Some of Harrison Wargo's musical influences are obvious.
"I found Daft Punk's Discovery and it sounded so magical and different," recalls Wargo, who will bring his project, Badboxes, to the Brillobox stage March 10. "They were the first band that I found that was all mine."
The Daft Punk sound — with its electronic and house-style grooves — factors heavily into Wargo's work. But then there's that other obvious element — smooth, catchy hip-hop loops reminiscent of '90s producers like Timbaland. That didn't come from an obvious source.
"The hip-hop influence comes from my sister," he explains. "She ... was really into '90s hip hop. She would ride me to drum lessons and play Missy Elliot — all that Timbaland stuff. The dynamics were amazing."
Wargo was born near Tampa, Fla., and his family moved to the North Hills when he was 7. While drums were his first instrument, his parents supported any extra instrument that the young Harrison, now 24, found interesting.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Dark demons: Harrison Wargo
"My parents were amazing, they were like, ‘You want to play cello? OK, here are cello lessons.'"
He's come a long way from those early lessons. Wargo has toured with multiple pop-punk outfits, released two albums with Badboxes, and now works professionally as a studio engineer. It's a vocation born of his personal frustrations with scheduling and paying for studio time.
"I was tired of having to pay to record ideas," admits Wargo, "So, I got into Garage Band and that gave way to Logic, and I started to really pay attention to the software and became obsessed with making music with a computer — you can do anything you want when your instrument is a computer."
Wargo's studio work captured the attention of E. Dan, founder and owner of Pittsburgh's ID Labs. The two recently co-produced the official remix of Fall Out Boy's "Uma Thurman," featuring Wiz Khalifa.
"There is such a huge amount of respect I have for what ID Labs is doing," Wargo says. "Collaboration is my favorite way to work."
That project was turned around quickly, he adds, something he's not used to doing as a studio engineer for other people's work.
"A lot of my favorite stuff comes out real fast," he says. "I used to work on stuff for weeks, but I've found that I like that stuff less — I think it gets worse the longer I work on it."
The professionalism and quality of Wargo's songwriting is reason enough to give Badboxes a thorough listen, but his philosophy — quite refined for someone in his mid-20s — should also be noted. Relationships, sex, drug use and wrestling with inner demons are focal points. The name Badboxes is a reference to the metaphorical and physical places we store the bad things in our life. While Wargo does all his recording, including mixing and mastering, he uses a rotating crew for live performances. Currently he enlists the services of Punchline drummer Cory Muro for the live set.
Badboxes debuted in February 2013 with the EP, JSMN — the poppy antecedent to Violet, which was released last Halloween. Both reflect the painstaking care Wargo puts into his craft as he carefully juxtaposes the aura of the instrumentation with the emotion of the lyrics. For example, JSMN balances bright melodies with stygian lyrical concepts. Violet is the opposite, with its dark and epic instrumentation supporting the rather lighthearted subject matter of the lyrics. The two albums stand almost as mirror images of each other.
"The epic darkness [of Violet] was the result of what's going on in the world. On a subconscious level it makes its way into your project," Wargo explains. "But lyrically, Violet was lighthearted because of what was going on in my personal life. I was happy and I didn't feel the need to rip those deep, dark lyrics out because they just weren't there."
Despite the lightheartedness in both soundscape and lyrics, there still exists a through line of tenebrous material in Wargo's writing.
"I think a lot of people inherently have a lot of dark demons," he says. "People experience a lot of what they don't talk about. This is very interesting to me. ... We live in a culture that can be very hard on people, especially artists. We so often need to tweak ourselves in order to fit into a certain category."
The professionalism of Badboxes' debut, JSMN, showcases a rare confidence, which Wargo asserts comes from many attempts and many failures. Though Badboxes seems quite a departure from those early punk bands, the confidence gleaned from years of recording, playing live and touring have remained.
"Touring taught me a lot, but it was the sitting in a Starbucks for four hours waiting to play that [caused] the reflection necessary for confidence," Wargo says. "You have a lot of time to think — you do it for a lot of years and eventually you start to notice that you're getting better."