Dhani Harrison discusses self-reflection, glass-shattering gigs, Nostradamus powers, AI de-mixing, and his sophomore record ‘INNERSTANDING’ with Atwood Magazine’s Aidan Moyer.
Text and Illustrations by Aidan Moyer
Stream: ‘INNERSTANDING’ – Dhani Harrison
I love that Superman book you’ve got there, I’ve got the same one! Weighs a ton.
Dhani Harrison catches me off guard.
I’ve been prepped for this conversation from all angles: A deep-dive into his discography, beginning with theNewno2 in 2006, through the side trio Fistful of Mercy and his 2017 solo debut, In//Parallel; a comprehensive viewing of every film he’s soundtracked, including the Ben Kingsley vehicle “Learning to Drive” and a documentary on installation artist Shepard Fairey; two months of listening to his latest project, INNERSTANDING (one of Atwood Magazine‘s Best Albums of the Year) on a cycle.
Yet as we Zoom from his home in rural England, we compare notes on the weather-“cold and damp” in Philly, too-and shoot the breeze about the Superman memorabilia in my studio. We both appreciate the classic version of the character, played by Christopher Reeve – as it turns out, an old friend of the Harrisons.
“I roomed with his son, Matt, in university. We both look a lot like our dads. Chris was a major inspiration after his accident, he became like Professor X and even starred in a remake of Rear Window.”
Henry Cavill, we agree, is far too bulky for Clark Kent, “but we both collect Warhammer models! I just collected them to paint ‘em.”
This charming diversion is the perfect primer for our half-hour discussion on his sophomore record.
Harrison occasionally goes on enthused tangents but never wavers in his earnestness, offering humor, passion and insight informed by decades honing his craft and spirituality. It is this sensibility that permeates the sonic palette of INNERSTANDING, a record that is at once an intimate personal meditation and a cascade of synths and pleas for deliverance from ‘megatech and the coroner.’
Harrison teams with Blur’s Graham Coxon, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, and frequent collaborator Mereki to round out his moody, infectious choruses that take the form of mantras. Recurring animals record – ’Downtown Tigers’ and ‘Wolves Around the City,’ and nautical motifs on ‘Ahoy There’ dialogue with the previous record to continue a tapestry Dhani Harrison has been weaving for decades, since collaborating with his father George on the masterpiece, “Brainwashed.”
What follows is our mostly unabridged and illustrated conversation, touching on his early career, the importance of album art, AI de-mixing, and the perils of a technocratic reality.
A CONVERSATION WITH DHANI HARRISON
I know it's been six years since the debut record, In//Parallel, because six years ago I was a freshman in college. And that summer “All About Waiting” came out and I just listened to it over and over and over again because that's a transitional song. I was transitioning into college at Pratt, about 20 minutes away from your debut solo gig at Knitting Factory. And I hadn't ridden the subway by myself, but I was like, “I could probably figure this out.” I got there like four hours early and I made sure I was right in the front row. And I was super excited because I got a picture. And you were looking at the camera.
Dhani Harrison: Ah, nice.
But all my friends said, “He looks kind of pissed off in the picture.” So my first question and I'm holding it up here, do you remember being pissed at the dude in the front row? Because that was me. And if so…
Dhani Harrison: No, I think I was trying to get my in-ear monitors working or something. There was feedback in my ears or something. This was the first gig of the tour. So I think, I think we had a, it was quite a wild gig because I couldn’t really hear what was going on.
I remember the room was rattling. It's a very intimate space. And there's all that, like, electronic stuff. And the walls were shaking…
Dhani Harrison: We did a show in Seattle for the record showcase. You get all the big buyers and those online Point-Of-Sales people. People come out and they all have their own music division, and they come to the show. And we did this show on a boat in Seattle. It was moored in the lake, this big boat that’s like a party boat. And I remember just playing, er…We were playing something like #Waronfalse. And I just heard the sound of just breaking glass! [laughs] There was a really nice posh, Victorian bar with all the glassware, and then glasses hanging in a little rack kind of thing. And they just rattled…I just played the guitar solo. And it just rattled all the glasses. And the bartender was going like this [ducks] and they were just falling off the shelves. “Uhh, sorry!” It was… When you say things are rattling, that was quite noisy. I’ve got that Twin Reverb amp, which is just so loud. Fender!
Some of the songs on the new record, like “I.C.U.” is the one I'm thinking of, that sound like you could have just written it on an acoustic, but there's so much synth stuff too.
