Mercy beat

The The has never really been a band, just an outlet for singer-guitarist Matt Johnson and his songs, his tales of dogs of lust and sweet birds of truth. Since the band formed in 1979, it's been Johnson and whatever lineup he happened to be playing with at the time. And though that's the way it's remained over the course of 20 years and nine albums, the supporting cast has never been irrelevant. Over the years, those groups have included a wide variety of collaborators, a roster that includes former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Squeeze keyboard player Jools Holland, Neneh Cherry, Marc Almond, David Johansen, and Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell. For Johnson, change is an important part of the process, something that needs to happen whether he likes it or not.

Now, you can add Earl Harvin to the list. Along with former Iggy Pop guitarist Eric Shermerhorn and bassist Spencer Campbell, Harvin is part of the latest installment of The The, perhaps the strongest yet. The Dallas-based drummer, who has released three discs on Leaning House Records, signed on with Johnson and the band just before the recording of The The's ninth album, NakedSelf, which was released February 29 on Nothing Records. Harvin was onstage with Johnson in December 1999, when The The played its first show in more than six years.

As he discusses Harvin, Johnson sounds incredibly comfortable with his new drummer, as though he'd been part of the band since the very beginning; and he sounds as overwhelmed by Harvin as if he'd just heard him play for the first time. Johnson has no problem ranking Harvin among the best drummers he's played with during his two decades of fronting The The, even though they've only worked together for a fraction of that time.

"Earl Harvin is an interesting character," he says. "He's amazing, isn't he? I've played with some great drummers -- like Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Palmer, Brian MacLeod -- but I'd honestly say Earl is the best I've played with, just because he's not only a great drummer. His sense of awareness, when you play with him -- for instance, if you bring your voice down to a whisper, he's there. He's very quick; he's very reactive to whatever's going on around on him on the stage. Some musicians have that, some don't. He also plays keyboards, melodica -- he brings a lot to it. He's a very gifted musician, one of the most aware that I've played with, actually. And powerful. Hits the drums like fuck. Unfortunately, if I'm standing too close, it takes me head off."

You can hear what Johnson is referring to on NakedSelf. Harvin's creative, heavy rhythms dominate the album, a gritty, throbbing collection of Delta blues at the tail end of a trip through Trent Reznor's downward spiral. There's more of Harvin's own personality on the disc, much more than he was ever allowed to exhibit in his previous stints as a hired gun with Seal and Joe Henry, among others. (Harvin's various gigs as a touring musician have kept him on the road so often that he no longer has a home phone -- which, of course, made it impossible to reach him for this piece.) In a way, his playing on NakedSelf takes pieces from all of his other projects, from his own jazz trio to rubberbullet and everything in between.

Of course, it wouldn't be wise for Harvin to get too content being a member of Johnson's band. There is, after all, a reason so many people have drifted in and out of The The. By design and necessity, The The has always been essentially a solo act, and that probably won't ever change. Even the lineup Johnson considers the best group he has ever assembled didn't last, and he takes a certain pride in remaining on his own.

"The great band I had 10 years ago -- which was a fantastic band with Johnny Marr, Dave Palmer, James Eller, D.C. Collard -- we were together for a few years, but Johnny had a couple of kids, and...well, they all had kids, actually," Johnson says. "I wanted to spend more time in New York. James got offered a record deal with Polydor, and Dave got offered a lot more money to join Rod Stewart" -- he laughs -- "at which he gleefully grabbed. So, there was me, feeling we'd come to the end of the road, and different opportunities being offered to other people. I've always been very relaxed about the musicians. You know, they're not on permanent retainers at all. I'm not uptight about who they work with. At the same time, I don't want them to be uptight about who I work with. Just fresh blood, bringing in people to get ideas from. I mean, if I still had the same lineup I had in 1979, it'd be pretty bloody awful."

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain