11.10.10 CNN Interview with Fistful of Mercy
Fistful of Mercy skates onto the music scene
By Denise Quan, CNN November 10, 2010
Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Dhani Harrison cruises past the conference table on his skateboard and pops a trick in the corner of Hot Records -- the label founded by his father, the late Beatle George Harrison. A couple of minutes later, Joseph Arthur skates down the hall. Then Ben Harper walks in, a black-and-white board tucked under his arm.
So much for networking on a golf course.
The new trio Fistful of Mercy had its genesis at a Southern California skate park. Harrison, who fronts the indie band thenewno2, bumped into Harper -- then in the midst of working with his rock project, Relentless 7.
"When you're skateboarding, you don't really have time to socialize. It's more like trying not to hurt yourself," says Harrison. "We met again at Lollapalooza, and it was like, 'Oh hi, skateboard guy.' And we talked about doing some songs."
In the meantime, Harper had made plans to enter the studio with Arthur, his longtime friend. "It was all done via text messages really," recalls Arthur. "He asked me if I knew Dhani Harrison, and I said, 'No, is he in our band?' "
The three musicians ended up writing and recording nine songs over the course of three highly productive days at the Carriage House in Los Angeles. Most of the songs are acoustic and feature three-part harmonies.
"I've heard it called a folk record, and I've heard it called a pop record. I've heard it called a soul record," says Harper. "It really is a chameleon of a record."
Its lyrics also have a chameleon-like quality. The album tells the story of someone trying to figure out where he stands in a relationship. Given the fact that Harper recently filed for divorce from actress Laura Dern, his wife of five years, one might think it is a record full of breakup songs -- especially since the CD opens with the line, "Just 'cause you say so don't make it true. Just 'cause it's over don't mean we're through."
"I can see them interpreted as that," Harper says. "It's a record that will reflect where you're at, more than us being able to say what it's like."
Harrison, however, says the lyrics tell the journey of Fistful of Mercy. "I see the record as more people getting to know each other and testing each other's boundaries," he says.
"The first song we wrote together was 'I Don't Want to Waste Your Time,' because we all are a little nervous about wasting each other's time," Arthur says. "The album's kind of like a conversation -- a three-way conversation -- and sort of a document of friends becoming brothers."
CNN spoke with the three members of Fistful of Mercy as they rehearsed for their first tour, which kicks off Tuesday in Seattle.
CNN: You came in working off a phrase, "You love like I love."
Harrison: When I saw Ben, we kind of recognized each other as people that were going to be friends in life. And as I was leaving, I was like, "I like you because you're cool. You love like I love." And he just laughed and said, "That's the first line of the song we're going to write." Sounds kind of corny, but it actually was true.
CNN: Did you guys write individually, or did you write in the same room all together, throwing phrases and words out?
Harrison: Both. It was like, "How about this?" "No!" "OK, next line." "Yeah!" Boom, boom. It just kind of naturally happened.
Harper: We had something called the Lyric Police. It worked.
Arthur: It's like we tricked each other's egos in a way, because it's like a cartoony way of being able to edit each other's stuff without becoming offended in any way. Plus we had three days, so we kind of got this Brill Building vibe of like, "We just have to get this record done." So you didn't get engaged in a possessive way. It was more like we were one working towards an objective. They say they haven't invented time travel yet, but I think they have. It's called a recording studio. You can fit a month into three days.
Harper: The time constraint works as a discipline to stand up and be the player that hopefully you are, the singer that you are, the writer that you are.
CNN: If I were going to think about an album the three of you might do together, I don't think this is the sound I would have come up with, necessarily.
Harper: Joe brought a lot of equipment -- samplers, digital gear effects. Dhani brought ukuleles, and I kind of went in-between. I brought some acoustic and some electric. And it could have gone in any number of directions, but it pretty quickly defined itself.
Harrison: In my band, I'm kind of used to being the lead guitar player and the lead singer. As soon as I sat down with these guys -- I mean, I don't know if you've heard Joe play, but he is one of the most amazing guitar players that I've heard. And Ben is -- enough said, you know. And so I just kind of gave up on that idea. So I became the keyboard player, which is the first time I've ever played keyboards in a band.
Harper: Well, everything you touch, you play. I think I've seen you sit down with a banjo and write a song in five minutes.
Harrison: It was really bad, though.
Harper: Actually, it was a great song, I'm afraid, and I was a little bit jealous.
CNN: Dhani, you put this album out on your record label, Hot Records.
Harrison: It just happened that Ben was coming out of his deal, Joe puts his records out [on his own label], and we've never put anything out other than newno2 records, but we had the system in place. I said to the guys, why don't we just put an album out on my label? And I couldn't believe it when they all said, "Yes." And then I got to be the record boss, which is a bit of a joke. It's all very family-oriented, ma and pa kind of style. You know, we're all pals.
Harper: I was blown away, because we sat down to do the art, and he was talking about UV spot varnish, and code numbers and Pantone numbers. But even better than that, there's nothing misspelled on the record, and all the colors are the colors that we picked. So often, you get something back, and it's sort of factory-pressed. But this felt like something handcrafted.
CNN: Ben, when you came into this room, you said, "I'm going to sit on the side." Is it a relief to not have to be the guy to answer the questions all the time?
Harper: For me, it is.
Harrison: For me, too.
Arthur: For me, three.
CNN: Then how do you get anything done, if nobody wants to be the decision-maker?
Arthur: We take turns leading. Of course, there's an adequate amount of tension to make rock and roll together. You don't want a tensionless environment, but there's a healthy amount. You can trust it. There's a load of love and respect, and I think we all have kind of an innate feel about when we should lead and when we should follow.
CNN: So do we call this a debut album, because there's more coming up?
Harrison: We didn't get the hang of making the first record, because it was done so effortlessly. We want to spend some time together, and write some more records. Even if it's just to hang out.
CNN: How is the second album going to sound compared to the first one?
Harrison: It's kind of like saying, "How would you describe a painting, and how's it different from the one you haven't painted yet?"
Arthur: When you write a poem, you write one line, and that line informs the next line, informs the next line, informs the next line -- and then suddenly, it's a poem. So we're in the process of just writing lines right now. So it's hard to know what the poem's going to be.
Harrison: Whatever it sounds like, it'll definitely be fun to make.