Yeah, I’m jealous that Oliva — vocalist/guitarist for Cincinnati rockers The Harlequins — happened to be touring through Chicago when producers were shooting The Dark Knight there. He even stumbled onto the set, catching a few scenes. (Weirdly related, Oliva says he’s a fan of Belgian Surf Rock band, The Jokers. As he says, “They’re sick.”)
Call them dirty, catchy, grungy or sexy-dark. Call them Surf Rock or Psych Rock. Label The Harlequins’ music if you will, but they play solid, tight Rock & Roll songs, with a subtle nod to the delicate comic/tragic mix of Morrissey and The Smiths and hints of The Doors and The Pixies thrown in. Sometimes, they punch it out in the free spirit sweat of ’70s Rock. Other times, the tracks get edgier, grabbing onto Nirvana-ish grit. The result is dreamy, thick with reverb and served with a side of classic Punk and true garage spit.
The Harlequins consistently hammer out compelling live shows. A true mood setter, their music draws people in, making them move and take a second look. Listen close and it’ll even make you smirk. As Oliva puts it, “I try to have a sense of humor about it.”
A Buddy Holly fan from Massachusetts, Oliva started playing young, first on drums and then guitar, but the now 4-year-old Harlequins is his “first real band.” Armed with sensual, deep, echoing vocals and subtle lyrical wit, he may seem to be ambiguous and artistic, visually speaking — striped scarf, long black coat, stylish medium-length hair, thick sideburns, black boots. But he’s not the stereotypically aloof singer, laughing easily and often. He stands out in a crowd, but he comes across as a deep fellow who’s likeable and warm. A self-proclaimed class clown and insomniac, Oliva’s known to write volumes of songs at 4 a.m.
We meet at the artsy/organic Rohs Street Café. Across from me, recording engineer Aaron Modarressi, who worked on the The Harlequins new full-length, kicks back. On my right, drummer Rob Stamler. Alex Stanard (bass) is missing, but if he were around, I’m told we’d probably have a little talk about traveling and the band Parliament.
Currently working on two other albums, Modarressi is soundman at Rohs, Northside Tavern and other local haunts. He has Persian roots — sharp, dark features — and wears a thick, closely trimmed beard.
At first, his look appears serious, but he grins often and the hat on his head reads “Goosebumps,” referring to the creepy books. Modarressi is known for his work with the Cincinnati-based recording collective at The Marburg Hotel, where The Harlequins recorded it’s 2011 EP, Midwest Coast.
Lean and strikingly tall with thick brown hair, a chiseled jaw, high cheekbones and beard, Stamler towers over the rest of us. From Cincinnati, he started on keys at age 5, soon picking up trumpet and later switching to drums. Stamler is laidback with a voice that holds a deep, low tone. It’s evident that his band experience runs deep; when asked what bands he’s been in, he simply laughs.
“A ton,” someone says.
Now, some more concrete stats: In 2008, The Harlequins were nominated for “Best New Artist” at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. After releasing Baron Von Headless, their 2009 debut full-length, Cincy Groove Magazine named them “Artist of the Month.” In 2010, CityBeat gave them the vote for “Best Use of Reverb,” and their music was recognized as a “Favorite Catwalk Song” on Lifetime’s Models of the Runway. By the time their “small guy, working man EP” Midwest Coast came out, their “no gimmick” recording style and well-crafted, emotional songs helped the band earn extensive radio play and numerous interviews. Last year, Vice Magazine chose them to represent the city at its Uncapped showcase, which led to video features on the mag’s Noisey site.
Mostly recorded live, the band’s new self-titled album still holds The Harlequins’ signature resonant sound. The band held six sessions at artists’ haven The Mockbee, later finishing up in Modarressi’s attic.
Modarressi explains, “It’s got a lot of natural reverb on the guitar and off the drums ’cause it’s so huge in (The Mockbee), but then we added just a little bit extra. But other than that it’s a very natural album.”
Oliva says the album contains a handful of songs plucked from a collection he’s built up after particularly prolific writing bouts.
“I went through this phase for probably three years where I couldn’t sleep much,” he says. “I was writing like a maniac, and I wrote something like 400 songs and we used like 20 of them, and then we’d just rotate them around live. This record is a mix of older songs and some newer jams.”
In a low drone, Stamler adds, “It’s big, but so tight.”
It’s also dark.
“It’s heavier. A lot of crazy shit’s happened in the past couple of years,” Oliva says, without getting specific. “It’s always evolving, but I would say that a couple of songs on the record have to do with death and rebirth, either thematically or literally.”
Despite growing attention for the band outside of Cincinnati, the new self-titled album wasn’t geared to fill anyone’s expectations but their own.
“We weren’t looking for an audience to like this album; it’s just sort of becoming this thing that’s intimate,” Modarressi says. “I think it’s amazing — fuck it, it’s definitely the best album I’ve recorded.”
Oliva adds, “I feel like it’s going back to our roots in a way. We started out noisier and then I got into Pop, but now we’re just back to the noise.”
Though they may kid around, at one point, Oliva breaks the mood of our chat with genuine seriousness, saying assuredly, “We’re going to tour this record, we’re hashing it out.”
And within those words, there’s no hint of the joker. ©
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