Time Warp

Chris Harford and the Band of Changes turn to alt-country for a new album.

By: Daniel Shearer



photo by Daniel Shearer

Chris Harford and the Band of Changes will perform at Small World Coffee in Princeton, N.J., March 6, and John & Peter’s in New Hope April 3.

   After 20 years in the business, Chris Harford stands poised to deliver one of the best recordings of his career.
   His lengthy artistic journey began in his native town of Princeton and took him to Boston, London, Manhattan and back again, with a stop at Elektra Records in the early ’90s that resulted in Be Headed, a triumphant, star-studded collection of original music.
   The album featured contributions from Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, The Proclaimers, irreverent New Hope, Pa., alt-rockers Ween, and more than two dozen other performers, foreshadowing a loose consortium of musicians who would eventually take on the aptly titled moniker the Band of Changes. Just weeks after the release of Be Headed, the project got swamped in the wake of a corporate takeover that left 450 people out of work, including the person who signed Mr. Harford.
   "You think (the big record deal) is the brass ring for all musicians," Mr. Harford says. "What it does is it gives you credibility. You’re on a major label, so somehow you’re legit. And yet, so few of the artists who get in that situation make anything anyway. So what you realize is, ‘What are you doing this for? What’s it all about?’ And it has to be about the songs, the need to write and perform them.

Mr. Harford’s painting, used on the cover of Be Headed, his 1992 release on Elektra Records

