INTERVIEW: Mike Harpring on Drumming, the Punk Community, and Time Travel!

Pictured above: Mike Harpring starts a band with Mr. Satan the cartoon devil snake.

In the late part of the 20th Century and earliest part of the 21st Century, Mike Harpring was a central figure in the local scene. He was a member of bands like Sister Helen Prejudice and Bodyhammer, was involved with the Brycc House, Brat Magazine, and the local chapter of the ARA. He put together the infamous 540 Fest in 1999, which is certainly a story worth reading. In his early 20’s (or at least as I recall), Harpring moved Bloomington, IN where he joined the band Good Luck, while working on a degree in art at IU. Nowadays he lives in Philadelphia, PA, where I’m assured it’s always sunny, and has been playing with the band Harry and the Potters. They’re playing here this upcoming Thursday at Modern Cult, so you can check them out there for yourself.

Never Nervous: Tell us your musical resume. Where did you start, where have you been, and where are you going.

Mike Harpring: I started playing music in middle school with Corey Lyons. We formed Bodyhammer along with Andy Schanie when I was 16, and ended up putting out a demo tape and a CD through Noise Pollution Records in the three years I was with the band. We also did two short east coast tours, which got me hooked on touring in the DIY punk world. Sister Helen Prejudice and Internecine were two other bands I played with in Louisville. A few years later I joined a band called K10 Prospect in Bloomington, Indiana. Though we only put out a CD EP, we managed to tour extensively through the midwest, east and west coasts during the summers of 2002 and 2003. Aside from some secret conceptual side projects which I can’t reveal, I didn’t really play seriously until Good Luck started in 2007. We were most active for the following four years and put out two albums and toured through the US as well as the UK and Ireland during this time.

Another band I played in while living in Bloomington was called Universe – we played a weird blend of indie and hardcore/fantasy metal with violins and harp. We put out a full-length and toured a few times in the two short years we were active. I started playing with Harry and the Potters three years ago. I’m not the “official” drummer, but they’ve continually called on me since I started, and have taken me all across the US as well as Sweden and the UK.

Since I moved to Philly I’ve played drums on a few different friends’ recordings – namely Spoonboy and The Goodbye Party, though I also drummed on the Bepstein Show’s soon-to-be-released album. In the past six months I’ve been working on two newer projects that I’ve had a creative role in – Year of Glad and Boy Kiss. Both bands just recorded, and both bands have plans to tour and play out. These projects are exciting and there’s a lot of positive energy and optimism surrounding them. I hope I keep doing more of the same in the future – playing with friends and writing songs and traveling to crazy places to play them.

“I hope I keep doing more of the same in the future – playing with friends and writing songs and traveling to crazy places to play them.”

NN: How have you evolved as a musician since you started? How would you define your sound as a drummer? What about as an instrumentalist?

MH: I came from a musical family where good music was always on the stereo and where playing and learning instruments was encouraged. I also spent a lot of time going to my dad’s band practices and gigs when I was a kid, which helped me romanticize the idea of playing in a band. I learned saxophone when I was 10 and played in school band for five years, and I learned drums, guitar and bass on my own when I was 13. When I started taking drums seriously I only wanted to play in loud, abrasive bands, so at the time playing fast and hitting hard were my main goals – Bodyhammer was a perfect outlet for that. When Good Luck formed, I approached our songs with that same mindset, but was challenged to play more dynamically and experiment with a different level of technical playing. On later Good Luck songs, I started simplifying what I played, and focused on steady, solid rhythm and well-placed fills. I think this defines my drumming now, or at least what I strive for. But I don’t know… I played with Jason Anderson once and he said I was a real maniac. Maybe that was a good thing? Either way, the longer I play the more I see there’s room for improvement.

As an instrumentalist and song-writing contributor, I’ve always been comfortable suggesting ideas for parts and song arrangements to my bandmates. How I contribute depends on the project I’m working on and how much those contributions are welcomed. I think I’ve evolved most as a musician and instrumentalist just by recognizing how song structures and parts can be refined. I love the problem-solving element of song writing and it feels great to make a suggestion that helps resolve a song.

