Interview: Bill Harley & Keith Munslow

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Are they musicians who tell stories or story-tellers who play music?  Whichever the case, Bill Harley and Keith Munslow are of my favorites.  Inspired by a Sirius-XM Kids Place Live contest which challenged them to write a song with the title "It's Not Fair To Me," the duo recorded a whole album of songs (titled It's Not Fair To Me) filled with rivalries and humor, sibling and otherwise.

I called them up in New York last week to talk about the new album just before they were heading off on a road trip down the Eastern Seaboard to play a handful of shows.  After some good-natured ribbing as they figured out the mechanics of the 3 of us talking (Harley suggested that Munslow go to another room so they could both conference in on their individual phones, then joked, "who wants to hear two of him [Munslow]?  That's too much"), we got down to talking about their own sibling histories, the process of recording the new album, and finding time to make music even as you're about to become a parent for the first time.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Bill Harley (BH): My dad was a classical and jazz musician, so it was listening to him.  I played music.  My mom wanted to make sure I had lessons -- I thought I was playing music until they gave me lessons.

Keith Munslow (KM): I remember the piano.  My 3 older sisters took lessons, so I remember them playing showtunes, pop music of the time.  My grandmother would come over and play.  I didn't take lessons on the piano at all -- I wanted to play drums, which is ironic since I primarily play piano now.

Did you get along with your siblings?

KM: I got along with my sisters.  I was the youngest -- my sisters are 6, 11, and 12 years older.  My rivalry was with my brother.

BH: I was in the middle -- 3 boys within four, five years of each other.  We were squabbling constantly.  My older brother is a mild, gentle soul; I had more of a rivalry with my younger brother.  But, you know, I was on a plane recently, and I could some siblings fighting with each other ahead of me, and they were across the aisle from each other.

KM: Yeah, brothers definitely fight more.

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Are the songs on It's Not Fair To Me based on your own families or observations of others?

KM: Both.  If it wasn't your family who was fighting, it was your friends who had families.  The culture of squabbling has not evolved at all.

BH: Families are the basis of how people begin to relate to one another.  There is an endless amount of material, but it all has the same basic theme.  The subtext, of course, is that squabbling doesn't work, but people laugh because they recognize themselves in the stories.

KM: It feels real comfortable.

BH: In some ways, [the album] comes out of us performing on stage.  There is a storyline out of having 2 people on stage.  At the beginning of us performing on stage, there was a lot of Keith trying to disrupt me.

KM: There were some shows where Bill had some broken fingers as a result of a basketball injury, and I had to play more of the [backing] music, and it was too tempting for me not to do something with that.

BH: In clowning, there's the theory of the high status/low status clown.  "High status" is someone like John Cleese.  We used that some.

You recorded some (most?) of the album separately -- how did you get the interplay between the two of you to work?

KM: Actually, we did a good amount of the record in the same room.

BH: We shared some tracks via Dropbox -- Keith was the engineer for the albm.

KM: We did a lot of the arguments more than once.  In the process, those arguments may have gotten better, tighter.

BH: In some ways, it would have been nice to have a separate producer to focus more on that.

KM: But can I just say that a huge part of the fun of making this album was that we had to play everything.

BH: We actually had to practice...

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It sounds like you enjoyed making the album.

BH: The crafting of a song is work.  You find yourself beating your head against the wall a lot.  Sometimes Keith would bring a couplet and we'd just work it.

One of the best parts was being in our recording studio.  If you're paying, you might feel guilty about it, but in this case, we had no deadlines.

KM: Sometimes in the studio you're basic decisions on the fact you're paying $100 per hour.  There was one track for the new album where, when we both listened to it a week later, we both said, no, that's not working.  The playfulness is more easily accessed.

What's next -- will you be playing more shows together?

BH: We don't have a whole lot scheduled right now.  This week we're going down to record a show for Kids Place Live, play just outside DC, then some shows here in New York.

KM: We're trying to schedule more stuff.

BH: I'm excited that my son Dylan's going to play drums for us on some shows.

Oh, yes, he just finished up his Kickstarter pitch.

BH: He's very excited about that.

OK - final question. You both have lots of different things going on at any particular time. How do you keep it all straight?

BH: Keith?

KM: [laughs]

BH: He's about to have a kid.

Congratulations!

KM: Thanks.  My wife's due in a couple weeks.  You have to have somebody keeping things straight for you.  You have a balance of jobs that pay and others you do for fun.

BH: Anytime you do one thing, something else suffers.  I work in crisis mode.  For example, there's this book deadline that just spring upon me.

Being an artist is a hustle -- there are many things in the air at any given point.

KM: I am surprised at the things that catch on, that gets an audience.

Photo credits: Ears - Erin K. Smithers; Ice Cream - Pam Murray