"I knew it was a provocative title. But the song isn't as provocative as the title makes you think," says Alex Casnoff, singer-songwriter of Los Angeles indie rock quartet Harriet, referring to "I Slept With All Your Mothers." It's the first single off his band's debut EP Tell The Right Story.
Seated at an outdoor table on an unusually muggy afternoon at the Griffith Park Observatory, the 24-year-old Casnoff explains further. "'I slept with all your mothers' is that playground insult where you have a strong emotion about something and then you say something you really wish you didn't say." The song's titillating video, with a slightly sinister Casnoff and a nude female counterpart, received over 3 000 views on its first day when it premiered on AOL's Spinner.com, and yet the song nearly ended up being just another discarded idea.
"I wrote it on guitar and I wasn't even taking it seriously," he says. "I was just sort of, 'Ok this is fun, but I am not actually going to use this.' But when I played it on piano, it gave it a completely different vibe and it ended up working."
Casnoff is sick today and he's feeling out of sorts. Sipping a soda, he's wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt beneath a plaid long-sleeved button down, and two crystals are hanging from his neck. He's not sure what they symbolize.
Though born in New York, Casnoff was raised in Los Angeles. After a stint at NYU, he now lives at his parents' house in Hancock Park. "L.A. is a part of me," he says. "There's city, beach, hills and, a couple hours away, there's the snow. I love it here." Looking out over the skyline, he elaborates on the spot: "Some big decisions have been made here -- going to college, band decisions, girl decisions -- pretty much every time I've come up here at 10 pm and had my silent meeting with the world. It's insane and magical being in the city and then you can come up here."
His dad was in the original Broadway version of Grease, and his parents moved to Los Angeles for their careers. They exposed their son to music from an early age. "My parents got me this piano teacher, Billy Ferrick," he says. "When he was twelve, he played with Muddy Waters and became a heroin addict with him. I mean, I don't know how much is true -- but he'd show up to every lesson two hours late, smelling of booze and cigars, and I don't know what my parents were thinking. I was six years old and thinking, 'This guy's cool.' He made me fall in love with music and he taught me to love playing."
As a sideman playing keys, Casnoff spent time in bands including Discovery Zone, Papa and Dawes, but eventually he began to want to his own project. "I'm just starting to be ready for it," he says. "I didn't have the confidence before. I was waiting and watching in a lot of the bands I'd been in, learning how people do it and taking notes. I feel ready now. And I love singing. It's direct emotional contact."
More difficult a task than songwriting, he says, was the challenge of coming up with a band name. "My mom and I were in the car and I was complaining about how every band name was taken," he says. "She was like, 'Why don't you name it Harriet after your grandmother?' I said, 'No that's a stupid idea. That's actually the worst idea ever.' That is the immediate son's reaction to a mother. But over time I gave into it. I like the idea of my mom naming the band, since she made me."
Citing Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead and The Weeknd among his own favorite artists, Casnoff's songwriting is often declared by critics and fans to fit within the Americana vein, strong on storytelling and melody. "The goal that we've been talking about is to try and focus what we're working on in terms of our sound to be like an American Radiohead," he says. "And that means integrating electronics with rock and roll the way Radiohead does, but with a very American heart."
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Casnoff says that he's a bit chaotic, and that when he's not writing, he becomes cranky. "I'm all over the place," he says. "I'm extremely serious and focused and then I'm also, like, out of my mind. I don't even know how to describe it. Every artist I know is concurrently the most insecure and cocky person I have ever met. Often times I am paranoid about people knowing anything about me. And I don't know why I'm saying this during an interview, but I'm fine right now because I'm telling you what I want you to know, so I'm controlling this. I am fine with people looking at me on stage because I am in control."
After a few seconds of contemplation he adds, "I think I'm just really controlling. But I'm also fun sometimes." He lingers over another silence before saying, "I'm controlling in a fun way." At this point, he becomes self-conscious, starts to laugh and with a mischievous glint in his green eyes, he says, "People like being controlled by me."
Harriet plays every Monday in May at The Bootleg.