When I met Harris for the first time, during his label's daytime showcase at BPM festival, he rolled up dressed in black with the Scissor + Thread crew—Collins, label manager Shawn Schwartz, Jordan Lieb (who produces as Black Light Smoke) and Canadian duo Bob Moses. Later, as everyone chowed down on tacos and quesadillas, Harris was conspicuously absent, eventually surfacing with green residue on his upper lip. "At BPM, everyone thinks I'm crazy," he said, laughing. "The cleanse lasts 21 days. I can eat quinoa, organic brown rice, organic veggies, as long as it's raw food. I can cook something in a pan for, like, four minutes, at night, and after 11 days you can add protein. But no alcohol." When everyone gathered for a pre-show tequila shot, Harris downed a shot glass of water.
His health kick is a convenient metaphor for his recent career moves. These events were set in motion by the death of his father, which inspired Harris's debut album, Leland, in 2012. It was the first music he released under his given name since 2004, and the name change reflected its more personal angle. Originally conceived as an Adultnapper album, an alias that Harris used to make dark and loopy tech house for the majority of his production career, the changes in his life pulled him away from nightclub sounds. "My production techniques were changing," he says. "I started getting into microphones, and had a small obsession with Matthew Herbert. I got an MPC and started doing more sampling. It was less electronic and computer-based than Adultnapper."
That album, richly-textured deep house that lends itself to home listening, was written for Poker Flat. Label boss Steve Bug had his doubts about releasing Leland, telling Harris that having an album like that—elegiac and patient—wouldn't be a good fit for his label. It was Harris's connection with Lieb, who mixed the LP, that inspired him to begin Scissor + Thread. "Jordan started playing me some [of his own] music," he says, "and I thought, 'Fuck, I should start a record label.'"
Around the same time, Harris stayed with Anthony Collins for some gigs in Paris. He learned of Collins' plans to start a label. They liked each other's music, and so Harris took him on as an investor in his new venture. Replacing his Ransom Note imprint with something free of his old associations, the new label opened a new a chapter in his career.
"I'm a believer that sometimes, it's just luck," Harris explains. "I ended up hooking up with the right people. I did a remix of [Danish vocalist] Gry, and then I met her and it was like my perspective started changing. I was obsessed with her sound. Over time I became friends with Greg Paulus from No Regular Play... all of these things came together. I don't know if it's some sort of synchronicity, I don't know if I could take credit for it all."
With the new label, Harris and Collins became Frank & Tony, a collaboration that's now the foundation of Scissor & Thread. So far, the two have released five EPs of smooth deep house, where Collins' dance floor sensibilities are enriched by Harris's meticulous recording techniques. Tony is the one who fills in Frank's blanks—he describes Collins as the club-ready one, who can whip up bangers in no time. Harris is more patient and methodical, the one who sits down and thinks about things before doing them, and the one who engineers their recordings. "My rhythms and my approach to it come more from rock and experimental backgrounds," he says.
Harris is much less interested in house music these days. His soundtrack at home is usually ambient and krautrock, and he now prefers the subtler side of dance music—think labels like Smallville and Dial. He wears a Lawrence Sorry Sun t-shirt to the showcase, and proudly says that the Hamburg artist is his favourite producer. When Harris and Collins began their five-hour opening set, one of the first tracks they played was STL's "Silent State." The pace stayed steady from there.
Harris is at a stage in his life where clubbing and DJing is more about listening than partying. "The older you get, the more disconnected you feel when you walk into a party," he says. "Then I feel a level of guilt if I'm not into it, because when I was in my 20s and going to clubs, it was great. But you get older and your priorities change. I got healthy and I'm into making music. I'm a studio nerd. I wanna make albums and record bands. I like to cook and listen to music, and read books."
He seems blissfully disconnected from the dance music world around him, a sharp about-face from the Adultnapper days, when he had a steady stream of music for labels like Poker Flat, Simple and Superfreq.
