Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Harlem: a success story

A little over two years ago, the band Harlem moved from their home in Tuscon and landed in our little house on Clara Street. One of their first shows in Austin was at the Broken Neck - an underground venue which has been home to local punk bands since the 80's. Calling the Broken Neck a venue is being generous. It's a warehouse in east Austin (far away from the glamor and popularity of 6th street), it's main attraction a large wooden skateboard ramp. The bands are treated like shit and aren't even given a stage -- they play on the concrete floor. Their function, I think, is to provide a soundtrack for the skaters.

I was at that show and watched the young and unknown Harlem play, wedged in between two other unknown bands. At the time I was strange and anti-social and hid behind my sketchbook. I still have naive drawings of that show somewhere.

Not long after that, a room opened up in our house and Harlem singer/guitarist/drummer Curtis O'Mara became our roommate. If our house wasn't a punk rock anarchist house before, it certainly became one. Every morning I'd wake up to find fresh wreckage:

Living with Curtis was an experience I'll never forget, but not for the wild parties. I valued the boring, languished nights: the Tuesdays where I would listen to Curtis tinker around on his electric guitar while I sat copying Van Goghs'. I felt a camaraderie with him; two young, determined artists working on their craft through the thick of Texas night. Sometimes I would join Curtis on the tambourine as he played, other times he would come to my room to watch me draw.

Soon Harlem decided to film their first music video in our kitchen - and they did. I wasn't in the video; perpetual observer I am, I was busy hiding in the hallway photographing the mayhem.

After a while Curtis moved out to live with band mate, Coomers, in a nicer part of town. After that, I saw less and less of Harlem, though I would still hear about them once in a while. Over the following two years they really honed their craft, and it didn't surprise me when I heard they had been signed by Matador Records, record label of big acts like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Yo La Tengo.

Recently Harlem released their sophomore album Hippies, which is one of my favorite albums in a long, long time. It's catchy, energetic, and compliments warm summer weather wonderfully. By the second listen I had "the hits" hopelessly repeating themselves in my brain, and by the fourth listen, I loved just about every song (especially the less poppy back half of the album, which includes great songs like Cloud Pleaser, Prairie My Heart, Stripper Sunset, and Pissed). Of course, Harlem is heavily influenced by grunge, so I may be biased in their favor, but I can't be the only one: Pitchfork gave Hippies an awesome review.

Despite their aesthetic, Harlem has been called "one of the hardest working bands in rock." They have been on tour for 2 months now, playing shows almost every night. Currently they are touring Europe and will be back in North America playing the west coast soon. If you get a chance to see them, do it!

For me, Harlem is an inspiring story. Right in front of my eyes, in a very short period of time, they reached out from the masses of unknowns and became very successful. It wasn't easy, but goes to show how a little talent and a lot of hard work can go a long way. Dreams do come true.

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