Dhani Harrison: Yeah, I think I wrote that one on like a Fender Rhodes keyboard. And so out there somewhere there’s a Fender Rhodes just ‘me and a keyboard’ version of it. I did that one the same time as I was doing Motorways, which was this sort of random single that I put out with John Bates from Big Black Delta. And that one was in between albums and I wanted to come back to it. So I’m glad I finally got around to finishing that one off. I’m just about [done]doing a music video for that one, I think, which will come out in the spring when the vinyl comes out. I’ve seen the vinyl, we got a test one and it looks fantastic.
So, [with] my OCD, like you know it has to look as good as the original. Like the debut vinyl and the two, when you put them together they’re like a set. Different. Same fonts, but different colored foiling. Yeah, I’m super OCD about all that sort of stuff. Because now that I’m – wot, I’ve been running Dark Horse for God knows how long, but just got so many good artists that I get a chance to like have input into the design.
We’ve done like 80 releases, so probably about 40 vinyls and maybe probably 80 digital in the last year and a half. So everything from Cat Stevens to Joe Strummer to Leon Russell… [recently] we managed to license one of my favorite records. So we’ve got, I listen to it every day. It’s a limited edition pink vinyl… It’s fantastic.
Oh, man, that's phenomenal, because that's another thing I was going to ask you. I know you have a visual arts background, and obviously I love all the artwork and I'm studying it. And on the previous record, there's like that pinecone sort of graphic. And then on this one, there's that rune…
Dhani Harrison: That, yeah, it’s the rune called, I guess Ægishjálmur, which kind of directly translates as magic helmet or “Helm of Awe.” It was a Viking battle rune; I thought it was quite appropriate for this time that we’re living in right now because it’s “get out of my face” kind of magic, you know? It’s like a “keep protective in all directions,” but that said, it paralyzes the enemy. It’s one of those things that’s… Irresistibility, I think, is the spell. I think that the pinecone obviously is a symbol, you look at it through all religions as the mind opening, so there was pictures of it closed and pictures of the open in the graphics. And it’s something about masks.
I was obsessed with…this mask figure, which was like me as a samurai mask in the [first] record. But it was funny how that just like a year later, everyone’s in masks. It was weird. All of the lyrics and everything on that record kind of came true. So I feel like this record is kind of like, there was the one from the Before Times warning you about stuff, and then there’s the [current] one where it’s like, “Too late to wise up. I hope you’ve done the work.” It’s that kind of ‘We’re Here Now’-type sentiment.
That is perfect, because I was just thinking about on the first record, there was #WaronFalse, which was right before #fakenews and all that.
Dhani Harrison: Fake news! Yeah, it was as if I was writing the news with all the records, and then All About Waiting and Admiral of Upside Down, which happened before Stranger Things.
Yeah, that's wild. And…
Dhani Harrison: It kind of blew my mind… I’d moved kind of out of the city. And I was living on the coast north of L.A. and I was by myself in this house near the ocean. And it was like all of this stuff just came to me and it came like, fully formed. And it was like I was hearing it and I was just writing it down. But all of that, like, I don’t know why I was singing ‘It’s not like it used to be.’ And when I went back, I just played two shows in England. I performed the whole-it was actually the nerdiest show, you would have really liked it- We did the whole of the first album in chronological order, and then we did the whole of the second album in chronological order. And it was really, that was the first time I’ve done that. And it was like, “wow, they actually dovetail together really nicely.” And because they’re both cyclical, you can start them straight away from the end into the beginning. The first one ends with the ‘bom bom bom’ and then [the second one] starts again with ‘womp womp womp,’ you know? And the second one ends with that weird meltdown, ‘Wolves Around The City’ and then goes back straight into ‘Dangerous Lies.’ It works that way, so you can just kind of leave them on. But hearing them in a row was really…It tripped me out because it was like the foreshadowing of the first record of what happened in between those two records[it] was pretty far out. Like it was pretty bang on.
Yeah, I mean, you have sort of this Nostradamus thing, because honestly…
Dhani Harrison: [laughs] I’m going to stop writing about horrible things, I promise!
Yeah. Because, the “Right Side of History” on this one, I have not heard that phrase more often than in the last two months. Over and over all, you know, doomscrolling…
Dhani Harrison: I know, and it was like “I wrote that two years ago!” Exactly. And recorded it. Very funny. It is true, though, even the Innerstanding title, it’s like “if you force your opinions on other people, you’re Overstanding. And if you’re being forced upon you’re Understanding,” which is why police require you to ‘understand them,’ [mock policeman voice] “Do you understand me?” You know, and… Innerstanding is to comprehend only from a place of love and detachment. So you’re neither forcing your opinion on anyone, nor are you being forced to understand anything. And so, I think that, in conjunction with the phrase “right side of history,” it’s like, well, if you don’t want to end up on the [wrong] side of history, then you can only come at things from an Innerstanding and from a place of love as opposed to fear. [Then] you won’t end up on the wrong side of history. And if you do, it doesn’t matter what people choose, what their beliefs are in any way, shape or form. If you don’t cast it, love is the absence of judgment, and judgment is the absence of love. So if you come at it from a place of love, you’ll always end up on the right side of history.
