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Positively Brainwashed

08 October 2017, 17:36
Words by Patrick Clarke
Original Photography by Hollie Fernando

It’s taken 16 years for Dhani Harrison to start working under his own name, and three years to record his debut. He tells Patrick Clarke about how he navigated that turbulent time.

Dhani Harrison has been an active force in the music industry for some time. From his hand in the completion of his late father final album Brainwashed, and with an accomplished discography of his own with thenewno2 and Fistful Of Mercy in addition to a host of film and TV scores, at the age of 39, he’s earnt his stripes as a musician.

It’s taken over 15 years of constant work for Harrison to release an album that’s truly and solely his own, however and IN // PARALLEL is be his debut LP as simply ‘Dhani Harrison’. As the son of a Beatle, it’s hard to imagine he’d have had much trouble getting the solo deal as soon as he wanted it, but this is a self-aware member of the second-generation. “My position is quite a rare position, having my dad and everything,” he tells me calmly. “I didn’t get to play gigs in a pub in front of four people, I didn’t get that chance to find out who you are from the age of 15 or 16 without having people drawing attention or comparisons.”

Initially Harrison was tentative about entering the music industry at all. He played in a band while at Brown University in Rhode Island, but after graduating started designing sports cars for McLaren. He eased himself in via the Beatles version of the video game Rock Band, which he worked on as a programmer, as well as with matters concerning his father – he can be spotted grinning with delight in a band alongside Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and others as Prince delivers that solo in an all-star cover version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. When he did start a band, thenewno2, he was keen to keep his name, and the prejudices that come along with it, out of proceedings. “I started [my career] with a band to throw people off the scent,” he says.

Before long, however, he and bandmate Paul Hicks began to move into scoring film and television, “Because that’s where it’s at if you want to sustain yourself as a musician! I played all the festivals I wanted, I released two albums, but then I segued into becoming a composer.” However ‘thenewno2’ didn’t have the appropriate clout as a sell, the moguls of screens large and small decided, so the pair became ‘Paul Hicks and Dhani Harrison’.

Dhani Harrison by Hollie Fernando

At its early stages IN // PARALLEL was created in chunks, in the snippets of downtime between Harrison’s composing work. “And the sheer amount of George Harrison stuff too,” he adds. “The vinyl boxsets, The Dark Horse Years, The Apple Years, The Concert for George, George Fest, the Love show… I have to oversee all of that and it takes up a big portion of the pie. It’s hard to carve out a section of time for myself, I was going a bit mad doing everyone’s artwork. It’s good to be busy, but it’s about finding the time…

“I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me!” he quickly adds, lest he be accused of complaining about a position many artists would kill for. There are, of course, benefits to being so sought-after. “I think when you spend a lot of time writing and composing you kind of double down as an artist. I’ve worked with so many different people, across so many different styles, everyone from Wu Tang to Indian classical musicians, and when you do scores you cross so many styles. It’ll be an Eastern-Western crossover score and you’ll work with Ravi Shankar’s students, or it’ll be a sci fi score and it’s just you in a room with synths. You get thrown these problems you have to solve, and eventually you build a palate of sounds and you can just do it. Collaborating, playing live, all these things led me to the place I am now… It’s just putting in all those hours, like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.”

IN // PARALLEL, he says, is the first time he’s truly refined this experience into a singular force, taken this cornucopia of influences and experiences and honed them into something his own. He has finally, as reads much of the promotional material surrounding the record, ‘found himself’ as an artist. When he began work on the record, an on/off affair that would take almost three years, it was not intended as the statement of solo ambition that it would become. It was planned as simply the next newno2 record, but when he showed his work to Hicks to begin collaboratively shaping it was informed simply, ‘this is already fully formed’.

"Talking about music is a bizarre concept...but if you’re just drawing awareness then people will process it in their own way."

The record, for all the constant interruptions in its making, is a vast work, a deep, opaque sprawl that relishes in widescreen atmospherics. It’s a heavy record, both in sound – somewhere between the industrial thuds of Nine Inch Nails and the eerie, unsettling spaciousness of Portishead – and in content. So turbulent were the years during which Harrison was working on the record, the years of Trump, Brexit and a surging far-right, that it was impossible for his work not to be shaped as a result.

