Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington on being bipolar and the band’s return

Les Savy Fav frontman Tim Harrington has spoken to NME about the band’s return to recording with their new album ‘OUI LSF’, their first in 14 years – and how it was shaped by his bipolar diagnosis.

The New York veterans’ sixth LP comes following an extended hiatus, that saw Harrington turn his hand to writing children’s books and getting a “jobby” job as a creative director, while bassist Syd Butler and guitarist Seth Jabour joined the 8G Band (house musicians on the talk show Late Night With Seth Myers), drummer Harrison Haynes focussed on fine art, and guitarist Andrew Reuland worked in film and television as a writer and editor.

Harrison, however, alo endured “a rough period with mental health” after being diagnosed with bipolar during the time between Les Savy Fav albums.

“I hear a lot of creative people, when they talk about mental health and getting it together and finally getting on meds, they’re like, ‘Oh, [the creativity] is gone, I can’t find it.’ For me, I had to come to the realisation that it’s always there. I’m always me. It’s kind of cheesy, but sometimes what seems like nothing happening is actually just the absence of a complete fucking tornado,” he said.

Although the band returned for occasional live performances during the hiatus from recording, it was only after a show at Primavera Sound in 2022 that things evolved into writing. With drummer Haynes unable to make the show, the band recruited stand-in Tucker Rule of post-hardcore veterans Thursday who they taught their songs for the first time.

“All of a sudden we had someone who hasn’t played the songs and we were spending a lot of time rehearsing in my attic studio. Harrison lives in North Carolina so rehearsing always takes math, but Tucker was right in the neighbourhood. We were in the practice space in a way that we hadn’t for a long time.

“Syd suggested we do a record, and honestly up until last year I was thinking, ‘Maybe one song, maybe an EP’. I had do it in the way that I wanted.”

Ahead of the album’s release, Harrington spoke to NME about returning from hiatus, how his experiences tackling mental illness have impacted his songwriting, increased proficiency in the studio, whether or not the band’s return will be a long-term proposition, and why cat sex can be a handy metaphor.

NME: Hi Tim. After your last album ‘Route For Ruin’, was there any intention for the break to be this long? 

Tim Harrington: “It kind of just panned out this way. After ‘Root For Ruin’ I wanted us to figure out a new way to write. Our band had learned to write music by just being in a practice space and living together forever, but with ‘Root For Ruin’ and [predecessor] ‘Let’s Stay Friends’ the process was more like, ‘Let’s spend a month condensing that in a studio.’ After ‘Route For Ruin’ I thought, when we write again I want to write with purpose. I want to write songs.

“Also, I had a rough period with mental health. A lot of it had to do with trying to have a regular life in addition to my ‘band guy’ life. It was important to me to be able to do both things, but it seems like as an artist, chaos is sort of my go-to. Finding that middle space between chaos and misery was hard, and then it took me a long time to figure out, like, ‘What do I want to sing about now? How can I credibly sing about chaos when I spent most of the last 10 years trying not to have a life that’s in freefall all the time?’

“So that took a while, but when we were writing the new record I found my theme and my voice, and the things that are interesting. There’s no disentangling them. A lot of the songs are about bipolar, they reflect the way there’s a lot of shit that’s horrifying and inspiring to me at the exact same time. This thing you love can also be the thing that makes you miserable. They happen at the same time, and they stack on top of each other. 15 years ago that wouldn’t have made sense to me.”

Les Savy Fav
Les Savy Fav (CREDIT: Press)

You said that back around the time of ‘Root For Ruin’ you were looking for a new way to write. Did you find it on ‘OUI LSF’?

“I think we did. Between that record and this record, I got a lot better at writing music. I now have a whole pile of electronic instruments, and I also make my own, and I spend a huge amount of time hypnotising myself with synthesisers. It turns out that all this stuff over the last 10 years means that suddenly I can do the recording. And then Syd and Seth had been playing every single day on a talk show, which simultaneously made them super, super technical, but also I think they were longing to do something less transactional, to sink their teeth back in.

“There’s a little poster above my workspace that says, ‘Can’t do it how you want, don’t want to do it how you can’, written over and over as a spiral into a terrified eye. That feeling had stuck with me for 10 years, and giving that up was what helped this record. We would get together and record, and decide if it’s good or bad later, so we ended up with lots of songs, some of them weren’t good enough, but they all helped us with that thing of, ‘just finish it’. I’ve always been inspired by a musician friend of ours who passed away a couple of years ago, Sam Jayne from the band Love As Laughter. Songs just fell out of him where we would take forever. We’d have this giant pile of dirt and only one song. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of the record?”

The front has the title written out as green shoots coming out of the dirt…

“And the back cover shows the roots underground. That’s like the way we used to record. It’s about getting those two sides to live together.”

Which comes back to what you were saying about finding emotional balance in your life and being comfortable with the conflicting middle ground.

“Exactly, like you can hold two things at once, stability and chaos, inspiration and horror. The record’s got bipolar too in the way the first and last song bookend it.”

The opener ‘Guzzle Blood’ is pretty bleak lyrically, depicting a moment of total despair and lack of faith.

“And then the last song, ‘World Got Great,’ is like, embarrassingly optimistic. Being able to pull those things into one record that makes sense to me is important. A lot of the record talks about relationships and a lot of record talks about faith. For me, faith is like the articulation of love. The record opens with an abject disillusion of faith and then ends in a place of complete faith, and then there’s everything in between. On the song ‘Barbs’ there’s a line, ‘Loving you’s like getting fucked by a cat’. I don’t know how much you know about cat sex?”

Not a huge amount.

“Cats’ penises have barbs that point in the wrong direction, so when they go in, it’s painful for it to come back out, which is why there’s that loud sound. The lyric in that song is about how relationships can be dreamy and beautiful, but also tough and painful, whether that’s with your band, someone you love, your family, whatever. There’s a lot of stuff in the record that has to do with that… And then we talked about cat sex.”

A lot of the songs look backwards, like ‘Mischief Night’ which recalls a chaotic night out in Tijuana, and ‘Dawn Patrol’ which is about partying back in the day What kind of emotions does writing about old times bring up?

“‘Dawn Patrol’ is one that Seth came to us with, mostly all in place [instrumentally]. It immediately reminded me of playing a show in some town, hanging out at that weird house that was way far the fuck away where there’s like 20 people living there. There’s a spoken word bit that was really inspired by Minutemen’s ‘History Lesson – Part II’. It’s probably something I would have been embarrassed to do when I was younger, to just say, ‘That was fucking awesome and I liked it.’ ‘Mischief Night’ is more like a short story of a song about a pretty reckless night. We ended up staying out until dawn at a goth club in the back of an underground strip club in Tijuana. It was fun as shit.”

So where does ‘OUI LSF’ leave the band going forward?

“I don’t know, and I like that. Even though this record was more designed, it doesn’t always have to be like that. It’s got its pros and cons. On the one hand everybody needs day jobs, which is not as much fun as being in the band all the time, but on the other side you can take 14 years between records if you need to. We’re in a space where I have no idea what happens next, and that’s fine, but when you’ve been in a band for 30 years, or with a person for 30 years – and I’ve been both those things – you’re never going to be untangled.”

Les Savy Fav’s new album ‘OUI LSF’ is out now via Frenchkiss/The Orchard. 

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