Sami Perez and Spencer Hartling

If the fog that often billows over Twin Peaks through Ninth and Irving and into Golden Gate Park had its own soundtrack, it might sound a lot like Harry the Nightgown. The San Francisco duo’s self-titled debut album, featuring Sami Perez and Spencer Hartling, swirls with contrasting moods. The LP’s 13 tunes — alternately cheeky and melancholy — reflect the chilly, enigmatic city in which it was recorded. 

Harry the Nightgown’s first single, “Ping Pong” — the album’s standout track — is equal parts buoyant, ethereal, and breezy. The single was released on May 29. The pair recorded the album in Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, where they have worked as engineers and producers. 

Perez took a break from playing in San Francisco’s The Shes to record Harry the Nightgown. The record, set to be released on Aug. 7, is a showcase of the duo’s experimental engineering and production styles, as well as their shared love of playful sonic deconstruction, said Nik Soelter, the group’s publicist. 

Local News Matters recently chatted by phone with Perez and Hartling, who discussed, among other things, the challenges of releasing a record during a deadly global pandemic. A Q&A based on those interviews appears below. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Local News Matters: What instruments do you play?

Hartling: We kind of trade off. We’re the same in that we don’t have the attention span to master one instrument.

Perez: I’m actually playing (lead) guitar more now. I’ve been playing bass in San Francisco since I was 12, with The Shes and even after I moved to Los Angeles to play with Cherry Glazerr. But now I’m playing guitar with Harry the Nightgown. None of us in The Shes was formally trained musically. It was like, “You play guitar. You play bass. You play drums.” (laughs) I tend to play more melodies and made-up chords that are definitely not technically right, but that can be more exciting.

Where did you both meet?

Perez: We actually met on tour a long time ago. My band The Shes was playing down here (in Southern California). Spencer’s band opened that night, and we were all fighting to headline at this terrible dive bar in Ventura. But after that, we got along well and started collaborating.

And you both have worked at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco?

Hartling: We both engineer and produce there. The mentality of recording at Tiny Telephone is very unique. It’s primarily an all-analog studio, a tape studio where people use gear in a weird, non-traditional way. They intentionally misuse equipment to push the boundaries of what one can do in an analog format, to find limitations in creative ways so that they’re not limitations at all. We coined a term for how we record: “Toast and punch.” We have a song structure and we record that structure, and then we erase entire song parts in the middle and replace it by “punching” over it and if it doesn’t sound natural, that’s a good thing. It forces you to be a little sloppy. Instead of accepting imperfections, you strive for something “imperfected.”

Perez: Tiny Telephone totally shaped everything about who I am as a musician. When I started playing music with my friends, we were obsessed with The Donnas and the angsty spirit that most 12-year-olds have. John Vanderslice (Tiny Telephone’s owner) opened up my world of music and my mind, in terms of how to listen to music and how to write it. John is a very young soul and his music is always changing with the times. He taught me to listen for production quality and not just lean on a catchy melody. 

How did Harry the Nightgown come together? 

Hartling: The name was Sami’s. She had a tree outside her apartment when she was a kid that she claimed as an imaginary friend. She named it Harry the Nightgown. The wording of it kind of doesn’t make any sense and I loved it for that. Sami was playing in other bands and she wanted to experiment more because all the bands were in a classic-style space where you run the set and practice for some time before recording. I was working on my friend Ryan Heinke’s songwriting project. Sami would help engineer and sing on it, and we fell into this more experimental recording approach with it. Later, we used that experimental approach for Harry the Nightgown, and it stuck. We went into the studio after work and started tracking some songs. It felt very natural, we had a great work flow. John Vanderslice was really encouraging and inspiring for us. I think it was the first time I’d written music for myself and he said, “You need to keep doing this. You need to make an entire record.”

Can recording in a certain city or studio affect your sound?

Perez: I’m in Los Angeles now but I grew up in San Francisco. I lived at Hayes and Steiner (streets) until I was 10, and then in the Outer Sunset. I think geography can impact the sounds. There’s nothing quite like Tiny Telephone, with the family vibe there, and I haven’t yet experienced that here in Los Angeles. I started working at Tiny Telephone when I was 19 or 20, I sort of grew up in that studio. I don’t know if I would have had that same experience anywhere else.  

How did the songs for Harry the Nightgown come together?

Perez: Spencer and I dated for three years. We started writing together during that time, but we finished the album after we separated. Being in a band and working with your partner is so hard, so doing the album after breaking up was almost easier, in a way. Now it feels more honest. We’d write lyrics about the break up and then record each other singing the part. It feels special to do that with Spencer. I don’t know if I could have done that with anybody else. It’s a crazy challenge, but it speaks to how ambitious how we both are. 

