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Interview: Alex Casnoff of Harriet, on growing up, drowning his songs, sing-alongs and piano players with small hands (plus, the new video)

by Kevin Bronson on March 2, 2012

Harriet arrived with a bang in November with the kiss-off song-cum-playground taunt “I Slept With All Your Mothers,” the centerpiece of the quartet’s “Tell the Right Story” EP. Frontman Alex Casnoff, who’d played keyboards in the bands Dawes and PAPA, sounded as if he had relationships issues, but it turns out that, like any good storyteller, Casnoff’s first foray into songwriting channeled a lot of stories, only some of them his own.

The EP melds classic pop songwriting and indie-rock sensibilities, displaying the urgency of somebody who finally felt the time had come to strike out on his own. Casnoff and I convened in Hollywood to talk about his new quartet with bassist Aaron Folb, guitarist Adam Gunther and drummer Henry Kwapis.

So … Harriet … That’s my mom’s name.

That’s my grandmother’s name.

Then you have the song “I Slept With All Your Mothers” … So, easy there, kiddo.

(Laughs) Hits a little too close to home? … Actually, my mom suggested the band name, and I immediately said, “No way.” But then I thought, my mom named me, so why shouldn’t she name the band? I was trying to hard to get the perfect name, but every name I’d Google, 10 bands would already have it. In the end, I liked the idea of having a name the music could grow into.

We now take this timeout to watch director Ethan Berger’s video for the single:

I get the sense from the songs on the EP that you could not wait to get those songs out there. Did you feel that way when you were in Dawes?

I think there was always that sense from the beginning. I don’t think I ever thought of myself as just a piano player. Taylor (Goldsmith) is such a good songwriter and writes such good lyrics, I always tried to think that I could affect those songs by the way I played the chords. But I don’t think I was ready to have my own project yet, although I always thought of myself as a songwriter.

Was there an ah-ha moment when you found you were ready to take the next step?

When I had those songs. When I wrote “Soldier,” which actually took a couple of years. I originally wrote it on the piano, and at first it had a different chorus and was called “Paris 1945.” It was too much. I was listening to a lot of Randy Newman at the time … But one day I started playing it on the guitar and I changed the chorus and simplified it — it seemed much more emotional to me.

As you went on did you find sometimes that you had to strip things down?

That’s kind of become a motto in the band, which I might have stolen from Tom Waits: “Don’t be afraid to drown your babies.” Sometimes you lose a chorus or a verse, or something that’s catchy or pretty that you might have loved, because it wasn’t cohesive. Or it made the song too bulky. A lot of writing to me is very instinctual and subconscious, but the important part is the editing.

Do you feel that because of your time with Dawes and PAPA you came away with a lot of lessons on simply how to do business?

Absolutely. I think that professionalism was not a high priority for me in the beginning. Being in a band was always an emotional thing. I used to be in a band in high school [Discovery Zone] where we would do a lot of screaming at each other. It was definitely inefficient. We used to have rehearsals that were 10 or 12 hours long, and over the summer we would rehearse every single day. It didn’t make any sense. Then I started playing with Dawes and PAPA and they had rehearsals that were three hours long, and they got more done than we did. I definitely learned a lot from that.

How did you and these guys come together?

Henry the drummer and Aaron the bass player both started playing with me before we recorded the songs on the EP. The guitar player we recorded the EP with, Sean O’Brien, had to go back to New York City, but through Sean we found Adam Gunther.

I couldn’t be happier. I so did not want to be a singer-songwriter with just a bunch of people backing him up. And this has become as collaborative as any band I’ve been in. The sound has changed, it’s amazing … I feel like I’m in a band. Even the songs on the EP have changed in terms of how we recorded them and how we play them live. That’s because there’s sort of a discovery in the rehearsal space — every thing is open to discussion.

Lyrically, though, the songs sound distinctly you. They seem to have an emotional directness to them. Do find that a lot of today’s music is too opaque?

Yes. Sometimes there is too much of a weight on being cool. When people hide behind things, it sorta bores me. I am of the opinion that certain feelings and certain lyrics work for certain kinds of music, but when I write I have to be as honest as possible. These songs help me deal with feeling that I have — I write through a lot of my personal struggles.

Still, I want to be able to write a love songs but not be a pussy. I admire people who are cool because they are not afraid to be honest.

You did the recordings at the Hangar in Sacramento, which I’ve heard a lot about.

It’s fun. We even decided to sleep at the Hangar. It was cool because it was so remote, we could have the guitars going all night. We could eat at 11 p.m., we could skateboard on all the breaks.

The songs on the EP seem rather intensely personal — are they all inspired by relationships?

All songs are inspired by relationships with something.

I think most of our songs come across as relationship songs but I don’t think they are. A lot of times there’s something I observe and I end up writing them into love songs — things about friends, family, disappointments … There’s a song about not being able to write anything and having writer’s block. There’s a song about feeling like I’m waste my time. Overall, though, a lot of time the perspectives are not my own.

I like telling stories. My shelves are full of books about movies and screenwriting. So many “story” songs end up being unrelatable because they end up being about the facts and not the feelings.

Did you have a lot of piano heroes when you were young?

Sure … Randy Newman, Bernie Worrell, Ahmad Jamal … I grew up playing jazz in high school. My dad was a Broadway singer, and he brought me up with Frank Sinatra, which to this day I still visit in the wee hours of the night. So there were a lot of sing-alongs, to things like Huey Lewis and the News, Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings From Asbury Park” and, later, a tape of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.”

I took piano lessons, but I sort of faked my way through them. My piano teacher was Billy Ferrick — I remember he always used to smell like cigar smoke. I sort of memorized his fingers. But the biggest thing I learned him was improvising.

You don’t exactly have the hands of a piano player, though. (We compare, and they’re as tiny as this writer’s.)

I do have small hands, but you make concessions. You take different routes to the notes. I can’t necessarily do what other people do on the piano, but I developed my own technique.

||| Live: Harriet plays Saturday night at the Hotel Cafe


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