"A year ago I stopped doing charts. I got rid of my email that has all the promos. I'm not interested in promos, I don't listen to promos. I buy my records in record stores, or Discogs, and occasionally digital. With the ubiquity of media and how fast everything moves, the main issue with any form of expression is that no one is making a choice. There are so many choices that I started thinking to myself that there's a psychological component to getting a promo. Sometimes you listen and it's free, and you think, 'Oh I could use this.' But when you listen to it, you're not really making a choice. A lot of times you think the artist or label are not really making a choice."
Cutting himself from the drip-fed cycle of dance music means Harris is more selective about the music he takes in, which affects the music he makes as well. Influences are just as important as creativity to him. He tells me a story of a particular obsession with one kick drum off a Theo Parrish record that he spent a week trying to recreate. Like everything else, he's got a fully formed opinion on this issue. "I like the idea of sampling and non-ownership," he explains. "I'm not someone who's really obsessed with authorship. People talk about streaming stuff on SoundCloud, I have more problems with SoundCloud capitalizing on people's free music. I'm not out there thinking, 'Oh, someone's stealing my ideas'—they're not my ideas, I'm influenced by hundreds of artists."
Under the right conditions—he has no patience for promoters who can't meet his needs, or for ill-equipped nightclubs—Harris's detached relationship with dance music doesn't seem to affect his enjoyment of it. By the time Black Light Smoke finishes his storming live set, Frank & Tony are at it again, beaming as they play past the show's end time of 8 PM to a small but dedicated dance floor. He seems to have little interest in clubbing outside of his own gigs, however. When I ask if he's going to the Innervisions showcase that evening, he scoffs.
I met up with Harris the next day in the quiet town of Tulum, about an hour's drive from Playa Del Carmen. The beach seems endless, and the relative peace of the resort is the furthest thing from the BPM bacchanal just north. He's spending the day on the beach, not too interested in checking out the rest of the festival, and flying back home to New York that evening. He seems pleased with the Scissor & Thread showcase the day before, but says that next year he'd rather do it as an off-party in Tulum, away from all the hubbub.
"Sometimes it's funny how people react to the music we play," he says. "They're not disinterested, but they're not immediately on the dance floor either. If you can take your ego out of the equation and just enjoy the music, I think it was a great party. There were moments when we got things going, but even at the very end of the party, that tiny little dance floor and the way it was moving, that's the ideal party for Anthony and I… not a crazy thing that makes people scream. I'm conflicted a little bit, but at the end of the day it's paying my rent so I can't sit here and criticize the industry that is putting food on the table. I don't have major problems with it."
Though there are many reasons for Harris's life changes, the roots of it go back to the death of his mother. He says that though his father's passing was sad, it was peaceful and easier to come to terms with. But his mother's death not too long after changed the way he thought about pretty much everything.
"The way I live my life is completely different," he says. "I think that whenever you go through something that traumatic, all the things you wrap your head around, all the absurd and unimportant things you bury your mind with... I feel like a different person now, and I think my music changed a lot. I don't want this to sound dick-ish, but I just really don't care what people think about it. You can sort of take it or leave it, I'm not tailoring anything to anybody's taste, I'm just making albums the way I want to make them, and that's it. I wasn't like that before my mother passed away. These concerns are deeply embedded in these socio-capitalistic economic conditions that force you to constantly compare yourself to other people—to care about charts, people liking your music, DJ feedback and all this crap. We didn't send it to any DJs; I'm not interested in their feedback. I want them to seek it out."
To some extent, Minutes Of Sleep, Harris's new album, is the product of losing his mother, much as Leland was for his father, although he insists it's not that simple. "Leland was a lot more innocent, heart-on-sleeve kind of album, and this one was a purposeful engagement with the difficulty of expression in moments of grief," he explains. "It's impossible to have an artistic representation of grief because grief is a cycle that never ends. It does a disservice and kind of cheapens the concept. It's less of a straight requiem and more of a representation of how difficult it was for me to operate in that tension. It's a lot more difficult and challenging, less melodic and more harmonic, because the whole experience with my mother was very difficult and complicated. I still haven't come to terms with a lot of it."
