In depth:

A Closer Look


The Experience Of Listening To Grouper’s “Headache” 

A Song That Saves Lives


words by emma madden

photo by tanja engelberts

As we look forward to a new release from Grouper at the end of this month, Emma Madden listens back to “Headache” from her 2016 Paradise Valley EP in this improvised essay and encourages you to revisit this exceptional track…

“Mama once told me, she walked into the ocean”

Before we became ourselves we floated around in amniotic fluid inside our mother’s stomach like plankton. We were sleeping, sloshing and intrauterine – hardly more human than aquatic life. And let’s not forget that this is how we as a species evolved – in waves, out of the ocean. Water is as vital as sex and its fluids, but on the land where we get our names and our borders and our bodies, we forget that fact. It’s why the desire to be in the ocean is like the desire to be embraced by our mother.

“Didn’t want to die, just couldn’t tell where the horizon was”

Grouper, AKA Liz Harris isn’t in control of the music, it happens to her. Internal and external coordinates happen to correspond at a precise moment and they’re put to tape. She often doesn’t remember creating or recording the song once it’s done. Sometimes we leave our bodies, spiritually speaking, when traumatised. That’s what Shamanism tells us, that the soul departs the body when it’s threatened. Pain locating us, trauma dislocating us.

“Wanted to have a closer look”

Look down at your toes. Is that me? I did this activity a lot as a child, staring down at my feet as I lay down on the couch. What part of my body is me? People see my face and know that it’s me, why not my toes? If I can push my brain down to my feet and embody my toes, then I’ll remember what it was like before I was born, I thought.

“Why’s this costume weighing me down?”

There’s a psychiatrist named Stanislav Grof who thought a lot about life before birth while taking a shit load of LSD. Grof tells us that we once inhabited an amniotic universe where there were boundless galaxies. We swam through tunnels of star-like matter, floating through regions without dead-ends. It was a limitless universe in which our mother’s body never ended and ours never began. We once lived with the consciousness of the ocean, Grof says.

“And my head hurts”

Liz Harris has lived most of her life somewhere in Oregon, close to the ocean. On Agate Beach, where she went for walks as a teenager, she found a washed up boat with only the clatter of someone’s life remaining. Plates, mugs, maps. “The Man Who Died In His Boat” was the name of her ninth studio album. But if this man died in his boat, where was the body? Did he call for his mother when he drowned out at sea?

“It’s there, it sails down”

The song we’re listening to now is about Liz’s mother walking out to sea and by the time we’re at this point she’s almost immersed. Somewhere off the coast of San Francisco, beyond the blocks and squares, she was hypnotised by it. The iterations upon reiterations of waves resembling a spiral.

“Tired of being lonely, tryna rest up and I don’t wanna get up”

Kristeva calls what we’re talking about a ‘semiotic chora’. The embrace that only the womb or an ocean can give. Liz Harris likes to take a sailboat out to sea. Identity doesn’t exist in the semiotic chora, Kristeva says. Once a song is out to sea it’s anyone’s, says Liz. All of our pains and joys entwining.

“Error lies in hoping”

As a child I used to try and drown in the bathtub. I closed my eyes and went into the water, my eyes stinging and my ears drumming with the sound of my legs scraping the sides of the tub. I’d squeeze the railings as my stomach tightened, my heart then louder than the scraping, my body more desperate and energised than it had ever felt. My hands unclenched themselves from the railing, my head violently jerked to get to the surface of the water. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay in the water. My body always betrayed my will. Why are we always forced back to shore?

“When I’m walking in the deep water”

Sometimes I worry that everything I’m feeling isn’t mine, it’s just my mother’s sadness

“Lines, lines on the back of my hand”

My mother and her mother shared a pain. They were both lonely, their lives measured out in TV listings. When I was 7 I remember telling my mother “You’re going to die alone, aren’t you scared of that?” having no idea what it meant, only that it would affect her. “More than anything” she said. Me too.

“Why does love keep letting me down?”

Every time I play this song my partner knows that I want to die. My entire life is a train going nowhere and I have to keep running up and down the cabin to keep it moving, and I’m never told why. My muscles hurt and I don’t want to keep running without reward, and I’m desperately bored and I’m alone, and I don’t know what will happen when it stops. But I’m still alive.

“Why does love keep letting me down?”

I’ve been hurt too many times, my mother told me when I asked her if she wanted to find love again. When my father tried to leave her while she was pregnant with his child, she tried to kill herself with painkillers. When he tried to leave later, again and again at the gate, my mother straddled the way between the door and its opening. When he did finally leave I was left alone with her screams and her crying by the curtain. When I go back to that home I don’t hear her voice speaking to me in the present, I hear her screams from the past. It’s like putting my ear to a shell and hearing the ocean.

“Why does love keep letting me down?”

Our pain and our mother’s pain share the same intersection. When Liz Harris’ mum went out to sea she had to qualify that it wasn’t because she wanted to die, but just to take a look, to abandon her self. There is no border between the amniotic ocean and the pre-life, there is no border between the swimmer and the saline. Total immersion, like a death.

“Stop letting me down”

Whenever I play this song, my partner knows that it is going to save my life. One time I took a belt, tied it to a basketball hoop and played this song, wanting it to be the last thing I heard. I saw my mother’s face as I put my neck into the loop, I heard Liz Harris’ voice and the belt un-looped. I came out of the tub, I went back to the shore. I cried for my mother. I decided to play this song whenever I get that same urge. And when I finish writing this sentence as the song ends, I won’t die. I’ll call my mother, hear her voice, feel our pain, tell her that I love her.

I’m clean now.


Grouper’s new album Grid of Points is out April 27, via Kranky

Pre-order it here



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