Eric Harrison is a singer-songwriter with roots in the 80s/90s New Brunswick scene and material that references it. He’s released over twenty singles since 2020, and a full length album in March titled “No Defenses.” He’s at pace for another album by the end of 2023/2024. He spoke with music reporter Ben Kelly by phone in early June.
Eric Harrison: Hey, Ben Kelly.
Ben Kelly: Hey, Eric.
EH: Have we crossed paths before, other than just social media? I was looking at you today and I vaguely recall, some kind of New Brunswick history where we might have overlapped.
BK: I was thinking it’s just been all virtual, honestly, just emails and such.
EH: And you’re young, right? You’re like in your 40s.
BK: I’m 32.
EH: Oh, you’re a kid!
EH: You’re talking to an alte kaker. You’re throwing a bone to the lost generation. So thank you. [Alte kaker: n. Elderly person, old-timer; A crotchety, fussy, ineffectual old man. “We’ll have to have the program early, so the alte kakers can come.”]
BK: Yeah, well you guys are my best reader audience, so. I found my niche.
EH: We still, we still read [laughs].
BK: Yeah, exactly. No, I’ll cover pop bands or whatever that are in their early twenties, and those articles don’t seem to do as well as my old school New Brunswick articles.
EH: Yeah. There’s a really strong camaraderie the older we get. And it’s not just nostalgia-based. It’s for the ethos of the band that’s all in it for the art of it, even if it’s not going to go anywhere. And everybody I make music with, especially from around here, still has that kind of like, Who gives a f— attitude, that we have to do this because it’s in our blood kind of ethos, which is actually laughable to the younger people. It used to be different. Like when we were kids, it was the older people who would laugh at the devil-may-care, art-for-art’s-sake attitude. Now it’s just a generational shift, I think.
So we need guys like you [laughs] frankly, because there aren’t that many. Like when I go to a show to see to see a band that I love, and I’m the youngest person in the room at age 54, that’s generally not a good thing.
BK: Well, at least you’re still going to shows. They’re still fun. That’s what it’s all about.
EH: Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you being interested enough to want to talk to me. Thank you for that.
BK: Yeah, of course. I think this one could go a little longer. I never quite know how these go. But I’ve got my questions. We go back to, the first time we communicated was for those three Melody Bar articles, which were March 2021. So I’ve been trying to do something with you since then. So now we finally are there.
EH: I remember that. Right. Because we had such great times with the Melody in the 90s. And watching that whole area go corporate was difficult.
BK: Yeah, let’s start there. So, first off, you do have that song called “Melody” on your latest album, which I really like.
EH: Oh thank you.
BK: I thought maybe it was going to be a Melody Bar song.
EH: [Laughs] No, no, not whatsoever. That one, so a bunch of the songs on the new album came into being during Covid. Larry Hart, who is another guy who is still very active on the scene, he and I were high school classmates in East Brunswick. And during Covid he created this sort of Virtual Songwriters collective. It was a Facebook group, and each week somebody would pick an assignment, to use a phrase or some kind of lyric. Usually it was a lyrical idea, and write a song within the next two weeks, and then everybody would upload them. And somebody picked the word Melody for the song. And I just had this idea sitting around, and it kind of just helped it come to fruition.
BK: For that one, it’s kind of a “I noticed you across the bar” kind of song. When you write a song like that, do you have a specific memory in mind, or is it more a conceptual, thematic thing going on?
EH: For about a decade, I had the opening line, “I can tell from the way that you chew your gum that you’re not from round here.” I had that line sitting around, and then making a melody… One of my challenges as a songwriter, I’m a pretty good lyric writer, but I often find that my melodies are pretty derivative [laughs]. So the concept of writing a song about a girl called Melody, and finding a unique melody to make all mine, it was speaking to me, because I’m always looking for a unique melody. So it kind of became like the girl I was pursuing was like the song I was pursuing.
BK: The lyric is, “If only I could find a melody to make you mine.”
EH: Right. There you go.
