The Harlequins’ press page reveals that genre tags and band comparisons get thrown around like casino dice when referencing the Cincinnati trio. Psych Pop, Surf Rock, Garage, Punk, straight-up Rock and various permutations — plus bands as disparate as Guided by Voices, The Cramps, Pink Floyd and The Doors — have all hinted at The Harlequins’ trippy yet grounded sonic swirl.
“Just don’t say The Smiths,” groans guitarist/vocalist Michael Oliva over lunch baskets at Eli’s Barbeque. “I don’t think we sound anything like them.”
It turns out Oliva’s Smiths problem is tied to some militant vegan douchery perpetrated by Morrissey. Being guilty of The Smiths reference myself, I offer that Johnny Marr’s atmospheric shimmer may be tweaking writers’ radars.
“That would be OK,” Oliva says, smiling. “We love him.”
So it goes with The Harlequins’ influences. On last year’s eponymous full-length and their just released Sex Change EP, The Harlequins — Oliva, bassist Alex Stenard, drummer Rob Stamler — have evolved to the point where they’ve stopped emulating their inspirations (Oliva names Pixies, The Beach Boys and The Beatles as musical influences and Frank Black, John Lennon and Syd Barrett as songwriting markers) and started assimilating them into their own unique sonic amalgamation.
“We’ve always had some common ground, but all three of us have different influences,” Oliva says. “In the past my influence has shone through the most because I write the songs, but as we’ve been playing more, it’s gelled. We’re learning to combine our influences more cohesively. It’s like we’re almost subconsciously channeling our influences rather than trying to do something like what we like.”
On Sex Change, Oliva notes, the band and their dedicated soundman/producer Aaron Modarressi haven’t adjusted the aural textures drastically from their phenomenal 2012 album. If anything, they’ve just coiled the spring a bit tighter.
“They’re a little more intense and a little bit dark,” Oliva says. “There’s light but, like, ‘Out of Hell,’ starts poppy and fast but gets progressively weirder and darker then just drones out into one note and a bunch of noise. Some stuff even goes back to our original sound; ‘Sex Change’ is pretty retro, poppy and mid-tempo, which is like most of our first album, Baron Von Headless. That one ended with an acoustic song, and so does this one.
I see this one as sloping up, getting heavier and weirder, and then it plateaus out into a chill thing.”
The National Weather Service couldn’t imagine a more perfect tempest than the one The Harlequins have concocted on Sex Change. “Oh No” sports the reverb-drenched sound of The Stooges if they’d been steered by Dick Dale. It’s followed by the loping title track, which applies a little Brian Eno Pop balm to a rash of noisy Garage blisters. The bashing, gritty gyroscopically challenged swagger of “Vanishing Smoke” leads into “Out of Hell” and “Schizo Radio,” aptly titled guitar-blasted evocations of unhinged Psych Rock rhythms and roiling Garage Punk. “Echoes Repeating” is the sound of Syd Barrett fronting The Moody Blues and “Still I See” closes the set with an unsettling unplugged beauty. It’s all evidence the Harlequins have worked long and hard to establish a dark, engaging direction.
“It’s like everybody’s found their specific voice and everybody’s comfortable with their space inside the band,” Modarressi says. “I like old-school style recordings, and get the band to perform their best together and that’s our song.”
The Harlequins began seven years ago when Oliva, a Massachussets native whose family moved here when he was 6, had designs on a solo album before meeting Stenard. The pair started making music together, adding a drummer who provided them with their jesterish name, but his casual work ethic led Oliva and Stenard to consider alternatives. Stamler, a multi-instrumentalist with a long local music resume, had become Oliva’s friend and a staple at Harlequins gigs, so they asked him to join.
“I was in a band and I didn’t really like it, I just wanted to be on the circuit,” Stamler says, taking a break from his job in Eli’s kitchen. “They were having issues, I was having issues, so it was like, ‘Why don’t I just play in your band?’ “
The trio’s chemistry was immediate. The year after Stamler joined The Harlequins, the band was nominated for a Cincinnati Entertainment Award as 2008’s Best New Artist; their debut album, Baron Von Headless, dropped a year later, followed by the Midwest Coast EP in 2011 and The Harlequins full-length last year.
Years of playing together have shaped the Harlequins into an impressive Psych Rock outfit that writes compelling songs, brings them to fiery life in the studio and translates them with hair-raising intensity on stage. As Oliva points out, the band has clearly improved as instrumentalists, but Stamler notes a more subtle shift.
“When you pigeonhole yourself, you limit yourself because you’re saying, ‘This is the music I play and this is the one direction I want to go,’ “ he says. “With us, all the songs have a similar vibe but it’s not necessarily one style. And when we started, (Oliva) wanted to oversee everything, which was fine because he had a vision, but now there’s more input from (Stenard) and I, even for guitar sometimes. I feel like there’s way more input from everyone.”
“I agree,” Oliva says with a laugh. “And it doesn’t bother me.”
For now, Sex Change will be available physically only in old-school cassette form, while the digital release will be available online. The Harlequins will hit the road to tout Sex Change, and also canvas indie labels for interest in releasing it on CD/vinyl with wider distribution. In the meantime, the trio has another EP in the wings and they’ll play out as much as possible.
Oliva notes that their biggest short-term goal is managing expectations.
“Sometimes I’m real up, sometimes I’m real down, so I think, ‘Hope for more, expect less’ kind of works,” he says. “We’re seeing how things work, and it doesn’t seem hopeless. Don’t try to jump up a whole staircase, just take one step at a time. And keep an open mind.”