Virtual CH on triplicating himself, Kickstarter, and Queen

Virtual CH on triplicating himself, Kickstarter, and Queen
Courtesy of Virtual CH

Many independent bands utilize the DIY method these days, but Minneapolis artist Chris Harrington takes it to another level with his new project, Virtual CH. With the new band, Chris engineers, produces, and plays all of his own music -- nothing too out of the ordinary, but the songwriter also triplicates himself with screens for live shows. Talk about a one-man band. The band's first single, "Art is Out of Phaze," channels Queen into golden harmonies.

Gimme Noise spoke with Chris before his single and video release show to find out how he puts together his shows revolving around one person.

Band Members:
Chris Harrington - Vocals & Guitars
Christopher Harrington - Vocals & Bass
Chris J. Harrington - Drums

Where did you come up with the idea to "triplicate" yourself for a band? Does each member have their own personality?

In 2007 I hatched the vision to create a rock trio in which I perform as three different characters live onstage. The key word here is live. I wanted to figure out a way to create a show that is as much like a rock trio as possible. This meant performing all instruments live, start-to-finish, just like any band when performing an entire set. The big challenge and goal was to figure out how to perform as three characters with no pauses, no edits, no overdubs and no fixes. The show would feature performances that were professional but not digitally perfected like so much of today's music.

Additionally, I wanted a show that was fun to watch. Two of the members would appear on life-size video screens. All three of us would communicate with each other and play off one another as bands do. It has taken a few years, but with the forthcoming December 6 show, I'll have realized my 2007 vision.

Virtual CH's roots also come from my equally strong interest playing acoustic drums and guitars. These interests, along with my habit of talking to myself, made putting the project together a bit easier. I also began training as a kind of musical triathlete; honing skills daily on drums, bass and guitar (and a few other sonic gizmos). I've released a few Chris Harrington records in which I play mainly guitar, so that instrument is most natural. But, to become professional on drums and bass has taken a few years and now I'm really excited to showcase all that we can do live on stage.

I've come to learn that I love to act and choreograph the show, and as I change into the outfits of bassist Chris J. and drummer Christopher, I immediately embody those characters. So, indeed, yes!, each band member has their own look, style and personality. The bassist and drummer personalities were developed over time by imagining and improvising dialogue as I video taped performances in my studio. I imagined the other two performing with me on stage, and I experimented with acting as each player. To help me choreograph the band, I continue to draw on memories of various music projects I've played with. I find watching a lot of live music also helps me develop each band member's character.

The drummer's character is a bit stereotypical in that he's more wild and likes to drink whiskey. He does this bit where he yells out unexpectedly during the show. The bassist is definitely more serious and nerdy and he's been known to cut on the drummer during the show because deep down he resents the fact that drummer Chris J. can cut loose and have so much fun performing.

Why not just find other band members to work with you?

I think about this question daily as I prepare for this December 6 show! As I get older, it's true that the idea of seeking out yet another backing band is less attractive. Yet, here in the throws of long Virtual CH workdays, I absolutely have moments where I wish I had non-virtual bandmates in the room. I do bounce song & performance ideas off songwriter friends and I get feedback from videographers and directors with regards to my camera and editing work. But, because I've set up my studio so that I can easily bounce between instruments, video, and recording gear, my current set up works best with just me in the room. However, after this show, I'll have accomplished most of the goals I set back in 2007, and so I look forward to collaboration of all kinds. My current process has just about tapped my endurance limits.

Would you ever want to integrate other people in the project?

Yes! Guest musician and stage crew appearances have been in the works for a while. The idea is to have guests appear both virtually and in person. The live guest(s) literally have the opportunity to play off their own virtual selves. I'm also working on adding a third screen to the show to feature the guest artists, but that'll take a bit more time and technology. Additionally, the person running sound becomes part of the performance. For example, Virtual CH performs a soundcheck like any band. Bassist Chris J. and drummer Christopher do talk to the sound person as they set up their gear and fine tune their instrument tones and monitor levels. If the sound person chooses, she can interact with Christopher and Chris J. by talking to them through the stage monitors just like a normal sound check. The goal is to draw the audience in from the moment the projectors light up and my bandmates begin to set up their gear on stage. I begin character development and introduce the show concept right away in a rock club setting.

What are the pros and cons of working by yourself?

I gain a great sense of accomplishment recording in my studio on all instruments, shooting video and uploading and releasing content. That's a big pro. Working by myself also means I steer clear of band personnel changes and all associated with that, including the schedule conflicts, artistic differences, etc. As a songwriter, writing and recording alone has come natural to me since my first CD release in 1999, but I do long for band interaction and I even wouldn't mind the occasional conflict or tension.

These elements of course can elevate good music to great music. I've answered this, in part, by choreographing a touch of subtle tension between Christopher and Chris J. during the Virtual CH show.

The most difficult times were the early days of Virtual CH when I was trying to figure out my process. For example, I'd spend a couple months putting together an entire set. I'd perform the show a few times and then I'd realize that my drumming or bass skills had improved. I'd then throw out what took me months to put together and begin recording and shooting a brand new show. Again, I wanted to stay honest to the Virtual CH ideal that the show had to be performed live, start-to-finish, on each instrument. But, because I was used to releasing and performing Chris Harrington music with a polished band backing me up (The Melismatics), I faced the challenge of how to progress in the critical public eye. I realized that the only way to move the show forward was to perform live even if I felt that the production and performances needed improvement. This meant that I had live shows where my home-made screens would fall over, or I'd loose my place in the choreography, or some tech thing would just go haywire. I played about 25 Virtual CH shows between 2007 and 2011, and most of them I kept really under the radar, and so that too was emotionally challenging. I would only tell a few close
friends. I knew I was getting better and that I was really on to something satisfying, but it wasn't quite time to make a Virtual CH splash.