BK: I want to ask about all your productivity. I think you kind of hinted at it, but you’ve released 20+ singles since 2020, and then you put your full length album out in March. So how do you make the time for all that? Sounds like you’re in a songwriting group and you all push each other?
EH: Nah. Well, I’m a lawyer. I’ve got a pretty busy law career. But the older I get… I had a turning point in 2018 where I used to make music with another guy I grew up with named Eric Kvortek, and Eric recorded, he was an engineer at Trax East in South River, and he tragically died of brain cancer in 2017. He was fighting brain cancer while we made an album over the course of like a year and a half.
And when we lost him, aside from not having any desire to promote the album, I felt like, dried up. Because he had been my collaborator for more than a decade. And I felt like, you know what, making music costs me money anyway [laughs], and I’m a father of two and I got a mortgage to pay. Maybe it’s good that I’ve dried up, because every time I think of a good song, I start getting this itch to record it and to make it sound really good. And that costs money and time. And maybe it’s good that the well is dry, but let’s just see if there’s anything left in the tank.
So the summer of 2018, I took a week alone down the shore. It was actually in September of 2018. I think I was close to turning 50. And let’s see, I’m 54 now. Yeah, I guess that was around my 50th birthday. And I just took my guitar and a notebook, and I had nothing else planned for the week. And I was reading “Trouble Boys,” which is a book about the story of The Replacements, who were probably my favorite band of the 80s.
And I figured, you know, I got one idea left in me. I could write a song that’s kind of lovingly mocking myself and my friends, doing all of our middle-aged guy rock. And that’s when I came up with the song, “Our Band,” which we made a really fun video for. And then I’d say, over the course of the next two or three months, I wrote the whole album, “Gratitude.” And it’s been flowing pretty well since then.
And I don’t really push it. If an idea comes, I find the time when it’s nagging me. If it’s a good enough line or a good enough melody or chord pattern, then I have to find the time, and I do. So, yeah, it’s been a productive five years since then.
BK: What advice would you have for your fellow rockers that are balancing all those things, like kids, a job, a mortgage? And where do you find the time personally? Mornings, nights?
EH: I find it whenever an idea seizes me. I just sing it into my phone and then I come back to it when I can pick up a guitar, which is usually early weekend mornings. But my advice is, don’t push it. If you’re a writer and the songs are in you, they’re going to end up coming out. Sometimes they need to be coaxed out by forcing yourself to sit down in front of a piano or a guitar. But usually if you write the kind of music that I do, you’re looking for a three to four minute song with a hook. And the idea is there, it’s going to come out eventually. Just don’t fight it or try to make it something that’s not.
BK: And you said you were from or you went to East Brunswick High growing up?
EH: Yeah. Grew up in East Brunswick. Graduated ‘86.
BK: Oh, good times.
EH: They were.
BK: A good music era. When and where was your first New Brunswick performance yourself?
EH: [Laughs] Our first show in New Brunswick was at the Golden Rail, which I think is still there. And they didn’t have bands a lot then. And I vaguely remember [laughs] two of my bandmates, we were writing songs, I think it was 1990, and it was the summer we recorded our first album at Trax East, and we were already a little sick of each other from being in the studio every day for a couple of weeks.
And I remember we ran out of songs. Everybody was drinking except me because I always had a stick up my a– and I wanted us to sound really good and get discovered by an A&R guy from a record company, which is laughable. But I remember somebody called out for, like, a Van Halen song. And my brother, who played bass, and my friend Matt, who played guitar, they couldn’t agree over what key to play it in [laughs]. And then they just started beating the s— out of each other. And that was the end of the show. And I just took the two valuables, the bass and the guitar, and left and put them in the car so it would be safe. And the two of them worked it out over shots. But that was our first, very memorable New Brunswick gig.
BK: I think I heard one other band also had a fight there. I wonder if it’s something about the beer at the Golden Rail.
EH: I think they, if I remember correctly, in the summer of 1990 or so, it would be like a dollar a beer and a dollar a shot. But it would be the bad kind of liquor that gets you nasty drunk really quick [laughs].