Dhani Harrison: I think that’s the way that I try and live my life now. It’s just because we’ve all got to be able to understand that even if we’re all different and we all believe different things and we all make different choices for ourselves, that doesn’t mean we can’t all love each other. Someone else’s belief system shouldn’t threaten my belief system. And knowing what you are and knowing yourself… and that’s the thing, a lot of people don’t really know themselves. And so they’re very easily manipulated.
If you’re not healed, if you’re not doing the work to actually dig up all the things, the dark parts of yourself that you have to kind of learn to be with, then you’re an easy person to manipulate. So well-healed people, it’s like… governments and media, they don’t want well-healed people because they’re very hard to manipulate.
Love is the absence of judgment, and judgment is the absence of love. So if you come at it from a place of love, you’ll always end up on the right side of history.
So even on a song like “Choose What You're Watching,” you've been writing about this stuff for a long time. And to me, because I went back, I listened to the earlier stuff for this interview, did the through-line. And it's like the cacophony and the drive on the music grows. The themes are similar, but the dissonance just grows, more and more. Do you feel like you're drawing from the same well as you were back then, just with the benefit of hindsight and understanding yourself better? Or is it…
Dhani Harrison: I think so. I think always, my goal is to try and draw awareness to some of these ludicrous situations. And there was a period when I was hanging out with my dad and we were making a record called Brainwashed, and it’s like, well, “turns out that’s a thing.” And if you listen to the lyrics of [Brainwashed], that couldn’t be more appropriate now. Thenewno2 was kind of a continuation of that song. And Ollie and I worked on the record and the album cover, and we actually did all the photos for the album cover. And that’s why it’s just a dummy crash dummy holding a television, you know what I mean? It’s like that…the cover of Brainwashed kind of became our manifesto, which was, “Let’s just… we’ve got to draw attention to how silly this is and how people don’t realize, like, ‘we’re going to end.’”
And Thenewno2 is ahead of its time. We knew that we were going to end up in this position probably in about 20 years from now, where. You know, shit’s going to start getting really weird and…I remember, like 4 or 5 years ago, getting AI Phone calls, you know? And before anyone knew about AI and being like, “this is an AI, this is AI probing my brain. It’s trying to… it’s cold calling me on the phone to see if it can pass the Turing Test,” you know. And. People were like, “No, you’re mad. You’re insane.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I got called by an AI today, and it started recording bits of my voice and playing it back to me!” And I had a few friends who had it happen to them and they were like, “Oh, I thought my dad was having a stroke because he kept saying the same thing over and over again. And then I realized it was a machine that was just using bits of his voice,” you know. And we were like, “What is this strange new level of Hell that we’ve reached?” And then, sure enough, AI comes out…you’re like, “Oh, it’s not just come out.” It’s been out forever. It’s just weird now we’re ‘getting it,’ you know? So there’s a weird stuff that’s been out there, and I feel like Thenewno2 was all about calling out future tech that was probably going to be interfering with our lives. And so, someone said the other day, “Oh, how come your new album is so much more militant than your old stuff?” I was like, “You must have never listened to Thenewno2!”
Dhani Harrison: Because I was like, because it’s not…it’s just a continuation. I just feel like…you know, Olly [Hecks] and I, who started Thenewno2 with me, we were kind of like a Charlie Brooker, Chris Morris combination. You know what I mean? They go off [to]make things by themselves, and then they’d come together and make these kind of really cynical Black Mirror kind of stuff. So Thenewno2 is kind of like a musical Black Mirror before Black Mirror. If you haven’t watched it, you should watch a show called Nathan Barley. And it was one season and it came out in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, and it was written by Brooker and Morris, and it had the two guys from Mighty Boosh in it, and so many famous people are in it as their first show.
But it’s… it’s one of those shows that to this day is still relevant. I just feel like that kind of humor, you know what I mean? But yet writing stuff for this new record, there’s just so much ridiculous stuff to write about these days. That’s why “Dangerous Lies” is like, “Okay, well, there’s your manifesto for the year 2022, 2020.” And you can say all of that stuff is a lie or it’s misinformation or whatever, but… Well, then who’s controlling the misinformation bots? So it’s messed up either way you look at it, even if it’s all false. The fact that it’s still there for us to believe.
And I love this whole thing where now TV channels and governments are all getting their own Ministry of Truth. You know, BBC did it recently. They were like, [mock newscaster affectation] “and this is BBC Fact. We can guarantee you now that… believe us now!” Now you know it’s [true] because we’ve got a minister, we’ve got a lady in charge of disinformation now!” It’s like, “Of course. Course. Yeah. Great. Good story, bro.”
