If you’ve been coming to the Outer Banks recently and like to catch live music at any one of the numerous venues that feature it, you just may have been exposed to Harry Harrison.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, novelist and modern music historian of the first order. A veritable Renaissance Man. South Carolinian by birth, North Carolinian by osmosis and somewhat interplanetary by reputation.
There’s nobody on the beach quite like him. There’s nobody in the world quite like him. It’s not a stretch. Who else can whip out Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” and follow it up with a Fats Waller tune, and follow that with a top drawer original? His performances can range from touching to spellbindingly manic as he navigates the musical waters of the 20th century and steers us into the 21st century with the intensely modern sounds of The Tills. He surrounds himself with world-class musicians, when he’s not displaying his ample skills in a solo acoustic format.
Engaging and articulate, I caught up with Mr. Harrison by the miracle of technology, and his answers to some of my questions were as compelling and surprising as his musical performances can be:
Q: If you’re not a native, what brought you to the Outer Banks?
A: Joshua "Marty" Martier brought me to the Outer Banks. His family took me in and, along with another OBX OG native, Ed Tupper, integrated me into the local music community. They're a family of artists and OBX royalty.
Q: How would describe your music?
A: It's hard to answer this question without sounding pretentious, but if I were selling it door-to-door, I'd say that on a good day the music is boyishly charming; a little maniacal; a little frenzied; a little sloppy and impatient; but sincere and totally innocent. On a bad day, it's derivative and boring. But really, it depends on whom I'm working with, or what I'm working on. Right now I'm working on a solo thing about robots, death, and mental health. It's nothing like anything else I've done before.
Q: Who is your greatest musical influence?
A: My greatest influence is Marty (Josh Martier). He's the Roger to my Hammerstein.
Q: What is it about music that touched you?
A: This one is hard to answer too. Music touched me like, okay, to put it as transparently as I can: Good music, delivered and executed properly, feels more like real life to me than real life feels in real life.
Q: What was the first concert you attended?
A: The first concert I went to was Buddy Guy at the Charleston Jazz Festival. I also saw Al Green there. Two of my favorites. It didn't really light a fire; in fact I slowly discovered that I don’t really like going to see live music at all ever. I don't like having to stand around. I can't ever see what's going on because I'm short. I always feel like the sound is bad or too loud or too echoey. Even if the sound is good, sometimes I think it's too good, like the drums are tuned too perfectly. People all squished up, stinking and sweating and dancing. And just to watch some guy do a thing. Buddy Guy and Al Green, of course are great performers, but overall I think most live music sounds bad, and is boring. Most performers are boring. Most shows are boring. I prefer seated productions. I just saw Phantom of The Opera on Broadway. That's the kind of thing I like. You sit down in a comfy seat, the acoustics are great, and the show is engaging, visually and musically. Except the phantom blew it on one of his biggest songs, just belted out this big long flat note. Terry Bozzio does a thing I like, where you just sit down quietly and he does like a seminar where he plays drums and then just philosophizes about rhythm and math and stuff. Anyway, I can't think of what made me want to get on stage, but when I look back, I've always liked being on it instead of off. I was first onstage as Oliver Twist in fifth grade, and all through out middle and high school I was in plays or doing poetry readings or doing talent shows and stuff like that. Lots of people say they feel anxious on stage, but I find myself more relaxed, and more "myself" on stage than anywhere else in the world.
Q: What are your favorite venues on the Outer Banks?
A: I can't pick a favorite place to play overall, because they're all so dope. But different places are dope for different things. For solo shows, I love Sweet T's. For duets like The Billy Clams, the Blue Point is excellent. For groups of three, Trio Wine Cheese and Beer, incidentally, is perfect. And the staff there is da bomb. For groups of four, ya can't beat Roadside and Arts Place, so you can crank up and rock out. For groups larger than four, I like Ocean Boulevard. As far as straight up venues go I've had great shows at the Brewing Station, and New York Pizza Pub. And for pure, balls to the walls, Tills-style rock and roll shows I like the Bonzer Shack. If I had to go watch live music, which I've stated above that I don't like doing, I guess I'd go to Sweet T's for something chill and relaxing. I like when Al Key deejays there.
Q: Was there a person in your life that motivated you to pursue music?
