New Noise: Harlequiin

The seasoned musician going it alone.

I meet Harlequiin – real name Rory Simmons – after I’ve just about finished crying at The Maccabees’ penultimate Alexandra Palace show. Not just another overly emotional punter like myself, Rory was on stage with the lads and has been wowing the packed out audiences of The Maccabees’ Farewell Tour with his trumpet skills for the last two weeks. But he is no stranger to impressing huge crowds: a sought after musician, he’s toured with the likes of Bat For Lashes and Mount Kimbie, and now he’s heading out on his own.

Under the alias Harlequiin, Rory creates a unique blend of indie-dance music that will get everyone, erm, dancing. With three tracks under his belt and an EP on the horizon, we caught up with the musical mastermind to find out more…

What’s your first music memory?

My first memory of actively doing music was probably transcribing the Louis Prima trumpet solos from The Jungle Book. I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but definitely had a healthy amount of enthusiasm.

And what was the catalyst that made you decide to pursue music?

I got a place at music college in London when I was 18, everything kind of followed from there.

Who would you say are your main influences?

My main musical influences are changing all the time. Right now I’m loving Dexter Story, Pye Corner Audio, Jamie Lidell and Moderat. But I guess more generally this music has been inspired by Matthew Herbert, The Invisible, Hudson Mohawke, Flume and Anderson Paak. I’m also loving the new Mystery Jets album.

Your CV must make people pretty jealous, seeing as you’ve toured with so many amazing artists including Paolo Nutini, The Maccabees and The 1975. How did this come about?

I’ve been working as a session musician with various people for the past 12 years and all these different opportunities have come through different routes. Sometimes through word of mouth, sometimes knowing someone who plays in the band, and sometimes through a more “official” route by a fixer or musical director type person. It’s been great working with loads of musicians I love across varying genres, and that variety has definitely had a big impact on how I make and want to present my own music.

Have you ever had a moment when you’ve properly fanboy-ed?

My biggest fan-boying situation wasn’t really a musician but was probably Jeff Garlin (Larry David’s manager from Curb Your Enthusiasm). I’ve met him backstage a couple of times now at stuff, and my wife swears that I look happier in the selfie I took with him than on our wedding day.

Now you’re stepping out on your own under the name Harlequiin. What was the inspiration behind the name?

The name is really just an abstract thing, I didn’t want anything too literal or obvious. I also wanted to create an unusual shape of the word with the added “i”, but still gives it symmetry. There is also a quirky semi-autobiographical book written late in Nabokov’s career called Look At The Harlequins which I was reading when I started making this music – that could also have something to do with it.

“My biggest fan-boying situation wasn’t really a musician but was probably Jeff Garlin (Larry David’s manager from Curb Your Enthusiasm)… my wife swears that I look happier in the selfie I took with him than on our wedding day.”

You released your debut track “Melt In Olive”, earlier this year. What was the creative process behind that song?

“Melt In Olive” was one of the first tracks from new set of music I started writing. I was working on a slightly wonky synth patch, which had bass dropping in and out, plus wanting a live drum sound that would lock into the electronic bits. I guess I also wanted quite a full on/almost chanty vocal. And lyrically I wanted to be a bit abstract still. Elliot Cole who guests on that track brings a kind of iciness to eh performance which i really like, so it doesn’t stray too much into a saccharine neo-soul area.

And you’ve followed that up with the brilliant “Sharpest Knife”. What can you tell us about the song?

The beat for this song is kind of influenced by the soca meets Africa-tech type bounce. It’s obviously become massively successful with tracks like “One Dance”, but my starting point was coming more from a great London based band called Owiny Sigma Band and perhaps some Jamie xx too. I also wanted to make the big chorus moment a lot more stripped back, building up to that chorus point but being a little more minimal when it drops. Some of the new Dexter Story album was an influence of this track too.

How would you describe your “sound”?

I suppose it’s somewhere between electronic pop and alt pop, with a bit of soul influence in there too. I think all musicians get anxious about trying to describe their sound – I won’t bore you with trotting out all the great Frank Zappa quotes about that! But it’s just a difficult thing to describe, and I guess you don’t want to box yourself in with words. I really want to avoid too much of the “warmth” of soul, and thats why my lyrics tend to be less narrative and more symbolic. If there are stories in there, they are buried and I want people to attach their own meaning to them as much as the meaning with which I wrote them. Lyrically, I have always loved Scott Walker, but not just the introspection of it – it’s the ambience he creates lyrically and how the locks in with his music. I guess I am striving for that too.

Both tracks come from your upcoming EP. What can we expect from the record?

The EP is a pretty even mix of electronic production and live instrumentation. I’ve tried to keep the live element of what I do present in this EP, but wanted to make sure the overall feeling of the music came from a dance point of view, that it was hypnotic and driving – and building dynamically. Elliott Cole’s vocal on the EP is really special, though it’s all lyrically coming from me – he delivers something really sincere in his performance across the tracks. There’s touches of Caribou and Dorian Concept there, but also the soulfulness of Sampha and Jamie Lidell. I also wanted to keep the energy of the music constant, so there is definitely the influence of Bonobo, SBTRKT and Junior Boys type sound. But also, in terms of songwriting, people like Eska, Little Dragon and even Scott Walker as I mentioned, are big influences.

What do you hope that people take away from the EP?

I want people to take away from the EP that this is a guy not ashamed to ask Jeff Garlin for a selfie (twice). And I also want them to feel a consistent atmosphere that I am creating on this EP, it’s trite to say – but creating a mood is the end goal for me, rather than constituent parts that can be pulled apart.

So finally, what’s next?

I’m working on the second EP at the moment which I’m hoping to release in October. It features Elliot Cole again, but also a surprise guest female vocalist too. I’m really excited about a duet that I’m mixing for that release at the moment. With some very cool video content made by an amazing young Russian video artist. We are looking at London and Paris shows in late October so watch the appropriate space. I’m also on tour for next three weeks around Europe with another artist, and just finished two really fun weeks on The Maccabees farewell tour.

Alex Bonney
Elly Watson
New Noise: Harlequiin

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