Openly inspired by, or rather – released as an immediate artistic reaction to the globally impactful murder of George Floyd – San Francisco’s Harlow’s Monkeys lead with nineties acoustic nostalgia and heartfelt, intimate empathy on this thoughtful new single Fresh Terror Machine.
Rising up from simple beginnings, the easy strum of an acoustic guitar, a vocal that meanders in a soft-rock, emo-esque manner for a freestyle-inspired verse, towards the more folk-pop-soaked rhythm and multi-layered embrace of a colourful yet heartbreaking hook, Fresh Terror Machine addresses the connection between the individual and the mass media or governmental machines that oversee and control all that we witness and experience.
The song is something of slow burner, and rightly so – to listen and allow the changing stages of the track, its poetic honesty and raw, real presentation, to really connect, is to see the true intricacies and injustices that all of us have become so unavoidably aware of in recent times.
Despite the joyful, calming nature of the music – the voice, the melody, the live aspect that we’ve all been missing this year – there’s very little to look forward to if the lyrics are to be let in. ‘No one is free if one man can’t breathe…‘ opens things up in a poignant way, and things grow all the more engaging and provocative as the song goes on.
Powerful, beautiful, heartbreaking – a bold reminder of all that we have seen and learned and reacted to this year; and what so many face every day of their lives. Well worth a listen.
Fresh Terror Machine is obviously a harrowing and lamenting track, but your take in this song on how George Floyd’s death affected you personally is very genuine. If you are able to, tell us how you felt in the days and weeks after this history changing event.
The song literally came out pretty much fully written the morning after it happened. I remembered just being peripherally aware of the murder while browsing social media, and at some point my heart registered what really happened.
I think its hard to digest the news at the speed its coming to you, but this event struck something deep within me, and obviously within many other people as well. Maybe I was channeling the collective grief that many people were feeling. Maybe the cruelty of the footage made real something that’s typically very abstract to a lot of people who aren’t system impacted. George Floyd’s killing unfortunately isn’t something new in the continuum of American history. And many other people of color have fallen victim to the state and systematic racism since then.
I work for an organization that records and disseminate commentaries from prisoners, so I am familiar with the systematic cruelty that black people in particular face. Yet the visceral image of George Floyd’s death and the flurry of bad news that continues til now makes me feel overwhelmed and exhausted from going online. Its a mixture of shock, outrage, numbness, sadness, and again just pure exhaustion.
The Fresh Terror Machine is the technology that relentlessly beams bad news into our heads and I think the challenge for getting through these tough times is to moderate the usage said machines. Obviously it’s easier said than done, given the addictive design of our phones and the internet.
The song on one hand is mourning the loss of a life, but also brings into question how to responsibly consume the information that’s coming towards us at light speed. I don’t think our brains are wired to handle this much bad news, so how do we balance sanity and staying informed. That seems to be the challenge that a lot of us are facing.
We noticed the artwork has a virus particle on it, bringing to a head the two most traumatizing events of 2020. How did covid, and perhaps the lack of normal social interactions this year, affect this track?
The artwork is a collage that I made to capture a sense of mechanized dread. The central image is a meat smoker from an ad for bacon, and COVID originated from the wet markets of wu-han. As a non-meat eater, this juxtaposition makes perfect sense because it is our industrialization of meat and disregard for life that created COVID, and several other deadly viruses of the past, and if left unchecked will result even more deadly viruses. Those ideas encapsulate the sense of low level hum of stress that has permeated 2020.
I recorded vocals and guitar in one take and my partner, Amanda Salguero, added bass and harmonies. I sent the track to my friends Josh Johnson for banjo, and Brian Dewar who added shaker with their own recording setup, and they emailed it back to me. Although its a very sparse song, it felt important for me to have my friends contribute to alleviate the sense of musical loneliness I’ve been feeling. Typically I’d just invite them over and we’d make a day of recording and coming up with ideas, but that just wasn’t possible.