BK: Yeah that’ll do it. And then was your brother the bassist in that Melody Bar video where he took a tumble?
EH: Yeah haha.
BK: Is he okay?
EH: I don’t even remember it very well, except that I think it was early 90s and I was in law school at the time. And we relearned my songs and we learned a bunch of covers. And things didn’t go well on the bass and drums battery, but still another memorable night. And the equipment was salvaged even though the bass got a little dinged up.
BK: Seems like a theme in your bands.
EH: [Laughs] No, that’s when we wanted to be like The Replacements a little bit. And so some of my bandmates drank like that for a time. But the tension was there of me wanting to be an “artiste” and the guys just wanting to get drunk and have fun. So we didn’t end up being the kind of band that stays and grows together, which is fine. We got what we needed out of each other and had a good time of it.
BK: And then, I don’t know if I’m mistaken, but did you end up in London for a while and play music there?
EH: I did, yeah. I spent my junior year in London and that’s actually when I learned to play guitar and started songwriting. Because I figured, I had been a band geek through high school. And my first two years of college, I played trumpet in jazz bands and orchestras, and I had very strong opinions about music. And I was the kind of annoying friend to whom you would say, like, Just shut up and do it, or do it better. Show me you can do it better yourself. And I didn’t know if I could do it better. I didn’t really have a voice yet.
But I started writing and singing in pubs, and I figured, I can make an a– out of myself here. I’m an obnoxious American already, and they don’t like me, so what’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll get laughed at and have some lagers thrown at me, but let’s see how it goes. And I started writing there, and I came back and finished school. And my senior year I started playing out around. That’s really when I started playing on my own around New Brunswick and Princeton. And a couple of bars in Trenton. And it was that summer after my senior year that we got together and recorded our first album at Trax East. That’s when it began.
BK: So you hit the Melody, and it looks like you also were fond of the Roxy because you have a cameo of it in the “Relay Road” video.
EH: Yeah, we played there. We played at the Roxy a bunch of times. There was another memorable fight there [laughs]. Somebody threw a beer at me because I sang a Bon Jovi lyric just to f— around, and my brother felt that he needed to defend me. So my brother, who’s like my size, which is not very large, just jumped on some dude at the bar. And I think, if memory serves, our mothers were there [laughs], and our mothers got involved in breaking it up, which is not very rock and roll.
EH: How about other places in town? Court Tavern, Doll’s Place. Any memories?
BK: The Court Tavern, I never played with my band at the Court Tavern. Actually, that’s not true. We did a show at the Court Tavern, when they started coming back. They were on and off, I think like 2003 or 4, possibly. But back in the day, I played at some open mics there. And I remember the Corner Tavern used to have folk night. I played there a lot when I was in my senior year of college and then a little bit through the 90s whenever I’d come back. I think the Ale ‘n Wich, too, used to do band nights. I think we played there a bunch of times.
BK: Nice. They’re turning 50 themselves, I think next year or this year, I think next year.
EH: Wow. Incredible.
BK: And Jim Babjak of The Smithereens lived across the street from there.
EH: Yes, I know that. I remember learning that back in the day.
BK: And I think there was actually a murder there a couple of years ago, but that’s a different story.
EH: That I didn’t know, so it’s changed a bit.
BK: But I might cut that out of this article. Here’s a question for you. John Lennon sang, “I am the Walrus” but there was some mystery to whether it was him or Paul. In your song “Until You Come Around,” who is the “Nostradamus of Paramus?”
EH: Haha, that’s an insightful question. It’s a made up character. First of all, I could not resist rhyming Nostradamus and Paramus because my wife is from Paramus. But to me it represents someone who’s completely burned out on life, but who used to have deep insights and isn’t using the skills and the resources that he’s got to make anything out of them. He sees this beautiful girl, he knows her name, but he calls her Kitten, and he’s not really spending the energy on figuring out what she’s all about and the potential that he could unlock in her if he gave her a chance. So, she wasn’t the [laughs], it wasn’t the walrus, it wasn’t Paul. It’s just a guy that we all know, the brilliant guy who is a little bit self-loathing and hasn’t given himself a chance, and as a result, he’s cutting himself off from meaningful interactions with others, including the opposite sex.
