YANP interviews Eric Harris, co-director of the Elephant 6 film “Major Organ and the Adding Machine”

Disclaimer: that’s probably not Eric Harris in that photo. It’s just a still from the movie

In true Elephant 6 fashion Eric Harris wears a lot of hats in his musical career. He’s drummed in the Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System, played with Elf Power and now has co-directed the new E6-packed film “Major Organ and the Adding Machine.” Somewhat incredibly, it winds up being a fun, weird kids movie instead of the bizarre art film we all expected.

MP3: Major Organ and the Adding Machine – His Mister’s Pet Whistles

Eric was nice enough to chat with me about all his projects, including what’s going on with the Olivia Tremor Control. He’s got a new movie, new album (the Circulatory System’s Signal Morning) and new OTC material on the way and was good enough to talk at length about all of it. Read on!

You Ain’t No Picasso interviews Eric Harris

Matt: As far as Major Organ goes, when did the initial filming and initial recording start with that?

Eric: Back in the late 90’s we poked around with it quite a bit. Me and Joey Foreman. But we just didn’t have the technology, quite honestly, back then. The things we wanted to do were not available—it didn’t happen to work back then. So we poked around with MIDI and we recorded a bunch of music and it just never happened until we got Final Cut Pro on his computer. And then it was like “Hey let’s make a movie.” He’s always been a great filmmaker. And we just moved into the digital age and all the sudden everything seemed possible.

Matt: I read that you all started recording in a couple different formats like beta max…

Eric: Yeah, well we had high aims—we had beta max, he had an old Amiga that could do basic video stuff. It was all dinosaur technology. And we kept flip-flopping on the formats, it just wasn’t working out.

Matt: Were you able to use any of the stuff that you recorded before the digital switch over?

Eric: No, we didn’t use any of it. But it was sort of the inspiration to get started again. I mean it was sort of like a great unfinished project, you know.

Matt: I read, on the Cloud website, where you said the initial spirit was ‘just keep filming.’ Was that what it was like the second time around or by the time you made the digital switch did you sort of know, “Ok, this is gonna be the loose plot of the film” ?

Eric: Well really what’s kinda funny about it is the plot sort of emerged organically. Which was more than we could have hoped for. By the time we got the Fernandez kids involved it was kinda going into place like, “oh, now I understand what the plot of this is.” It really kinda occurred to us in a backwards way like that. But we still wanted to leave enough open-ended. We didn’t want people to get an easy conclusion out of the movie, and we wanted it to be for kids too. We wanted the kids to think about it and say “what was that all about?” And we wanted to make something intriguing. It kinda morphed into a children’s movie. It really is, seriously a children’s movie.

Matt: I remember when I was watching it I was very surprised because I expected, based on how weird the album is, “ok, this is gonna be maybe a little difficult to swallow.” But I could totally have seen myself watching it whenever I was 8 or 10 or so and just loving it.

Eric: Yeah. When Karen and Sophie started filming with us they were seven and five. And they just immediately understood what was going on. They just thought it was great fun. And that’s sort of the theme of the movie—these kids are having a grand time throughout the movie while all these other characters around them kinda do their thing. And if you ask them what they think it means, they’ve already got it without thinking about it. So I think we hit it on that hopefully. I hope kids will react to it just as a really fun movie and then maybe they’ll walk away thinking about it a little bit. “Well what was that character doing?” That’s kinda what were going for. We did organize it, we did re-do all of the surreal. I didn’t want to make a surreal art movie that was just…boring. It’s the look of the Armet line. Hopefully it’s surreal enough that it’s intriguing, but not so surreal that it’s only entertaining to stoned people.

Matt: Are those John’s kids or niece and nephew?

Eric: Yeah, those are his kids.

Matt: Ok, very cool. I didn’t know if he had kids until I had read that they were related.

