Extradition Order's Alastair Harper Puts The Story in History with 'American Prometheus'

Alastair Harper of Extradition Order joined Whitney Moore for a Tower Live show on Instagram all the way from the UK, shortly after the vinyl release of the band's latest album, American Prometheus.

Harper said he’s very “jolly” drinking “Vinho Verde” on this end. With Brexit having happened, and the country seemingly coming together a little more, the government decided to “disrupt” things by bringing in a Rasputin-like figure called Dominic Cummings, Harper explained. Who proceeded to go visit some castles, breaking lockdown, which led all the citizens to do the same.

Harper is near Manchester, and he quoted Mark Hammill, saying “If there’s a bright center of the universe, this is the furthest point from it.”, referring to his hometown of Warrington.

Asked about whether he’s able to see band mates during this time, Harper said that they tried to once have a kind of digital “house party”, but that was too confusing and didn’t work out. Like a real party.

Extradition Order have been making music much more quickly than usual, however, since they usually spend ages researching historical figures before working on a new album. They did a live session together, with editing, to benefit the Betsey Trotwood venue. 

“Flattening the Curve”, their April-released single, is out but they are also going to do an EP of quarantine songs, he promised. Extradition Order has been busy.

Explaining their musical process, Harper said that one of the band members comes up with an idea and sends it to the others, who work on it. Jeremy Walton, and Matthew Bergin, the keyboardist, have been coming up with things, and letting Harper put a “funky beat” on them. It usually takes getting at least two people excited about a song to get the others on the “production line” and that’s been working for them.

Extradition Order seems to have quite a fascination with American history, and Moore asked if that comes from Harper. He fears it might be his “obnoxious” tendencies and interests, he laughed.

The band started off as “school friends singing about stupid stuff” in the early days. That was when their lives were dull, and now no one’s lives are dull! First it was John F. Kennedy, then Robert Oppenheimer (in American Prometheus), who obsessed Harper’s interest. He tries not to make the albums just about famous white men, but also draws in a bigger context of people around those people, including some amazing women who were “great minds” in the context of Oppenheimer.

Some of these women were very scientifically minded, who never got the careers they deserved because of their gender. Oppenheimer had a girlfriend, later lover, who was a communist, Harper explained. Oppenheimer’s lover, Jean Tatlock ended up killing herself over this love triangle. So there’s plenty of drama and feeling in these stories.

Their next album may be about M. F. K. Fisher, who ended up in California towards the end of her life. She spent the 1930s-1950s in Europe and was a “food writer”, kind of like Julia Child but a much more “radiant, sexual, vivid” figure. She wrote a book which was a biography surrounding food themes, telling stories from her life, including fleeing from the Nazis. She wrote the book while pregnant, and never revealed who the father of her child was. She was a person who was “unafraid” to be in the world, the “best of America” in Harper’s mind.

Hearing about struggles and stories reminded Moore that we’re in the middle of historic events, and she wondered if Harper will ever write songs about the historical side of things happening now. The Lockdown EP will be about Corona, he confirmed, but he’s not afraid to cover modern historical things in his work.

The “statue issue” is becoming big in the UK also, with statues of slave owners being thrown into the sea and canals. Harper has been amazed by people thinking that destroying statues is destroying history itself. History, of course, is layered, a “palimpsest”, and can’t be destroyed by destroying monoliths.

Harper tried to address monoliths in American Prometheus, and in particular, the America First movement in the 1930’s when people were thinking that fascism might be kind of attractive. He felt very angry about the murder of Jo Cox in the UK, so he channeled those feelings into working on the album, focused on the idea of being tempted by fascism.

He’s always been a “nosy bugger” about history, Harper said, and doesn’t tend to think about history as other peoples’ lives. He’s “really bloody creepy”, he laughed, and tends to google people, since he’s just nosy. With Kennedy, he was fascinated by the youngest Kennedy sister who had learning disabilities and ended up being given a lobotomy, Rosemary. Things like that interest him. You can’t “get to grips” with history, since there’s always more to learn, he feels, unlike people who get their history from plaques on statues.

Extradition Order’s approach to music seems like a film making perspective, focusing on characters, Moore observed. Has Harper ever thought about writing movies? He’d do the Extradition Order movie if we know of anyone who will option it!

It is all about stories for Harper, he confirmed. Music has been a diary for the band, concerning lockdown and the virus, which is different from anything they’ve ever done before, though. One of the new songs is about a guy who leads a quiet life in a Northern English town and the idea that his life can be “shattered” by what happened in a Wuhan market an entire world away really speaks to Harper.

How do they strike a musical balance between lighter musical tones and heavier themes, Moore asked. 

