Ok, Beatles fans, here comes the ... “Don’t say it!” exclaims Dhani Harrison, the son and only child of the late George Harrison, with a laugh.
The son has indeed come, in a big way. Making himself more publicly visible after his father’s death in 2001, Harrison now leads his own band, thenewno2, and also played a lead role in the development of The Beatles’ “Rock Band” game. And suffice to say he’s heard enough puns on his father’s “Here Comes the Sun” to merely shake his head, even when it’s said in jest.
“You know,” Harrison, 31, says, “we did this great, funny press release with quotes about the album, and it said, ‘Here comes the son’ — Vogue. ‘Here comes the son’ — Elle. Most people who write about you label you, and it’s easy to go for certain things. It’s hard to talk about ideas or what the industry is doing or all the fun stuff, because people don’t really know about it — or want to.
“I just try to make it difficult for people to make it look like I’m just another kid of (The Beatles).”
The truth is, Harrison — whose mother is George Harrison’s second wife, Olivia Arias — “did everything I could not to be a musician.” Though blessed — to an uncanny degree — with his father’s looks, musical acumen and modest disposition, he studied physics and industrial design at Brown University and tried his hand at aerodynamics and other pursuits, including rowing. “And I ended up being a musician,” he notes. “It’s in the DNA, I guess.” But, Harrison adds, it was not necessarily what his father wanted for him. “My dad was always, ‘Don’t be famous. Don’t envy this. Be a musician but don’t be famous; you lose all your freedom and you can’t do anything. You have to live a different life.’ We were both private people, and he did a really great job of keeping me out of the press all my life.
“I felt like when I was ready to do what I want to do, everyone would pay attention because everyone is always trying to compare you to your dad and how you are in relation to the other (Beatles) children and this and that. I think the only way you can do it on your own (terms) is do it yourself.”
Harrison moved into music slowly. He worked on his father’s posthumous 2002 album “Brainwashed,” performed at the 2002 Concert For George tribute, played on some latter-day Traveling Wilburys tracks and guested with Rooney and Wu-Tang Clan, a personal favorite of his, before making his own music.
“There was no hurry,” Harrison notes. “I’m kind of nerdy and geeky and a perfectionist. I think I learned a lot about not buying into a lot of hype. I wanted to be a kind of faceless entity; I didn’t want to be Dhani Harrison and the Muppets or something like that.”
He formed the thenewno2 with Oliver Hecks, who he’s known and worked with since the two were teenagers in England. Hecks, who’s also 31, recalls “jamming to stuff like (Jimi) Hendrix, (Led) Zeppelin, anything we could think of, really,” while Harrison says they also were enamored with the electronic, trippy Bristol sounds of Tricky, Roni Size and Tortoise Head. And while the prospect of making music in a Beatle’s house was a bit intimidating, Hecks says he got over it soon enough.
“Obviously it wasn’t, like, a regular dad. He’s a Beatle,” Hecks notes. “At the same time, he was just a lovely man. We always got on really well. He was so modest about the whole thing that I never really thought about it too much. You get used to it, in a way, then it becomes not really the big deal you’d think it would be.
“He’d pop in and out. He was always encouraging and really nice.”
Harrison and Hecks went to different universities but stayed in touch and continued writing songs during school breaks. The duo eventually moved to Los Angeles and began recording material for thenewno2 — named after the character No. 2 in the British TV series “The Prisoner” — in earnest around 2006, with a fastidious and meticulous nature that kept things from rolling out until this year.
“My dad was very good at making records ... He would probably go nuts if he saw how long I spent on my records,” Harrison says with a laugh. “But we don’t fix stuff; we just like to make it like the way we want to hear it. It’s not like we’re cheating and making pop music; it’s all played, and you go and see it live.
“I think it’s nice to be meticulous sometimes, because you look back on it and you find this stuff that you didn’t really take as much care as you could have. It really bums me out when I hear, ‘Oh, that song could have been even better if I’d of just bothered to keep going with it.’ But there is a point where you have to stop, too.”
Harrison and Hecks gave the thenewno2’s debut album, “You Are Here,” a “soft release,” mostly via the Internet and leading with singles such as “Another John Doe” and “Choose What You’re Watching.” They’ve eschewed record companies to handle things on their own, and Harrison acknowledges an interest in high-tech delivery systems such as the Internet, cell phones and video games.
“I’m really into that kind of technology,” he says, “and I think this album really has that sort of spirit in the music.”
His tech fascination also led Harrison to do some work with “Rock Band” manufacturer Harmonix, which made him the chief proponent for a Beatles video game that came out to much fanfare in September.
“Well, not to sound like I’m boasting or anything, but it was my idea,” he says. “I became obsessed with ‘Rock Band,’ and I ended up meeting the guy who designed it and we both became very good friends because we are both nerds. I took the project to Apple and I sort of convinced all of the four to have a presentation. I said, ‘Look, there’s a whole new generation of kids that play these games and we can give them a chance to appreciate The Beatles,’ and they got it.
“I don’t know what my job description is; being enthusiastic is my job description, I think. It’s been a real headache, but it’s been the most enjoyable work I’ve done in my life.”
He hopes to ultimately derive the same reward with the thenewno2, which is currently in the midst of its first full-scale tour, opening for Wolfmother and breaking in a “powerhouse” new rhythm section of Nick Fyffe from Jamiroquai and Frank Zummo, who’s worked with Mötley Crüe. “This is the all-out, high-energy version of the band,” Harrison notes. That’s also rubbed off on the group’s new material, which he says is “heavier than the old stuff” but still references the electronic influences he and Hecks grew up with.
“It’s sounding more like Tricky than Wolfmother, if you know what I mean,” Harrison says.
Thenewno2 is road-testing a few of the new songs as well. And Harrison is pleased to report that he’s rarely heckled to play Beatles or George Harrison songs. “I’ve never had that yet, actually,” he says. “There are people you can tell are Beatles fans, but they’re all very lovely and respectful and nice. They’re just kind of ... fans.
“And, you know, we wouldn’t play anything even if they did yell for them. Maybe they know that.”
thenewno2 performs with Wolfmother and the Heartless Bastards at 7 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 12) at Clutch Cargos, 65 E. Huron St., Pontiac. Tickets are $25. Call (248) 333-2362 or visit www.clutchcargos.com.
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