“Things make me feel and I can only express that. Van Gogh said that anyone can paint but not a lot of people can see. Talking about music is a bizarre concept, like that saying about tap dancing to describe architecture, but if you’re just drawing awareness then people will process it in their own way. It’s about observing the world around us.” Although reluctantly so, he acknowledges the artist’s role of inciting the conversation as something of a duty. “It’s kind of a bum deal, but it’s [the artist’s] responsibility. At least if you want to make music that has substance. You’re only as good as your story. If you’ve got something to talk about then you’re more compelling.”

Music, Harrison believes, really does have the power to enforce change. “We’re made of water and vibrating things. Masaru Emoto showed you can make a glass of water go putrid by writing nasty words on it, and you can make it be nice by creating a nice vibration. There are types of music that create better responses, like listening to beautiful classical music will make you feel more rational, or your favourite band might make you feel more emotional. You can definitely change one person at a time.”

It must be difficult, however, to construct any semblance of narrative out of these times. Before Donald Trump was elected last November, Harrison was gearing up to release the record, but on that fateful day of the result he made the decision to return to work. “The world changed overnight. Suddenly the issues I was hinting at got 20 million times worse! You think ‘OK this hole’s not deep enough! We’ve got to jump back in and start digging!’ The bar was set horrifically higher. I’m glad that I wasn’t a month ahead in the process because it would have been a milder record. If you’re trying to reflect your time, and it suddenly gets really gnarly, then your record has to get really gnarly as well.”

“We’ve got to a place where the classic songs, the gripes that people have in songs like love and loss between the ages of 18 and 30 that make up all the classics, they don’t fit any more."

Gnarly is the word. The very title of the album refers to the idea of a sliding doors, of being stuck in the most horrific, and surreal of possible timelines. “At one point we were going this way, now we’re in a bizarre world,” he says. “We’ve got to a place where the classic songs, the gripes that people have in songs like love and loss between the ages of 18 and 30 that make up all the classics, they don’t fit any more. The world is a more complicated place now. There’s going to be more oblique things that you’re going to have to take into account, like that we’ve all got GPS chips, whether we like it or not we’re being tracked or listened to. There’s not so much safety when you’re out and about in the world, there’s a lot more interference and static. I think the glitchiness or complicated nature of it has to be taken into account. We’re the first generation to have all of this stuff, and I think it’s fragmenting us, it’s taking attention span away and placating us.”

There’s shades of Trent Reznor’s penchant for musical annihilation on the record, an incidental parallel, Harrison says, but a relevant one. “I never grew up listening to Nine Inch Nails, it’s only recently that I’ve been listening to them. People always said to me ‘Oh you’re kind of like Nine Inch Nails’ and I took it as a compliment, but I didn’t quite understand it. But then I was playing at a festival where it was us, then A Tribe Called Quest, then Nine Inch Nails, and they were so intense! I nearly had a panic attack, I couldn’t even stay for the whole show. I was like ‘is this what people think of my music?’ I would like people to have that reaction to my music, but only as long as I could bring them back around! I think it was Neil Innes who said ‘I’ve suffered for my music, now it’s your turn!’”

Dhani Harrison by Hollie Fernando

“War On False”, with its shuddering, thumping momentum, is Harrison’s most accomplished articulation of the conceptual clout behind this album, a track to attack the false ideals that no longer serve the 21st century, the falsehoods and abstract concepts to which so many people cling in their attempts to outlast the turbulence of modern times. It was also, he notes, eerily prescient. “The song was actually written before the concept of fake news was everywhere. It was more of a call to be aware that if you’re not standing for something then you’re kind of just taking up space. If you believe in environmental issues, for example, do something about them. People with five million Instagram followers have the ability to do something good. What do you stand for, or are you just taking selfies? It was about people being obsessed with fame, celebrity and reality TV without focussing on what’s actually important as a human. Are we going to actually stand for something? Every time I saw something that I thought was just a waste of space I’d put #WOF next to it, and that just became an expression among my friends. Then when the whole ‘fake news’ thing came out… it was a little too on the nose, a bit too close to a future truth!”

"The human brain is a computer, so if you’re not programming it your way then someone else is going to program it their way."

