For nearly 20 years, Jeremy Harris has used the name Lazy Magnet as the moniker for all of his solo musical output. Beginning with his early, legitimately lo-fi home recordings and progressing through to his current demure electro pop output, this work encompasses a dizzying variety of genres and descriptions, and is as notable for it distinctly thematic periods, as it is for its with fluid and sometimes violent stylistic interruptions. Lazy Magnet’s back catalog is not only a portrait of an artist’s growth, it’s a record of the ecosystem of independent music in the United States: cheap four track recorders hitting the market, the advent of Myspace, the capital I Internet’s reignition of a larger DIY culture, and on and on to wherever the hell we are now.
Harris’ prolific output continues this year with the release of Acts Without Error on Bathetic and a busy tour schedule. On an arbitrary weeknight in January, I called Jeremy at his new home in Raleigh, North Carolina. My cell phone reception is horrible, but we still managed to discuss the future of Lazy Magnet, his artistic trajectory, the state of affairs in the “international pop underground,” and the advantages of small mammals over large reptiles in rapidly changing climates:
So, this is your first “print” interview?
Yeah man, I’ve never done an interview before.
Is there a reason for that?
No, except for on the radio a few times, I’ve never been interviewed. Never for a zine or a website or anything.
Cool, because you’ve been doing this for awhile.
Yeah, the first LP came out in 2006, but I’d been self-releasing cassettes and things since 1994.
This is a pretty standard question, but I guess it’s going back into ancient history: how old were you when you started recording your music?
Yeah, I started doing it when was 16. It was still with the Lazy Magnet name, too.
It’s pretty rare for an independent artist with such a varied output to stick with the same name that long.
I’m actually going to stop doing Lazy Magnet releases in 2014, because that’s the 20th anniversary. I figured that’s a good time to just stop. There’s going to be a 5 disc or 5 LP box set coming out in May 2014 to mark that.
Well that’s going to be the third box set I’ve done now. I’ve already done two. The first one was a 10-year retrospective that came out in 2004, then in 2009 I did another one. Those were all just hand made. I only made 100 copies of them, just CD-Rs.
Self-released box sets like that are rare. Why did you feel to document yourself like that?
It’s pretty fun; a funny thing to do. When you do it long enough and you have so much out there, it’s cool to put it all together and have it in one place. It’s handy, when you want to show someone what you’ve done.
That has to be a little bit of reality check, having so much of your work there in one place?
Totally. Some of it’s online still.
Yeah, discovering bits and pieces has been really cool.
Yeah, the 90s, wow.
But 20 years is the cut off for Lazy Magnet?
I figured it’s an elegant stopping point.
But I’m assuming you’re going to keep making music.
Definitely, I’m going to make a different project for all of the disparate genre stuff that I do, instead of doing it all under one name. It’s going to be five projects instead of one. I figure that will make it easier for people to understand where I’m coming from. It’s almost too confusing: putting out records with 15 different styles. People don’t know what to think. I think people think I’m trying to tell jokes or be snarky. It can come off super ironic, sometimes. I’d rather try to make everything more coherent and make the ideas a little more clear.
There’s a lot of pressure on artists to conform to genres. It’s going to be interesting to see how you split your output into specific genres.
It’s going to be a discipline. I can find myself jumping from idea to idea. For Crystal Cassette on Night-People, that was pretty straightforward electro, until the middle of the B-side where there’s this nasty mid-tempo rock song. I sometimes can’t help it.
Acts Without Error is that way, as well. There’s a sort of electro side and then there’s also a B-side of semi-ambient stuff, with some really big sounds hidden inside there, too. Did you approach this more conceptually or did it just kind of even out that way?
That record is interesting in that initially it was supposed to be a split with Caethua on Bathetic, but I was a year and a half past the deadline. It was really difficult for me to get what eventually became the B-side together, for a million reasons. That side was initially experiments I was doing with a SC Pro One I had acquired. The way the record was supposed to be designed was that you could listen to the drone stuff in a relaxed state and get sucked in and then experience the other side on the level that that they were supposed to be heard on: visionary and contemplative, so not really a party record. I’d say that record is most inspired by overdosing on cough syrup on purpose.
That works. Now I’m wondering what it would have been like if that split LP with Caethua would have been like. It sounds more conceptually evolved than a lot of split LPs, which are more of a “Hey, let’s save some money” kind of thing.
I’d love to make that come together. It’s just so hard to get in touch with Caethua. She’s so far out in the woods, with no running water and no electricity.
She’s off the grid. Maybe you can try again with whatever your next cough syrup inspired moniker is.
Yeah, pretty much. I’d love that.
Apart from labels, you’ve done so much self-releasing over the years. That has to come with a discipline of its own. How do you approach releases? Do you find yourself thinking of the format of release while you’re writing and record?
