"Around here, nobody knows who I am, but I'm in a couple of magazines over there," says Hanna (Warren Harris), a local drum 'n' bass and techno artist, as he points to the shelf of periodicals across the aisle at an Akron Barnes and Noble, where we've met for coffee. "And my records are on the charts in France."
Given that Harris lives in Akron and rarely performs in the region, he shouldn't expect to be well known on his home turf. After all, you have to really search to find his records, which have come out on a host of labels based in places such as Japan, Finland, and France. But with the release of Scarlet Manifesto, his debut for the New York-based imprint Shadow Records, Harris will finally have wide distribution. Not that he imagines it will change his notoriety, or lack thereof, in Northeast Ohio.
"I don't really listen to house and electronic music," he admits, looking stylish in a black leather jacket, thick-rimmed glasses, and a knit turtleneck. "I'm more of a musician and into the harmonics. I'm more into the blood of the music than the lifestyle. I'm more of an artist. I'm not into it from the dance perspective. I'm into the chords and real deep stuff."
Not everyone is oblivious to Harris and his skills -- it's his day off (he works at Sam Ash, selling music equipment), but he's still busy fielding calls on his cell phone from a customer who's trying to learn how to operate a sampler he recently purchased.
"These cats spend $1,500 on a piece of equipment, and I just try to help them use it," he says.
Harris, who grew up in Shaker Heights, but was bussed over to the West Side to attend high school, says he had a choice to make when he was a teenager. He could learn to play music, or he could play sports. Inspired by his mother, who sang in the Cleveland Orchestra chorus, he chose music, and his dedication to practicing early on meant that his life was different from that of most teenagers.
"It was kind of a hermit-like existence," he says. "You gotta practice while everybody else is out playing. For punishment, I remember my parents took my bass and put it in the attic. They told me to go outside, 'cause I used to play [the bass] so much. I played like eight hours a day."
In the mid-'80s, while still in high school, Harris joined a heavy metal band called Tempest. Along with acts such as Black Death, Breaker, and King's Ransom, Tempest was part of a thriving local metal scene, playing at clubs such as Peabody's and "some theater on Lorain."
Harris was even featured in Guitar Player magazine.
"It was a good experience for me, playing in bars when I was 16," Harris recalls, adding that being an African American in a genre dominated by white males wasn't a hindrance. "We didn't see color, man. There was a cat in the band -- his mother was white, and his father was black. I always just thought he was a white guy. I had no idea. The other cat was white, and I just practically lived over at his house. It was just a fun, free time. I used to live on the West Side, and somebody spit on me one time, but that was the only problem I ever had."
After Tempest dissolved in the late '80s, Harris took time off from music altogether to "grow up and find himself." He says it was during this period that he "found God."
"It's a time when I think you have to almost go out into the desert, man. I was just reading and learning. The church I went to was a bad experience, but I still learned a lot."
After meeting two local DJs, Dan Curtin and Mike Filly, in the mid-'90s, Harris started experimenting with electronic compositions and sampling. His first single, "Freshglow," was released on Curtin's Metamorphic label in 1998. Since then, Harris has recorded at a steady pace, releasing singles on small dance labels such as Sublime, Paper, Headspace, and Nepenta. He says Scarlet Manifesto isn't indicative of his work, which tends more toward techno than drum 'n' bass and includes a mix of live instrumentation and sampled beats. For his show at Touch Supper Club (which is part of a relatively new monthly electronic series called "Shift"), Harris will play bass and keyboards to accompany his recorded songs, which he will manipulate with a sampler. He's not planning to use a turntable and says the set will likely not be as dark and hard as Scarlet Manifesto, which opens with an aggressive track called "Plagues (Bio Terrorism)" and doesn't let up until the closing songs, "Devotion" and "Dove."
"That's the direction the label wanted to go," Harris says when asked about the fierce breakbeats. "When they first approached me, I gave them a lot of ambient drum 'n' bass tracks, and it turned into a darker release. But most of everything I do has a positive, spiritual edge. This is more like the New Testament, where it's about the rough stuff, with Revelations and its references to plagues and terrorism. My whole mindset is on that spiritual thing."
Harris, who also plays in a band called Key of Soul with Curtin, says he plans to keep a pace of recording a single every two months. A track of his will be featured on the forthcoming Shadow compilation Hard Sessions, and in the next month he's got singles coming out on the Finnish label Lumi and the San Francisco imprint Panhandle.
"I'm happy with what I'm doing now," he says. "Hopefully, it will keep snowballing. I'm not all that huge yet. I'm just trying to make good music and hope things will happen. A friend of mine went to Japan and saw my album in the window of a Tower Records. It's just here that I'm not known, which is cool, because I can just focus on making music."
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