Photo via Bandcamp

Grouper’s Ambient Music Goes Way Beyond the Comedown Soundtrack

Before Liz Harris releases a Grouper album this month, we dig into the emotional pull of her drone-y, textural work.

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Apr 4 2018, 1:37pm

Photo via Bandcamp

Liz Harris from Grouper captures it perfectly: the dull sadness between consciousness and unconsciousness, the space between life and death – the place where we go once it’s all over. At least that’s what I think when I hear her music. If you don’t already know of her, Harris is a Californian musician based in Portland, Oregon who seems to possess an impulsive need to create – it’s as though she records an experience or releases a memory, not for the fame or the cool credentials, but because the process is like a spiritual discharge.

I discovered her music six years ago, at a friend’s flat. It was a late one, most people were asleep – movement went as far as the slow passing of a joint. As smoke wafted between sofas, a playing Grouper record seemed to move through the room like a boat slowly floating across a fog-filled lake. Though we sat in relative darkness, the sound took on the form of naval light searching across the murkiness of the twilight zone, lightly touching the serene unknown. Call me a stoned 20-year-old but I can’t lie: those were the images I saw when I closed my eyes.

And those sorts of things are part of the reason why Grouper is almost a cult act – the music is ambient, still, relatively relaxing (AKA perfect for seeing in a 5AM comedown). But as time has passed and I’ve found myself no longer sitting in smoke-filled living rooms deep into the night, Grouper’s music – and perhaps specifically the image it conjures up – has taken on new and symbolic meaning. So, ahead of the release of new album Grid of Points later this month, I wanted to pause on that significance. What is it about Liz Harris’ work and the Grouper discography in particular that strikes a chord? Why do I – and so many others – feel a deep attachment to these songs?

Unlike, say, a rapper – many of whom who can be identified with their city (see: literally everyone in Atlanta who’s had their music played on the Donald Glover TV show of the same name) – Grouper’s music associates better with a feeling or a place. You probably have your own in mind. To me though, the foggy lake and searchlight-and-boat scenario I’ve described above is always where I place Grouper’s music – which is convenient because: a) I’ve discovered Harris likes to sail; and b) she’s said she relates to lighthouses (I promise 1000 times I thought these things before reading those two interviews).

In reference to actual lighthouses and the song “Lighthouse”, from Grouper’s 2014 album Ruins, Harris told the Fader: “That song describes a paradoxical, pretty common wish that people have, that I had at the time and still deal with – to be sought out spiritually, romantically, emotionally while simultaneously going to pains to hide away.” She continued, speaking about why she relates to lighthouses: “I have a rotating critical eye surveying my perimeter, a harsh beam. It cuts through the landscape and highlights certain features strongly, monumentalising them, then drifts off to something else which suddenly becomes just as huge and highly detailed.”

That last part aptly describes Grouper’s music. The songs in Harris' back catalogue illuminate otherwise darkened scenery too. Whether it’s the bare sound of a piano on Ruins or the dense tape delay on 2005 debut Way Their Crept, each Grouper album provides the listener with a backdrop to work through something, to search into the crevices of the brain, touch the great beyond, then return hopefully having learned something. Or other times we can just go the fuck to sleep.

In that same Fader interview, Harris spoke about the songs on Ruins as though they don’t belong to her – as if they’re individual spirits for which she’s a vessel, bringing them to life. Though the album’s recurring themes seem to hint at a relationship disintegrating, the material is also tied to a relatively isolated Portuguese seaside town called Aljezur (where Ruins was recorded) and the mental and physical feelings Harris experienced while working alone from there. The songs “came freely” and were recorded as quickly as possible so the next ones could be written – a process Harris describes as “like uncovering something already there, opening the door for guests at a party.”

The above statement reminds me of the book Big Magic (you’ve probably seen it on your mum’s shelf or an art student’s floor), in which writer Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that an idea is a living, breathing entity. “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas,” Gilbert writes. She also states that “Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form”, “they are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us”; that they have “consciousness” and “will”. Could the same be said for feelings too? When Rhye’s Mike Milosh and I spoke earlier this year, he alluded to this, saying how there’s a different spirit speaking through each piece of music he makes.

Harris thus draws out the living emotional parts that make us human – the feelings that float across the earth, entering and exiting our headspace. That could be why so many people feel a deep attachment to her music. Another is the idea of repeating patterns. Most people find themselves falling into a spiral every few months. On record, Grouper represents this process with the repetition of sound. The dense whirring wall of numbness on “Soul Eraser”, for example, or the light gasps of midnight air on “Come Softly”.

Ranging from large-scale wale paintings to pen drawings, several artworks on Harris’ website repeatingpattern.com also display, well, a repeating pattern. In an interview with Impose she has described the process of creating this art, whether musical or physical, as instinctive and akin to “something moving through me more so than coming from inside of me”, linking to the idea of ideas and emotions as, like, things that are alive.

To be honest, the only time I listen to Grouper is when I feel terrible because, with the exception of her dream-pop outfit Helen (whose best song you should listen to here), the music Harris creates comes from a depressing world. These are ostensibly not happy songs. But over an impressive ten solo albums and six EPs, a light has always beamed through the fog over the lake. Harris has become like the lighthouse offering a way out from the darkness – the very image I saw first listening to her music in that dark and damp living room. “Most of my drawings and songs have a kind of doorway or void somewhere in them,” Harris has previously said.

So what does this mean for Grouper’s music? Why is it more significant than other comedown songs? I can’t speak for anyone else but for me it’s that duplicity: the dark against the light. To me, Grouper’s music is a doorway into acceptance. Her songs remind me of the place before death, where everything (according to spiritual teachers like Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati or Sogyal Rinpoche) is still and tranquil, between worlds. Often, this can be between being hungover and fresh-faced but it also runs deeper than that. Grouper is music that can make you see a light at the end of a tunnel. It’s the living embodiment of everything I’ve felt and will feel, the knowledge those feelings will also repeat, but then they also will come to pass. And in those moments, I find peace.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.