Throwaway Style: Grouper and the Comfort in Being Sad


Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

A few weeks ago I found myself lying in bed with my headphones on, staring at the ceiling,
binging through Grouper’s discography. I’ve known about the project from Astoria, Oregon songwriter Liz Harris peripherally for a couple of years, but on this humid summer night, with a lot on my mind, it was finally clicking. I impulsively (albeit melodramatically) tweeted out something about only wanting to listen to Grouper and nothing else from now on. A good friend replied, “Grouper is great, but you doing okay?”

Harris’ work is rarely overtly happy, but it’s also so many other beautiful things. It’s lush, vivid, naked, lovely — and, yes — sad. Her music is ornate with layers of guitars and tape loops, coalescing into cosmic poetry that aches and swoons with every passing feeling and the distant whispers of Harris’ voice. So if you have a friend who’s telling you they only want to listen to Grouper, it’s a bit understandable why you’d want to check in.


Last week Harris released a new single, “Children,” as a part of Bandcamp’s campaign to donate their sales profits to the Transgender Law Center. “Children” was recorded during the same sessions as her 2014 LP Ruins, which she recorded on a 4-track and performed on an upright piano during a residency in Portugal — an album she described as “living in the remains of love.” In a catalog that is so steeped with harrowing emotion, Ruins stands out as maybe her most transparent and aching project yet. It’s a quiet record, but it needs all the open space it can to be filled with her spirit and the weight of her lyrics. “And maybe you were right when you said I’d never been in love/How can I explain why it’s safer when I feel alone,” she sings on “Clearing.” The way her quiet voice resounds in the murmur of the room and the echo of the piano is all the coloring these songs need.

“Children” was written and recorded at the end of these sessions. In a statement alongside the track, she says that while it felt aesthetically similar to Ruins, contextually she felt it was apart in some way and put it to the side, forgetting about the song until now. It just so happened that now was the right time to release it, as she points out, “This year, amidst chaotic and painful political times, while working on another project, [‘Children’] re-emerged and made more sense.” “Children” captures the moment of fear in the world with nightmarish descriptions like, “Setting fire to every foreign land we come to, killing every foreign thing we come to.”

To me, this speaks to what makes artists like Harris so important. Because the world isn’t always kind and people aren’t always strong. The right song in the right moment can be something to hold onto. Not everyone can always get that from “happy” music — sometimes yes, sometimes no. Oftentimes it feels like there’s an aversion to music that dips into the bleaker recesses of our emotions, scoffed at with “ugh, that’s too depressing.” Everyone experiences music differently, so I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I know myself and others find strength in sad songs. Kurt Cobain once snarled, “I miss the comfort in being sad.” I think about that line a lot, especially when I’m listening to Grouper. When my heart hurts and the world is closing in on me, a voice like Harris’ can come in an envelope me and show me the beauty that lies within this despondency.

It’s dangerous to romanticize depression and anxiety, but it’s also dangerous to deny ourselves our own emotions. To keep our hardest feelings hidden away only lets them fester and consume. In order to heal, we have to be able to address what’s moving inside of us. The world is a harsh place and it doesn’t always feel like things are going to get easier. Harris’ music doesn’t pretend that things aren’t the way they are, certainly not on “Children” nor in the rest of work. The depth of human emotion is infinite in all directions. Repressing ourselves from an entire portion of that does us no good.

While I stood on the bus on my way into work this morning, I put Grouper’s “Headache” on my headphones — a gift of a song she released at the tail end of 2016. The watery bass notes of her guitar pulsing beneath her chorus of layered vocals reverberated in my ears as I stared out the window at the smoky sky. I wasn’t sad. I was in awe and at peace, if just for the five minutes as her song rang out.


New and News

Dummy Dharma Emerges with A Lot Of Me Melted There

Allow me to introduce you to Dummy Dharma, the new project from Seattle songwriter Chris Trimis. His debut LP, A Lot of Me Melted There, is his first offering out into the world under the moniker and it’s a total stunner. I don’t want to put it into a box of comparisons to other artists stylistically, but this music reminds of the same feelings I got when I first heard bands like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. The whole thing was recorded between his parents’ house in Woodinville and his room in Seattle, but it feels like a lush work that could have come out The Unknown in Anacortes or Dub Narcotic in Olympia. Trimis plays about 18 instruments on the record, creating a layered and immersive experience ready for your headphones. This is a remarkable start for a new artist.


Naomi Punk Return with the Dizzying and Brilliant Double-LP Yellow

Last week Olympia’s Naomi Punk returned with their third LP, Yellow, via Captured Tracks. It’s 25-track, double LP opus full of jagged riffs, extraterrestrial visions, and some of the most impulsive and creative work, frankly, I think I’ve ever heard. We caught up with the band recently in their hometown to dissect the record and challenge the notion of narratives in rock music. Check out the full interview here.


Versing Announces Debut LP Nirvana, Shares “Radio Kinski”

Versing have steadily become a major force in the Seattle music scene, delivering vibrant indie rock and noise pop through a series of EPs and tour cassettes. No we’re finally getting a proper debut LP in the form of Nirvana, out Sept. 29 via Help Yourself Records. The band has also shared a new single, “Radio Kinski,” showcasing the vitality that bursts from each chord and hook of their music. If you’ve been craving a guitar rock record that bursts with enthusiasm and unfiltered creativity, it’s looking like Nirvana might just be that. Guess we’ll find out in September!


Mysterious Producer Decoy Releases Debut EP Lake City Way

Who is Decoy? Honestly, I don’t have much of an idea and that’s really exciting. The most that there’s out about them is that they have a show on KAOS radio in Olympia and that they were discovered via a basement show in Tacoma by label Budget Cut Records & Tapes (who are releasing some really exciting works by electronic artists locally and abroad). Decoy’s debut EP Lake City Way just dropped today and it’s a thrilling collection of propulsive beats that feel even more combustible the longer the tracks roll on and repeat.


Live and Loud: This Week’s Recommended Local Shows

August 10: Wimps and Big Bite at the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome



August 11: Concerts at the Mural featuring Telekinesis, SISTERS, and Haley Heynderickx




August 12: Mega Bog, The Washboard Abs, Pools at Magic Lanes



August 15: Zen Mother, Ahleuchatistas, Vox Mod at The Sunset



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