Three years isn’t an inordinate amount of time for a band to allow an album’s worth of material to coalesce. For Cincinnati’s The Harlequins, the gap since the band’s last releases — the Sex Change EP and a rarities collection, Bee Sides: Volume 1, both issued in 2013, and a live album from 2014 — has been filled with almost everything except material for its new album, One With You.
Just prior to Sex Change, the local Psych/Pop/Garage trio — guitarist/vocalist Michael Oliva, bassist Alex Stenard and drummer Rob Stamler — played Texas’ famed South by Southwest festival/conference, and the musicians were considering how to proceed in capitalizing on the momentum of releasing their self-titled full-length in 2012 and the aforementioned EP. They had been working on material — new songs and a backlog of older material that they’d never brought to the studio, plus a revised version of “Hear Me Out” from their eponymous album that they wanted to explore further. The options seemed limitless.
“We were like, ‘Should we do an EP or a full-length?’ We weren’t really sure,” Oliva says. “Also, our friend Aaron Modarressi, who recorded most of our stuff, was getting ready to move, so we were thinking about working with other people.”
Before the trio could resolve their next recording step, fate intervened in the form of touring buddies and good friends Gringo Star, an established band from Atlanta. The group’s Nick Furgiuele called Oliva with an interesting proposition.
“They had all these tours booked, they were about to put out an album, their guitarist quit and they were always between drummers,” Oliva says. “They were like, ‘Would you and Rob want to join us on this tour and play together for a little bit?’ We didn’t want it to take over both bands, but it was kind of a perfect thing. We didn’t have much going on and we’ve always been friends with them.”
After receiving Gringo Star’s then-new album, Floating Out to See, Oliva and Stamler practiced constantly on their own before being joined by Gringo’s Nick and Peter Furgiuele for a marathon band rehearsal. A couple of weeks later, The Harlequins played Cincinnati’s MidPoint Music Festival, sharing a bill with Kurt Vile, then prepared to hit the road with Gringo.
“We played that (MidPoint) show, went home, packed our shit, slept for like three hours, drove in the middle of the night to Atlanta, rested a bit, then practiced the same set for two days,” Oliva says. “So we had like three practices, then started the West Coast tour. It was so awesome. We come from similar influences (as Gringo Star) so it wasn’t hard to pick up, but I was doing more technical stuff on guitar. They were opening for J. Roddy Walston & The Business, so we got to play some sick venues. Alex couldn’t be involved in (the tour), but we asked him first and he was cool — we were like, ‘It’ll probably give us connections for the band.’ ”
Indeed it did. In 2014, The Harlequins again played shows at South by Southwest, with Oliva and Stamler doing double duty with Gringo Star for their fest appearances. One of the shows was at a small Irish pub, which was attended by Nicole LaRae and Brian Hoekstra, founders of newly formed Grand Rapids, Mich. label dizzybird records. The pair ended thoroughly impressed by both bands.
“(LaRae and Hoekstra) posted that their favorite band was The Harlequins in this Irish pub,” Oliva says. “Everything, even with Gringo, was just all organic. We got a message from Brian and he was like, ‘We want to do something when you’ve got enough for an album. We really like your stuff and we want to get it out there.’ ”
With a label secured, all that was required was enough material for an album. Once the trio reconnected to focus on its plans, the musicians thought in concrete terms about what they expected from the album.
“There was fear,” Oliva says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Just don’t make it suck!’ I wanted it to be a really cohesive album, even though it’s pretty eclectic. I think it’s the most eclectic mix of songs since (2009’s debut full-length) Baron Von Headless, and that was kind of the goal. I didn’t want to do anything too new, but I wanted to do the same thing in a different way.”
Around the time of the Sex Change EP, The Harlequins had advanced to the point of having fully absorbed their influences and were now translating them instead of channeling them. As such, the songs on the self-recorded One With You don’t steer far afield from The Harlequins’ typical sound and fury, but the album exudes an unmistakable air of confidence and authority. It’s particularly evident in the band’s new live presentation — last fall’s firing-on-all-cylinders show at Washington Park during MidPoint was one of the festival’s highlights. Oliva says that the new album reflects the band’s maturity.
“We’ve been a band for almost a decade,” he says, “and as we grow older, we hope to age like a fine wine rather than rotting or turning like spoiled milk.”
Although Oliva notes there isn’t an actual theme to One With You, he does say it is perhaps the band’s most autobiographical material to date. There are a handful of songs that touch on Oliva’s relationship with his wife, artist Ellina Chetverikova, and others that deal with the grind of life.
“The subject matter of our past work were ideas, but there were always real experiences at the heart, sometimes more conceptual or philosophical,” Oliva says. “This one was more personal.”
The Harlequins are banging in their stalls to tour behind the vinyl/digital download release of One With You, which comes out Saturday. But an injury nearly took touring off the table. Last November, in a rare state of inebriation, Oliva severely jammed his thumb while trying to remove his boot doing the old one-foot whiskey hop. As a result, he suffered a ligament tear and a chipped bone and is still doing physical therapy, which could continue for several more months. But he has been resilient. The Harlequins continued playing regularly across the region, and along with this weekend’s hometown release show, the band so far has dates booked in New York and Philadelphia in the coming months.
“We didn’t have to cancel any shows,” Oliva says. “They fitted me with a splint so I could play, and even use it as a slide sometimes. I could still form chords, but some were a little weird, like the song ‘Over a Hill,’ the bridge has this Jazz chord, so we couldn’t play that live for a little while.”