You’ve mentioned that Fresh Terror Machine is not necessarily a political song by nature, more of just a human one. Expand on this a little more.
One problem with our current public discourse is that the meaning of words have been diluted. Especially in the realm of politics: Somewhere along the way, universal healthcare equals communism. Somehow the statement “black lives matter” is a calling card for radical leftism. What I mean by “politicized” is that certain things shouldn’t be subjected to partisanship. The cultural zeitgeist that gave rise to Trumpism benefits greatly from politicizing things that shouldn’t be politicized in the first place.
Wearing mask and social distancing during a pandemic should not be political statement. Certain things shouldn’t be attributed to the left or to the right because we can’t have conversations about public policies if we can’t agree that the virus is in fact dangerous and not a hoax. Of course in a more abstract sense, all things are political, but I’m specifically referring to partisan politics.
This song is an attempt to bypass these political triggers and just get straight to the heart of it: A man was murdered by suffocation on camera, the murderer got away with it. Is this the world we want to live in?
Your songwriting style seems to be a blend of folk and indie, tuneful and personal while being textured and melodic. Who are some of your songwriting influences?
Artist that were formative to my aesthetic are The Tallest Man On Earth, Bright Eyes, Wilco, Dawes, Jenny Lewis, and Death Cab for Cutie. Basically the indie rock giants of the mid 2000’s. I really love songs that tell stories, and have a point. I like songs where I can walk away from with new ideas about the world. And so that’s what I strive for with my writing.
I also really love abstract ethereal music like Sigur Ros precisely because they’re the opposite. I can’t understand a damn word in their songs, but the emotion is so palpable. I try to blend those ideas in my production.
Since I’m not in transit a lot these days, and am working from home, I find myself listening to music that isn’t lyrical because words are so distracting. I have a healthy dose of Bill Evans, Chopin, and Satie kicking around in my head these days.
What role does San Francisco play in your music? What do you like most about living there?
San Francisco is a beautiful city, I’ve been living here for almost 10 years now, and I just turn 31 so a good third of my life has been here. The San Francisco music community is very welcoming; when I first started going to the open mics around 2012 it felt like I had found a secret group of weirdos who were into sharing and indulging their personal feelings as much as I did.
The friendships I made from music are unlike any other relationships, because it is based on sharing deeply personal creative expressions. What we have in common is inherently very intimate and that allows for what I think as a much more authentic friendship. Many of my best friends these days are people I’ve met through music.
Asides from the people, the city itself is a huge source of inspiration – the kaleidoscope of lives, the different ways people choose to live – it really helps me keep an open mind. You can’t really be convinced that your way of existing is the correct way when you’re surrounded by people who choose to live in their car, in the park, or people who take risks and open up coffee shops, or people who have vastly different ideas of intimate relationships, or those who want to create the next superstar tech start up. These are all valid ways of existing, and living in this city, I’ve come to enjoy all of it and not take what I’m doing so seriously.
What can we expect from you next, and what do you have planned for 2021?
I’m in a group of four-track cassette enthusiasts who over the month of September took on the challenge of trying to record an EP without using computers. I really liked the way those songs came out so I released them. The E.P is titled When I Wake From My Butterfly’s Dream. Its out now, and I really enjoyed the whimsical and tangible process of working with tape.
I honestly don’t know what to expect for 2021, I would love to work out my performance muscles which have severely atrophied in 2020. Hopefully we can have safe ways to performing shows again because I sincerely miss being able to connect with people through music.
I’ve done a handful of livestream shows and its very dissatisfying for me, I really don’t like it. I love being in a room with folks. So hopefully that’ll be possible in 2021. I’m pretty whimsical about releasing music so I might release a full length next year or I might drop 5 EP’s. Who knows? The two things I do want out of 2021 for sure would be hugs and collaboration.
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Download the single via Bandcamp.