A Q&A with The Harrow

Comprised of Vanessa Irena (vocals, synths and programming), Frank Deserto (bass, synth and electronics), Barrett Hiatt (synth, programming), and Greg Fasolino (guitar), the Brooklyn-based quartet of The Harrow can trace their beginnings to 2008 when the project began as Frank Deserto’s solo project. However, the current iteration of the self-described post-punk/dream pop quartet took off in 2013 when Deserto enlisted Irena, Hiatt and Fasolino to flesh out the band’s sound. 

Within the past year the Brooklyn-based quartet has been prolific as they released a self-titled EP earlier this year and the Mouth to Mouth/Ringing the Changes 7 inch single recently released through the blog Everything Is Chemical. And in that period, The Harrow has received quite a bit of attention across the blogosphere as they’ve been profiled and reviewed by the likes of The Deli MagazineThe Big TakeoverImposeAltSounds and others, and as you can imagine that attention has increased the quartet’s profile in both New York’s highly competitive indie rock scene and in a growing (and equally competitive) chillwave/darkwave/goth/psych rock scene. 

Speaking of chilwave/darkwave/goth/psych/whatever-it-may-called-today, The Harrow’s sound on their self-titled EP and the Mouth to Mouth/Ringing the Changes 7 inch sonically draw from several familiar influences including The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division and others – in other words, late 70s and early 80s post-punk and goth; however, they do so in a fashion that is much more than mimicry but manages to place a modern twist on something extremely familiar – and beloved. 

In this edition of the Q&A, I spoke to the members of the band via email about the Franz Kafka story that inspired their name; the influence of Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and Joy Division on their work and sound; their self-titled EP and their recently released 7 inch and the forthcoming release of the band’s anticipated full-length debut; and of course, much more. Check it out below. 

Photo Credit: Phil Maier


WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling? 

Frank Deserto: My calling was pretty immediate, though I didn’t have any professional training. I’ve always been passionate about music – it was my first love growing up in an otherwise friendless and isolated small-town environment. I originally taught myself how to play keyboard in high school, mostly just emoting and rambling. I worked on a lot of ambient music throughout college before picking up the bass somewhere in there. Once I moved to NYC, I joined any band that would have me, playing either instrument (or both). I didn’t take it very seriously until about 2006, and it’s been a strange journey since…
Vanessa Irena: I’ve been playing the piano since I was about 3 years old. No one in my family was ever really into music much and I didn’t have a ton of friends growing up. It just became something that I desperately clung to, both as a joy and as a refuge. I remember huddling in front of the TV in the middle of the night trying not to wake up my parents while I watched 120 Minutes, and it was like a whole new world. I felt like that’s when I really came alive.

Greg Fasolino: I always loved music, from my childhood singing along to folk music with my parents in the late ‘60s, but I think it was obsessing over Led Zeppelin when I was 12 that made me desperately want to be a guitarist. One thing built on another, and I’ve always come back to it even after long sabbaticals. I still find the basic elemental process of creating music – hitting wood, wires and skins, manipulating electronics, using different effects – and collaborating with other musicians to be endlessly fascinating.

Barrett Hiatt: Music is the most perfect and purest form of communication. I’ve always felt it. Music throughout my lifetime has meant and taught me more than anything else. Every emotion, every feeling I’ve ever had I can relate through all the music I have listened to. Bonds and friendships were created through music. Memories and experiences always had a soundtrack for me. You will rarely find me in a time where I do not want to have music playing. Even while I’m sleeping I prefer to have music on. 

WRH: How did the band meet? 

FD: Barrett and I played together in a short-lived band called Revel Hotel. I played bass and synths and he played drums. When the band split, we knew it was only a matter of time before we worked together again. We had both known Greg for some time, having shared the stage with previous bands over the years, so he was a natural fit on guitar. Vanessa and I had met each other through our respective DJ adventures – I was the resident for NYC’s Wierd party, and Vanessa had asked me to be a guest on her radio show, Total Control.

