—David Menconi, Down on Copperline
Carrboro resident John Harrison has always kept busy with his bands, primarily JPHONO1 and North Elementary. But the run he’s been on in recent years is still pretty amazing. This spring’s release of his latest work, the nine-song JPHONO1 full-length “Invisible Futures & Make Believe Pasts,” makes eight albums he’s put out in about three years. So from the start of the big Coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020, Harrison has been cranking out almost three albums a year through the Potluck Foundation collective.
“The pandemic really made me up my home-recording situation, because I’d always been a go-into-the-studio kind of guy,” says Harrison. “I ended up falling in love with home recording, because there’s no limits in time or money. I’m always recording, though not always with a goal or anything. But I like being creative, and working at the craft makes me discover more things and get better at it.”
Now 50 years old, Harrison has been a presence in local music since moving here in the mid-1990s. He first gained notice as drummer in the Chapel Hill band The Comas before forming his own group North Elementary about 20 years ago. While North Elementary remains ongoing, what started out as Harrison’s solo side-project incarnation is more of his primary focus now.
The name JPHONO1 came from the headphone output label on a four-track mixer in his studio, “PHONO 1,” to which he added the initial of his first name. All the circles in the letters were visually appealing to the painter in him.
“I wanted a name that did not conjure up any one specific thing,” he says. “I hope there’s a thread that links it all, but I’ve done field recordings and rock and roll and everything in between as JPHONO1. North Elementary is built to be a rock band, and I did not want to subject a situation that was working well to my whims. And as time went on, those whims came to override me wanting to play rock music. I still have that outlet and we love to play – we’re working on another North Elementary album, in fact.”
Indeed, JPHONO1’s far-flung discography ranges from textured electronic music to folk-songs played on acoustic guitar. The new album “Invisible Futures & Make Believe Pasts” is more of a full-band rock record, heavy on the psychedelics – with cowbell prominently featured on the opening track, “Fuzzy Peoples.” And like all his records, it’s not just available online. He also still goes to the trouble of making old-fashioned compact discs.
“Part of me feels like I’m holding onto something,” he says. “I’ve never put out music without a physical attachment. I share all this cryptic art and music and a lot of it is such a personal endeavor, but I always hope for connection. That’s what’s so great about music. The streaming and commerce and all that can be complicated. But just the music part, there’s no better time. People can create and put things out with no barriers, and that’s amazing.”
Harrison paints, too, co-founding the art/music collective Minus Sound Research, and his paintings adorn the walls of various local businesses. When he’s not painting or recording, he works for UNC (as does his wife, who is a professor).
“I’m always working on music because I enjoy it and trust the process I have,” he says. “I play guitar every day, but not always with intention. I tend to create things in batches, and when a bunch of songs happen at the same time quickly, that’s usually an album because it feels like they belong together. What anything should be kind of works itself out.”