Local Wire

Harper and The Moths Treat Their Fans to a Mixtape of '80s Tricks

Harper and the Moths have released a special Halloween treat for their fans this year with Mixtape, in which the band dresses up, musically speaking, as a synth-laden, drum machine-driven pop band from the 1980s.

It's something the band members have been working on in their off time, when they aren't throwing around some of the catchiest records of the year. The concept seems simple enough, but Harper and the Moths found a way to make it as difficult for themselves as possible, but as authentic to how they would have had to compose the songs in the '80s.

Some of the song choices are obvious, with A-Ha's "Take On Me" or Human League's "Don't You Want Me," both being perfect for Harper and the Moths and frontman Harper Lines' voice in particular. The years covered range from 1981-1986, with much of the material coming from 1984. "Somebody's Watching Me" from Rockwell is probably the best rendition on here, while "Rumors" by Timex Social Club underlines that the '80s were a far different time. The biggest surprise is the band flipping the script on "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys, featuring Kelsee Ishmael on lead vocals. It's definitely a project of fun and fancy.

We got to sit down with Harper and the Moths to talk about the making of Mixtape, the inspiration for the project, the song selection, and the layers of rules that were put in place surrounding this project. The immediate question on our minds was what makes a band even think of getting this involved in an EP of covers.

"We had just released Rock. Pop. Soul. and wanted to go back into the studio, but we didn't want to work on new material," Lines says. "So, we thought it would be a good idea to work on a fun song we all knew to get the juices flowing."

"We have an obsession with '80s synth sounds," guitarist Chan Schulman adds. "Since we're not an '80s dance band, this was the perfect project to share the electronic side of the band. You don't know what to expect from us."

Most of the band seems to want to hand Schulman the credit for making this project come to fruition.
"Chan writes nonstop and he has, in the past three years, really come into his own as a producer and musical visionary," Lines notes. "It was originally just for fun."

"We always want to be putting out new material constantly," bassist David Campbell notes as another reason for seeing this project through.

"But maintaining the quality," Schulman says.

The project was initially daunting because of the difficulty in choosing five covers from across musical history to narrow down to one EP.

"We started off making this giant playlist of any song we could ever imagine us doing," Schulman says.

"But we had rules," Lines adds. The group had six hard and fast rules for the project:

1. It had to be a song from the '80s.
2. It couldn't be totally played out.
3. No iconic singers (i.e., Prince, Bowie, Michael Jackson).
4. No attachment to a major motion picture of that era.
5. The songs had to be more of a tribute or homage, avoiding complete reinvention.
6. The project had to be kept totally secret.

If you want to make authentic music in the vein of MTV hits from the 1980s, you have to explore the world of drum machines and synthesizers. Even though Schulman is a guitarist, he has an obsession with the way this music was made back in the day.

"This all started with the fascination I have with the LinnDrum," Schulman says. "It was one of the first major drum machines you hear on all those records. I got a wide variety of these samples, then it was how to get the synth sounds."

The choice came down to economics between spending thousands of dollars on synth equipment or tracking down the original MIDI files and patches.

"It had to sound like it belongs in a John Carpenter film," Schulman explains. Of note, this was recorded long before the Stranger Things, and the attention that soundtrack has garnered. "I'd get the original synths and listen to them and wonder what made this beautifully warm synth sound. With that era, you could say there may have been a lack of technology looking back, but now we have to chase these sounds down and see how they were made."

"He definitely went down the rabbit hole," Lines laughs.

"Yeah, a little too fucking far," Schulman admits.

Aside from the obvious homage that's occurring and the authenticity of the music backing it, another noticeable aspect of this release is Kelsee Ishmael's vocals being far more prominent and taking the lead for the finale of "West End Girls."

"I actually don't necessarily like to do solo vocals," Ishmael explains. "Because it's called Harper and the Moths, I think they might disagree though."

"We do!" Lines, Schulman and Campbell said in unison.

"Kelsee doesn't think she's good," Schulman says.

"That's not true," she laughs. "I'm amazing."

Chan had heard the parts she had done for "West End Girls" and immediately called Harper.

"He called me and said 'Kelsee has to be the lead on that track,'" Lines says, and that was that. It's one of the more unusual offerings here, because of the liberties it takes with the original. Still, all of the songs speak for themselves and this Halloween, Harper and the Moths get to be one of the best '80s bands there is to be found in an alternate universe.

"It was a labor of love," Lines concludes. "We hope people listen to it and it takes them to that alternate universe."

Don't expect Harper and the Moths to rest on their laurels for very long, even with this project, though Campbell hints there might be a music video coming out for one of the songs soon.

In addition, there will be a new original single to tide fans over who need a follow-up to the recently released "Lose My Touch" before the end of the year. After that, they will be hitting the studio all over again, leaving us to wonder what this versatile band will release next.