The new record marks as big a leap from Leland as that one did from the Adultnapper material. Where the first album was straightforward and honest, Minutes Of Sleep is guarded and shadowy. Heavily layered and densely mixed, it reflects Harris's noise leanings, though in a subtle way. He's a fan of Blackest Ever Black, and you can hear that label's gorgeous desolation in the LP. Its pretty melodies are buried in thick hum and buzz, a dark counterpoint to all the delicate horn and cello playing ("I'm kind of a softie anyways," he says with a smirk).
The album's first single, "You Can Always Leave," is a perfect example of the album's guarded emotion, at once heartbreaking and uplifting. "It's a song about love as well as death," he says. "When someone listens to it, it can sound like someone you have a crush on, like you're buzzing on it as the night turns to day, but it's actually about the morning my mother passed away, and us telling her, 'You can always leave.'"
The single came with an incredible remix from Terre Thaemlitz (as DJ Sprinkles), the latest fruits of another powerful partnership in Harris's life. The renowned producer seems like a kindred spirit—his dance music is ruminative and delicate, in love with supple texture and dynamics. Harris already knew Thaemlitz from his own literary theory studies, and commissioned a DJ Sprinkles remix of his Adultnapper track "Low Point On High Ground" back in 2010. They built a rapport, and Thaemlitz became an important sounding-board in the development of Harris's new style.
"When we finally met and toured together, it was like meeting an old friend," Harris says. "It was very easy and we got along well. The whole thing has been a rewarding experience for me. I think the attention to detail and the fact that he's not obsessed with the loudness wars and overcompression—his music has a very loosely tied groove and an open structure. Not to mention the political nature of his music. I still have a mystical side to me, where Terre is completely in a materialist world—not materialist capitalist, but material conditions and how they inform your work, so to speak. Even though we have our differences there, I really appreciate him."
Thaemlitz's influence is all over Minutes Of Sleep. The LP ends with a 14-minute Thaemlitz remix of "Dangerdream," a sprawling collage that feels like the work of another artist but fits in remarkably well anyways. Harris expresses admiration for Thaemlitz's no-mastering policy, and has his own specific approach to how records should sound—he mixed the LP on an old tape deck, keeping the levels low, the kind of loudness you might hear pressed on a '60s jazz vinyl record. The result is a warm and immersive sound that's not quite deep house and not quite ambient.
Harris isn't a luddite, but his preferences have been shifting away from technology into more traditional realms. Scissor & Thread is named for its hands-on approach. That philosophy extends to the A&R—Harris will only release artists he's met in person, and who have been to his studio. It's kept the label's roster tight (Black Light Smoke and Bob Moses are, for now, the only others aside from Frank & Tony), and helped it establish an aesthetic very quickly. He's gotten back into record collecting and playing vinyl out, too.
Things are looking good on the production front as well. After Minutes Of Sleep, there's a Black Light Smoke EP coming on Scissor + Thread—which he says is Lieb's best music ever—in addition to Gry's debut solo EP, and a project with Collins, Lieb and Léah Lazonick that Harris calls "tape saturated '80s pop."
Harris isn't the type to think ahead too far. "I have a sort of Henry Miller attitude," he says. "I try not to plan what the next stage is, and see where the path will make itself known to me. It's much more of an interesting exploration. You should have concepts in mind, but those concepts end up getting executed differently depending on the material context. I'm a bit of a Marxist like that.
"I don't know if I have a direction," he adds, "but I do think more clearly about a lot of things when I'm healthier, a heightened mental awareness. Being healthy keeps your mind light. Going out and doing heavy partying and staying up late... I already have mental anguish with the things that have happened in my life. I don't need to purposefully add more to the mix. I've made a purposeful choice in my life to enjoy it in a different way."