   "Sure, I would love to be in a touring band that could play the McCarter Theatres of every town, like Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright. Those are the people I look toward to model any kind of career I could now muster. Those guys have a kind of humility I admire. Richard Thompson played on the record and didn’t even charge me."
   A rough mix of tracks from Mr. Harford’s latest effort, Time Warp Deck, slated for release this spring on his own Soul Selects label, demonstrates that Mr. Harford has indeed bounced back in the last several years, growing stronger in the process. In many ways, it seems Mr. Harford has finally cleared the closets from his Elektra days, coming clean with a collection of music that ranges from optimistic and humorous to deeply confessional.
   Cut at Cowboy Technical Services Recording Rig in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the album took shape with the help of Eric "Rosoe" Ambel, one of the guitarists behind the Joan Jett & The Blackhearts hit "I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll," among others, and a current member of heartland rocker Steve Earle’s band The Dukes.
   "It’s stripped down," says Mr. Harford, speaking of Time Warp Deck. "This is four guys playing live in the studio. It’s more alt-country, because that’s (Mr. Ambel’s) thing, and it’s him being producer, because I’m usually the guy producing my stuff, so it’s nice having someone’s take on my songs. Keith Christopher plays some bass and drums; he was a founding member of The Georgia Satellites and did some time with Humble Pie. Dave Dreiwitz, from Ween, plays bass, too. Shannon Sanderson from Lazlo sings on a tune. And that’s basically it for this outing of the Band of Changes."
   In addition to Mr. Harford’s performance in Ben Katchor’s The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island, a musical theater piece to be performed in Manhattan at The Kitchen on West 19th Street at the end of March, he has two local gigs coming up. On March 6, he’ll present an evening of art and music at Small World Coffee in Princeton, featuring nearly 30 of Mr. Harford’s paintings and drawings, most of them produced in the last five years. To celebrate the opening of the art show, the members of Lazlo, an outfit that dishes out an unusual blend of bluegrass, folk rock and jazz, will perform a set of its own music, after which the group will become the Band of Changes, adding Princeton resident Stephanie Sanders on bass for a set of Harford material.
   On April 3, Mr. Harford and the Band of Changes return to an old New Hope stomping ground, John & Peter’s. The Stockton-based band Fire Season will open the bill.
   Standing in front of a 7-by-4-foot oil painting on wood, the centerpiece of his art exhibit, Mr. Harford points out dozens of postmarked stamps in the work, collected by his father’s secretary at the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics.
   "Letters would come in from all over the world," he says, "and it’s something that she saved for me, for years and years. I don’t remember if it was because I expressed an interest to her, or she just started doing it, but thousands of stamps ended up in boxes, which is why one day I decided that I would like to glue them and use them to represent leaves, or bricks in a building."
   In the painting, the stamps become leaves in a large tree rendered in orange, yellow and black. Several of the stamps from New Zealand lend a metallic sheen to the work when viewed from a distance. Others, like a German stamp depicting Hitler juxtaposed by an Abraham Lincoln stamp, require closer inspection. The exhibit will be his third show at Small World.
   "To me, it’s naive folk art," he says. "I used to love going over to my friend Jacques Hoffmann’s house. His dad is a professor emeritus of Haitian studies at Princeton University, and his house is filled with Haitian art. It was really simple and really colorful, and it had a huge effect on me. And my mom, Millie Harford, also a painter and retired school teacher, came back from the former Yugoslavia and had all this folk art, which I just sort of identified with. So that’s the way I look at it. It’s very basic and simple."
   The tree depicted in the painting is located in the front yard of Stony Brook Studios in Hopewell, run by Ween drummer Claude Coleman Jr., with whom Mr. Harford shared a house during the late ’90s. Mr. Coleman has contributed to many of Mr. Harford’s albums over the years and occasionally performs with the Band of Changes, as well as his own band, Amandla.
   Old desktop calendars also became art under Mr. Harford’s pen, including several examples filled with moody drawings from the mid- to late-’80s, when he performed in a Boston-based band, Three Colors, with drummer Barry Stringfellow, brothers Hub and Max Moore on bass and guitar, respectively, and sax player Dana Colley. During the ’90s, Mr. Colley made waves as a member of the indie-rock band Morphine, while Mr. Harford produced Hub Moore’s eponymous, major-label debut on Slash/London records.
   "We got to be a pretty good band. Then we moved to London and made a video that was on MTV, and we had a couple of independent records," Mr. Harford says. "We all lived together in a house, like the Monkees. It was a row house in south London, kind of the middle of a bleak, why-would-you-ever-go-there part of London, bombed out during the war and rebuilt hastily.
   "We went over there because a guy had written an article about us in ‘NME’ (the U.K.-based music publication) and he became our manager. He signed us to a publishing deal over there, so we went over to live, and he got us an agent. Then when we got over there, the agent fell ill and got out of the business, and the record company went bankrupt. So we were there in this house, basically starting all over again. We played there for about a year, and by the time we came back to Boston we were selling out clubs, like 2,000-seaters."
   Three Colors returned to Boston, then moved to Princeton, living in an old schoolhouse off Route 206 before going separate ways after more than six years. But during Mr. Harford’s time in London, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg told him about a company in Skillman, Hannibal/Carthage Records, that was reissuing records from the Island label, including albums from Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Nick Drake. He landed a job in the Hannibal/Carthage mailroom.
   "They had a 20,000-member mailing list," Mr. Harford says, "and people would order the records, and CDs were starting to come out. So there were all these tapes and records in a garage, and I discovered all this amazing music. Then they started getting into world music, Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band, and I worked my way up to being the marketing and promotions director of that little company."
   Mr. Harford spent two years with Hannibal/Carthage before it was bought out by Rykodisc. By then, he had saved enough money to make demos, recorded over several years with Adam Lasus at Studio Red in Philadelphia and Greg Frey at Graphic Sound Studios in Ringoes. Moving to Manhattan, Mr. Harford became a regular at CBGB’s, the birthplace of The Ramones, Talking Heads and many other top-tier bands.
   "I must have played (at CB’s) a gazillion times," Mr. Harford says. "They were giving me good gigs, and when the time came to get noticed by the industry, or whatever it was, it snowballed really quickly. Then all these labels were interested. The whole thing lasted not even 15 minutes. It was, like, three and a half minutes or something, from inception, to making the record with Elektra, to it being over.
   "The whole thing was pretty intense. They put the record out, and then a month later, the Time Warner takeover happened. It was the beginning of the big takeovers, and then the new regime came in. So it was kind of over, right away."
   Elektra isn’t the end of the story, though. In fact, the mid- to late-’90s brought a series of clean, meticulously produced recordings from Mr. Harford, among them, a double CD, Band of Changes, and two other albums, Comet and Wake, followed by Sing, Breathe & Be Merry, a collection of songs from 1989 to 2002, and Live at CBGB’s Gallery, an acoustic duet featuring percussionist Sim Cain.
   Stylistically, the music varies from mellow, blissful lap-steel lullabies, to forceful walls of distortion. Mr. Harford’s voice is often gravelly, sometimes breathy as he floats into falsetto.
   Mr. Harford beams at the suggestion he is an audiophile.
   "I really do care about that stuff," he says, "and I still can hear the difference between analog and digital, whereas most people don’t care or notice. Over the years I have tried try to record as often as possible, if it means on a little tape deck or a big studio.
   "You try to get as much done as possible, still trying to experiment but realizing that a song is just a snapshot. Sometimes I feel like it’s more successful than others, but still wanting it to sound clean. Warm. That’s the parallel I see in the paintings. To me, they create a warm sort of mood. Maybe the songs will do that too."
Chris Harford will present a night of music and art at Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon St., Princeton, March 6, 8:30-10:30 p.m. Free admission. Lazlo opens. Mr. Harford’s art will be on view through March. For information, call (609) 924-4377. On the Web: www.smallworldcoffee.com; Mr. Harford and the Band of Changes also will perform at John & Peter’s, 96 S. Main St., New Hope, Pa., April 3. Music starts at 9:30 p.m. Admission costs $6. For information, call (215) 862-5981. Chris Harford on the Web: www.chrisharford.com