Eric: Those are two of his three children. And they’re awesome. They’re fantastic kids. They were really good sports. It was difficult to motivate Kira at five years old sometimes, you know because when you’re five years old you do something for an hour and then you say, “Well I want to do something else now” and we just finished setting up. Its like, “No, you have to be here for another four or five hours.” It was hard to get her motivated sometimes. But you couldn’t get mad at them because it’s a five year old kid. But he really, really wants to be an actor and he seems to have known this for a long time so I would just kinda of remind him of that and say, “you want to be an actor, you want to write plays and movies. This is what it is. This is unfortunately the reality of what you do when you make a movie. And he’d kinda get it sometimes and go, “Okay.” But when he was on, he was just wonderful. But you had to remember not to get mad at them. Sometimes these shots would take hours to set up or even longer and they’d be sitting around waiting for it to be over. And then you’d say “ok its finally time to do the scene.”

Matt: Have you all explained to him how many thousands of people have already seen the movie and its not even out yet?

Eric: We did a trial run of the movie in Athens, back six months ago or so. And it was completely sold out. We had then get up and take bows. They were really excited. I mean, I can’t imagine what school was like for them the next day. They were rock stars. I mean they were really rock stars. And they must have felt really good about it, I hope. I hope, and not completely mortified and embarrassed because they’re a couple of years older now and you know how that is for kids, to look at something you did two years ago and it seems like another lifetime. Like you’re going from the age seven to the age nine. But I think they’re proud of it. I hope they are anyway. We had them do the commentary track on the DVD too, so you get their insights.

Continue reading after the jump…

Matt: Now I remember seeing Elf Power, fall of last year, and hearing that you were editing the movie in the back of the band while on tour. What was that like? How much were you able to get done?

Eric: Well, a lot. Really what I was doing was we had been using a working copy of the movie for a long time while Joey eventually did the special effects and all of the editing. And he really did all of the camera work, editing, special effects—everything technical. I’m not the technical guy, so massive props to Joey. And finally he gave me a tighter cut of the movie. I had already done a lot of the soundtrack, so what I was doing was just going back and re-synching all of the scenes to the new cut. This new cut was pretty close to a finished product so I knew I really had to get it right. So I took the laptop on the road and bouncing along in the van with headphones on, I was trying to operate this incredibly convoluted soundtrack software and nudge everything back into place. It was more of a nudging and tweaking kind of job, trying to create the soundtrack on the road. It’s a good thing to do when you’re bored in the car for six hours.

Matt: So you were just doing score and soundtrack related stuff and not video editing?

Eric: No, Joey did all of that. What I did was the soundtrack, of course using Major Organ music, I didn’t write all of the music. The music is by Major Organ and the Adding Machine. But I did all the soundtrack and the special effects because we shot it as a silent movie, so I filled all that in. I was getting edits from Joey, first just scenes and completed scenes in order, then the whole movie and different cuts. So I had to keep making what I was doing fit what he was doing. We were working together all of the time. I totally trust his judgment as far as cutting a scene. I’d come over and say, “Oh, doesn’t it sit on this character a little too long?” He’d say “Yeah, sure sure.” He’s really good at that stuff, so I didn’t stand over his shoulder while he did it, and who would want to anyway? God it must have taken him hundreds of hours. Its been a fun collaboration, it really has.

Matt: Now the Holiday Surprise Tour, did that give you all a self-imposed deadline or was that just a happy coincidence? [The movie] got finished shortly before you guys went on tour and you had an opportunity to screen it.

Eric: We’ve announced that its been finished for about two and a half years…you know, “its coming in 3 months!” But we’d just never quite get there. That was a really good deadline to meet and we hit it just fine. We had a working and very usable copy of the movie by that point. Any changes that we’ve made to it, I don’t know that anyone would notice. Joey went back and did a lot of color tweaking and slight editing just to tighten things up—very, very detail-oriented stuff is what he’s been doing in the last six months since that’s happened. So, it was the “deadline of deadlines” that we had to have something watchable by then. And I think we finished the opening sequence with the animated paintings a couple of days before we hit the road. Joey finished that. I can’t take credit for that, he must have spent 100 hours on that. I can’t help him so I just kinda have to go “how ya doin?”