NN: Of all your projects, Good Luck seems like the biggest stylistic departure from your previous bands. Was that an intentional aesthetic decision, or did it just happen naturally?

MH: It definitely happened naturally, and kind of grew out of the community I was a part of. Tastes change and evolve over time, but moving to Bloomington was the catalyst that lead me to broaden my musical interests. I started listening to more indie, pop punk and folk. I enjoyed melodic music for the first time. And I was surrounded by so many talented, prolific, creative friends. In the months leading up to Good Luck forming, myself and Ginger (bassist in Good Luck) spent a lot of time together and had entertained the idea of playing music. When Matt (guitarist in Good Luck) moved back to town and wanted to play loud music, we just went for it and immediately started making songs that were unlike anything I’d ever done. I loved both Matt and Ginger’s other projects (One Reason, Mount Gigantic, Matty Pop Chart), so I was thrilled to play with them. It came together so organically, and blew my mind that three people with different backgrounds could mesh so well musically. Neither of my bandmates really shared my interests in hardcore or heavier music though, but it still seemed to work.

NN: Speaking of, what happened with Good Luck? Did you all break up or just take a break?

MH: For all practical purposes, Good Luck is not a functional band right now, but none of us have had any formal discussion on the direction or future of the band. It’s kind of just turned into an extended hiatus, but that may change. Thing is, I live in Philadelphia and both Matt and Ginger live in Bloomington, which makes it difficult for us to get together. We’re also extremely busy with our own lives and projects — Matt opened a vegan bakery in Bloomington with his partner Lisa, and Ginger helps run a collective book store, a vegan restaurant, and also plays in High Dive — so it makes finding time to practice and write nearly impossible. We’re all still friends though and I would be thrilled to find myself in the same room with them playing music again. Who knows what would be the impetus for that… maybe fulfilling our dream of touring with Gandalf? Or a Livenation tour with Fugazi?

NN: With Bodyhammer, you were in and out throughout the run of band through its duration. In fact, that band had tremendous line-up changes throughout its time. Given all that, how would you define the identity of band? Is it one sound, or any particular membership? Is it different from project to project?

MH: I typically define a band’s identity by their overall catalog and musical trajectory; whether I like everything within is a different story. With a band like Weezer, there’s the Matt Sharp albums which I love, and the post-Matt Sharp albums which I don’t love (though they’re slowly growing on me). It’s all still Weezer though and Rivers Cuomo defines the overall identity in my mind. With a band like Endpoint, there were lineup and stylistic changes throughout the life of the band, but their identity wasn’t defined by one sound, but by the greater arc and natural evolution of their sound.

“I typically define a band’s identity by their overall catalog and musical trajectory; whether I like everything within is a different story. With a band like Weezer, there’s the Matt Sharp albums which I love, and the post-Matt Sharp albums which I don’t love (though they’re slowly growing on me). It’s all still Weezer though and Rivers Cuomo defines the overall identity in my mind. With a band like Endpoint, there were lineup and stylistic changes throughout the life of the band, but their identity wasn’t defined by one sound, but by the greater arc and natural evolution of their sound.”

Bodyhammer is a different case since it’s a lot more personal, and in my mind Bodyhammer was the sum of my own experiences in the band. I had kind of a chip on my shoulder after I left, but I think my leaving freed them up to continue on their own trajectory. Their sound really matured into something unique. I wasn’t around to experience it first hand but that last album is stellar, and certainly helps define them; it is a part of Bodyhammer’s identity.

NN: How did you come to work with Harry and the Potters? What have you learned playing with them?

MH: I met Joe and Paul (from HATP) early in Good Luck’s life and got to know them through playing shows together. After I moved to Philadelphia three years ago i approached them and offered to play drums. Within a few months I was on tour with them and have been called back regularly since then for long tours and one-off gigs. Harry Potter festivals, Comicons, the Quidditch World Cup. It has been an amazing and surreal experience to say the least.