A: I don't know if there's any one person who motivated me to go and do music. I just started doing it and no one tried to stop me. As far as making a living at it, I owe a great debt to Ed Tupper, who kind of, I feel like, he was instrumental in helping to establish the music scene on the beach as we know it today. And the Martier family, of course. They really pull a lot of strings round these parts.
Q: Are you self-taught?
A: My dad and my sister and my step dad taught me guitar mostly, plus a bunch of mentors along the way. Namely a fellow named Jon Dana, who is to this day the best guitar player I've ever heard. And a book called "Total Guitar" by Terry Burrows. I still learn stuff from it. I actually started on drums. I learned from a video where a guy teaches drums phonetically, like just saying "poon-pik-pak-pik-tomarackatomaracka." Forget the name of it. Then I learned piano from one of those Casio keyboards with a screen on it that shows you how to make basic triad chords. I'm going on and on.
Q: How many different musical projects are you involved in?
A: The Tills, The Hound Dogs Family Band, The Yacht Dogs, The Yard Dogs, The Running Club, and the Billy Clams are the main things I've done. There are dozens of offshoots though, with different people. When it's me, Ed and Joey "The Fountain" Lafontane, we call it The Sticky Nickel Band. Plus solo acts. The OBX is an incestuous musical cesspool.
Q: Besides the electric band gigs, you also do solo acoustic gigs. How different is your song list?
A: The solo acoustic gigs are pretty different. I play songs that don't fit in anywhere else. Lots of ballads and acoustic folk/country stuff I wrote that doesn't translate as convincingly with a band. The acoustic gigs are more chatty. It's really more like a play or something. I do one thing where it's "a trip through time" kind of thing, where I narrate the history of American popular music — I'm a pretty unreliable narrator because I kind of ballpark all the facts, but it starts with vaudeville stuff from the early 1900s, then moves on to blues and folk music, onto country western, into early rock 'n' roll, up to about the late-'60s.
Q: Do you prefer solo or band gigs?
A: I like both for different reasons. Band gigs are like shooting crack and drinking tequila, and solo gigs are like eating Xanax and drinking red wine.
You get a lot more room relax and find your footing in a solo gig. You can read an audience more accurately and pace yourself accordingly. You can say whatever you want and play whatever you want. But, at the same time, the pressure is entirely on you. I think a solo gig is the truest test of your character as a person, and integrity as a performer. If an audience doesn't like the act, it means they don't like you. It's not "I don't like this band" or "I don't like this music.” It’s, "I don't like this person." The crowd isn't always on your side, and there's no band of homies to back you up. I don't think I'd have the nerve to front a band if I didn't feel confident in being able to carry a show on my own. That, to me, is what separates the wheat from the ob-so-lete.
Q: What do you do in the off-season?
A: I've never had a job outside of music until this year because I've moved to New York, which is a little more expensive than other places. I wash dishes. It's the only other thing I know how to do.
Q: If you could perform with anyone, who would it be?
A: All the people I want to perform with are alive and for the most part, I already perform with them. I wouldn't want to be on a stage with any of my heroes because I feel like I'd be too much of a ham. In most cases, I think shows are best when there's only one ham. Exceptions to the rule are the Beatles of course, and the Who, where everyone's a ham.
Q: Is there a song that you wish you'd written?
A: Off the top of my head Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me."
Q: If you could choose an era to perform music, what would it be?
A: The late-1950s and early-'60s. I'd want to be on the scene with all the original American greats: Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Harry Harrison.
Q: Do you listen to new music and if so, what?
A: I do. Mostly Hip Hop. The last two songs on the new Eminem album are dope. Kendrick Lamar's DAMN is a masterpiece. Hip hop is where you can find the new stuff where artists are taking big chances and still flourishing.
Q: Have you ever considered quitting music and doing something else?
A: I've never considered quitting music. I don't even know if I could. If I had to, I think I'd teach world literature.
Q: Lennon or McCartney?
A: Lennon by a landslide. Much love to McCartney though.
Q: Writing a song, is it positive or negative inspiration that drives you?
A: Both positive and negative. I'm a big fan of diss tracks. But I'm inspired by the whole spectrum depending on my mood. Overall, I'd say it's positive because I'm creating something.
Q: Your favorite album? Why?
A: Right now it's the Beatles Album. The White Album. The whole thing is so bizarre and it's still ahead of its time even today. And The Marshall Mathers LP.
Q: Your favorite song?
A: I've been listening to "Revolution No. 9" on repeat lately. It's awesome. And "Kill You" on MMLP.