WRH: I came across your Facebook fan page and it mentioned that the band takes its name from a Franz Kafka story, titled “The Harrow.” What was it about the story that said “Yes, that’s perfect for us!”? And how has the story influenced your approach? 

FD: The name of the story is actually “In the Penal Colony,” but our name is a reference to a torture device used in the story. In a futuristic totalitarian society, capital punishment were once implemented by a needle called the harrow, which carves your crime into your body until you expire. Throughout the process, the criminal has an epiphany, almost a religious experience, in which he accepts his crime and comes to terms with it. I found the entire story moving, and the concept is both bleak and beautiful, a dichotomy that I feel successfully encompasses our music as well. 

WRH: Your sound seems to owe a great debt to early ’80s new wave and goth. After listening to your latest 7-inch single and the self-titled EP, I was reminded of Joy Division, The CureSiouxsie and the Banshees and others. How much did that particular period influence you? Who else are your influences?

FD: My personal influences are extremely varied, but the basic mission statement was to create a modern take on the 4AD sound, drawing from bands across the globe, both obscure and well-known. Cocteau Twins were a huge influence, as well as the first few Cure records (Seventeen Seconds and Faith primarily) and things like And Also the TreesAsylum Party, CranesSlowdive, etc. As a DJ, I’m also influenced heavily by dance/club culture, and am interested in combining our existing atmospheric sound with some more electronic influences.

VI: We definitely all share a mutual love for music of that ilk/time but from there our tastes vary widely, which I think is what keeps things interesting. Growing up in New Orleans, I listened to a lot of hip-hop and soul music and that’s just as much a part of me as being a goth kid.

GF: For me, the ‘80s post-punk/new wave/goth stuff is “roots” music. It’s what I was primarily listening to while I was in high school and college in the ‘80s and having my formative band experiences as a musician, so the styles of the Chameleons, Banshees, Comsat Angels, etc. are always apparent as a bedrock element of my playing. As Vanessa said, that music is what we all connect on as composers, but the different members diverge from there. My main personal influences right now tend to drift a bit more toward the ’90s, from shoegaze and dreampop to other genres like trip-hop (PortisheadMassive Attack) and Britpop (Suede). I am also very inspired by a lot of the current nu-gaze bands, for lack of a better term, and even the dreamier alt-metal stuff like Alcest and Agalloch. Influences can come from anywhere, though – on one of the upcoming album tracks, my guitar part was inspired by listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with my daughter.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now? What is it about that artist that really draws you to them?

FD: Outside of my usual coldwave/post-punk/shoegaze diet, I’ve been listening to a lot of late ’80s and early ’90s electronic music – including bands like Underworld and Biosphere as well as a lot of Belgian new beat. I find most vocal music to be exhausting these days, so this incredibly fertile era is both exciting and newer to me, as well as more atmospheric and musically driven as a nice palate cleanser.

BH: I’m listening to a lot of soundtracks right now. Jim Jarmusch’Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack is fantastic. For me, I tend to lean towards mood and soundscape over how catchy something is.

VI: I’ve been listening to a lot of textural stuff. Klara Lewis’ ETT is very good. I also second Barrett on the Only Lovers soundtrack.

GF: In the past month or so, I’ve been listening widely, checking out the Zeppelin reissues and new Smashing Pumpkins; rediscovering my love of Chrome and British folk singer A.L. Lloyd; and getting heavily into The Handsome FamilySun Kil MoonPale SaintsNeu! and Strawberry Alarm Clock. I was excited to discover Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu, who mix black metal with shoegaze, dub and doom to great effect. I’ve also been obsessed with unearthing hundreds of weird, obscure rock and pop singles from the ’50s and ‘60s, mostly ones with horror themes or that sound like the soundtrack to a Russ Meyer grindhouse flick. The record that most knocked my socks off lately was this bizarre 1966 novelty jazz/poetry record called Colors: A Sensuous Listening Experience by Ken Nordine. It has to be heard to be believed.

WRH: From what I understand, you’re putting the finishing touches on a full-length album. How will it differ from your previously released material? When will it be released?

