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For a band that celebrates the subtlety of the classic influences within its music — rhythm and blues, folk rock, alt-country — Harper and the Moths is raw and bold when it comes to their subject matter.
They relish the concept of channeling romance, heartbreak, and desire straight into their songs, mostly derived directly from vocalist Harper Lines' real-life stories — hence the name of the band's debut album, Love Songs for the Damned. Then again, a lot of the best work is made from heartbreak.
"You know, it's sad that when you're super-happy — you don't subconsciously have good writing material — so you're looking for that tragedy," says guitarist Shaun Schulman. "I swear that's the way it works."
One of my favorite tracks from Love Songs for the Damned, "Whiskey & Records," sets the tone for the album: "I don't spend money on girls anymore / I spend it on whiskey and records."
The band is rounded out by drummer Nick Ramirez, and bassist David Campbell. All four of the musicians have deep roots in the desert music scene; collectively, they've been a part of at least a dozen bands over the years, including Dead Eyes of London, Zero Zero, Redfield, Vistalance, Butcher Jones, Sunset Riders and the Skeleton Army, and a handful of other pop punk and melodic hard rock bands.
All those bands have seen some sort of success or appealed to a devoted fan base. But this on-to-the-next-project mentality can foster a love/hate relationship with fans, who might just barely get to know one of their favorite local acts before falling into the groove of the next one.
The guys have known each other for quite some time — Lines and Schulman have played in bands together since meeting at The Sets one night around 2009 or 2010, and they go back even further with the other two members.
"We began working on a different project called Sunset Riders and the Skeleton Army," Lines says. "But I moved to Seattle, and then we started working on Harper and the Moths at that point. I had just gone through a breakup and was losing my mind."
The music's subtle style — blues, soul, pop, and rock influenced by acts like Broken Bells and Fitz and the Tantrums — allows a lot of room for storytelling. Each song is a different chapter torn from Lines' life.
With Lines living in Seattle and the other three in Phoenix, all the musicians seem perpetually involved in numerous projects, a factor that's made the recording process quite interesting.
"It was all through the Internet and e-mail," Schulman says. "We were never in the room together while recording. We won't even play together until the day before the day of the show."
And though Lines and Schulman wrote basically everything, Ramirez and Campbell brought their expertise exactly where and when it was needed.
"Nick and Dave are always down to play with what we're doing, and they'll come in with their expertise, especially in the studio," says Schulman. "For example, I wrote the drum parts, but Nick fixes it up if I wrote something that doesn't make sense, and Dave will do the same thing with the bass parts."
The track "Whiskey & Records" almost didn't make it on the record.
"We would get drunk and write and jam," Lines says, "and then I posted that song to Facebook. The other guys saw it and said it should be on there. It ended up being no bullshit, just a full circle of an acoustic song."
Other standout tracks include "Under the Moonlight," a punchy, edgy pop-rock jam that talks about a moth flying toward the streetlight only to have its wings melted off, while "Rooftop Shimmy" is a Motown-edged tune with a simple and classic chord progression.
"You'll hear a lot of the simple stuff in there," Schulman says. "It just allows a lot of room for the vocals to tell the stories. 'I Need My Medicine' is a favorite of mine. That was the first one we worked on. And that line — 'I've done some nasty things / Some things that made me feel like I wasn't alone' — that's just like, oh, I love that line. It's just so real. And between the lyrics and the drum beat on it, I think that's the signature song for me."
The track "Into the Ocean" is one that Lines is particularly proud of.
"All the songs have really different energy about them, since they all tell different stories. 'Into the Ocean' has this Against Me punk rock energy; Alkaline Trio, dirty and raw. And all the lyrics are just me writing out of my journal."
The October 26 release show for Love Songs for the Damned is packed with a lineup of eclectic acts.
"We have a lot of bands and friends playing that we just really enjoy," says Lines. "The Hard Luck Kid is an amazing folk singer, and then Travis James and the Wretched Ones is rockabilly folk rock. La La Lust is a brilliant electronic dance pop group in Phoenix. They are bands we want people to see and to experience."
Harper and the Moths is all about sharing the experience with people. When asked to describe Harper and the Moths in three words, Schulman and Lines each had a similar response.
"Harper's. Real-life. Craziness," says Schulman. "I know all of these lyrics since I've spent so much time with them, and I know they are all real stories of things that have happened. Even if we are the only ones that hear it, it is such a real record about real life and it's great to experience it with this guy. It's something you can relate to."
And for Lines? "Storytelling. Garage rock. Pop."
However, storytelling should be something that lasts a while, and with these musicians, you never know when they will hop onto the first page of another tale. Will Harper and the Moths even last?
"This album is just the start," Lines says, in protest. "This is the first piece of our completely collaborative efforts." Schulman agrees and mentions that they've already been talking about writing for the second record.
"Even though I'm in like four or five projects — and I'd like to say I'm 100 percent on all of them — this is definitely something we're going to be focusing on," he adds.
"It's called Love Songs from the Damned because we wanted to create the perfect break-up album that's poppy but honest and deliberate yet subtle," Lines says. "Combining all the sounds and influences that we love so much — the soul and the pop and the punk and the rock and the folk — I think that's the way music should be. It should be a blend of people's work that embodies everything — not genre specific.
"I'm really proud of it and I hope everyone enjoys listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it and performing it."
Hopefully, they'll enjoy performing it. Their hearts might have been breaking while they wrote it, but this is a batch of musicians who shouldn't roam apart anytime soon.