Nestled in a random Spotify playlist between other songs whose names didn’t really spark interest, “10K Summer Nights” rested. Immediately, we found ourselves wrapped into the polaroid-camera-snapshot lyricism and the peaceful instruments meant for reconstructing memories.
Brief research led me to discover the song’s artist, Eighty Ninety, included two thirty-something brothers, Abner, 31 and Harper, 34 James.
Bringing their individual talents — Abner’s in filmmaking and Harper’s in production — together, the brothers started crafting music centered in storytelling, including tracks like “Three Thirty,” “Your Favorite Song,” and “Better as Friends.”
Abner and Harper were kind enough to agree to an interview over Zoom, and from their studio in Gowanus, New York, we discussed their background, history of the band, musical influences and more.
The following Q&A was conducted by guest contributor Emily Dattilo with Eighty Ninety and has been edited for clarity and concision.
Beyond The Stage: Can you guys tell us a little bit about your background?
ABNER: So we’re brothers and we were born in New York, but we grew up in kind of a small coastal town in Maine. And then we, we kind of grew up playing music together. Harper is a couple of years older, so it seemed like a bigger deal in middle school. So we had our own bands. But then, after school, we both decided to move to the city to do music. And that kind of was how Eighty Ninety started, you know, we were writing songs, sending them back and forth to each other.
HARPER: I think we just had been meaning to do something together officially for a long time. And at some point, it just felt like the right moment and Abner was leaving film school to come to the east coast and I was here, so we kind of timed it so that we were both in the city and we had the songs and we just started kind of working on music.
ABNER: Portland was cool growing up, especially because I think we joke that no band would ever have gone there except for the fact that it was just like a couple of hours away from Boston… so we got to see all these bands in these pretty small, you know, small settings that I think otherwise probably we wouldn’t have gotten done.
BTS: In terms of creating music together, what do you each bring to that?
ABNER: One of the reasons that the collaboration, I think, works as a kind of smoothly as it does, is that we both really are invested in everything, but have different things that we’re especially kind of passionate about doing… a lot of times we’re both of us. We are present for a lot of the process of everything.
HARPER: We sort of have very overlapping tastes, but at the extremes, like very different. Abner may be a little more pop mainstream leaning. I’m a little bit more like left of center. It’s kind of like that tension helps us kind of keep it feeling like a band, which is kind of like, you know, borrowing from both of our sensibilities and trying to find that place where they most overlap.
BTS: When did Eighty Ninety officially begin?
ABNER: I think Eighty Ninety officially began in 2016. And it was kind of after we had been working on our first song, “Three Thirty,” for a while without any real plan of being a band or for even exactly putting it out, but just kind of working on something. And I think we finished the song and realized like, oh, you know, we like this, we’re proud of it, we want to put it out. You know, I guess we have a band now.
HARPER: Yeah. It started off in some ways like the intention was let’s just go on and make something fun. Let’s just have fun and see where it leads and no pressure to put it out, no pressure to do anything with it.
BTS: What is an anecdote about each of you guys that captures your personalities?
HARPER: Abner mentioned he’s a huge Taylor Swift fan since like “Speak Now,” I guess …“Fearless” the first record … in like 2010. And so “Favorite Song” was one of the songs that she added to her, like “Personal Songs I Love” [Spotify] playlist … Abner was hanging out in the lounge. I was working.
I was in here with the door closed, Eighty Ninety talking with the artists about the mix or something. And I just hear like shouting from the other room, like yelling, like something is wrong, you know, like, ‘oh my God.’ Like, just like totally losing it. And I’m just like, you know what, like open the door and I’m like, ‘what’s going on?’ And he was like, ‘Taylor Swift put the song on her playlist or whatever.’ So I feel like that encapsulates outright … just like a youthful enthusiasm.
BTS: That’s great. That must’ve been like a dream come true. You’ve been a fan for that long.
ABNER: Yeah, it was. It was totally mind-blowing.
It’s funny … growing up, he Harper, when he decides to do something, he, goes in so deep and so granular and, you know, and he basically decided like growing up, we both played music pretty seriously. I was playing piano and he played guitar, but I was kind of like, I wanted to learn a song I heard on the radio.
I want it to, you know, and like, I want to do whatever. And Harper, just like, he wanted to learn the guitar. And so like, he would play guitar for hours, you know, every day, like hours until he figured it out.
BTS: What inspires each of you guys; what inspires your music or just you as people?
ABNER: I think, you know, music, was so, important to me, I think to both of us kind of, and still is our whole lives in terms of really being that thing that does everything in terms of like makes me happy, keeps me company, helps me contextualize hard things that happen, or helps me celebrate great things that happen.
HARPER: Yeah. I think I think it’s similar for me. I always felt like I looked up so much to these artists that I liked growing up, especially, and I feel like there’s this drive to want to have a small part of a conversation with them, you know? And like the real way to do that is I think through making your own music where it’s like, in some ways, like, it’s almost better than having an actual conversation with an artist to make a piece of music that’s inspired or influenced by them because you feel like in learning how to do that, you understand those people that made such a difference in your life better.
BTS: Speaking of that, where did the name Eighty Ninety come from?
ABNER: It’s funny. I wish there were a better story, but really no, no.
I mean, I think we wanted something that didn’t have any existing connotations really, so we could kind of define it with our music rather than feeling like people would come to it with a preconceived notion about even, maybe what genre would be or something; it’s partly because at the time we didn’t really know ourselves and still don’t really know.
