Listening & Playing Alone: The Strange World Of Grouper

As Liz Harris releases her astonishing new Grouper album Ruins, she guides us through her musical life from the ghosts of her early years via echoing former industrial spaces in the Pacific Northwest to risk-taking and sleep deprivation. Portrait by Jason Bokros

Childhood Games

I learned to avoid the company of other people quickly as a child, and made up little games to hide away and amuse myself with. I’m sure this is what got me into in art and music later — social avoidance. 

One of my favourite activities was talking to non-people — animals, rocks, walls; mostly, ghosts. I both feared them and thought of them as my allies, secret powerful friends who would protect me if I appeased them. I once got a horrible sting from an insect; I was convinced if I picked it up in my bare hand I wouldn’t be stung, because I had talked to it and professed no harm intended. I was sure I was a witch, and made myself sick for three days once by bathing myself intentionally in poison oak in order to prove it to the rest of the class. I got back at a mean girl in Junior High by telling her I’d talked to a ghost who said they were going to come and get her that night. She ran home and cried to her mother, who then forbade her to play at my house. The house I lived in right then was deeply haunted, and I was there alone every day after school. I oscillated between wanting/trying desperately to talk with the ghosts, and locking myself in my room until my dad got home from work.  

Around this time he was still playing piano. I’d wake every morning to hear him practicing in the other room. That’s a fond memory. I was the only one who got to hear him play. The greatest enjoyment of music for him seemed to come from listening and playing alone. 

Leaving LA/tweakers

I lived in LA right after college, only for a year, maybe less. I quit a gallery job (Mayo Thompson was my boss there!) when the owner (not Mayo) drug-tweak-verbal-vomited on me and when I turned to look at the other half of my life in that city, saw that most of what I’d been up to was dressing up and crashing weird parties and going to clubs. It was a really exuberant and otherworldly experience, and it gave me something to push off of; at the time, though, I was really alarmed — that I’d ended up in such an out of balance position. I wasn’t making hardly any music or art. My then-Wurlitzer had been broken by some tweakers. No outlets. One day around this time I snapped to and realised I’d been walking in circles in a Von’s supermarket for hours, looking at every single item on the shelf in a lost trance. Had an amicable break up with my partner and left two weeks later for Oakland, where I sold my fancy clothes, cut all my hair off, and decided to focus only on art and music making. 

Friends and I built out a warehouse we christened Huffin House (an iron welder worked downstairs and it sent horrible fumes up to our space all day); moved in there with the folks from Eats Tapes and Yellow Swans, and artist Jacqueline Gordon; John Blanco lived for free in a tent in the living room. Was surrounded by noisers putting out their own music right then; quality and medium were no problem. I found a new Wurly (you could find them for $500 or less still, then) borrowed other gear and taught myself to use the four track recorder I’d been lugging around for a few years. First recording experiments turned in to Way Their Crept. It came so quick; had been waiting there I think. 


When I was first asked to play I hadn’t thought of a name yet. Show was at a warehouse in Oakland that I’d lived at the year prior. I chose Krueger in the end. After Freddy, who I’ve had dreams about my whole life. Was making paintings of him right then. First song recorded for WTC was about him too; about overpowering him by process of absorption. Incredibly nervous to play. When I arrived at the warehouse I was told I could play from in the green room if I wanted. They were joking but I responded yes, so we ended up figuring out how to accommodate that set up. When I came out to the party afterwards no one realised I’d been playing. Thought it was a DJ. I was really pleased at that. I like getting to play without being stared at.

False Horizon

The City Centre/Grouper split was the first vinyl I really properly pressed from start to finish. With my friend Fred Thomas, right after moving to Portland from Oakland. The artwork is from a much larger drawing that was in a show at the coffee shop my friend Jae was working in at the time. I’d been sharing a studio with TJ O Neil and three other women in one of the last ugly industrial neighbourhoods in Portland, over near Montgomery Park. Portland was in the process of ripping down all its warehouses and building condos at the time. This is still happening, only rather than ripping down warehouses, which there are practically none of left, developers are grabbing up every empty lot in North Portland.

Cover The Windows And The Walls

When I recorded Cover The Windows And The Walls I didn’t know I had to master recordings for vinyl; Jef pressed the unmastered versions I sent on CDR. I don’t remember recording any of it. What I remember is Jefre calling every few months for at least a year telling me to send him something to release. I’d been stalling for a long time. And I remember making the artwork, cause it took forever. Everything I thought of seemed too thought of… I took a Polaroid of branches at night, and it was too dramatic, but the chemicals bled in a finger print shape in a corner I’d never actually touched. I blew up the ghost print at Kinkos.

The Apartment

A I A: Dream Loss makes me cringe to think about for a few reasons, one major being that I instantly picture the place I was living when I put it together. A horrible brick apartment about five feet from the barbed wire and chain link fence surrounding a huge power substation. I had the basement to myself for a work space. Water dripped on to the dingy carpet from a leaking pipe, right next to my computer. I became obsessed with the sound the power plant made. It was very subtle, but you could definitely hear it. I started talking about it with my friends. If we went out I’d assess every city block for the same noise coming from the power lines, and see if my friends could hear it. I became hyper aware of appliance hum. I stopped sleeping very well. The sound was something close to B flat. I could hear it in the recordings. I made anyone who came over try to hear the hum in the basement and in the recordings. I researched the effects of living next to a substation. My dog began licking odd objects, and developed a wall-eye. I’d come upstairs and catch her tonguing the tile of the bathroom floor. 

‘Helen’ 7"

An acquaintance told me to not work on ‘Helen’ because it’d alienate my audience. I think the best way to alienate yourself is by not being honest. Even if what you’re doing seems like an abrupt juxtaposition. I find a lot of inspiration in contrasting relationships, in being contradictory. 

Water patterns

I’m renting a section of space in a huge three story net loft in Astoria right now. It’s the first studio I’ve had outside of the house in years. A net loft is where fishermen would come to unload their boats through holes in the floor, their catch pulled directly up through with giant pulleys. The one I’m in is from 1904. The roof has been re done, but the walls still have big gaps in them. When there is a storm the building lets a lot of wind and wind sound in. The tide brings the water right up under the building. You can see down through the trap doors as it rises up to cover the rocks. Since I moved here I’ve been working with ink and a tiny brush to make a kind of water pattern. I like the textured line; the mix, when many are stacked up together, of pattern and variance. Simple and absurd. 

Working with Paul Clipson

I’ve seen hardly any of the work Paul has done to accompany me live. He edits up until the show — once taping a new segment together a few minutes before I went on after he got an intuitive feeling about it. After that show everyone asked how we’d timed it to sync up so well. Neither of us wants to know what the other is doing; incident and overlap is an important engine for both of us, the autonomy of live sound and film. Neither of us think of ourselves as an owner; it’s a strong resonance point.

Sleep deprivation 

When I made Ruins it was like the calm before the storm, far as sleep loss goes. Right afterwards is when I began traveling too much and got real sick.

If I travel now, I am agreeing to lose some sleep and have at least one emotional break down. My body has stopped adjusting back and forth in protest of the amount of airports I’ve forced it through. I try to time shows so that I can do a few and then go back home, to minimise the impact it has. I’ve thought for years of just not playing, but I really relish doing what is challenging to me, what unnerves me; and playing is consistently challenging and uncomfortable. 

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