By Brian Tucker
Albums are generally a snapshot in time, often made over specific period of time. But North Elementary’s new album Honcho Poncho really is quite the snapshot. Made and recorded in less than a week, singer-guitarist John Harrison said if it were recorded another week it would have sounded different.
Whether playing soft or ratcheting things up with a little noise, North Elementary remains a playful and fun sounding band. With hypnotic drumming, fuzzy guitars and coarse, hushed vocals the music is rife with swagger, fuzzed-out pop ideas and a sunny day disposition. They are a distinct Chapel Hill band, one that navigates its ideas between rough and tumble indie rock and occasional electronic journeys like on the excellent song “Lovesday Dead Down” on 2007’s Berandals album.
Released in April on Potluck Records, Honcho Poncho may be their best album. Made so quickly, Harrison is still taking in what the album is and means to him.
“The interesting thing about recording like this is that it’s the way the band sounded playing these songs that week,” Harrison said. “So there is a documentarian sense to the album I find appealing. It’s the band in a room playing the songs…super simple and straightforward, which is the approach I’ve been into in recent years.”
The band, whose name came from a Virginia school Harrison passed once while playing in another grouphas released it’s fifth full length, and made it faster than any before it – done so solely for creative reasons. They’d never done so and wanted to record something that sounded more like playing their songs at shows.
“Before Honcho Poncho I never really viewed the live show and album as needing to correlate that much.”
Immediate and at times dreamy, it’s a delicious mix of carnival atmosphere, moodiness, and fun indie pop music. “Way Out (Happy Here)” is molasses thick garage rock that Elvis Costello might make in a candy coated psych rock band. “Eye Glass Goggles” is a steady burner – hushed vocals atop sinister organ playing and throbbing guitar work. “Left Doubt” and “Devils and Jesuses” both articulate guitar work that’s interesting melodically and sonically, the latter being quite hypnotic.
Making the album quickly was beneficial. In addition to a new songwriter Sean Parker on two songs, the process removed a lot of stress. With little time to over-think things recording was more fun and as Harrison explained, it trimmed the fat.
“If you get stuck somewhere you just make a decision, hope for the best and move on. It was great to have a finished record in less than a week.”
The fast and loose process had a fantastic effect. It’s a fun album, some songs just keep bouncing and some feel ripped from the 90s – namely the coarse and shiny “Return to Couches” and the bomb-and-be-quiet atmosphere of “Eye Glass Goggles.” The 90’s were formative years for Harrison. He spent time in Wilmington playing in the band Emily’s Porch and he learned how to play music and be in bands.
“I’m sure that it’s ingrained in me. I think it’s the same for most of the band as well. We don’t put effort into that sound but I do feel it would take effort for us to not sound that way. I listen to all sorts of music from all time periods but I learned how to play music and to be in bands during the 90s so it’s just the way that works, I guess. In the context of Honcho Poncho I just think it’s easier to hear as it’s a more immediate and raw sound for us. The song “Return to Couches” was inspired by a Doug Gillard song-meets-Swervedriver, so there is that sort of thing going on with us.”
Perhaps its years of experience or trust in band mates, but the expedited process of Honcho Poncho didn’t arouse much doubt. It turned out to be a new, refreshing experience and the band was in agreement on what they wanted before entering the recording studio with producer Alan Weatherhead.
“Anytime I sense I’m on a plateau creatively I have learned to step away, change things up and seek out inspiration, then return. Usually that does the trick and things really open up in ways I would have never anticipated.”
Harrison has done so in the past by making solo albums outside of North Elementary. But all the albums he’s worked on have become memory banks. Mention a song or an album and he can tell you about friends, band mates, experiences, or music he was listening to that he was surrounded by during that period.
“It’s unusual for me to go back and listen to past recordings at all but it’s nice knowing all of that is in there like a journal or time capsule.”
More with John Harrison
I’ve seen bands come and go. Is there something you point to that maintained NE’s decade-plus longevity?
Harrison: I’m at the center for sure but it would have never existed up to this point without all the support and creative input of every person that has ever been involved with the band, from musicians to labels to the folks that come see us and buy our music. It’s not the type of thing you go at for this long without the fundamental genuine caring support of those involved now or along the way.
I’ve always had the approach with this band that it’s happening now. We are not trying to get things beyond our control. Would I like more support and exposure? Money? Sure, and when it comes our way, great. In the meantime we are busy writing songs, playing shows and releasing music – the main focus of what we are doing. Last, and probably the most important reason of all it’s still a lot of fun, perhaps more so each year.
Did you have doubts about how this would end up?
Harrison: It was a new experience for us and that is generally always refreshing. I didn’t really know how it would end up but I didn’t have doubts as I felt the band was ready and we had the producer (Alan Weatherhead) and studio (Sound of Music) we wanted to create the environment we felt comfortable in. Everyone was on the same page about what we wanted to do before we recorded anything.
Did the band limit itself to minimal takes for songs?
Harrison: As far as takes for song, we didn’t really have limits but we knew we had to keep moving forward fairly quickly. I really can’t remember how it played out but we never felt too rushed and most of the takes you hear on the album are the first, second or third takes.
North Elementary always has a strong sonic presence, be it wall of sound (2009’s Decade Styling) or a variety of personalities found on the new album.