And then also I think, you know, we aesthetically, we kind of, we liked it and we felt like it connected us to any connotation that we could come up with we kind of like, whether it was like decades eras in music, you know, speed limits, radiofrequency, dials. Like we kind of couldn’t come up with something that we didn’t like.
HARPER: And so we tried to pick something, it was like fairly, like you said, almost like a, it could be a container for whatever the music did rather than a name that was going to kind of make us feel like we had to do some kind of music. So keeping it a little bit free of immediate associations.
BTS: Can you guys describe your band sound in a sentence?
ABNER: So I feel like a good answer, we kind of nicknamed it 808s and Telecasters was the kind of phrase because I was striking out with electro country when I was pitching it to music blogs and I was like, okay, maybe that’s asking too much.
HARPER: And I think it’s funny, it’s been one of those things like 808s sort of represents like because an 808 is like a drum machine, common in pop music, hi-hats snares kick basses, especially basses. And, you know, Telecasters, for us, were sort of like a Nashville Americana songwriting thing. And so there was, it was a nice just symbol.
BTS: Who are your musical influences? I know we talked about Taylor Swift; she’s obviously on the list. Who else?
ABNER: I grew up really loving the melody was kind of the thing.
HARPER: Growing up, it was really people as songwriters, basically. Yeah. Tom Petty. Taylor Swift. Paul McCartney. Bono. Chis Martin, John Mayer.
ABNER: The first thing I thought I wanted to do with score films… I think that was similar. It was like what melody was the most kind of stirring.
HARPER: Your first song you learned on the piano was the theme song to Jurassic Park when you were four or something.
ABNER: So it was kind of that, you know, in, in the way, like the theme song to Jurassic Park, you know, who was the composer? (John Williams.) John Williams and Taylor Swift kind of have a lot in common. So melody, yeah.
HARPER: I liked indie music like this band called Pavement or, you know, like emo post-pop-punk stuff. But I think I was also really into jazz music. So in high school, jazz guitar players ruled my world for a little bit.
ABNER: So if you combined 1960s bebop with John Williams, you get Eighty Ninety. That’s how I would really describe our sound to anyone who wants to know.
BTS: I love that. That’s perfect. I read that you guys would like to perform with groups like The 1975, The Chainsmokers. So what do you like about their music? Cause I’m a huge The 1975 fan as well. So what do you guys like about them?
ABNER: 1975 is, is someone that I totally should have and would have mentioned if I had had enough coffee this morning, incredible.
HARPER: Yeah. In some ways, they may be our most commonly referenced band for making records. I think because it’s sort of pop, but very experimental and eclectic at the same time and he’s very story-oriented, but also there’s a kind of like level of, kind of nuance to his writing that’s kind of fun and interesting.
ABNER: And I think they’re an amazing example of a band that manages to succeed, you know, and by succeed, I mean to follow their own creative impulses with complete abandon without. However, without turning in and still making it about the people listening to their music … I feel like they, the further they go, it’s almost like they’re more and more and more authentically themselves. It makes it even easier to connect with them.
HARPER:…and more generous with their fans because they’re more and more honest about who they are and what they want.
ABNER: And then his instincts as a pop writer in the service of that real authenticity is it’s like a one-two punch that’s hard to come back from in a good way.
ABNER: This is going to be like a whole other interview.
HARPER: Yeah, we should do a whole 1975 podcast with multiple episodes.
BTS: You guys should do a collab with them. That would be awesome.
ABNER: That would be cool.
HARPER: Put in a good word.
ABNER: Putting that out into the world.
BTS: Circling back to something we talked about a little bit ago, just like collaborating with other artists. “Your Favorite Song” has the remix with Loote, how did that work?
ABNER: We got to know them [Loote] through their manager, who’s a really good friend of ours. And we were just like huge fans of the music they were making and really impressed by the kind of, it’s almost like, I don’t know, like the chemical potency of their music, you know, as you listen to it. It’s like, it’s so…
ABNER: catchy… and I think when we when we had “Favorite Song,” we felt like it was potentially because of the melody and the kind of song, a candidate for that kind of music; we thought it could be really fun to see what they did with it basically. And so they were willing to remix it.
BTS: What is a goal that you guys have for Eighty Ninety music this year?
ABNER: I think one of our goals, you know, we’ve always really been about not putting things out for the sake of putting them out in terms of being really making sure that every single thing we put out, we really are a hundred percent behind and really love.
HARPER: When you’re making stuff and trying to define your sound and figuring things out, it can be a little stop-start-y, which is important if you need that time to like get things right. But I think there’s something when you, you know, when you get more sort of into the flow of the project or the band, one of the things hopefully that can start to happen is like there’s a little bit more of a…
ABNER: …more of a natural pace.
HARPER: …of a natural pace. Yeah. So like being able to create more basically and have, it be a little bit less stop-start-y where we need to like re-invent it every single time, which can take you out of the flow.
ABNER: In the beginning, when you only have so many songs out, you feel like, well, everything I put out is a significant percentage of our entire catalog. And I think we’ve gotten to a place now where there’s enough stuff out where we feel more like we can just kind of put things out and people, they know the context, is a little bit clearer in terms of where we’re coming from.
Check out Eighty Ninety’s music on Spotify below.