Matt: Tell me more about Joey….

Eric: Joey Foreman is from the whole Louisiana crowd back in the old days, you know the Elephant-sixers. He’s known all those guys way longer than I have. So he’s an old friend of everyone’s and definitely always been on the scene. Just he’s not a musician, so that’s why. But he’s a great filmmaker, he’s made a lot of cool films. When the idea originally arose, that was the guy I knew should do it. He was definitely the one who could make it happen. He’s got filmmaking skills that I don’t have. I use to make Super 8 movies for fun, but that’s a totally different story.

Matt: Screening the movie for 1,000 or more people every night on the stop of the tour must have been kind of an experience since you had just finished not too long before. Was there any audience reactions that you enjoyed of that you hadn’t anticipated?

Eric: We got great reactions and it wasn’t always 1,000 people but it was always a great reaction. I got to understand that sometimes in certain places people were impatient for the band to start. Its hard to hit somebody with a DVD—its just not what they’re expecting. And you go out to see a rock show and someone puts up a movie screen and you go “Oh…damn I gotta wait for the movie to be over?” So in some places I understood that we were “opening up for some guy they were opening up for.” People were impatient for the holiday surprise show. But I would say 75% of the time it got fantastic reactions and people really liked it and that was a really good feeling. So its not terribly long, I hope it doesn’t try anybody’s patience. It was shorter than most opening bands, lets put it that way.

Matt: Very true. And it doesn’t need to set up or take down any instruments.

Eric: Yeah, very little change over time. That’s kinda how I looked at it on that tour. You know, we’re the opening band, it’s the movie. We get there for our sound check and I was in my own vehicle with the mobile movie theater in the back. If they had a DVD player and a screen, all I had to do was hand over the DVD, that’s great. If they had nothing, I had screen with the big frame (homemade) and projector and DVD player and everything. So we could set up a mobile theater in any space.

Matt: Yeah, I was at the Lexington show and I think that’s what y’all might have done. [The projector] actually might have been a sheet.

Eric: It indeed was a sheet. But it was a well-thought out system because we could project from the front or the back. The screen was adjustable, it was a bunch of 2 x4’s but it actually functioned pretty well. It was a pretty good system; I’m hoping to get to do it again.

Matt: As far as organizing the Holiday Surprise Tour, I sort of got bits of news either from people I knew who were involved with it or from various websites. What was that like from the inside trying to put that together and arrange everyone’s schedules?

Eric: Well of course it was an incredibly difficult thing to pull together. I kind knew when the pressure was on they would pull it off, just knowing the people involved. And the first couple of shows were rough. We had never really practiced the whole show all the way through. Maybe it showed. But we knew the change-overs were gonna be nightmarish and that there would be a lot of downtime until we got it right. But I’d say by the third or fourth show we had a well-oiled machine going; as well-oiled as that machine was going to be. And people seemed to be enjoying it. You know, it was a more casual show than people might be used to where people are stepping on each other and guitars are getting knocked over and feeling like “where’s this guy? He’s gotta play his bass!” It was fun like that. We finally settled on a set list that we stuck with, with potential and possible variations on the spur of the moment. It was fun, it really was. The practices were fun. It all came down to the last minute when we loaded up the vans and hit the road and realized, “we don’t have enough room for everybody.” So it ended up being a caravan of several cars, several vans. Two big vans and three big cars were caravanning. The day before we left we realized just how much space it all took. You know, hilarious. You gotta get the seven foot metronome in there. It was very important. You might need to loose a band member to get that metronome in.

Matt: I don’t know if you ever read the Elephant 6 Townhall forums, but it was almost like a weird cheering session. People were like, “Oh man, I hope Will can do it. Will can do it! Ok uh…can Bill do it? Ok great!” Just one at a time news would trickle out and we’d be like “ok great!”