Touring with Harry and the Potters took some adjustment. With the exception of a few goofy concept bands, I had never really played in anything, but serious punk bands. Playing with them forced me to take music and myself less seriously. To focus on having fun and being goofy and just embracing the weird experiences. Also, Joe and Paul are some of the most positive, encouraging, and enthusiastic people — there’s really no room for negative vibes while touring with them. And through being friends with them I’ve started to shed off some of my creative inhibitions and challenged myself in new ways, making new weird music and zines. It’s a great environment to be in. True goof.

NN: How do you reach out to younger audiences and engage them in the culture?

MH: A few years ago I was an instructor in an after-school kinetic sculpture class, teaching kids from different backgrounds how to work with metal and piece together a giant moving spider sculpture. It was amazing to see their confidence build and to see them get stoked about bikes building things. It’s not specifically engaging them in punk culture, but it’s still valid. Also, my house in West Philly has a community garden next to it, where we grow produce and some fruit. Every Monday is kids night, where kids from the neighborhood are invited to help out and learn about growing food. I’m finishing up work on a free book library which will be mounted on the fence outside of our garden, and will allow kids to take free books for as long as they like.

“A few years ago I was an instructor in an after-school kinetic sculpture class, teaching kids from different backgrounds how to work with metal and piece together a giant moving spider sculpture. It was amazing to see their confidence build and to see them get stoked about bikes building things. It’s not specifically engaging them in punk culture, but it’s still valid.” 

I hadn’t really engaged in younger audiences through music until playing with Harry and the Potters. They’ve maintained a younger audience since their inception 13 years ago, and are, in essence, a DIY punk band that uses the world of Harry Potter and the surrounding fandom to inspire and engage kids.

NN: Is it important to include any sort of message in your music? If so, how do you incorporate that without ostracizing an audience? How do you make shows inclusive and fun?

MH: The beautiful thing about music and art is that there are no limits to what you can express. I’m not necessarily a song-writer or lyricist, so I’m not one to say if someone should or shouldn’t include messages in their music. Most of the bands I’ve played with in recent years have had a more personal slant to the lyrical content. But there’s certainly a place for stronger messages, and can be a great tool for organizing and shaping social and cultural movements.

The problem is that it’s hard to bring messages to audiences without sounding like you’re preaching to the choir or alienating someone with heavy-handed politics. Harry and the Potters are a good example of a band that incorporates inspiring political messages into their music without stepping on anyone’s toes. They benefit from the Harry Potter book series being accessible and accepted by the mainstream, as well as having strong themes of social justice.

The way Joe and Paul bring the message of the books to the audience is light-hearted but effective. They encourage everyone to go out into the world and use their voice to make change. When the Occupy Wall Street movement was in full swing they made “Occupy Gringotts” shirts in solidarity with the 99% movement. They also helped to form the Harry Potter Alliance – an organization that uses the themes of the books to effect social change through a variety of campaigns.  Whereas many activist organizations can come off as fringe groups or “too extreme,” the HPA really garners a lot of support and attention through their association with the Harry Potter series.

I do what I can to make shows I play or set up inclusive and fun by approaching them as if the audience are old friends or potential new friends. By being welcoming and respectful and making sure everyone is comfortable, and that no one is violating anyone else’s space. This sometimes means asking members of an audience not to stage dive or push people around, or – worst case scenario – ejecting someone that’s being a jerk or unapologetically disrespectful.

“I do what I can to make shows I play or set up inclusive and fun by approaching them as if the audience are old friends or potential new friends. By being welcoming and respectful and making sure everyone is comfortable, and that no one is violating anyone else’s space. This sometimes means asking members of an audience not to stage dive or push people around, or – worst case scenario – ejecting someone that’s being a jerk or unapologetically disrespectful.”

NN: How has your work as a musician informed your art?

MH: I’ve met a lot of amazing artists through the punk community — zinesters, printmakers, illustrators and photographers that I crossed paths with while on tour or at home or at fests. It’s easy to feel inspired and encouraged by the creative output of these people. I’ve also shown art in music venues and restaurants owned by friends that I met through the community. We actually visited a farm up on a mountain outside of Asheville where some former Beehive Collective members have their studios and are building their own little eco-village. Everything about the experience was inspiring – amazing people and setting – and they extended an invitation to come and do an artist residency at some point in the future. I wouldn’t have met these people are been presented with this opportunity if it hadn’t been for being on tour.