Harper was getting really into Soul music at the time he was investigating Oppenheimer, and the band decided to make a “Northern Soul” album. They actually lost one of their key members, their bassist, Nicholas Boardman, while recording the album, but continued to see the project through. They made a “leap” that moved them to a new sound by trying to set those goals, even though it seemed far to reach.

Harper was actually calling Tower from his parent’s house, the same house where he met Nick Boardman at the age of 9 years old. When they got the band together and both lived in London, they were really “tight”. Harper’s own creativity was full of “arrogance” and “anxiety”, he said, but Boardman was able to help balance Harper out, not to mention being good looking! He even got solo project offers from music producers.

Sadly, Nick Boardman died a couple years ago of cancer, which he struggled with but couldn’t recover from. While he was still alive, Boardman and Harper discussed whether to continue to do the album, and he annointed Anoushka Kenley to take up his bass work, passing on his actual bass guitar. Now the band actually has gender parity and beyond, which is a good goal to have.

Extradition Order also released a music video, “Baby, What Have You Done For Me Lately?” this year. It was done by Will Brown, a good friend, who’s done other videos for them. They have a monthly night in London which includes a performance from one band, and they held one that was about Nick Boardman. They gathered friends and asked them to send videos of him, and Will Brown edited it together. They haven’t “pushed” the video much because of all the catastrophes that are going on in the world, but Brown has also done another video for them also.

They found a bit of central London to film early in the morning with no one else around. Now that would be easy! When things are more normal, they want to return to more videos and push them more.

Harper’s friend Nathan Brenville does a lot of artwork for the band, e-mailing them from Spain where he lives. The band is a “community” of people. Harper hates the idea that anyone is a “towering genius”, but everyone is part of a community who builds that work, he feels. It’s definitely true. 

“Everything gets so Punk in lockdown.”, Harper said. It’s all “do it yourself”. You’re using synths, Garage Band, and other free apps on your phone to make videos now. Do you want to make something? Then use these methods. The band sings into their phones instead of using microphones, even! Ian Button helps them with their rough mixes, makes things “crisp and clear” right now, and is the person who has mixed their albums, too.

Fortunately, our great technology is helping us out these days, Moore observed. Harper pointed out that the microphones on our phones are better than anything The Beatles ever had.

Regarding touring, they were planning on a summer UK-based set up, but that’s been “screwed”. They managed to do a few shows before lockdown. The property market in London is so “corrupt” that the venue slate has been reducing year by year, Harper explained. There are a few places for indie bands to play, like The Windmill, and The Betsey, but not many. The UK is lucky to have a few of these left. In Hull there’s the New Adelphi.

Harper’s been on a holiday to New York and LA and booked a show in both places so he could claim that he’d done a “coast to coast” tour. Does he have a bucket list of places in the States he’d like to play? Well, he actually lived in New York for a while, but things change fast.

What was the last show that Harper attended? Probably the band’s album launch for American Prometheus in Lexington. Harper has a nice selfie of the band on stage. It’s a room “crammed with sweating bodies” and he doesn’t know when they can experience that again. There were other “brilliant bands” playing. It was a great evening of friends “getting drunk and close” and “dropping moisture on each other without any danger”, unlike what’s possible now, he laughed.

What’s Harper been listening to lately and collecting? He’s been hearing a track by Billy Nomates called “No” on the radio he’s been hearing and liking. There’s lots of great female-led bands happening right now, with punk and ethereal elements. Also, plenty of great bands from Scandinavia. He’s been enjoying “obviously lovely” stuff because we need it, like Otis Redding.

There’s nothing better in an isolated urban area than Joy Division, like Ian Curtis’ despair as you walk through an abandoned market in an empty town, Harper said.

Does Harper have any advice for fans to survive this time? He thinks that at this “bizarre time” but he also thinks this is a specific opportunity to tackle racial inequality, we now know that “normal doesn’t have to be normal”. We can turn off the “engines of productivity” on the world. Sometimes it’s possible to then “enjoy the night, cook far too much, enjoy some excellent wine”, and look after people. Try to think about the “curious, wonderful” people inside the buildings around you who can’t go outside. They deserve to “topple the statues” of the people who would mute their stories. “Let’s not be afraid to have to have some fun.”, he added.

What does Harper think of our Tower motto, No Music, No Life? It’s an indication of how alive you are, he thinks. He’s not met anyone interesting who don’t like music. Most “dull, cruel, irrelevant people” have no interest in music, he said. It doesn’t matter what music, particularly, either. He can’t imagine that someone like Donald Trump has ever “thought of a beat” and doesn’t trust anyone who “doesn’t have a beat in themselves”.

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