Harrison: I don’t really record ambient music as I mostly like songs, and I don’t hear songs in most of that genre. I do however love messing around and inventing sounds to include with songs to create the potential for a more interesting listen that hopefully provides a 3D sense to the recordings. I do think that all our albums have different personalities that can vary song to song.
To me we’ve mostly been a song-oriented band much more than an album-oriented band which can be confusing as we do release a fair amount of albums. They are normally just a collection of the most recent songs put together. The thought process for Honcho Poncho was a bit different and is the most cohesive album in terms of musical style and that was something that we wanted to do. For the most part the album is upbeat, fun and playful at times.
The biggest personality variable on this record is the introduction of songwriter Sean Parker on two songs. For me it’s nice just to play guitar on a few songs instead of being the primary singer. I also think it’s great for the listener, as to change things up a bit in an unexpected way. Two songwriters in a band are better than one, right?
What’s more intriguing creatively – writing songs, harnessing melodies, getting music ideas down or perhaps another art form like your making and printing posters?
Harrison: Well, really all of it is. I like making things exist that were not there before. I absolutely love writing songs. At different times I’ve become more interested in certain aspects of that process. Melodies are fun and it’s appealing to me to see where I can find them, place them as well as how much I can push them and they still remain melodically appealing. I certainly try to find ways to deconstruct things to find a balance that is interesting to me but still have a familiar universal type appeal via sounds or arrangements. There is a lot of building just to tear it down to see what remains.
The good thing about the visual art I do is that enables me to step away from music when I need to do so but still allow me to create. It requires a different process for me even though I feel the source of the creativity is the same for both the music and visual art. I have also learned that time away is good for my creativity, I’m more patient with it and I think that has helped me in music and visual art. Sometimes I just need to mow the grass, wash dishes and take out the trash.
With each song, or project, does the mystery of the outcome remain? Do you consistently feel like you’re exploring as a musician?
Harrison: I do. The exploratory nature of it is a large part of its appeal for me. The fact that you are creating something means it can be anything and that opens up a whole lot of options for you. I’ll hear something I like and it will send me down a new path of ideas, learning and discovery. You are only limited by your desire and being open to it, which even for me ebbs and flows.
I’ve asked other Chapel Hill area bands, but what’s in the water there?
Harrison: I don’t know, but it’s why I moved here and why I stay. It’s truly a magical place and the community is amazingly supportive and encouraging. When I think of the area I think of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh as one creative force.
I was a huge fan of Archers of Loaf and Jennyanykind when I moved here and I really feel honored to just be a part of this music community that was here long before me and will continue to be here long after I’m gone. I think you have it pretty good here on all levels if you are a musician or a music fan.
What do you remember best about Emily’s Porch and your time in Wilmington?
Harrison: Like a lot of other firsts in your teenage life it was my first real band. It can never be duplicated and it can never be better.
I’m just going to name a bunch of things in a list – Jacob’s Run, Bessies, Chip Smoak, Shannon Myers, Josh Brandies, Yeti, Mad Monk, Bourgeois Pig, UNCW Campus, Suite Q, The Glenn, Page Ave, 3rd and Greenfield, W.E. Fest, Tricky the Cosmonaut, “Pioneers of the Dead Scene,” Sperm Diablo, Brickbat, Weedeater, Lula’s, Rodeo Boy, Ogopogos, Flat Mass, Barbary Coast, Movie Studio Practice Shed, Self Service Silo, Tex Svengali, Two Headed Dog, Baby Ace Studios, Bob Wall. That should date me pretty good.
What song have you started that surprised you in how it began as an idea and grew into something different?
Harrison: To some degree it happens a lot as I’m usually showing the band a song I’ve been playing and is new to them. So any ideas I had are usually not the way it ends up. I like it. Often it’s much better than anything I’d have done on my own and it certainly helps me stay interested in the song for longer, due to the input of others detaching me a bit from the original version I wrote on an acoustic guitar. With that being said, there are a million things that can happen when you put us together and we work out ideas.
“Way Out” on Honcho Poncho was not like I presented it to the band. It was a Tobin Sprout -like mid tempo pop song when I brought it to them and it ended up having a mild syncopated reggae inspired keyboard and guitar thus really changing the esthetic. It was a bit jokey but it stuck. I didn’t expect that.
You’ve got a cool, unique voice. Can you remember when you “found” yours and felt comfortable with it?
Harrison: Thanks, that’s always nice to hear. I don’t really know and I feel like I’m always “finding” my voice. At the very least I try to sing more or less in tune and figure out spots to breathe in. I’ve gotten much better at understanding my voice and how it works best for what I do.
I started singing out of necessity as I wanted to write songs. Much like guitar, I didn’t really think of myself as a singer or a guitar player. I was a songwriter. It just happens. I sing and I sound like me. In the past five or so years I have spent much more time on being aware of my voice and singing as well as trying to become a better guitar player.
It’s nice having Betty sing harmonies which enables me to not have to carry all the vocal responsibilities or have Sean sing his songs and I don’t have sing very much at all. Many of my favorite singers – J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Mark Linkous, Lou Reed, Wayne Cohen, don’t have traditional singing voices so I feel comfortable just being myself when I sing. Somebody has got to do it if you have a rock band.
Honcho Poncho is available on vinyl, CD and digital. (The vinyl’s only $8 and comes with digital download, limited edition of 40 – easily the deal of the year.)