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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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 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
Instead, he went
to Harvard University.
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.
like, this song-writing is completely unique and completely different
than anything else that is going on in the world," Harrison says.
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
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."
(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."
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.
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.
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."
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,"
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.
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.
just really intense and wonderful," he says, "and really
surreal to be back there playing again."