NN: What got you into printmaking? What can you tell us about your work?

MH: When I was 19 I taught myself how to screen print. Mostly one-off teeshirts and patches, show posters. I took an intro to printmaking class when I was 21 at the University of Minnesota and it just clicked. I loved the methodical process of making woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings. I took a more serious approach to printmaking when I got into Indiana University three years later, where I finished their BFA Printmaking program.

My work is largely illustration-based, sometimes using computer-altered images and photos too. My main focus for the past 8 years has been three-dimensional light boxes which incorporate silkscreened panels, laser-engraved and laser-cut panels, LED-illumination, and salvaged materials. The content of my work usually involves some sort of personal narrative, or may be about a certain feeling I got from a person or place.

NN: Relative to my earlier question, how have you evolved as an artist over time?

MH: I drew a lot when I was a kid, but shifted toward photography and graphic design in high school. I designed a lot of show posters and thought I’d go to school to be a graphic designer, but that idea changed when I discovered printmaking and started drawing again in college. I realized I could incorporate photography, graphic design and illustration into the printmaking processes. When I was 23 I worked at a production studio in Louisville building exhibits for the state fair. I loved learning how to work with wood and metal, and saw how I could apply those skills to my work.

I considered pursuing sculpture, but ended up in the printmaking department at Indiana University. There was a lot of flexibility in the BFA program and they encouraged working with other disciplines. I benefitted from the academic structure and facilities of the printmaking program and started exploring multi-layered light and shadow box prints. My professors loved the work I was making so that helped solidify the direction I was going in. I took a break from visual art for a few years until I started an artist residency program in west philadelphia. For a year I got my own studio as well as a membership to a fabrication sculpture gym where I had access to a laser engraver. Between these two spaces I picked up where I left off with my light boxes and continued refining my style and execution.

I’ve I still get to build and make things out of wood and metal through my work at a high-end construction company in Philadelphia, and I approach every project with the same eye for design and detail that I would my own art.

NN: What constitutes a good show and why?

MH: It’s become harder and harder for bands to hold my attention, so my favorite bands to watch live usually have some conceptual, artistic, or theatric spin to them. Evil Sword in Philly plays real weird bass-driven angular punk but they dress up as ogres and fairies and are a real treat to watch live. Soophie Nun Squad were a great band that incorporated a lot of theatrical elements and crowd participation. They always made everyone so happy! But any band that sheds pretention in favor of goofiness and fun will always get my vote.

But overall, a good show can be as simple as bands playing in a comfortable and accessible space, where everyone involved is on the same page and doing what they can to make sure the bands and crowd leave feeling good about their experience. I’ve played in just about every space imaginable so I’m kind of over crazy parties and gross dive bars. All ages, clean(ish), decent pa, and non-smoking are basic credentials… Extra points for shows that are not alcohol-centric, have no more than four bands, and start on time or end early. Honorable mention to bands that play no longer than 20 minutes, because seriously let’s be honest – if people want to hear more they will usually let you know.

In the rare instance I set up a show, I usually host it at my house and try to make it a unique experience, by making it some sort of weird themed potluck party or cook out, or something else to make it more than just another punk show.

NN: How do you think the “Fuck Mike Harpring” campaign is going in 2015? How did that start and why?

MH: Haha, oh lord. The fact that friends still reference this tells me its still alive and well, if only as a rallying cry amongst a group of old friends. It’s such a bizarre phenomenon, and the origin story seems insignificant at this point, probably not worth telling. BUT what the hell…. it goes back to petty band/scene rivalries from high school days. I set up shows and played in bands. Other people set up shows and played in bands. We were young and immature and overzealous and didn’t always see eye to eye or get along. National Acrobat made light of some disputes in a funny way and sang “Fuck Mike Harpring” into the middle of one of their songs. So Bodyhammer decided to do the same in one of our songs to add another layer of irony and ridiculousness to it all, and the rest is history. Some residual bitter feelings lasted for a while, but I’ve actually seen a few people from the other side of the divide in recent years that have come up to me and apologized for how they acted. It was refreshing, and says something about how everyone has grown up and chilled out a lot.

NN: I understand that you lived in Indiana for several years. How did you cope with being a Hoosier? Were you ever able to wash away the smell, or is it a permanent feature to your being, after so long an exposure?

MH: To be fair, the smell predated my time in Indiana – as I was born part Hoosier (I know, this may shock you), and I still haven’t figured out how to get rid of it. No amount of patchouli makes any difference. But anyway, I think I coped okay. I actually love Bloomington a lot, with all its weirdo wingnut townies, punks living out their extended adolescence, lifers, and lovable country folk that flock to the town. I started spending a lot of time there in early 2002 and I moved away in 2011. Every time I return I’m more and more surprised by the changes taking place there. I hardly recognize the gritty, sleepy central Indiana town I first knew now that all these ridiculous luxury condo buildings and developments keep sprouting up around town. But to be honest, I often think about moving back to the midwest. Somewhere in the woodsy hills between Louisville and Bloomington would be perfect. I only hope that my Louisville friends don’t turn their backs on me if I chose this path.

“The smell predated my time in Indiana – as I was born part Hoosier (I know, this may shock you), and I still haven’t figured out how to get rid of it. No amount of patchouli makes any difference. But anyway, I think I coped okay.”

NN: Suppose you could time travel. Do you think your actions would affect the time stream, or do you think that anything you did would just create a branching reality? If your actions would affect time, does that mean that predestination exists, which in turn supposes a supernatural deity of some sort?

MH: What kind of time travel we talkin’? Future or past in the same physical space like Back to the Future? Or any time any place like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Or only in your own past in situations and geographic areas you were already in like the movie About Time (a time travel-themed romantic comedy)? I’ll go with the third option. Because I like the premise that I could go back and get a do-over with specific instances in my life. Or that I could go back and hang with my grand parents. And this option is my easy out, because it wouldn’t allow me to significantly alter time, more so my own trajectory. Which would mean predestination doesn’t exist. Therefor, no god.

NN: What non-musical things have you stoked lately? Read, watched, eaten, drank, or crafted anything interesting lately?

MH: Well, I hardly give myself much time to read but I’ve been pickin’ away at The Magicians by Lev Grossman lately. Kind of a darker more adult version of Harry Potter (shhh, I do like other books too). I just watched About Time  (yes I’m referencing that movie again) and omg that just about punched me in the heart. Yesterday I ate the best grilled portabello burger in my life, from 12 Bones BBQ in Asheville. There were fried green tomatoes on it. It was incredible. Otherwise what I’ve been most stoked about is the work I’ve been doing in Philly — building a bar using reclaimed pine beams, learning how to make concrete countertops, and doing a lot of metal fabrication — furniture, railings, etc. I work with some great people at this job. These are skills I eventual want to put to use building my own dream house. Some day…

NN: What are your top five desert island picks and why?

MH: Five desert island picks…

  • RefusedThe Shape of Punk to Come … This is a perfect album. It blew my mind when it came out and confused me that a “hardcore” band could put out something as musically diverse as this. It came out nearly twenty years ago but it still holds up well and stands the test of time.
  • The WeakerthansLeft and Leaving… I associate this album with transition and moving. The song-writing and lyrics are amazing. It’s just one of those sentimental albums that evokes a lot of nostalgia.
  • FugaziThe Argument… Another album that’s stood the test of time. It’s my favorite album of theirs and usually the one I play. They were a perfect band and created a new model for how a band could be successful on their own terms.
  • Strawberry Runners – album demos… My friend Emi gave me some recently-recorded songs that she demoed with her band. I feel like I was let in on something magical. Her voice is incredible and the music is exceptional. 
  • Dogs on Acid – s/t… Some good friends from Philly play in this band, and this album is about to come out on Jade Tree. It’s my new favorite thing. Aside from loving them as people, they’re just amazing musicians and know how to write a great song.