Born in New Jersey and bred in Chicago’s underground music scene, Harry James Brenner Jr. has built a musical career centered on the cross-pollination of different musical worlds. First known for his work as a member of Chicago ensembles like Killer Whales, Chandeliers, and Songs for Gods, his early work as a drummer helped push the boundaries of genres ranging from electronica to rock to afro beat.
Harry’s newer work has seen him transform into a solo artist whose stripped-back piano and percussion excursions explore musical composition from disparate angles to highlight the rhythmic potentials of melody. At times his approach is grounded and reserved, at others it’s brash and exploratory, channeling themes developed over time while also investigating sounds drawn from the moment at hand.
Harry’s music has been one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years. After naming his 2021 record Buy The Numbers one of the best albums of the year, he and I connected through social media and kept in touch, sending each other music from time to time. He also sent me early drafts of what was to become his second full-length album, Harried. He’s always been a thoughtful and engaging person to talk with, so it was great to speak with him in more detail about his process and get a sense of what’s inspired him to create the beautiful music that he does.
Endless Crate: Before you were a solo artist, you played drums for Chicago groups like Killer Whales, Chandeliers, and Songs For Gods. Why did you decide to start making solo music and what’s it been like for you to transition from being in a band to working by yourself?
Harry James: I never really decided to work solo primarily, but that is the course my life has taken. I began recording my pieces alone in April 2019 at a time when I lived in a loft with a recording studio built into it. By the time Covid hit in 2020, I was getting further into my process, and did my best to record myself as much as possible. This process taught me a lot about myself, both personally and musically. Working alone is much different than working with others, but the transition has been natural for me.
I understand you’re a self-taught piano player and only started playing relatively recently. After spending so many years as a drummer, why did you decide to take up the piano and what’s the process of learning to play it been like for you?
I was given a piano in 2003 by a local dance company and began playing primarily by ear, and with a limited sense of theory. In working with Chandeliers I began also playing and writing on keyboards instead of only drums, which taught me more about my note preferences and my piano temperament. By now piano is my primary instrument, and I feel like I can express myself using the keys and chords. My percussion background definitely influences some of my playing, but really I’m just going for what I want to hear on the keys.
Your solo music has a very timeless feel to it, and is also quite different from the music you made with your former bands. What’s the process of creating your own style been like? And can you name a few artists who might have helped inform your sound along the way?
The simple restraints that a single microphone and a cassette recorder provides I think is it’s own discipline. My recording technique together with my style of composition comes from all the experience I have gained as a musician, as well as knowing what I do not want to do as a musician. These pieces are diary entries for me and, some might say, leave me fully exposed. But that is a beautiful thing.
Your debut solo album, Buy The Numbers, was my first exposure to your music. It’s a really gorgeous listen all the way through and was one of my favorite albums of last year. The album feels kind of raw and unpolished, in the best possible way, which really gives it this unique kind of beauty. I’m curious to know more about your recording process for this album and if that kind of rough sound was something you were going for or if it just worked out like that.
Thank you for your kind words, and for taking the time to ask me these questions. To date, I record all of my pieces the same way—one microphone, my recorder, and however long it takes to complete a piece. Usually that involves three or four tracks of me playing drums and piano. In terms of the sounds that I have gotten, there is a definite progression on Buy the Numbers as I was learning more and more what sound I was getting back from the recording machine. “The Strut” was the first piece recorded in April 2019, and can be heard as one of the most lo-fi pieces. Primarily that’s because I was coming up with a new process, and the tape I used to record it was not of the highest quality. “From Dogs to Ducks” was the last piece I recorded at the Shape Shoppe (recording studio in Chicago) before its doors closed, and I think you can clearly hear the progression there. I am proud of my drum sounds, and the quality of the well mic’d piano. The sound is based on tape quality, equalization, microphone placement, and me learning how to do what I am doing. By now I feel I continue to improve my process, and am very proud of the sounds I am getting.
You recorded Buy The Numbers in summer 2020, during the height of the unrest over the murder of George Floyd, and released it in January 2021, when the pandemic was still in full swing. That was a very stressful, chaotic time for a lot of people and I’ve read that it was a particularly trying time for you personally. Can you talk a bit about the headspace you were in then and how it influenced the music you made for Buy The Numbers?
To keep it accurate, I began Buy the Numbers in April 2019, and by the time May 2020 came I was deep in the process of recording myself on a regular basis. This was also beginning to allow me to fully express things that were previously intangible for me. I think that’s what leads to May 29, 2020. That, and my dear dog Hercules died the day before, and I was welled up with anger. My headspace, during this time and to date, is born in loss. My brilliant father, Harry James Brenner Sr., passed in May 2017, and I changed drastically. My closest collaborator, the most brilliant musical mind I’ve ever known and my dearest friend, Dan Jugle, passed in June of 2018, and I changed drastically and fell apart.