BK: Yeah, that tracks. I think we all know some Nostradamus of Paramus types.
EH: Yeah [laughs]. And they all owe a really f—ing huge tab somewhere.
BK: In your press kit you said the protagonist of “No Defenses” is “a weary voyager who accidentally discovers that midlife catharsis can deliver some clarity and joy.” Was that the theme throughout the whole album for you or just the title track song, “No Defenses?”
EH: I say you could find it in a lot of the songs. It’s also a self-justification for continuing to spend time and money on making music. Because I’m in my fifties and I have two kids, one of whom is in college and the other will be there in a couple of years, and I’ve been making music for so long and I’ve never made money from it. Part of my figuring out whether I should keep doing this is answering the existential question of why?
And the answer became, it started becoming pretty clear when I started writing that summer after I had lost my producer of all those years. And it’s because I want to make music that I want to listen to. And that alone, it makes it a self-justifying act to write and record now, and having no defenses to…
When you’re younger, vanity is a part of the picture. And the way that plays out now is how many likes do you have? How many followers do you have? Are you selling merch? Are you touring? How many views do you have on YouTube? And by any of those metrics, I’m absolutely pathetic as a songwriter [laughs] and recording artist and performer. But the music is the best I’ve ever made and to the point where I like listening to it, which I can’t say for a lot of the early stuff I did.
So that alone justifies it. The song “No Defenses,” I think, kind of captures the joy of somebody who really doesn’t give a s— anymore. “This is a midlife crisis, and you’re some bleak terrain, but I might stay.”
BK: Can I ask about the album art for that single?
EH: That’s me as Mr. Spo-. Oh, for the single?
EH: What did I put on the front of the single? I don’t remember.
BK: You look like Tony Soprano getting his newspaper in the morning.
EH: Hah, that’s right. Yeah. I mean, I could not be less attractive. But when I was writing, during the week I was writing the song, I think that’s the week that the Jon Bon Jovi rest stop went up. And I thought, you know, the fact that Jon wants to have a rest stop named after him, and I know he’s pals with Governor Murphy, and the fact that we have a governor who would do that, it’s also perfectly New Jersey. And I’m living in suburbia, singing about a guy living in suburbia having no defenses anymore, which is like no pretenses. And I’m a huge Sopranos fan, so I figured, why not cop to Tony? And we actually made a whole video out of it you can see on YouTube where I incorporate the Jon Bon Jovi rest stop and walking my dog in my bathrobe, et cetera.
BK: Yeah, pretty good. I like all your album art and stuff. I was wondering if you put a lot of thought into those, or if you just kind of do a quick and easy, have a fun shot with it? Because there’s a lot of singles, and a lot of them are just nice, clean photos. Some of them are humorous, and some of them are a little cultural zeitgeist thing going on.
EH: Pretty much everything I’ve done I’ve thought out. It has meaning to me. I don’t know if it makes it more or less marketable. But yeah, I give it a lot of thought. A lot of it’s DIY. Like that video, I made entirely myself. But even if I had a real crew to do it, I don’t think it would have come out much differently. But yeah, I do think about it a lot. I’m glad you paid attention to it. I appreciate that.
EH: And you keep pumping out the singles, so you’ve got to keep the visual art flowing too.
BK: Right. Because one thing I have accepted, is the reality that the listening span, the attention span of the listening public has never been shorter. So I still make albums because I like albums, but it would be foolish not to release singles and see what kind of foothold you can get with them. And they might end up becoming something that’s prominent in your set. Or not, depending on what they’re like when you send them out into the wild.
BK: So as far as what’s going on next, I think you’re pushing for another album for the end of the year?