Working by myself can also lead to loosing perspective on songs. I'd record dozens of complete songs and then wonder if they were any good. It's a fine balance. I spent a few years constructing a studio (it's featured in the "Art is Out of Phaze" video), and it has made my show possible. But, the down side can be the ability to continually record and not finish a song. I've had to learn to be disciplined and commit to recordings.

Lastly, I've bombarded my skull with so much studio rock and roll that I damaged my inner ears and in 2010 I was diagnosed with a permanent vertigo condition with a long medical name. In fact, I spent most of 2010 nauseous and dizzy and I couldn't play music, hardly even an acoustic guitar. Nor could I focus enough to read, relax enough to sleep well, and my work schedule had to be reduced. I've paid the price for playing to a loud metronome track and monitoring too loud. It's a direct result of working by myself. Thankfully now I'm much better and I've learned to manage the vertigo while I record and perform. I have to be very careful.

During 2010 and 2011 you could pick me out of the crowd at local clubs wearing goofy looking air traffic controller ear muffs. I also wore custom ear plugs under those which meant that I could barely hear the music, but it did protect my ears!

Did you go to school for recording and engineering, or was the learning process through trial and error?

I've had no formal audio or video training. The key for me early on in music was to surround myself with musicians and engineers who were far more experienced than I. Because of this I feel like I've been through a number of crash courses. The quality of talent I connected with was a good stroke of luck and through it I developed a unique recording process. I record first to tape and then fly it into the computer. It's laborious, but it yields what I think is a unique sound; a kind of cool collusion of old school analog and modern digital sonics. Because I record Virtual CH live, my process is inherently filled with trial and error. I like to experiment with mic recording techniques and I have to tinker with my tape machine, old mic pre amps and I tune drums constantly. I hope to work more with samples and beat software where the trial and error has more constants. It's just that right now it's faster for me to hear melody or a beat and play it on keys or drums. It's what I know best. I have a real respect for the artists composing beats and changing drum tones throughout the same song.

As far as video production goes, the same holds true. I've been really lucky to connect with some real film-making pros right at Virtual CH's onset. I learned how to compose shots and light a room by volunteering on indie video sets, and I've also become a pretty decent video editor. Man, the more I think about all of this, the more I realize the insane amount of work it took to develop Virtual CH. It was a monumental amount of work. It's taken years and I'm glad the developmental years are behind me!

What will the show be based around?

This show celebrates the release of the "Art is Out of Phaze" video and single. My team and I spent about one year working on the video. This includes the Kickstarter fundraising campaign. This show is all about honoring all the work that went into it. I'm also using the show to thank the 50+ Kickstarter backers for helping make it happen (I raised $3,000).

"Art is Out of Phaze" tells the story of my process - writing, throwing out, re-recording, re-shooting, etc. That's the "Phaze." I had to learn to accept that my Virtual CH show will always be out-of-phase with my current performance skills and newer songs. Because of the production lag time, it's just not possible to showcase the up-to-date art. I think this feeling is pretty universal with artists. "Art is Out of Phaze" is some of my best work. I hope that people sit in front of a stereo and listen, with no distractions, and hear the lyrics and the entire song. It's a bit of an homage to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The video has a fun storyline and introduces all three Virtual CH members as well as the live show.

For your live show, what instrument do you play onstage? How do you plan out the live show?

Right now I play guitar live on stage. I have played shows in which I bounce between guitar and drums, but that meant adding a lot more set up time to an already complicated show. This just proved to be too difficult to pull off in a rock club with other bands on the bill. I hope to choreograph a theater show with me bouncing between drums, guitars, and bass. It's just that I love watching and playing music at rock clubs so much!

I plan a new show by first performing entire songs on guitar and I sing the lyrics and hope to flush out a consistent vocal melody. From the start I try to think about how a song will come across live. Next I listen to the performance on drums and create drum parts. Then I listen to the main vocal with guitar, and I write a harmony for the bass player to sing. Next I write bass lines and then put the two together. I continue this process until I'm happy with how the song sits as a band. Next I fine tune edits and choreograph the band interaction. Once the show is complete, I shoot the video, edit to fit my screens and prepare the audio so that Virtual CH can be mixed like any live band.

What are people's reactions to the live show?

You know, even with my very first Virtual CH show, with one small computer monitor sitting on a chair, years before Christopher & Chris J had their own video screens, I've received a far better response than any live project I've played with. I credit this in part to the Twin Cities music scene. I think people here could envision where Virtual CH was heading and appreciate the early shows, even if things fell apart on stage a bit. This has been a really good market in which to nurture a musical experiment. It's those words of encouragement after those early shows when I felt embarrassed, that kept me going.

What can we expect to see at your album release show?

Things kick off at 7 p.m. December 6 at the Triple Rock for an early evening show. I'm going to bring hors dourves and there will be a fun drink special and sponsor. We'll have a social hour open to the public, to thank the video cast and crew, as well as the folks who helped support making the video via Kickstarter. We'll be projecting a slide show that shows how we made the video, including the performance portion that was shot right on the Triple Rock stage. Then at 8:00 PM we'll screen the video and have a video question and answer period. After that, Virtual CH will perform a full set. The evening will conclude around 10 PM.

I'm making brand new back lit video screens for my bandmates. They are going to finally be life-size! (Previously, my screens were a little smaller.) So, Virtual CH will have a brand new look. I've become pretty creative at building video screen frames out of PVC plumbing pipe. I think it's going to be my best show by far, and I hope it doesn't disappoint!

Virtual CH will release "Art is Out of Phaze" on Thursday, December 6, 2012 at the Triple Rock Social Club.
21+, Free, 7 pm

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