Everything I do is conceptually considered top to bottom, from the medium where it’s going to be distributed to how it’s going to be played back. The content of the songs is usually somehow referential and corresponds to the medium. It’s how I try to compose. It’s how my mind works. I always think of the sides of a record as being two different things, as opposed to a long player cassette where you can just put in on most players and chill out. I have a double-LP on Feeding Tube Records that’s going to be coming out in the summer. Designing a four-sided album is a really fun challenge.
How are you approaching a vinyl release of that scale?
I’ve got a lot of tricks I want to use. There are a lot of records coming out of Detroit, like what Omar S had been doing with backwards playing vinyl. I’m not going to do that, but there are other techniques secret, sneaky things I’ll be doing.
That’s an interesting way to exploit the format. It’s definitely more invested than just sending something off to the pressing plant and hoping for the best. You generally have a transparent relationship with the technology you use to make and record music. It shows up in your lyrics and song titles in tracks like “Do MIDI”. In that case, it seems like almost a love hate relationship with MIDI.
Oh yeah? Well MIDI was something that I unfortunately starting using only recently. Looking back, I could have been exploiting it as a solo performer for a long time, but it’s only been since about 2010 when I started using it to sync up synthesizers and drum machines; getting everything to talk to each other. That made the live performance much more dynamic and flexible. Before, I’d been doing everything with tape-based collages. I was getting frustrated with how static tape as a performing medium can be. MIDI freed that up. I didn’t have to buy expensive drum machines and synths and have everything synced through control voltage, so I started buying obsolete digital gear that nobody cared about. I could get really powerful synthesizers for cheap that came out in the 90s and cost a thousand dollars or whatever.
The move towards analog synths recently has a lot to do with that.
Purely computer-based technology seems to be losing its appeal, I think. A lot of people’s tastes are shifting towards analog synthesis. That’s rad, though. I’m starting to build my own stuff, because I sick of MIDI now. I feel estranged and alienated by the process, especially while I’m playing live. But yeah, the MIDI thing has been great, but it’s not a fertile place for me creatively. I’m going to reach out for something new.
Yeah, MIDI is only flexible up to a point. Are you going to go back to tapes or you going to play with a live band more?
It’s difficult to get a band together, especially because I tour three or four times a year. We’re doing a tour at the end of January with a five piece live band. Four of my friends and I are just going to jump in a car and go on a little East Coast tour. I’ve done that kind of thing before. With my first LP, I went on the road with a live band. It’ll happen again, I’m sure, but there have been many configurations of Lazy Magnet live. There was one version with a bass player and two drummers and it was almost thrash metal. For this tour, we’re going to meet up here in Chapel Hill and practice for a few days and figure out how it’s going to work. I think we’ll end up doing a few smaller tours, like a week long, instead of one month long tour.
That seems more humane in general.
[Laughs] I really enjoy touring though, man. It’s like my natural state. With the level of exposure I’ve gotten so far, it doesn’t make sense for my life to tour so much, but I just love it, so it doesn’t really matter.
Well, it’s easy for artists and bands to treat touring and performing as their chance to make money or as a vacation from their day job.
I definitely approach touring and performing as part of my art. It’s a deeply satisfying part of my life. The underground circuit I’m involved in is pretty vibrant and there are so many artists I’ve gotten to know by doing it. It’s pretty beautiful, so it’s worth it. There are all these annual little festivals with 60 or so bands over two or three days. There are so many solo performers, you know? It’s so much easier to get your solo act together than a four or five piece band.
Do you think it’s logistical? Or has technology played a part in that, too?
I think of it like the ice age, when the dinosaurs died out. The bands are the dinosaurs and the solo acts are the small mammals who are surviving, thriving, and evolving. They’re the ones who are surviving the cultural ice age.
You’ve been doing your fair share of collaboration too, though. You’ve involved Daryl Seaver in your last few Lazy Magnet releases and you also work together as Meager Sunlight.
That’s true, and that’s been good. We’re both working primarily on our solo stuff now, but we are producing an LP that’s going to come out on Spectrum Spools eventually. She and I wrote an entire Meager Sunlight album and scrapped it, because as we get more into electronic dance music, our tastes are broadening and over the span of four months our idea of the project changed so much that we’re overhauling the whole sound and approach to making music. So, we’ve started over. It’s kind of good timing though, because she’s working on her Samantha’s Vacation project and is working on a record for L.I.E.S. And I’m working on that double LP, the box set for 2014, and a whole other LP. That L.I.E.S. story is really great, actually. She just followed them on SoundCloud and then next day they wrote her about putting together a record.
It’s crazy to think that when you started doing Lazy Magnet, that kind of thing could never have happened.
[Laughs] Yeah, dude there was no Internet. When I was a kid making tapes in my room, I used to think “There’s got to be thousands of kids like me out there all over the world,” but I had no way to find them. If I’d had the Internet, it would have been a fuck of a lot easier back then, for sure.