put lyrics.  I had just come back from a beach vacation when I wrote the lyrics.  Whenever we have to, we also work day jobs, and at the time I was working at a big corporate ad agency.  I thought most of the people I worked with were not living the kind of life I wanted to live.  I wanted to try and keep being a kid forever – worrying more about things like beach recreation and making music than winning new corporate clients or making tons of money for seemingly no reason.  So it became more of a Peter Pan thing, like “why is everyone trying to grow up and complicate life when there’s fun and beauty everywhere if you stop wasting your time trying to chase money and things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of life?”

The video really put an interesting spin of nostalgia on things.  The footage from the video is taken from people we don’t know but something very intimate comes across in their faces and I was really surprised that so many people picked up on that – its what attracted me to the footage and inspired the video in the first place.  Most people have commented that the video and song were almost made for each other, which is very nice to hear.  And even a little eerie since it’s re-edited found footage from 1965, involving the intimate life of a couple we never met.  But I think it spoke to some universal feelings, which is the most we could have hoped for.  

WRH: BMI Music invited me to the launch of their BMI Creators program and it included an interview session with Paolo De Gregario, the Editor-in-Chief at the Deli NYC and Vanessa Bley of Beast Patrol. And in the interview, De Gregario asked Bley an intriguing question – one that for some reason I had never considered before. He asked Bley if she had the choice between having the services of a PR person or a booking agent for free, which would she choose. So with that in mind if you had the choice between the services of a PR person or a booking agent for free. which would you choose? Why?

TH: Difficult question.  Probably a booking agent.  We haven’t had the greatest luck with PR agencies and have mostly done that work ourselves.  But I think both jobs require the same thing, so if you had to pick between a PR agency and a booking agent, I would go with the person who is most excited about your band. The person who really believes in your music is going to go the extra mile.  Experience and big name recognition are great, but we’ve been doing this game long enough to have worked with some huge names and so called repeatable industry folks who have been awful people and awful at business.  Its shortsighted to think one person with “connections” is going to take your band somewhere.  Don’t sell yourself out.  Our goal has been to do things the slow and difficult way – winning over one fan at a time.  It takes a very long time and it’s tedious, but the other options are pretty bleak.  If you can tell people don’t care about you or don’t get your music, don’t even waste your time.  Their “connections” are often not even helpful or sometimes not real.  Music is an insanely tough business and only passion and longevity win in the end.  

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything about the current state of the industry that they must know to survive?

TH: It’s the same as in dating – take NOTHING personal.  You will experience countless “rejections” – stop thinking about them as “No” and start thinking “Not Yet."  You can’t be deterred by anything or anyone.  Very few people in the business have real vision or concern with artistic integrity.  Later, after you get successful, everyone wants to hop on the bandwagon but most people are swayed wildly be trends and flashy objects.  These days, there isn’t much money in it anyway, so why alter your vision?  Make exactly the music you want.  And don’t necessarily change just because the world around you is changing.  I always wonder if Jack White would be Jack White if he would have listened to every moron growing up who told him he needed a bass player in his band. But also be prepared to keep challenging yourself if you’re going to get anywhere.  It’s my worst fear that we’re standing still or not trying new things, or worse, repeating ourselves.  Last, look what other successful artists are doing and see if that applies to you.  Even bands you don’t like, if they’re more popular than you, there’s a reason they got that way, whether you respect their music or not.  We learn just as much from enemies as friends.  Oh yeah.  And if you still like making music, don’t stop.  Especially if you’re like us and life didn’t give you so many other interests or talents to choose from – music is about all we have. 

 

If you care to hear more of that sort of rambling, I write for a music business blog called Musformation (www.musformation.com).  We recently wrote a book recently on DIY Music Business called Get More Fans (http://www.amazon.com/Get-More-Fans-Guide-Business/dp/0988561301/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374463724&sr=8-1&keywords=get+more+fans), where we got into some practical advice we’ve learned from years doing music.