Hartling: When the project initially started, we had worked on a lot of stuff and we were dating. I was going to record a song she’d written. We usually start with a bass or guitar, with a drum machine. I played most of the bass on it and I played some of the drums. The worst drumming is mine, while the best drumming is done by our friend Owen Barrett. (laughs) Our recording style involves us usually playing parts and writing it on the spot, rather than practice beforehand. Our songwriting style is experimental. It’s a broad term but it definitely applies to what we do. When I’m in my worst head space, it can sound super derivative and poppy, yet it also can be very out there and kind of strange.

How has this project been different from your other bands?

Perez: The Shes are on a mini-hiatus. We did a European tour last summer and when we got back, we all went through huge transitions. We’re taking a year or two to adjust. I want to continue to make music with them, they’re still my best friends; have been since I was 5. It’s fairly easy to compare the two bands because they’re so different. I love them both for very different reasons. The Shes – that’s still evolving, it’s a four-piece band. We write all the songs in a rehearsal space before going to record them. It’s more traditional in that way. Harry the Nightgown is more experimental. The songs are built on production methods, but we don’t finish a song before we record it, if that makes any sense. There are so many songs on the album we have to go back and relearn to perform live. We’re like, “We performed that guitar part once, how does it go again?” (laughs) But Harry the Nightgown is a creative outlet for our new taste in music. We needed an outlet for how much we have grown.

Who are your musical heroes/influences?

Perez: The Donnas, for when I was with The Shes. My dad was a mod and my mom was a punk, so I got (an appreciation of) The Buzzcocks from her, and of The Who and The Jam from my dad. The Jam influenced me for their melodies; they have really poppy melodies and harmonies, and their basslines are super hooky and interesting. My mom loves to dance and my dad managed a boy band when I was really little. They really pushed me to do music even though they weren’t musicians. As a younger kid, it was a lot of mod, British power pop stuff. From there, it just evolved into current stuff. Currently, I’m into the recent Mid-Air Thief album, and people like Kate Bush. 

Hartling: It has varied year to year. I’ve been into electronic music the last few years, which has revealed to me this whole world of programmed music that I avoided my whole life. I’ve realized how creative it can be. 

How would you describe your music? 

Perez: I would file it under pop, maybe experimental-ish pop. We try to put a hook in there, to diverge from what is a world of weird noises and ideas. This (Harry the Nightgown) album is about experimenting with sounds. 

Hartling: It feels like it’s minimalism and maximalism fighting against each other. Honestly, when I have close friends listening, they say it sounds like Sami and I sound as people. We’re pretty intense people but also can be jokesters. We can be playful but out there at the same time. We’re like 5-year-olds who are also intent on having serious conversations.

How much did working in a recording studio help the album?

Hartling: It definitely helped. When someone would cancel their recording session at the studio, John would tell us and encourage us to just use the space. He’d rather someone use it than have it just sit empty. So, we were allowed to do night sessions. We’d go all night until 6 a.m. and then I’d go to work at my day job in a restaurant until 4 p.m. 

Sami, you worked at Women’s Audio Mission (a San Francisco organization that provides hands-on training and experience for women in music, film, and several other art forms). How did that help your musical growth?

Perez: It’s been very important. That’s another thing that totally shaped who I am. The Shes were playing an outdoor festival when I was in the 8th grade and someone from Women’s Audio Mission said, “You should come and record in our studio.” So, I started interning there and kept working there all through high school. My experience there is how I got my job at Tiny Telephone. It’s an amazing community and support group for female engineers. It’s hard being a woman in a scene dominated by dudes. I realized that it’s all about confidence. When I started, even if I knew our ideas were different than our male producers, I wouldn’t say it because I didn’t know how to say it; it can be scary to be the only woman in the studio. Going to Women’s Audio Mission helped me gain confidence. It made me comfortable to be a 21-year-old engineer recording for 40-year-old male bands. That was huge for me, for sure.

What are the challenges of releasing an album during a global pandemic?

Perez: We can’t do a release tour or show to promote it, but I think a lot of people really want to listen to music right now. So, I’m excited to share it. And it’s true, we are listing to music more because what else are we doing right now? John Vanderslice has talked about holding live streams twice a week with two different kinds of sessions: a normal set and a “doctor-is-in” kind of show with a Q&A. Maybe we’ll brainstorm with him on ways to play remotely. We’re looking into alternative ways to play our live set. We’ve been able to stay creative during this time, working on new songs a bunch. I hope a lot of other people are, too, so we can share this creative time even though we’re all stuck inside.

Hartling: I don’t see it as a big setback because our favorite thing to do is to record. The benefit of us releasing the record right now is just to get it out into the world. We practiced for a tour, but touring is definitely off the table for now. Maybe we’ll do the virtual thing like other bands. Either way, I can’t feel too bad because a lot of people are in worse positions than us right now because of this.