Q&A: Liz Harris of Grouper

Liz Harris: DivideLiz Harris: Divide (Root Strata, 2010)

When a contemporary artist creates with the basic ideas of darkness, light, and nature in mind, the results can be bewitching and intriguing on a very primal level. These concepts can yield wonderful images and sounds in capable hands. Such is the case with Liz Harris, better known as Grouper.

Harris has been experimenting with the mediums of video, sound, and illustrations since 2005, with the release of her self-titled CD-R, Grouper. She also has enjoyed success with albums on myriad labels, including Root Strata, Weird Forest, and Type Records. Because these limited-pressing CDs and LPs come and go so quickly, there have been three pressings of her last full-length, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (the last of which was released on Harris’ own label, the simply named Grouper).

With Harris’ most recent contribution, Divide, she combines her own personal drawings and a DVD of augmented, aquatic imagery for a celebration of life’s abstract wonders. For those not familiar with Grouper or Liz Harris, her brand of oceanic and hypnotizing art is absolutely unique. In the following conversation, we get a rare glimpse behind the multi-layered black curtain that is her craft, as well as some insight into her new book.

What was your inspiration for your recent book of drawings?

I started making art in this style about six or seven years ago, at the same time that I started making music as Grouper (the first piece I made was for the Way Their Crept insert). A desire to escape from anxiety definitely guided the trajectory of both. I feel, as with music, that I often understand the nature of a piece after it is done. The initial concept is intuitive, autonomous, and outside.

What I’ve learned about the pieces in Divide, by observation, is that they talk about gateways across various separations — between people, within various elements of one’s own character. I feel invested in questioning the permanence perceived in certain boundaries, in regards to space, and to [the] nature of our selves. The idea that these items are flexible is terrifying and mesmerizing.

I have a strong urge, like a lot of people, to make things black and white, to make sense of what frustrates or frightens me, make it fit in to a grid. Making patterns feels like a way to unwind knots, like picking the way through a labyrinth. What I most enjoy in them is that they give me that satisfaction of finding an order in things, while reminding me of the impossibility/absurdity of that task, all at once — a pattern that unfolds and changes to incorporate its own flaws.

The book also contains a DVD.  Where did you gather the images and footage?

Most of the original footage, though not by conscious initial intention, involves water of some kind (snow, rivers, surface of a current at night, a glass or shallow pan of water) and some sort of interaction between it and a source of light via some obscured lens (a mirror, some sort of refraction, something to fold the light over).

Currently, do you have more interest in drawing than in creating music? Is there a relationship between the two?

Both are outside of me, just observed; both are towards using a different language to search for and illustrate doors and flexible structures. I’m not any more interested in one than the other. They tend to relieve each other; when I’m burnt by one, the other is usually calling.

I see you have toured Seoul, South Korea and the West Coast extensively.  Any plans on a larger American tour?

Moving forward, I think shows will happen more sporadically.

It seems that you prefer to self-release your albums.  Have you found it to be easier than working with a label?

I like to know how to do things on my own. It’s not necessarily easier than working with a label. To be fully honest, it gets less fun with each time that I do it, though I always learn about how to improve moving forward.

Do you enjoy Root Strata as a label?  If so, any releases in particular?

Yes, absolutely. Christina Carter’s Lace Heart is amazing.

You have used both guitar and Wurlitzer to make your songs.  Do you have an interest in utilizing other instruments as well?

I’m open to making sound with whatever seems right for the song.

How do you contrast the positive (or light) aspects of your music with the underlying dark atmosphere? Is this a conscious decision you make before crafting and recording a song?

They go hand in hand pretty naturally.

What was the last record you played?

Test pressings for A I A and AZ’s Doe or Die.