It’s unfair to refer too often to Harrison’s father – aesthetically they’re miles from each other – yet it must be said there’s a philosophical parallel in the junior’s work with the title track on Brainwashed, the final George Harrison album for which Dhani was a co-producer and contributing musician. He agrees, but adds that “The thing about Brainwashed that not a lot of people got was that the message was ‘go brainwash yourself with positive things. Brainwash yourself with nature, nice healing music or crystals, rather than brainwash yourself with fear.” It’s a philosophy he follows himself.

“I try not to instantly look at my news feed when I wake up until I’ve done something for myself that’s going to set the tone of my day. I meditate, write, do something creative or just have a little walk and look at the sunshine. There’s a place for Instagram and Facebook but we need to be conscious of letting it become the driving force, taking away the humanity, the ability to be creative before you’re instantly stuck in the media pipeline. The human brain is a computer, so if you’re not programming it your way then someone else is going to program it their way. It’s like if you’re trying to learn the violin. If you’re practising badly every day you’re just going to make yourself into a bad violinist. If you’re practising perfectly then when you pick up the violin you’ll be able to play. Practising, brainwashing, it’s all the same thing; repetition.

“I was reading a lot during the process,” he continues, “I got used to seeing patterns, getting a bit witchy! I started to look at the metaphysical side of things, because we all have this experience but really we’re all the same, we all have things that go beyond being in your body. I had to catch up with the last ten years of technology that slipped under the radar and is now being used every day, for us or against us, and kind of doing my homework and looking at where we stand now. I feel like after the last 15 years there’s so much going on in the world that we’ve blinkered ourselves a little bit. We haven’t had the bandwidth to deal with the stuff around the back. Now, let’s take stock, be in nature but look at where we are.”

Dhani Harrison by Hollie Fernando

With all this abstract talk of nature, meditation, freeing oneself from the constrictions of a technology-driven urban life, one might expect his record to be a whimsical, spaced-out affair. It is fortunately not so. There are points where IN // PARALLEL is genuinely merciless, as Harrison dives headfirst into the full-on apocalyptic. Yet in such terror he finds hope. “The word apocalypse doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, one definition is about the revealing of truth. Truth is information that’s hidden coming into the fore on a mass scale. In the place that we’re at right now there’s terrible things happening. We can say we live in an apocalyptic time in the definition of truth being revealed – people are waking up. It’s like the 60s movement but different, more in terms of consciousness. People are becoming more concerned about plastic and waste and fossil fuels. This wasn’t happening years back. There’s a raising of consciousness happening at the moment that I think everyone should get in with, because then the smashing down of old ideals can happen. It’s a tipping point for brighter times ahead.”

There’s a personal side to IN // PARALLEL too. However much Harrison attacks the largest of issues, his approach is informed entirely by his own experiences. Each track, he says was informed by distinct memories, moods and locations. Take “Úlfur Resurrection”, for example, a track that’s ostensibly about the death of Harrison’s dog, but whose themes are extended to become a titanic rumination on loyalty, grief, and life itself. “There’s a certain kindness that you sense when someone’s leaving their body, in that transition. It teaches you a lot about the nature of life, what the important things are. The ‘resurrection’ was more about him bringing me back.”

"At certain points in your life you can feel like you’re spinning your wheels, you’re not in tune with what you should be doing."

It’s in this juxtaposition, the universal approached from the scope of the personal, that makes Dhani Harrison’s debut album such an interesting affair. He calls it a journey in a personal sense, from where he was at the beginning of its creation to where he was now, but it’s a journey that in one way or another we must all embark on in the face of the choppiest political waters that many of us will have faced. “I’ve tuned my radio a bit differently and got a better signal,” the musician says. “I’ve opened my eyes a lot more to the things I can do for myself and for others, and my role. Pulling up your socks and spreading light, trying to get some purchase or traction. At certain points in your life you can feel like you’re spinning your wheels, you’re not in tune with what you should be doing. You feel out of sync with where you should be, not happy with where you are. Sometimes instead of trying to get there you just have to let yourself get in sync, tune yourself in a little bit better.”

So, in these uncertain times, does Dhani Harrison feel content? “That’s the interesting question of the century! The nature of living in the physical world makes us have duality, ups and downs. I think I’m better at navigating that, at helping myself be content. I still have the drive to do things, to accomplish things. I want to get on to the next thing. I’m getting there, baby steps!”

IN///PARALLEL is out now via BMG.
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