Features | Interviews

Harlem Shakes

By Calum Marsh | 13 April 2009

There has been a great disturbance in the Force of CMG, and it’s name is Technicolor Health. The Harlem Shakes unveiled their surprisingly awesome debut LP just a few short weeks ago, and it’s been infesting our fragile, over-analytic minds—and melting our cold, indie rock-weary hearts—ever since. The overwhelming and totally unexpected response from us—the critics who already slammed Shakes-tourmates Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, and Born Ruffians—was thus: Technicolor Health really has no right to be one of the best rock records of recent memory, and yet it so resolutely and joyously just is.

CMG’s Calum Marsh recently had the chance to sit down with Todd Goldstein, lead guitarist and newest member of the Harlem Shakes.

CMG: So to start off with something sort of fluffy, some of the New Yorkers on our staff were wondering about your favorite restaurants in the city.

Harlem Shakes’ Todd Goldstein (TG): Ha, okay. My fave is in Williamsburg Marlow & Son. It’s low key, the menu changes every day, it’s always different and fresh and simple, but kinda fancy so you can bring a date.

CMG: One of our staff was telling me that they overheard you having a conversation with your girlfriend at a restaurant once, and he leaned over to talk to you because he’d heard of the Harlem Shakes.

TG: Oh! That’s really funny, that was like a year and a half ago. Really strange. That was at Momofuku, another of my favorite places.

CMG: So, a more difficult question…

TG: Is such a thing possible?

CMG: Well, let’s see what you think. There are a ton of more recent influences noticeable on your album, from the Shins to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to the Walkmen. Is that in fact where you’re coming from, or is it something older?

TG: That’s interesting, because it’s like, if you ask a musician whether other contemporary bands are intentionally captured, I don’t think anyone would do that. We all came of age listening to indie rock touchstones like Pavement and the Magnetic Fields, Built To Spill when we started playing music around 2000, when the Strokes and the Walkmen were coming around that was really the moment that we…well, I went nuts over the Walkmen and the other guys did too. Put it this way: if it happens, it’s purely incidental, and it’s because that’s the music we listen to and love. When you’re working on music and you see something you do that you like you sort of inevitably head in that direction.

CMG: Do you think that there’s a tendency to try and legitimize the music by…well, say on a Myspace page you’ve got an Influences section, and bands are less likely to write Arcade Fire than something like Pavement.

HS: Well, yeah definitely, the time in between your band and their band, it’s like it’s a little more allowed, because the closer the influence the more likely they’re gonna say theft. And it’s like, well, the Arcade Fire album changed my life, I was depressed and I heard and it and it changed me. I love that album. But what really made our record sound like it did was that we are all weened on classic rock radio. We just love awesome pop songs, harmonized guitars and weird little direction shifts, stuff like that. We just want to make something that feels like that. But I guess everyone wants to make something that feels like the old stuff, but they’re listening to new stuff and being like “this sounds awesome” too.

CMG: I guess especially because with the internet you could hear a band today that recorded something last week and make a record influenced by it tomorrow.

HS: Yeah, the new stuff is always happening.

CMG: I guess along with that, I remember last year one of the major criticisms leveled at Vampire Weekend was cultural reappropriation with stuff like Afro pop. I just wondered with you guys, how people keep bringing up Latin music, do you think there’s a way you need to justify appropriation?

TG: I think appropriation, when it gets mentioned it just needs to be justified by being mentioned. the Latin drum machines stuff, it was just like, someone gave us a drum machine, and our drummer just started messing around with it, and the sounds he gravitated toward were cheesy Latin congas. And that’s cool. When you’re making it you’re just like “well, that sounds good, cool,” but then afterward you listen to it and it’s like, “well shit, it sounds like that.” But it’s in there, and we did it, and a parallel can be drawn, but we were just messing around with the things that we had and that’s where we went. I think it’s pretty neat. It’s funny to be accused of appropriation, because it’s like, I did that?

CMG: The negative connotation is that you’re going and pillaging other cultures, like if you’re described as “post-colonial.”

TG: That’d be really insulting.

CMG: I think it’s a bit dubious. I especially don’t find that with Technicolor Health though.

TG: I like to think that if we do it, we do it with care and respect.

CMG: Certainly.

TG: If we don’t do it intentionally then it’s just the sounds that came out of us.

CMG: How are the song writing duties split?

TG: It was kind of a mad dash to the finish. We scrunched a lot of group writing, and they run from Lexi running in and being like “alight, song’s done” to “we have this melody and it doesn’t have any chords underneath,” and so we just throw shit at the wall until it turns into a song. That can take months. But with the title track, we arranged that it basically a week before it went on the album.

