Jay Harmon brings in new collaborators to get weird on new album 'Familiar'

On “I’ll Have You All Killed,” the second track on Francis Bacon Band’s new album, Familiar, frontman Jay Harmon sings of “burnt flesh,” “loose skin hung on the mantel” and “holy innocent blood,” punctuating the violent imagery with a repeated phrase: “A vicious fly off the handle.”

While the song comes across as dark and sinister, the track’s origins come from a far more mundane, comical place. “I was scraping my car in the morning in the winter, and it broke. And the first thing I said out loud was, ‘I’ll have you all killed!’” Harmon said, laughing. “That was such an insane thing to say that I was like, ‘Where does that come from?’ … Apparently there's some sort of angry king inside of me. [And] all it took was the [broken ice scraper]. That was it.”

Harmon said he hid lots of “dumb jokes” throughout Familiar. “They're probably mostly for me,” he said, and referenced one of his biggest musical influences — the enigmatic Scott Walker. “He does so much of that, where it’s the darkest song ever, and then there's laugh-out-loud funny moments. I always love how that makes me feel. The more I can do that the better.”

Harmon began writing most of the songs on Familiar after releasing 2016 album Retreat, a poppy, Neil Young-inspired collection. Francis Bacon Band regrouped soon after Retreat and returned to the Indianapolis studio of Tom Mitchell, who plays bass on the band’s recordings (bass players rotate for live gigs). This time around, though, Harmon felt uninspired on guitar, so he let guitarist Mark Dutton write the majority of the guitar parts. The band also picked up a new, jazz-trained drummer, Troy Kunkler, which gave the new songs more breathing room.

“With Troy, we were like, ‘Use all of your jazz influence. We're gonna experiment with doing things that are a little outside the box,’” Harmon said. “If you look back through our other stuff, it’s sort of like a more straightforward thing, then a weirder thing, then more straightforward. So we definitely knew we wanted to get weird [on Familiar]. We wanted something that we could really mess with in the studio.”

After laying down some bare-bones tracks in Indianapolis, with plenty of space to fill, the songs sat dormant for a couple of years until the band began working on overdubs in the basement studio of Chris Lude (DANA), who embraced the “get weird” aesthetic. Other musicians came in and out, adding violin, cello, saxophone and more.

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“One of my buddies (Taylor K. Conrad) lived next door, and he happened to come by, and we were like, ‘You play guitar. We're doing this improv part right now.’ … It ended up working and so it’s on the record,” Harmon said. “Getting in [Lute’s] studio was really fun. It felt like we could do anything. There's one song with a lot of layers of percussion, and we were just looking around and finding what thing we hadn't hit with drum sticks yet. And we ended up hitting the concrete floor, and it's my favorite part of it.”

“I've always embraced a little more chaos,” Harmon continued. “I like stuff that's a little shaggy. So even though we're doing this more produced record, it's still going to have a little dirt on it.”

Listening to Familiar now, years removed from the point of creation, Harmon hears a lot of contemplation on regret, along with some sci-fi, Philip K. Dick-style dabbling in alternate realities, such as on the track “Perfection.” “It’s having this perfect idea of what your life could be in your mind, [then] grappling with why that isn't so,” he said.

But much of the time, Harmon doesn’t want Francis Bacon Band songs to be convey a linear, clean narrative. If he didn’t happen to tell you the story in a Downtown coffee shop, you’d likely never know that a threatened death sentence is really just a callback to an infuriating morning battling a frozen windshield. But Harmon is fine with that.

“Writing lyrics is more of a process of obscuring for me,” he said. “It's like taking a bunch of ideas, putting them in the blender and giving you hints. It’s knowing what I'm talking about, but leaving it open enough for you to pull whatever you want.”