Interview: Palms’ Aaron Harris by Mike Hill
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When Isis ended their 13 year reign as kings of high concept metal, many fans were left wondering what would be next. Singer/guitarist Aaron Turner focused his attention on Mamiffer, the collaborative effort with partner Faith Coloccia and the new record label SIGE among other projects. Guitarist Michael Gallagher spent some time in Brooklyn, New York, and continued to release music under MGR. Mulit-instrumentalist Bryant Clifford Meyer busied himself with Taiga, Bassist Jeff Caxide produced an ambient record under the name Crone and Drummer Aaron Harris developed his career as a recording engineer and drum tech.
The question was: Would any of them ever play together again? After a period of reflection, Caxide, Harris, and Meyer have banded together and teamed up with Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno, calling themselves Palms. After months of rehearsal, demo’ing and living life, the band’s self-titled LP is ready for deployment.
I caught up with Aaron Harris to talk about the genesis of the band and the ordeals of remaining creative after nearly two decades.
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What have you been involved in the last couple of years since the band broke up?
Basically, I’ve been focusing on my career as a mixer, engineer, and going out on the road here and there, drum teching for certain people or drum teching at the studio. I’ve mixed a good amount of records and then Palms started up with Cliff and Jeff from Isis.
What stopped you from becoming one of those people that disappear once their band that breaks up?
That’s a good question. I did have thoughts about giving up. I did have talks with my wife saying, this is done and I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself, I don’t know if I’m going do anything with music again. Maybe this is a sign for me to move on from music and do something else. I felt a little soured and bitter about things and was a little upset. My wife talked me out of it. She tried to point out the good things; that this is a dream of mine and I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. This is what I’m good at so why wouldn’t I do it.
It’s also a part of my character to overcome hurdles; you have to be when you’re trying to be creative. If you get frustrated and give up you’re not going to get very far in a creative world. Playing drums and making music feels natural to me, so I just decided that I should keep doing it.
Did you guys immediately start playing together or did you take a break from each other?
We took a break. I don’t actually remember how long it was, it was probably close to a year. Mike Gallagher and Aaron Turner moved away; me, Jeff and Cliff were still living here and I’d still see those guys pretty regularly so we just got to talking. We were like, ‘why don’t we make some music? I miss playing music.’ We still had the practice space and everything was set up we just hadn’t been playing at all. I think we were a little cautious at first and just started playing and took it slow and didn’t put any expectations on it and just tried to see what would happen. It worked out pretty good; it was weird at first, it was also pretty different from Isis, but once it got going it started to feel really good.
In those early days were you falling into the roles that you previously had in Isis, creating music that was similar what you had done before?
Yeah, I think that from playing together for so long it sort of felt forced at first. The three of us trying to make music in what was the Isis rehearsal space felt really strange. We rehearse in this big building downtown, there’s all kinds of rooms in there and a friend of ours had an opening in his room which was on another floor. It was a nicer and actually had a window. You could actually see outside; the room that Isis had was just four walls, no window. You know what it’s like, those typical practice spaces. And once we moved up there to this new space it really started to feel like something new, and I think if we had stuck to playing in the old Isis space, I don’t know if it would have lasted. I think that moving was a huge benefit and gave us a new perspective. It felt kind of like a rebirth. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but looking back I think that was a really crucial move.
What is the writing process like?
It’s pretty collaborative. A lot of it was just jamming; not having any expectations or any sort of rules in place. We jammed and set up a recording situation. I would record the rehearsals and we would work on parts, go home and I would send the mixes to everybody, tweak things and just build up these songs. I think once we started rolling we almost had too much material.
We started doing this in Isis, just recording everything and taking it home. Adam Jones from Tool actually told me that was how they wrote, because something that you might not think is very cool, sounds different when you get home. I don’t know if I could go back to writing without recording stuff and referencing it.
For example, the song “Shortwave Radio” totally changed from the demo version up until the current version on the record. We were revising parts that we had written and after sitting on them, we realized we could make them better. It can also be dangerous, I think. You don’t want to over think things too much but as long as you can have some control and not get too crazy with it I think it’s really useful. As a result of all of this jamming there is a lot of stuff didn’t get used, there’s tons of stuff that we still have sitting around that may never surface.
How did the relationship with Chino Moreno from the Deftones come about?
It’s kind of funny. I met Chino on Twitter. I was following him and he was following me. I had heard from friends that he was an Isis fan. Larry from Pelican said he used to see Chino hiking on Runyon Canyon. One day I just hit him up to see if he wanted to go on a hike. From there we exchanged numbers and started meeting up for hikes.
I started doing some drum teching for Abe Cunningham the Deftones drummer. I did some touring with them and got to know Chino a little better. Once I got hanging with Chino he asked what we’d been up to. I told him I had been playing with Cliff and Jeff. He then expressed that he’d want to lay down some vocals. When I was on tour with Deftones, Chino and I went running on a day off and when we got back to the hotel, he asked for one of the tracks; a couple of hours later he had a demo.