Oh, my God. I feel so validated right now because one of the first things I thought of when I heard this record, it kind of sounds like “Brainwashed by computers, brainwashed by mobile phones, brainwashed by the satellite, brainwashed to the bone.” I'm like, “Am I reading too much into this?” But you said, “No, that's exactly it.” And I'm roughly as old as “Brainwashed,” just to think about how in 20 years…the fact that as an illustrator, it frightens me so much. People are passing around, you know, doctored photos and doctored illustrations and everyone's like, Oh, “This is so, so beautiful.” I'm like, “they have six fingers…”
Dhani Harrison: Or it’s like, yeah, when you start seeing people turning up in your feed in Instagram and you know that they’re not real. Yeah, that’s not a real person. That’s an AI person, you know?
And then artists who are just AI artists now, it’s like, “Are you really an artist” or are you just [air quotes]… Yeah, exactly. So, it’s definitely a very strange time.
There’s good AI, too. There’s good stuff. I’m using musical AI to de-mix things and sync things and remove noise from old tapes. And that’s great. I love all of that stuff. That’s like a handy tool. But I think that I sort of move back to the forest and try not to… I’m debating leaving social media, but it’s obviously this classic argument where it’s like, “It’s a tool that I use to sell records or to make people aware of my music.” But I think I’ll just let an AI do that for me now. And then I can have more time chopping wood and doing all the important stuff.
Yeah, that makes sense. There's a lot of pearl-clutching over, like, Peter Jackson using the MAL system that people say, “That's not real music.” It's like, “No, it's to take the tape hiss off” or “there's piano.”
Dhani Harrison: Yeah, that was MAL. People got confused about that. They thought MAL was generating John’s voice. It was not generating John’s voice at all. That was all from a tape. And they would never have done that. Like, no way [the Beatles] would have done that ever. But people misinterpreted that. I actually used the MAL machine myself. I was mucking about with it when I was out in New Zealand. I de-mixed Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys. Because all of those things are done on MPCs, right? So there was no way of mixing them in ATMOS. So because they’re all stereo, there was no way of extracting the audio because it was done through an MPC and then…you put it through MAL, it just rips it apart. And even the record samples that Mario C’s scratching and cutting, it will pull those records, which were only ever in stereo for the Beastie Boys. It’ll pull those into about 16 tracks of drums. So like, you can turn off the hi-hat in your old sample. Like, “What?” That’s when it’s crazy.
And I sat there and they were having trouble identifying all the different bits. So I said, “Well, Mario C, that’s a sample of the organ like [a Wendy Carlos’] “Switched on Bach” kind of vibe, but like [an] organ version of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Minor. And I actually confirmed it. I was like, “that sounds like Rachmaninoff prelude in C Minor but chopped up on an organ.” And I asked Mike D and I said, “Is that… am I correct?” And he said, “yeah, Ad-Rock had played it into an SP 1200 and then was playing all the different bits.” So MAL is actually incredible. It gives you the ability to dissect anything. It’s like a magnifying glass.
It's a long way even from, like, Rock Band…
** Dhani was involved in the development of The Beatles: Rock Band and Rock Band 3, which used isolated ‘stems’ of each instrument to simulate playing along with different parts of the original recordings. **
So, this is going to be a selfish question. There was a Spotify contest for Motorways, and you were giving away a guitar and I won the guitar.
Dhani Harrison: No way!
Yes, it's been sitting very nicely with the Om sticker on it and your Newno2 drawing on the pickguard…
Dhani Harrison: I’m very happy for you.
Yes! I've never won anything before. And that was like the perfect thing to win. So I've been too intimidated to play this thing for whatever it is, four years. So what's the first thing that you learned? Like, where should I start?
Dhani Harrison: I learned guitar by listening to Buddy Holly. You know, it’s just the same with AC/DC. It’s only three chords. You can play all Buddy Holly songs. Go find a nice Buddy Holly record and go strum along and just get used to changing the, just bash it out. Go play along with some Joe Strummer, have a thrash, you know, there’s no wrong way of doing it.
Excellent. That's funny, the manager of the Clash yelled at me one time. We were in a library together and he said I was being too loud. The manager of the Clash couldn't handle the noise!
Dhani Harrison: No, no. [laughs]
Well, I mean, thank you so much for having this conversation.
Dhani Harrison: Well, thanks for being so caring about the music and the art and everything. I really appreciate it. And I hope this goes really well for your magazine. If there’s any way of getting a scan of that drawing, I’d love to see it.
100%, yes! Thank you so much.
Dhani Harrison: All right. All the best, peace.
— — — —
© Aidan Moyer
:: Stream Dhani Harrison ::