Chicago – L.A. indie rock band Harriet recently released the fabulous debut album American Appetite via Harvest Records. The album was produced by Sean O’Brien (The National) and Tony Berg (The Replacements) and “touches on themes of money, greed, power, and corruption.” Harriet was formed in 2011 by singer, song-writer, and keyboardist Alex Casnoff, after leaving Dawes. The band also includes drummer Henry Kwapis, bassist Patrick Kelly, and guitarist Matt Blitzer. Together these four created an album that sonically draws the listener in with buoyant melodies, then lyrically pulls one further into a world of melancholy, critiquing American culture and its “condition, and the controversy, alienation and fear.” The album title track “American Appetite” was written from the perspective of former ENRON CEO Jeffery Skilling and the artwork was inspired by the ENRON logo.
Frontman Alex Casnoff talked with Best New Bands about the making of American Appetite, being a victim of consumerism, and what he wants in a president.
First of all, congrats on the release of American Appetite. This album is a pretty heavy examination and critique of American culture, value, ethics, etc. As an artist myself, I always feel torn between making art for art’s sake and using my voice to spread a message, critiquing the world around me, you might say as a form of social justice. I wonder if you feel the same, and what brought you to vocalizing about this particular subject?
I don’t think I was trying to consciously “make a point.” I write when I feel passionate about something. There’s a very “dumb-brute” animal reaction thing that happens to me when something pisses me off or turns me on, that has nothing to do with intellect or choosing to respond. I just write about what I see, hear, and feel. It has to be personal. I hate politics, but political people can be very interesting. With Jeff Skilling in particular, I think it was the scale of his hubris and the density of his denial that I just wanted to understand. I write about “my generation,” and our place in the world, not in order to illuminate it for people who don’t understand, but simply because I see it and it affects me.
Let’s discuss the album’s title track “American Appetite.” It was “inspired and written in the perspective of former ENRON CEO Jeffery Skilling,” after watching the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Do you feel ENRON is essentially at the root of the Wall Street crisis? Or more precisely, is it Skilling’s mindset, which no doubt is shared by many within Wall Street and American financial institutions, that is the root of our economic and social troubles?
It’s always personal at the end of the day. It’s an emotional attachment to an idea that allows you to turn a blind eye. This thought process was an epidemic from top to bottom. They were given a legitimate reason to feel like they were being singled out and that their trial was “unfair.” That’s what I found so interesting about the whole Enron crew. It’s like a high school drama. These guys felt like their best friends had turned on them, and it’s because their prosecutors had supported their entire industry. I think it probably all stems from the original sin of believing in American Exceptionalism, because how great would it be if we could become rich and powerful without consequence. And while this does not exist, who doesn’t want to believe in it?
Good old Wikipedia informed me that “Richard Dawkins‘ book The Selfish Gene was Skilling’s favorite book.” I’m wondering if you read that book in relation to exploring Skilling’s mindset?
I have not. You caught me.
I must ask about the making of the music video for “American Appetite.” Whose idea was it to put lyrics on everything?
I wore the GoPro in my mouth, ugh, and edited the video. It came out of necessity since our label asked us to make a lyric video. My brother and his friend had been pitching video ideas and I asked them if they’d be down to figure out a way to make a lyric video, creatively. Our budget kept shrinking until it was basically zero, so it forced a more creative product. Ben, my brother’s friend, is a surfer, and they had an idea to shoot the video fully POV on a GoPro, so we incorporated that into our theme of a businessman’s morning routine. It was an extremely fun shoot and process. It felt like an elementary school project!
I listened to your album, right before bed, while I was slightly buzzed on NyQuil, and had some crazy dreams. I’m wondering if there were any specific visuals in your mind while creating American Appetite?
I think the songs have a lot to do with dreams. Even when they are more literal and linear, they seem to slip out into a stream of consciousness. I guess it’s just how my brain works, and in general my mind veers left a lot; clinically I think they call this “ADD.” I realized there are a lot of sun images on the record, especially about it coming down almost close enough to touch. Going to have to read a dream translator and get back to you on that one!
In terms of the Enron logo, it all started with an Enron hat I bought on eBay a long time ago. It’s just the perfect corporate logo. I spent an entire plane flight from NYC to LA on Photoshop making a Harriet version of it.