Does Chino play guitar or contribute to any of the riff writing, or is his role strictly vocals?
I think we had two songs written when Chino expressed interest in singing. We then started writing with him in mind for these songs. We just tried to keep him involved in what was going on because he was busy writing the new Deftones record. When we started tracking his vocals for the record he had a lot of really good input for the arrangements. We tend to write these really long songs and Chino was really good at coming in and almost acting as a producer saying, ‘How about if we take out a couple verses here, change this part just slightly, or extend this part.” He was really good at coming in afterward and helping us clean up the songs.
Writing the record in the manner was totally different with how we had written Isis records. With Isis everybody was there and we were all in the room together writing the stuff. I don’t know if that’s something that we would have been open to in Isis.
Could you go into the basic process of the recording the record? Was a lot of the record recorded at different times and at different places?
We did the record in parts. The drums were done at our friend Joe Berrisi’s studio in Los Angeles. Joe Berrisi did the last Isis record as well as Melvins, Queens of the Stone Age, and Tool. He’s done a lot of great records and he’s probably my favorite producer; we’ve become a good friend. He had just gotten a new 2-inch tape machine, we needed to record these drums so we worked it out. We could track these songs and he could use the time to test out his machine. Joe was really helpful in letting us come into the studio and use his equipment.
We spent three days doing the drums at his studio, then we did all the guitar, bass, and keys at our rehearsal space downtown in Los Angeles over a couple weeks, just picking away at stuff, layering and adding stuff. I just mixed as we went along.
I tried to have the stuff pretty much mixed by the point that Chino was ready to track vocals. I tracked Chino and all his vocals at my home studio and also a little bit on tour; we tracked in hotels rooms, backstage, and at various spots; it was done in pieces but I don’t think we would have been able to do it any other way, because of everyone’s schedules. If we had to book studio time every time we wanted to work on stuff it just wouldn’t have worked, so me being an engineer and having the equipment was crucial for this to happen.
The final mixing was done here at my home studio. I had lots of time to work on it. I also had to take breaks on it and not get too obsessed. Mixing as we went along definitely helped. I didn’t want to track the stuff and then go right to mixing because I thought at that point I might have heard the stuff too much and not have any perspective.
Do you think the lack of a deadline helped or hindered in the process of producing the album?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I feel like having too much time could definitely be hurtful and at times I felt that I was being a little too critical about things just because I could be, you know. Sometimes I feel like things happen better when you’re under a strict deadline. I think I’m one of those people that work better under pressure. But with that said, I tried to not get too crazy about the stuff and let a month or two go by where I would just leave it alone and not get obsessed with tiny sounds.
Was there an understanding that this record was coming out on a label for mass consumption or did you just want to document this material?
We knew it would be coming out we just didn’t know where. Initially we thought maybe we would just put it on Bandcamp but as things started to come together and we realized this stuff had some potential, we were like, “we have a good vocalist and the stuff he’s demoing sounds really good,” so we decided to send it off to Ipecac and they wanted to release it.
You have some stuff booked for July. Is that going to be a component to the band, live performances?
Yeah, for sure. It really just depends on what Chino can do. He’s a real busy dude. He’s got Deftones and a couple other projects as well as his family. It depends on when he can be available. But we’ve talked about touring and a good amount of live shows. It will just depend on when we can do it.
For starters we have shows mostly in Southern California, mostly local type stuff. The three of us haven’t played a show in three years now but Chino is playing all the time. It’s a new band and a new thing, so this will be our maiden voyage.
After having this little bit of a lull between performing live, collectively, what’s the sort of vibe? Are you nervous? Are you anticipating it? Is there any anxiety over playing live again?
I don’t know how the other guys feel, I haven’t asked them, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous. Back when Isis was around, to say we had a show tomorrow would be no big deal because that was what I was doing day in and day out. But when I think about the shows in a couple months I get butterflies. I’m definitely excited to do it and looking forward to it, but there’s gonna be nerves for sure. I think that’s good; that means we want to do a good job and I think we will do a good job. Once we get the first show under our belt I think it will all come back and it’ll all be good.
It’s probably comforting to know that you’re going to be up there with Jeff and Cliff too. It’s not just like three strangers that you’ve never played live with before.
Yeah. If it was something totally new then I think it would be a lot different.
Things change very rapidly in a new band, so moving into the next phase of writing, what sort of changes do you see being manifested in the next batch of material that you write?
I think some of the songs may be a little shorter the next time around. I think even though there are some good heavy moments on this record I think we miss playing more of those big, heavy riffs. I think we learned about how we can incorporate electronics. I’m using some digital and electronic technology, some sampling and stuff like that in my drum kit which I’m getting more and more comfortable with. We’re learning how we can maximize our roles in the band being that there’s only four of us. I do feel like we have developed a sound for Palms so I’d like to elaborate on that some more. It’s tough when you’ve done the first record, you’re going into the second one and you want to keep moving and growing. It’s a little intimidating.
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