Eric: Everyone has a schedule too and everybody’s in other bands and everybody’s busy. We do stay really busy. So it wasn’t until almost down to the last minute that we knew exactly what was going to happen. But that was ok with us. And it turned out great. Everybody made the best out of it that they possibly could.

Matt: I saw people filming. Are there any plans for a DVD or is it just “keep filming?”

Eric: You know, I dunno. I’ve seen some footage and I think that Lance Banks shot at the last show in Kentucky. And it’s very nice. But I don’t really know what anybody intends to do with it. I don’t know about anybody else filming. Lance was another old Athens friend who lives out West now, but I dunno why he was in Kentucky. I never got around to asking him that. But he’s a filmmaker and showed up with all this great equipment. I did get to see a little bit of it just recently. I’ve been emailing him back and forth because there’s a rock festival every year in Athens called AthFest—kinda like a long weekend of shows, Thursday to Sunday, a hundred bands playing at all these different clubs. And we’re gonna show the movie again at the movie theater in Athens, the Ciné. And since it’s a short feature we decided to pad out the show with some rarities and weird videos that everybody’s made over the years. We’re calling it Elephant 6 night at the movies. So we’re in touch with Lance because he was somebody on the scene back in the 90’s when everything was happening and he had a camera. I know he’s sitting on a ton of great stuff. So we’ve already got great contributions. The Major Organ movie is only about 25 minutes so we’re gonna pad the whole show out to about an hour with rare films that people made and interesting videos and a little bit of live footage of this and that that’s never been seen before, so if should be a fun night.

Matt: Very cool. Sort of a similar question as to the Major Organ movie, but for eight years people were waiting for the Circulatory System album and it came out shortly after the tour. Did the audience response or just getting everyone in the same spot sort of facilitate that album or would it have probably been done in ’09 anyways?

Eric: It might have been done in ‘09 anyways. I’d say it was being seriously worked on for the two years preceding, maybe a little more, maybe three years. Where for a long time it was like “I don’t know what’s going on with the circulatory system record.” And then I’d say starting about three years ago we started hearing, “they’re really working on it!” And it started getting more and more focused and more and more focused and by the time that tour happened, it was nearly done. It finally got done. I think half the problem is there’s probably another four albums [of] material that they had to weed through to get one album out. Because Will is extremely prolific he just records all day. So we’re all happy, we’re happy it’s finally done.

Matt: Now in a recent interview Will said that the Olivia Tremor Control have two songs already under their belt and sort of made it sound like a reunion either on tape or again in the flesh is not really that much of a distant dream anymore. Is that as real as that quote would seem to imply?

Eric: Yes and no. He’s not kidding about the recordings. We’ve just been meeting for fun over at Will’s house and messing around. I see this more as an exercise of just “I don’t see my friends, my dear friends as much as I’d like to.” I live a mile away from each of them, but we all have lives now and its not 1996 anymore. So we just don’t see each other enough. We just started getting together on some days over at Wills. And I’ll be damned if the recording’s aren’t pretty good! But as far as what we’re gonna do with them, I don’t know. I have no idea. And that’s kinda good because that’s the spirit with which we went into it—which is “let’s get together for fun, and see what happens.” And two songs do not make an album, so we’re not talking about a new record, or I’m not.

But as far as the live shows go for myself, I don’t really see the point of going out and doing the “Greatest Hits” If we had something new to play I’d be into it. We’ve done that already—we already did kinda go out and do the reunion thing and it was fun, but who knows? Who knows what the future will bring. In my mind, its all about a bunch of friend who still have fun creating together. If its not a full-time band like it was, then again we never said we broke up. And we’re all still great friends. So who knows.

Matt: Anything you want to add about upcoming projects?

Eric: The DVD and CD double disk set is coming out in September for Major Organ and the Adding Machine. It’s on the Orange Twin calendar for releases, so we’re hoping that will happen on time. And if there’s any band that want an opening act that doesn’t have a drum set, call us up—we have a movie screen and a projector! We make a great opening band.

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