You wrote the album over the span of three years. You teamed up with BitTorrent to release an “exclusive bundle titled, How To Make Music, which gives an in-depth look at the three year process behind the writing and recording of American Appetite” through photographs, demo tracks, and exclusive videos. Tell us about this collaboration and How To Make Music.
It was an opportunity to turn all this stuff that could have been lost into a narrative. One of the most rewarding and challenging parts of the creative process is moving on. This doesn’t mean we weren’t proud of our past work, it just means that those things needed to go. This was a fun project because we were able to take lost pieces and put them back into a new context. Product is all people ever really get to see, while for us by the time the product comes out we’re already inside of the next process.
There are lyrics in “Up Against It” that I feel a lot of young people can relate to: “And I’m back at my parent’s house / I’m back on their bank account / All of us have our doubts / But I don’t need you to hold me.” I think the fact that so many young people are having difficulties getting a leg up in this economy relates largely to the American condition you speak of in American Appetite, but I also believe that for many people, millennials in particular, they’ve been awakened to the greed you speak of and don’t want to be a part of it. I read a great article, titled “‘Adulting’ is an Indictment of Society, Not of Millennials,” which made an amazing point, in relation to this:
“The Millennials – and Gen X’ers and a few Boomers – who don’t want to adult are imagining a world where education doesn’t require massive personal debt, where health care is a universal right, where making sure everyone has enough is more important than making sure a few have the ability to become obscenely rich. They’re imagining a world where providing for yourself and your family doesn’t cost your soul.
If you think people who don’t want to adult are lazy, you haven’t been watching some of them pour hours and weeks and years into making and perfecting their arts. They’re not averse to work – they’re averse to meaningless work that makes the rich even richer. If you think they’re entitled you haven’t been watching them work to feed the homeless and to advocate for policies that would eliminate homelessness. If you think they’re fragile you haven’t been watching them pick themselves up over and over again after the system smacks them down for being unable or unwilling to get with the program.“
Do you find yourself feeling this way?
I think I am one hundred percent a victim of consumerism. Five out of the seven tabs open on my computer right now are for products that I want but can’t afford. I think I am part of a very selfish generation, actually. I don’t want to go to a nine-to-five. I want to quit my day jobs; not because I think I can change the world, but because I derive an immense amount of pleasure from expressing myself creatively. Obviously there are people who are doing this well and have legitimate and important things to say. However, living in Los Angeles and working with a lot of “actors,” I see a lot of people who are just trying to be famous. I think that with the breadth of information available to us at all times, it becomes hard for a lot of people to believe in things that are bigger than themselves. I want to get rid of Facebook and my phone so badly, but I literally have a panic attack every time I come close.
I think there are definitely a lot of people who don’t want to be a part of a system that hurts people, but I don’t know if this is a paradigm shift of people all of a sudden becoming humane on a mass scale. Good and evil usually balance each other out.
The album ends with “Bent,” which is quite haunting, yet beautiful. Is it a sad love song of sorts? What inspired “Bent?”
It’s about a controlling person being out of control. It’s about a break up, and the crippling desire to have control over the person you lost. It’s the freaking out when you realize they’re totally separate from you. It’s also about looking back on what went wrong. What you could’ve done differently, etc.
I read the band is named after your grandmother. Is she still with us? If so, has she heard American Appetite? What was her response to the album?
She just had her ninety-second birthday. She has been to our shows before. She’s very proud, although disappointed that we have yet to put her name on our kick drum head.
I can’t end this interview without asking you about the upcoming presidential race. What are your thoughts on the candidates, in relation to Wall Street and American greed? Given your critique in American Appetite, are you a supporter of Bernie Sanders?
I like Bernie Sanders. I think it will be very hard for any president to really make a change on Wall Street. The whole government is so entrenched in the corruption. I think it’s about chipping away and long-term change. I wish we had a really young, exciting candidate or the minimum age to run was lower. I was watching the Republican debates, and hearing them talk about technology made me wonder if any [candidate] actually understood what they were talking about. I want a President who grew up as a hacker or something.
American Appetite is available for purchase on iTunes. Harriet will be performing at SXSW 2016. Follow Harriet on Facebook and Twitter for news of SXSW performance dates and locations.
Photo Credit: David Kitz
After attending The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Sarah went on to study education at Dominican University, earning a degree in history. When not teaching, writing, or taking in a show, she is most likely to be found with a camera to her eye or hanging out in a darkroom.
You can follow Sarah Hess on twitter at @Sarahhasanh and view her music photography on her website: smhimaging.com.