FD: This record is different from our previous material primarily because we were all heavily involved with it from day one. Our previous songs were more individual efforts, pieced together from older ideas and aborted solo projects, but as we began writing this record, the real collaboration began. There are more of those electronic influences I mentioned above, and the biggest improvement is in the drum programming, which has really taken an upward turn from our more simplistic patterns in the past. There’s a lot of movement on the record, and no song sounds the same. As for a date, the record is currently in the mixing stages, but should be out by mid-2015 via aufnahme+wiedergabe. We have Xavier Paradis of Automelodi on board to mix the record, and we’re incredibly excited to hear how he interprets our material.

GF: I think the album really reflects our diversity and different talents and ideas. It’s simultaneously dreamier in parts and more aggressive in parts than the EP, which I think will make for a more exciting experience for the listener. Xavier’s contribution will be crucial as well, as Frank noted. We trust his ears and he adds much more to the end process than a typical mixer does.

VI: Like Frank said, this is the first time where we all really came together as a unit. A lot of the EP was already written before I joined and it’s been very cool to hear everyone do their thing this time around. I also was able to write a lot of the lyrics and do a lot of the drum programming for the record, which was really exciting for me.

WRH: The 7-inch sounds and feels like a continuation of the EP but with subtle differences. Was that intentional?

FD: Absolutely. We were looking for something of a “hit” – a track you could drop the needle on and play in clubs. “Axis” was the real start of the collaborative spirit I mentioned in our last question, and a real step forward for the band, expanding on our EP’s sonic template.

BH: I don’t think we ever want to get too far from what brought us all together to begin with, but we will definitely continue to grow and evolve. Can’t say we’ll be putting out a Christmas record any time soon.

WRH: How much of your material is based on the lived-in experiences of those you know? And when do you know that you have a finished song?

BH: Most of our material has been pretty organic so far. We’ve let the songs breathe on their own and haven’t overthought them. We pretty much conscientiously just know.

FD: The lyrics I’ve written for the band are about 25% reality and 75% escapism. I’ll never tell which part is which…

VI: What Frank said, but for me, I think it’s more 50/50.

WRH: New York is known for an incredibly competitive and difficult music scene, with seemingly a million subscenes popping up every day. I think there’s some blogger who dubs some new sound some cringeworthy term every other week. How do you set yourselves apart in such a competitive world? How do you set yourselves apart in a crowded darkwave/chillwave scene?

FD: At this point, having been in the NYC scene for over 10 years, I’ve generally checked out of the scene drama and competitive culture of it all, because it does nothing but frustrate me. I couldn’t care less if we wear our influences on our sleeve, or if we’re touching on new, exciting ground. Even playing live is less of a priority, as in the current NYC scene, it’s a generally thankless, repetitive gesture. That’s just how I see it, though. More importantly, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to make some of the best music I’ve ever made with people I love and care about deeply. 

BH: Beyond what Frank mentioned here, we are very supportive of many bands in our scene and are friends with a good number of them: Dead Leaf Echo, BootblacksTiersAzar Swan, just to name a few. I wouldn’t say we are competing with any of them. If anything, we are inspired by them.

GF: I think we are lucky enough to be doing The Harrow at a time when we don’t need to compete with anyone. We can make and release music for its own sake, at our own pace and using home recording technology, and be satisfied knowing we created something memorable and that others can easily discover it. 

WRH: You’ve been a band for over five years now, and that’s an eternity here in NYC. What would you ascribe your longevity to? What advice would you give to other artists trying to make a name for themselves?

FD: Well, we haven’t quite made it five years, to be perfectly honest about it. I originally started The Harrow as a solo outlet back in 2008, which only produced a handful of demos and an unreleased remix for Greg’s old band Bell Hollow. It took until early 2013 for me to reactivate the project and to take it seriously. So in reality, the band is only a year-and- a-half old.

VI: I don’t know if I am the best person to give advice on “making it” since we’re hardly there, but I would just say that the most important thing you can do is to be supportive of others. A lot of opportunities for us have come about through the kindness of other musicians/friends.

BH: In that sense, I guess you could say the seeds had been planted years prior.