Class Actress Talks Dolphin Music, Dance, and What Made the '80s Awesome
Class Actress have an enviable knack for maximizing the minimal. The Brooklyn group maintains a tight three-member lineup of Scott Rosenthal, Mark Richardson, and Elizabeth Harper. They've only got one major release -- a five-song EP called Journal of Ardency -- but it's strong and smartly written enough to satisfy electropop fans until their inevitably upcoming LP appears. Journal's production also hits all of the right sweet notes and it's incredibly crisp for something put together in a little studio in Harper's apartment.
Tomorrow, Class Actress comes by the Vagabond for a show with Larry Tee and Millionyoung. We recently spoke to Harper about Depeche Mode, some decidedly non-'80s contemporaries, and what she really wants out of a visit to Miami.
New Times: You started out as a solo singer-songwriter but have said that your heart was always in electronic music. Why did you go for acoustic material first instead of moving straight into this approach?
Elizabeth Harper: I don't know, I was just kind of young and figuring it out and had an acoustic guitar. [Laughs] You know, it's like when you're young and in college and listening to Elliott Smith and it's that moment. I was more concerned about melancholy than I was about movement.
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Do you ever pick up the acoustic guitar and do that stuff nowadays?
Absolutely. I just played a bunch of the songs on acoustic guitar for Time Out and some other blogs and stuff. That was fun. Sometimes, I'll just freak out and be like, "I can't handle an analog instrument. Give me a guitar." Me and my bandmate will just wail away and get it out of my system and then go back to the synth. It's all about the groove, to be perfectly honest. I just love Marky [Richardson]'s beats. Groove is all about soul and this stuff is all about being soulful and real.
You met Mark after he did a remix for your solo work. How did Class Actress come together?
Mark had been making electronic music and I was one of the first people he played it for. He's like, 'Oh, I'm kind of working on this project.' I heard it and I was like, 'Holy shit, this is so good.' It cut into my life at the perfect moment. I was cleaning my apartment to this amazing dance music.
Even though Class Actress samples records, there's not much in the way of specifics out there on that detail. What sort of material do you sample in particular?
Well, I can't tell you that or I'd get sued. [Laughs] And no one would ever know because we layer the drums out of control. We layer ten layers on top of one layer. It's kind of hard to say what it is or isn't at some points. It's more about getting the sound that we want--the dirtiness of it. I don't feel like sitting there with him and going, 'What about this snare? What about this snare?' I'm like, 'The snare that I want already exists in your computer.'
Does knowing where sounds exist and tracking them down again make it easier to write in this band versus what you did as a guitarist?
I wouldn't say it's easier because it's already out there. It actually makes it harder. Bringing a song in and playing it [under] a normal set of circumstances--guitar, keyboard, blah blah blah--that's one of way doing it, but it's going to sound like a rock band or whatever. I want it to sound like dolphins and like, I don't know, craziness. I know this is going to sound totally off the chart, but you can communicate with dolphins through analog synthesizers because of the way vibrations work on their sonar.
Well, kind of. Maybe I'm making it up. Let's just pretend. [Laughs] I find that there's this warmth that comes from old analog keyboards [in] electronic music. Maybe it's from being a kid and going to raves and feeling that pounding in my chest [of] 808 drums. It's like, 'Whoa, liftoff.'
Now there needs to be a Class Actress video where you communicate with dolphins.
God, that's my dream. Why do you think I want to stay in Miami? I want to get rid of the rest of the tour and head down to Key West and go swimming.
Let's talk about the discussions of your music repeatedly reminding critics of the '80s. What do you think of that association?
What can I say? I guess it just happens. It's something that's stuck in your head--something you grow up or your parents are playing. You can't get rid of it. I think '80s music was amazing. That's the beginning of synthpop. From '80 to '90, there was some cool shit going on, until it got all into digital synth and went a bit more Enya. [Laughs] That was when hip-hop started. Hip-hop in the early '90s was so good, so I don't really have a problem with people saying that [we sound like an '80s band]. "One time, someone asked, 'If you were a cover band, what band would you be?' I said, 'Aren't we already a cover band?' [Laughs] It's true. I'm generally not trying to cover the '80s. It's in no way something I've directly gone out to do. I think when you hear the new record, you won't hear it as much. It's a lot more dramatic. But yeah, why not, if people like '80s music and feel comfortable talking about it, I don't have a problem with that.
Is any of this rooted in nostalgia? Where were you in the '80s?
I was getting driven around by my parents, in the back of the car with the radio on--just picking up on things as they came. I have an older sister so I did a lot of sneaking around with what her friends were listening to and figured that out. Personal nostalgia? No, it's not personal nostalgia at all.
Is there anything from that period that you want to totally reject--something you never want to make it into Class Actress' music?
Hmm... I'm not going to have a saxophone solo anytime soon. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't know. When we were on tour recently, we bought Violator and Music for the Masses. I was blown away by the complexity and delicacy and intimacy and innocence and uncoverable kind of songwriting and arrangements of Depeche Mode. I was blown away at Violator. I was like, 'Holy shit, what the fuck is this?' This is amazing. Some of the songs on there continue to grow on you. Then, at the same time, we were listening to Kanye's new record in the car. And now there's this kid, Tyler, the Creator, he's blowing my mind with this Odd Future stuff. There's so much stuff out there. It all collects over time and ends up somewhere in your brain.
When it comes to current dance music, you don't have an affinity for stuff that isn't influenced by that '80s style, right?
I think Robyn's amazing. I think Rihanna's new stuff is amazing. I love that song, "What's My Name." It's so well-written and so good. I like what Nicki Minaj is doing a lot. I like a lot of current stuff. I feel like there's a lot of dance music where there's not a lot of songwriting involved. That's a whole different genre that I don't really know about and I'm not sure why I would. I'm pretty much just writing pop songs here. I'm more interested in pop songs on the radio.
Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned the importance of groove. Do you think this kind of dance music is lacking that sense of groove?
No, not at all. I think it's more DJ-based. I'm talking about DJ-based dance music rather than pop songwriting, which has come up with a lot of women. Robyn's doing a great job at it, obviously Gaga and Rihanna and that type of thing. They're making pop songs--fun dance music.
Is your ultimate goal for Class Actress to be a band that makes popular dance music?
I mean, of course. That's definitely my goal, but at the same time, I'm not going to change who I am or the way I write to fit into any kind of pre-composed idea of what a pop song should be. I've thought about that a lot and there's a lot of formulas out there and sometimes producers will be like, 'You've got to have this formula.' I'm like, 'No, no.' But it would be cool to be able to work with bigger producers that have other ideas. Mark and I are interested in trying that, too. Sometimes, they can deaden stuff. What I realize, after a lot of different people tried to mix our record, there's sort of an immediacy that comes through when we do it ourselves. I'm all for that.
-- Reyan Ali
Class Actress with Larry Tee and MillionYoung. Friday, March 11. The Vagabond, 30 NE 14th St., Miami. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $10 via wantickets.com. Call 305-379-0508 or visit thevagabondmiami.com.
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