These works are informed by that. Things seem more immediate, not theoretical. Nobody taught me how to do this, and it’s supposed to be angry but beautiful. Libra supreme. Dark to light, sad to happy, old to new. This is, in a way, a form of therapy for me, and hopefully to my listeners. You can hear it—I’m working through things. I don’t ever want to stop that. I worry about our collective consciousness and what these times are doing to us as a people. I feel very fortunate that I can get these sometimes intangible things out. Pain equaling beauty is a goal of mine. Recording Buy the Numbers relieved something in me; releasing it relieved something in me. I struggle with grief, loss, and trauma, but I’ve come up with a constructive outlet, I think.
Your new album, Harried, was just released on Potions Music. Congrats on the release, it’s another really lovely, sublime listen. I definitely hear shades of Buy The Numbers in it, but there are also some tracks that are on a totally different vibe. Tell me about your creative approach and goals for this new album, and I’m also curious about the meaning behind the album title.
Harried is defined as feeling strained due to having demands persistently made on one. I think that is something we all feel as adults, and especially now. We have life demands, money demands, health demands, and the demands we put on ourselves. For me those demands are musical. Simply put, what I wanted most on Harried is to prove to myself that I am not a one trick pony. “Harried” is the first song I recorded after Harry Sr. passed. It’s a synth ballad. The record ends with “Heart Strings,” a 20 year old pop song I’ve always longed to cover. I found harmony with my collaborators who are all brilliant and professional musicians. I recorded in a new studio. I think, all in all, the record is a natural progression in my sound, but does not stray from the process I use.
Unlike Buy The Numbers you also work with some guest musicians on Harried, which brings more instruments into the mix. Why did you decide to work with other musicians on this album instead of doing it all solo again, and why did you decide to bring on these particular musicians?
I’d like to list my fabulous collaborators alphabetically in addressing this question. These players are all dear friends of mine, and I feel very lucky to work with each of them.
Hope Arthur plays both accordion parts on Heart Strings. Hope is an amazing pianist, educator, friend, and a Shape Shoppe native.
Gerald Bailey composed, performed, and recorded brass parts for the songs “Royal Robes of Roe” and “Lily Pad.” Gerald’s tone has long been a favorite of mine in Chicago, and his solo works are also an inspiring fresh addition to our scene, and team.
Keefe Jackson composed, and performed brass parts on “Dear Edgar Miller”, and “Romancing the Stoned.” Keefe is a gem of sonic diversity in the jazz community, a Shape Shoppe native, and I am very very proud I recorded his parts for the record in my studio space.
Bill MacKay played acoustic guitar on “Heart Strings.” Bill is one of Chicago’s finest guitar geniuses, and we made instant friends years ago while he was recording at the Shape Shoppe with the brilliant Nick Broste.
Dave ‘the diminisher” McDonnell composed, performed, and recorded brass parts for the diminisher. A long time Chicago player, Dave now lives in Philadelphia and is a music educator, and family man. Since my first Shape Shoppe recording session (which he engineered, and played on) Dave has remained an inspiration, and a friend.
The decision to collaborate on these pieces with other seasoned players was very deliberate. I chose the pieces based on each person’s sonic temperament and steez. I would also like to note that in collaborating, I don’t create ensembles with others. I am more fascinated with a seasoned player’s personal harmony interacting directly with my personal harmony.
Beyond the players I would also like to take a moment to sing the praises of my tremendous engineer and friend Nick Broste. Nick has been with me since the first piece, and his work on my records has always bent towards what I am going for, even at times when I was still wet behind the ears. I am forever grateful for the work Nick and I have done together and, believe me, working with an analog artist is not an easy task.
I also wanted to talk about “Heart Strings,” the last song on Harried. This one has a very different feel compared to everything else on the album, and is also the only track with vocals on it. It’s a really pretty song and I though it was also very uplifting and unexpected way to close out the album. What’s the significance of this song and how did it come about?
“Heart Strings” is different. “Heart Strings” is a hit from 20 years ago when Dan Jugle and John Williams (who later played guitar in Killer Whales) recorded a bedroom demo. In recording this piece, I followed their structure to a T, and tried my best to make the most accurate and loving version I could. I don’t know exactly when I first heard it, but while becoming closer with the scene of friends primarily from Elmhurst, Illinois (thanks to my first neighbor Eric Broers), I heard the demo. I believe strongly that “Heart Strings” is a very fine love song, and I take absolutely no possession of it. Danny and Johnny made a magic thing. We used to play it in Killer Whales, and it killed. How could it not? I talked for years and years to Hope and Bill about doing a version until finally, one of my proudest days in all of my musical career, we did it. A six dollar headphone splitter, the demo, that’s it. It’s accurate. It’s purposeful. I hope Dan’s spirit revel’s in the universe until the song has fulfilled it’s mission.
“Heart Strings” is not mine. I recorded every bit of what you hear, and I sang it (like a creep), but this is a song for all of us. It’s a gift from our little scrappy, Chicago old man scene. Viva Dan Jugle. Viva John Williams.
When I asked Johnny (now located in France) if he would be ok with me doing a version, his response (and the most crucial bit of advice): “Don’t get sentimental with this piece! You’re a goddamn professional.”
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects you’d like people to know about?
Off the Record, my next full length LP, will release on Potions Music NYC in Spring of 2023.
Listen to and purchase music from Harry James on Bandcamp
Related Reads: Harry James – Buy The Numbers Album Review