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A new wave
‘Talking Head’ Jerry Harrison has been on music’s cutting edge 
for more than four decades

By KRISTEN KOROSEC

December 8,  2010

On any given day — during a nearly 10-year span that began in the mid-1980s — the village of Shorewood had an unusually high rock star-to-regular guy ratio. Native son band the Violent Femmes; singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy; funk legend Boosty Collins and soon-to-be-platinum-record selling bands Live and Crash Test Dummies spent weeks holed up in a studio tucked amid quaint bungalows in the 1.5-square-mile village. They came for one reason: To make records with rock star-turned producer Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame.

"We put in long, long days — 14- to 16-hour days, every day for six months on one project sometimes, but we enjoyed it," says engineer and producer David Vartanian, who started and still owns DV Productions in Shorewood. "It was a great time, an amazing time really. Once I came back from my own gig and the Pretenders had stopped by.

"Here we had a rock star living in the Milwaukee area, a rock star who never acted like one, by the way," he says. "The wealth of knowledge Jerry brought not just to me, but to Milwaukee, was really tremendous when you think about it."

Harrison is still helping musicians make records. But these days it’s at his studio in Sausalito, not Vartanian’s place in Shorewood. He recently produced the debut self-titled album for The Gracious Few, a new band featuring bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, drummer Chad Gracey and guitarist Chad Taylor from Live and lead vocalist Kevin Martin and guitarist Sean Hennesy from the band Candlebox. The Gracious Few, which released its single "Honest Man" in June, performed at Summerfest. Their tour kicked off in September and will come close to the Milwaukee area with scheduled appearances at Chicago’s Double Door and the Majestic Theatre in Madison.

From Harvard to Protopunk

Harrison’s early days in Shorewood were far more pedestrian. Although even as a lowly student at Shorewood High School — long before he joined the Talking Heads or began producing records — Harrison was a part of the local music scene.

"There was sort of this thing, at least in Shorewood, where suddenly being a musician was an alternative to being an athlete," says Harrison, who graduated in 1967. "It was sort of a cool scene. It was everywhere, but it was particularly vibrant in Shorewood."

Harrison initially played in a surfer band and by sophomore year joined The Walkers, which included blues guitar legend Jon Paris and Bob Metzger, who is the guitarist in Leonard Cohen’s band.

"You know, you hear about how U2 got together, for example, it was like well what instrument are you going to play? OK, you play drums and I’ll play bass," Harrison explains. "It was like, why don’t you play keyboard because they knew I had taken piano lessons."

The band played post-prom parties and after-game dances. And while Harrison says they had plenty of gigs, he never saw himself becoming a professional musician.

Instead, he went to Harvard University.

"My mother and my grandmother were painters and my father was in advertising, so I’d grown up doing art and being around art, and architecture seemed like a good balance of it," says Harrison, who had originally planned to become a scientist because of his interest in oceanography. "The architecture program as an undergraduate I didn’t find particularly interesting, so I switched to filmmaking, painting and sculpture. My major was visual and environmental studies, which has a pretentious name, but it was great for me."

He also was introduced to Jonathan Richman, a serendipitous meeting that would lead to him joining The Modern Lovers, which enjoyed a popular following in Boston and is included in the protopunk scene, a group of bands whose music was a precursor to the punk rock movement. In high school, Harrison says he never really thought he was a good enough musician to be a professional. But after joining The Modern Lovers, a band that wrote its own songs, Harrison became confident and enthralled with the creative process.

"I was like, this song-writing is completely unique and completely different than anything else that is going on in the world," Harrison says.

Harrison earned his undergraduate degree, and after the Modern Lovers broke, he returned to Harvard and started his graduate work at Harvard’s architecture school. It wasn’t long however, before Harrison left academia behind for good and accepted an invitation to join the Talking Heads.

When Harrison joined the Talking Heads, a trio that included front man David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, the New Wave band already had established itself on the New York City club circuit. Harrison rounded out the group as keyboardist and guitarist and soon after the band released "Talking 77," which included its chart-topping single "Psycho Killer."

"Jonathan (from the Modern Lovers) was really the writer and I would help sometimes with the music," Harrison says. "But with the Talking Heads there was more collaboration. I certainly co-wrote some songs with David (Byrne) and then we did some albums like "Remaining Light," which were done sort ensemble and we were all co-writers of the music. It wasn’t until I did solo records that I got involved in lyrics."

Rocker to Producer

When Talking Heads began working with famed record producer and musician Brian Eno, Harrison learned more about studio work. "We had gotten to a point where we were collaborating with Brian in ways where the lines between producer and the band were being blurred, partially because he was starting to get involved in the writing and sometimes performing," Harrison says. "The roles started to get more vague, but they also gave me the confidence to say, ‘I can do this.’"

Still, it wasn’t until vocalist Nona Hendryx asked Harrison to produce her record; and later when he produced his own solo record "The Red and The Black" — both while Talking Heads was on hiatus — that he considered life as a producer more seriously.

Harrison’s producer credits picked up considerably after his father died suddenly and Harrison returned to the Milwaukee area to take care of his mother, who had cancer. He was living in Milwaukee a good portion of time — the remainder spent at his place in Soho — when he found Vartanian and his burgeoning studio.

"We had this shared history," says Harrison, who had been best friends with Vartanian’s brother as a child. "And I soon discovered that David is a fantastic engineer who threw himself into making his studio better and better."

"I brought the knowledge of how people made records in New York to Milwaukee and then I sort of taught that to everybody who worked with me," Harrison says.

And because the studio costs were considerably cheaper compared with those in New York — not to mention fewer distractions — Harrison found he could take more time and allowed him to be more experimental. Harrison produced his solo record "Casual Gods" at Vartanian’s studio and then branched out and started producing other artists’ singles and records. Harrison soon found he worked better with Vartanian than with his counterparts in New York. Even now, more than 15 years since he moved to California, Harrison still occasionally works with Vartanian, including the new Kenny Wayne Shepherd Live album.

Harrison’s roots and commitment to Shorewood do woo him back from time to time. This summer Harrison joined Shorewood High School alums Paris, Hollywood producer David Zucker, Bliffert Lumber president Fred Bliffert and professional musicians Pete Leshin, Bob Schlaeger and Larry Theiss for a benefit concert aimed at raising money to close the school’s budget shortfall.

"We did a rehearsal the night before in the gym," Harrison says. "When I walked up to the rehearsal, the sound of the drums — sort of that same feeling when a smell sets off a memory — well it completely brought back the feeling of going to high school dances.

"It was just really intense and wonderful," he says, "and really surreal to be back there playing again."

 


This story ran in the November 2010 issue of: