Michael Harris Ego Decimation Profile interview 10/1/1996

Michael Harris is quite the busy man these days. With three bands (Surgeon, Arch Rival and his solo career), he hardly has a moment to spare. We managed to catch him, however, on one such rare occasion for a candid Q&A about music, guitar and the price of shoes at the mall.

Harder Beat: With so many different musical styles and guitar techniques out there, where do you draw your influences from?

Michael Harris: Early in my playing days, I was into Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. I then started to "discover" many great guitarists that were less mainstream: Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, Frank Marino, Steve Morse, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, etc. After going through my Van Halen and Yngwie phases, I started to enjoy Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and, more recently, Brett Garsed.

HB: What was your musical upbringing like?

MH: My mother is a piano instructor and more classically influenced, and my father plays big band swing. So, I got the best of both worlds when I was growing up. I played trumpet for several years before becoming obsessed with the guitar.

HB: Briefly describe your recording career thus far.

MH: After recording two EPs with Arch Rival, I got a boost by playing on the album Shock Waves by Leather (David T. Chastain's vocalist) in 1989. I then recorded my first instrumental album, Defense Mechanizms, which Leviathan Records, released worldwide. Arch Rival then hooked up with a great vocalist, Steve Snyder, and we recorded two albums (the third to be released soon). I also did a collaboration with David T. Chastain called Live! Wild and Truly Diminished. Most recently, my new heavy band, Surgeon, just released its first CD, Encyclopedia of the Insane in September. That should bring us up to date.

HB: Describe some of the processes that went into recording your new instrumental album, Ego Decimation Profile (EDP).

MH: I recorded the drums first to analog tape, then bounced them over to my digital machine. I then recorded all the guitars, keyboards and bass at home, bounced all that back to the 24-track analog and mixed it. It worked very well thanks to SMPTE time code. For the first time, I was able to record guitars without being on the clock in a studio.

HB: How do you compare your style on this album with Defense Mechanisms? MH: I spent more time on composition, orchestration and production this time around. I also used keyboards for the first time, which resulted in a wider variety of sounds. I like the songs on EDP better than DM, but I'm sure it's impossible to be totally objective about that until years from now when I can look back on both of them.

HB: Which songs on EDP are your personal favorites?

MH: The opening track, "Forewarning," was a milestone in orchestration and composition for me. My vision was to write a mini-symphony that built up intensity to the end. "Julius Seizure" was a definite high point as well, and it seemed to be the "magic" track. I was very happy with the way the slower numbers, "Grandscape" and "Terminus Epic" turned out also.

HB: What musicians did you use on EDP?

MH: I used four drummers that were all phenomenal! Rob Stankiewicz from Haji's Kitchen just smoked on four cuts as did Keith Carlock on three tracks. Matt Thompson, from my heavy band, Surgeon, and Clint Barlow each lent their considerable talents to a track as well. So the album is a must-hear for drummers--and bass players as well, with bassist-extraordinaire David Harbour ripping on five tracks.

HB: Let's turn the focus on the music itself. What is your strategy when composing a song?

MH: I always try to write with a strong theme, as opposed to just ripping solos over chord changes. The song is what lasts. I need to see pictures. If an idea generates a visual, I know I'm on the right track. Musically, I have to cop a strong vibe off all my ideas or I trash them. I'm extremely picky, and I drive myself crazy. Come visit me sometime in Ward 19, Cell 5.

HB: Obviously on an instrumental album, a lot of listeners focus on the solos. For Michael Harris, what elements constitute the perfect guitar solo? MH: The perfect solo would have the right blend of technique and feel, would flow very smoothly, peak at just the right time and have killer tone. It would also have to do something unexpected. Some of my faves are "The Sails of Charon" and "Still So Many Lives Away" by Uli Roth, "Rock You To The Ground" and "On With The Action" by Michael Schenker, "Out of Love Again" by Eddie Van Halen, "Anthem" by Alex Lifeson and "Karma" by Neal Schon.

HB: How do you feel about the current state of instrumental guitar? MH: I'm optimistic! There are still plenty of people who have an avid interest in it. We just have to push it back into the mainstream. Pretty soon, the kids are going to realize how much better guitarists were before this new wave of slop on the radio. So let's all realize the guitar hero thing is coming back, and act accordingly!

HB: Speaking of "this new wave of slop" you speak of, what are your views on FM rock today?

MH: Every now and then I hear a good song and then I realize it's just a commercial. Actually, I listen to AM talk radio more than anything. The hooks are very powerful and the musicianship is slightly better than FM. Okay, if you must know, I think STP, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains are all writing some pretty important stuff. I'm more eagerly anticipating the new Rush and Eric Johnson records, though.

HB: Do you think the "Seattle Sound" is dead?

MH: I don't keep up on it enough to know, but I think it is an embarrassment that a trend was based on geographical location rather than the actual quality of the music. The "Seattle Sound" to me is Queensryche, Heart and Jimi Hendrix. HB: Speaking of by-gone trends, do you think shred guitar was overdone in the 80s?

MH: It might have been, but if the songs were good, they took precedence anyway. The "mindless riffers" will move on and the strong will survive. I have the utmost respect for guitarists who can rip creatively with feeling and still write great music as well.

HB: What about the blues element?

MH: I love the blues. All the bands I originally got into were just blues turned up to 11. I play in a blues band on the side, and it's carrying over into my heavy playing. My next instrumental album will be much bluesier. I've rediscovered the down stroke.

HB: Who do you think best represents the future of music?

MH: Trends are so hard to predict, but the alternative thing shall die soon. Metal will make a resurgence in a slightly mutated form, and as we approach the turn of the century, look for something really futuristic. Also, radio will have less influence in the computer age, and people will hopefully start thinking and listening for themselves, discovering great music instead of accepting the handouts on the radio. There's plenty more to choose from, eople - Seek and ye shall find!

HB: What does the future hold for Michael Harris?

MH: My band, Arch Rival, has an album coming out later this year that I'm really excited about, and my heavy project, Surgeon, just released its album last month. I also have another instrumental album almost written, so that will be coming soon. After that, I'm going to the mall!!

Interviewer: Kevin White