CMG: Well that’s also the least…uh, I guess excessive? Stylistically?

TG: Right, yeah, it’s really pared down and simple in construction. We just thought we’d make it simple and let it speak for itself.

CMG: And the title, it’s from that Michael Chabon book, Mysteries Of Pittsburgh.

TG: You’re the only one that’s got that reference.

CMG: It makes me seem like a hardcore Chabon buff but I just happened to be reading the book when I was listening to the album.

TG: I wonder if anyone else will find that.

CMG: It’s a pretty innocuous quote. So, lyrically, that’s split, or…

TG: No, that’s just Lexi. We do some editing, but that’s definitely the most Lexi-only part of the process.

CMG: One thin I wanted to talk about was the hype surrounding the music. You guys toured with Tapes n Tapes, right?

TG: Yeah.

CMG: And you’re on the same booking agency (Billions) as Tokyo Police Club and Born Ruffians and a lot of those bands. So I get the sense that you guys are, if not posed for a certain kind of success, maybe groomed for it in a certain way? Because you’re being grouped into a sort of scene with those bands. Do you feel like you’re part of that? Or is it just incidental?

TG: Well…I think it’s like an audience thing. Like, I can hear certain similarities between our band and bands we’ve toured with or who we’ve been lumped in with interviews. But I think it’s more just a ‘if you like this, you’ll like this’ mentality on the part of people who’ve been handling our booking and that sort of thing. But a scene? Okay, well, interesting question. You’ve got the internet and hype and it’s all feeding into that happening, into us being associated with those bands, with being lumped into a sort of “high voiced singer, literate , spazzy indie pop band,” and I think we kind of ride the tide to some degree, but you don’t want to get close to something like that lest people start forgetting what makes you unique from that. We only met TPC because we played some shows with them last year, and they’re amazing. When we played with them though in the back of our minds we’re like, well we want to feel autonomous.

CMG: I think Born Ruffians especially have that problem, riding their success.

TG: Yeah, well they’re good friends. But you don’t want to me known as Fred and Jessie, you want to be known as just Fred [laughs]. It’s cool to ride something to a certain level of success together, but you want to be your own thing.

CMG: Technicolor Health maybe seems a bit more…well, this is kind of abstract, but more lasting than bands like Tapes n Tapes or TPC, which have music that’s conducive to hype and popularity because it’s short and sweet. Well, I don’t want to say I’m “worried” exactly, but I’m a little concerned that getting lumped into that scene with those band might miss the point of your music.

TG: We worry about that, too. That’s the sort of fear of being looped in with any group. You get the good parts but you might get the bad parts. I love those bands, so the longevity of them I can’t really speak to. But as far as our own stuff goes, we want to make it stuff that wouldn’t rally date itself, We don’t like flash ion the pan bands and we don’t want to be flash in the pan . Not that any flash in the pan band does, but we want to be something that sticks around. The potential to not stick around always looms large, and you can just do whatever it is you do and hope. It’s only been two weeks since we released the album but it’s been crazy. When people say it’s just a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ripoff, that sucks.

CMG: I think there are similarities but that album is really good.

TG: I like the shit out of that album, but as soon as anything starts being referred to as ripping off anyone, it makes it seem like your band is slightly. We just want to ignore that and focus on the idea of our band sticking around for a while.

CMG: Your record was produced by Chris Zane, the guy who produced the last Walkmen record. How’d you get in with him?

TG: Well, we’ve known him for years. He’s our guru. We’ve know known him for a long time, and even before we started working with him he was a supported and a friend. It’s been nice to watch his profile rise over the years. He did the Passion Pit record that’s coming out soon. And we we got that last Walkmen record—which I think is their best since the debut…

CMG: I agree.

TG: It’s just like, he’s good but he keeps getting better.

CMG: He produced that new White Rabbits record too…

TG: No, it was their last record.

CMG: Oh, right, the new one’s produced by Britt Daniel. Which is funny because they used to sound like the Walkmen but now sound like Spoon.

TG: Yeah, that is indeed the case. They’re friends with us and we really like them.

CMG: I think it’s interesting when bands plot tours after albums come out, because you never know how successful it’ll get.

TG: Yeah, you never know.

CMG: I’ve seen tours where bands get Best New Music halfway through their tour and start to sell out every show.

TG: Ha, yeah, or suddenly they’re the opener and everyone comes for them and leaves right after they play.

CMG: I believe they call that “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah with the National” syndrome.

TG: Ha, yeah, that’s the one.