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April 19, 2007

Ned Vizzini Interviews The Harlem Shakes

In a new feature series for Largehearted Boy, authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

To kick off the series, author Ned Vizzini interviews Harlem Shakes vocalist, Lexy Benaim.

The Harlem Shakes are currently on tour with Tapes 'n Tapes:

04.20.07 dallas, tx @ granada theater
04.21.07 austin, tx @ emo's
04.22.07 houston, tx @ numbers
04.25.07 phoenix, az @ the brickhouse
04.27.07 indio, ca @ coachella arts and music festival
05.01.07 santa cruz, ca @ the attic
05.02.07 san francisco, ca @ great american music hall
05.04.07 portland, or @ dante's
05.05.07 seattle, wa @ neumo's
05.06.07 vancouver, bc @ plaza club
05.09.07 denver, co @ bluebird theater
05.10.07 omaha, ne @ sokol underground
05.11.07 des moines, ia @ vaudeville mews
05.12.07 chicago, il @ the abbey pub
05.17.07 buffalo, ny @ mohawk place
05.18.07 new york, ny @ irving plaza
05.19.07 boston, ma @ paradise rock club
05.22.07 cleveland, oh @ grog shop
05.23.07 columbus, oh @ the basement
05.24.07 newport, ky @ southgate house

Author Ned Vizzini's interview with Lexy Benaim of the Harlem Shakes:

Ned Vizzini: Did Harlem Shakes have a tour manager for your recent East Coast jaunt?

Lexy Benaim: No way.

NV: How did you coordinate getting food, sleeping, and making sure that everybody was in the van?

LB: For food, we ate a lot of samples at supermarkets and a lot of oatmeal cream pies (if Brent hadn't eaten one in a while he'd quickly become despondent and compulsively scratch his forearms).

We had a variety of sleeping situations. We slept in a house with a wolf--I swear to God--in Durham, North Carolina. We slept in the attic of an artfully decorated commune in Orlando. Jose put on a giant bunny suit he found in a trunk up there for warmth. We'd never felt so "indie"--for the first time, I wished I'd written the song "Smooth" by Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana.

As for the van, we were all so concerned with not sitting in "Sparta"--the peculiarly angled, eerily dark back corner of the van--that we all rushed to the van every morning.

NV: Once I cross the Mason-Dixon line, I start getting tickets left and right. And the tickets have "court fees" that I suspect are "you have New York plates" fees. What was your experience with the cops down there?

LB: I think I reminded Southern cops of the alleged criminals Joe Pesci defended in My Cousin Vinny--

NV: Dude, you totally look like a combination of those two guys--

--and the cops reminded me of the police officers from that film. So there was that tension.

NV: On Behind the Music, that guy from the Black Crowes who was married to that chick said that the road was weird, because every city was different, but every city was the same--you lose your sense of time and place. How disorienting is it, really?

LB: Very disorienting. We were out with Deerhoof for almost three weeks but it felt like almost three years. Not in a bad way. It's just you become so close that it feels like you've known them forever.

Busdriver was only there for about a week but it felt the same way with them.

I think it's more temporally disorienting than spatially.

The towns were all pretty singular. Except for Columbia and Winston-Salem who I think should probably dress up as each other this Halloween. I could be wrong, though. I was only in each town for several hours.

NV: Led Zep II was written on the road. How well can you write on the road? Does it inspire?

LB: It inspires really cliched lyrics about missing your girl and your mama and feeling free. But this time we're bringing more portable instruments and we're gonna try to start demoing our album--we have about twenty songs we haven't played live--in the car. Sounds crazy, but it's worth a try, I think.

NV: Your EP Burning Birthdays has been described as "lo-fi," but it's filled with horns and keyboards. To what degree do you consider yourselves lo-fi?

LB: I think people consider it lo-fi because sometimes we favor some pretty scrappy sounds. I'm the farthest thing from a lo-fi purist--though I admit my former allegiance to this ideology--I just want to paint from as broad a pallette as possible and that means using both lo-fi and hi-fi textures then so be it I think the idea that music recorded in lo-fidelity--or that sounds like it was spontaneously thrown together--is automatically more authentic than more arranged music is a lousy line of thinking that has been stifling creativity in rock 'n' roll for years.

NV: You mentioned having 20 (!) new songs ready to demo for a full-length.

In addition to those, I've seen Harlem Shakes bring many songs though the life cycle of practice, performance, evaluation and abandonment.

How do you decide what's good enough?

LB: We all decide. Our band is more democratic than almost any I know of. We all have the final say. Deerhoof is the same way, actually.

NV: In particular among the songs currently not in circulation is a tempo-shifting fan favorite named "Eighteen." Do you ever feel obligated by your audience to bring things back?

LB: Not only for our audience. I am a reviser. Everything I make--music, writing whatever--I revise extensively. I love taking songs like Eighteen and arranging them in ways that match our current sound. I wouldn't mind cutting up an old song chop-shop style and re-using a part.

NV: Pretty much every review of Burning Birthdays has priased its "ooh-ah" harmonies. They're beautiful. How many people are singing on each ooh-ah?

LB: Everyone in our band sings. Different combos of dudes sing different parts. Any Oo or aah could be sing by anyone in the band. Oh, and our pals the Wowz sang some oohs on the song "Red Right Hands."

NV: Do you have anything to say to the people who call your voice "nasal?" I would personally smack them.

LB: I'd like to say, "No way, shut up, I hate it when you're around! YOUR voice is nasal!" No I'm just kidding. I don't care. I don't think nasal is necessarily an insult. Bob Dylan's voice is undeniably nasal and there's almost nothing I'd rather listen to.

Still, if you'd like to smack them I've got your back. I'll go warm up my taser.

Harlem Shakes links:

official site

Ned Vizzini links:

official site
Largehearted Boy Book Notes for It's Kind of a Funny Story

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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