EH: Yeah, I challenged myself. I’ve got a bunch of ideas in the hopper. And I challenged myself to have ten fully finished songs by September. And I think I’ll have the budget and the time to start recording them around then. And if my producer Kevin and I can keep to the schedule that we’re used to, I imagine I can finish an album in early to mid-2024.
BK: Who’s in your touring band? I think I saw Mike Doktorski as one of them.
EH: Yeah. I don’t know if I give us the credit of being a touring band, but when I play out, it’s Dok on bass, it’s my buddy Charlie Jackson on drums. And my producer, Kevin Salem, is my main guitarist because he’s an amazing guitar player. And my keyboard player ever since we lost my buddy Eric Kvortek, I wonder if he’d want me not mentioning him. He got a little embarrassed recently that I was, but yeah, it’s Eddie Konczal. He wouldn’t give a s—. It’s spelled K-O-N-C-Z-A-L.
BK: And it looks like you play at Crossroads in Garwood a lot. Is that the main spot?
EH: It’s the one place that will regularly have us. Because it’s hard to do originals and to draw a crowd. But we do pretty well at Crossroads, and they trust us to bring in a healthy share of people. And it’s pretty local to my home, too. It’s a fun place to play.
BK: And then were you in New York recently for a gig?
EH: Ehh, no we occasionally play at the Delancey, which is where I’ve already staked out a night to play in September, where I’ve challenged myself to play my new songs. But I haven’t played in the city since, I think, last September. Also at the Delancey.
BK: I think we’ve come to the end of my road. We know what’s next for you. You’re playing and writing new songs. Is there anything else you’d want to share about your musical journey, past and present?
EH: I can say, I know you focus on New Brunswick and the area. I’d say that growing up around here, we had access to people. You probably know the name Matt Pinfield, right? Matt Pinfield’s dad was a physics teacher at East Brunswick High School. Matt Pinfield DJ’d at my prom in 1986. And he was so enthusiastic as a DJ at WRSU, and then he moved on to MTV, and he became an important tastemaker in pop music. And then, having direct interaction with local bands, guys who did well like Glen Burtnik and The Smithereens, of course; being steeped in a world where those bands came from, was really a blessing to anybody who loved the kind of power pop that I try to make. And so I thank my Jersey geography, to a large extent, for giving me the lift-off that I needed to become the kind of songwriter whose music I want to listen to.
The success part, I can’t talk about because I don’t have any in the commercial sense. But the success is, in terms of songwriting, chops and taste, it’s huge that I had the privilege of growing up in this area. Because there was just so much great music going on in the 80s and 90s, and it really set my taste at an early age.
BK: Yeah, that was quite a robust time for bands and venues. There were so many different venues, and a lot of them were just bars with a band stand or little carpet area, but pretty much any night of the week, you could find live music back then.
EH: Yeah. And you know what? I’d say we took it for granted, and we kind of did, because we didn’t know it was going away. We figured, this is what people do. This is what we have to do. You can still find pockets of passionate music fans and great music being made. You just have to look a little harder. And unfortunately, what was the New Brunswick scene doesn’t really exist like that. But for people who carry the spirit, if you keep looking, you can still find it.
BK: Yeah, they’re still trying. There’s plenty of basement shows, but you can’t just wander around town and walk in. It’s a little different.
EH: Yeah. Awesome. Well I appreciate you including me in this. That’s very kind of you. Because I was never a big part of the New Brunswick scene. I was always kind of adjacent to it, but I dipped my toe in it enough to love it and have a real sense of camaraderie with the people who are still around.
BK: You know, that’s exactly the same word that someone else used the other day in an interview, they termed themselves as adjacent. And I’m adjacent myself, too. I think maybe whatever percentage of people that live in New Brunswick, lots of people come from around and still participate in the scene there. So adjacent is where a lot of of us are at, I think.
EH: Good. Well, it’s better than nowhere.
BK: Yeah, exactly.
For more Eric Harrison music, press, videos and streaming platform links, visit ericharrisonmusic.com.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.