Sunday, February 16, 2014

30 For 30: Grouper

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 9, I talk about insomnia and a musician who sounds like a dream.
There are generally a few nights each week where I suffer from insomnia. It's not that I don't sleep at all, it's that I can't turn my mind off and I get restless. That yawny/sleepy feeling never kicks in so I toss and turn for an hour or two before getting up and doing something to kill time until I'm actually able to sleep. Some weeks I have two or three of these kind of nights in a row, depending on what's going on in my life at the time, and it's always at these points that I now reach for Grouper, the music project of Liz Harris.

There's something almost subconscious about her music, as if you're listening to songs pulled into our world from a dream. It's for this reason I think her music means the most to me when I'm in the grip of insomnia. This music has the texture of dreams, which isn't to say that it's all calm and pretty sounding. Particularly on her earlier records, there is a dark and claustrophobic quality to some of it that speaks to people who have fitful wake-up-every-hour-or-so sleep patterns or frequent stress nightmares.

'Hold A Desert, Feel Its Hand' (2005)

Still, it's definitely the more serene and otherworldly aspects of Grouper's music that I love most. Every night during one particularly lengthy bout with insomnia, I used to play A I A: Alien Observer very quietly, over and over, until I fell asleep. You might assume that an album putting me to sleep would be an insult but there's a huge difference between a metaphorical “putting me to sleep because it's so boring” and a literal “putting me to sleep because it calms me down.” In fact, Grouper released a two track album called Violet Replacement with a 51 minute song called 'Sleep' that seems expressly designed for this purpose.

'Alien Observer' (2011)

Beyond the way the music of Grouper makes me feel, though, Liz Harris means something to my life because I'm inspired by the searching quality of her output. From the beginning, she has continually experimented with the way her music sounds and pushed herself to try new things. Just when she seemed to get more streamlined and songwriting focused with the masterful Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, she followed it up with a double album that sounds like a more focus take on the eerie and atmospheric style of the previous album, Cover The Windows And The Walls. I have a split record she did with Inca Ore which features her playing a lot of piano, something she still doesn't do too much, giving it a unique quality. Then there's the interesting collaborations she's done more recently, of which I think the Mirroring project with Tiny Vipers is a near-perfect combination of their two styles. So I guess what I'm getting at is, I'm inspired by the way Liz Harris does whatever she wants to. She is never content to keep making the same album over and over, yet there's a consistency to her style which would be ruined if she made too dramatic of a change. Try to imagine what Grouper would sound like as a full band, with drums and all, and it wouldn't be the same.

As much as I don't like judging people by what kind of music they like, I do think in certain cases you can learn something about their personality using this method. Grouper has always been a good litmus test for me, since I think you have to have a specific mindset and taste to 'get' it. I guess this is true with many cult bands or movies, but in Grouper's case I think there is just such a small percentage of people who will become as obsessed with Liz Harris's music as I am that I feel closer, somehow, to my fellow devotees. To put it another way, in an ideal world I would be married to Liz Harris. But in an acceptable world, I would be married to someone who also can't stop listening to Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

'We've All Gone To Sleep' (2008)

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