Justin Bieber’s band leader Bernard “HARV” Harvey is a new KC hero
Bernard “HARV” Harvey came from KC and is now living out the musician’s dream. As he runs the show for Justin Beiber, he’s setting an example for kids across our city, and showing them that you don’t need to be from LA to take the entertainment world by storm.
We spoke with HARV about Bieber’s new record, and tour, including an upcoming KC show.
Tell me about the journey from Kansas City to where you are now.
So I’m from the Kansas side, KCK. I went to Harmon, JC Harmon High School, off the I-35. Once I graduated from high school, from Harmon, then I went to Montgomery, Alabama and got my music technology degree. From there, I moved to Atlanta in 2008 or so. I was there for eight years, and then I moved out here in 2018, so I was in Atlanta for ten years. Now, I’ve been here for two years in LA.
What’s your primary recording system? You a Pro Tools guy?
Yeah, Pro Tools for vocals, Ableton for composing. Pro Tools are definitely for cutting vocals.
I read that you started as a bass player, is that true?
Yeah, actually, my first instrument was the cello in elementary school. In fourth grade, I started on the cello and I did that until tenth grade. I used to do the KU Band Weekends or whatever, where they had the kids from the inner city go up to Lawrence and compete to see who could get the highest chairs. I think I did that for three or four years.
You always got the number one in that? That’s the scoring system, right? One to three?
They did chairs, and I think it was twelve chairs. I always got up to, like, the third chair. I was never able to get up to the first chair. There was always some crazy college Asian kid that was killing it. I think the highest I got was maybe third chair, which was cool. I picked up the bass around (age) twelve. I started playing bass because it was cooler. I started to get reactions from the girls, so I was like, “Let me pick up a cool instrument.”
My dad was the one who instilled the idea in me that, “I just don’t know who chooses to be a bass player, because when you’re at home alone, you’re just sort of playing along with stuff goin’ bum bum bum bum note by note.” He never understood that as a guitarist. I’m always fascinated by somebody who started with bass and then became a multi-instrumentalist.
Oh, so he claimed it for the household?
Yeah, he claimed it, so I was like, “I guess I can play the bass.” Then my younger brother plays the drums, so we had a whole band in the house. I was forced to play the bass.
So, you do the music technology education thing—when did you start branching out into other instruments? Was it immediate?
Yeah, it was immediate. Just because we grew up with instruments in the house, I would play the piano and my brother would have showed me in my teenage years, then I’d pick up a guitar, so we would all just kind of jam out. From there, I just started practicing all the instruments. I liked the piano, I liked the guitar, and I just never really settled for just one. I majored in music technology, but I minored in jazz, so I got to really sharpen all instruments. Some of that jazz stuff was really intricate. That helped me out to understand every instrument, especially when I was in college. Just because I can play bass doesn’t mean I can pick up a guitar and play it like a bass. I had to play it just how a guitarist would play it, respecting each instrument as its own thing.
I had to do a semester in college and tried to branch out into classical guitar, and when I started to have really long nails, I was like, “You know what? That instrument isn’t going to work for me.” When did you start to develop your own personal style? What excited you? Or are you just somebody who enjoys being all over the map with what interests you?
I think that I’m very wide when it comes to—I wouldn’t say I have a sound or one genre that I just do. Like I said, I’m a musician, so I like to do different styles and try everything. If I’m working with a country artist, I’m really going to tap into that style of music. I can play instruments, so I’ll pick up a guitar and write the core structure and get into the concept of that song. If I’m working with an R&B artist, R&B is kind of my roots, so it’s easy for me to play a nice chord progression. I wouldn’t necessarily say I found my sound—
I guess it makes it sound like you have stopped, and you’re far too young to have developed a permanent sound.
So where do you start to find footing in the industry? Who do you work with, and they hand you to somebody else and you start climbing?
You kind of position yourself around the kind of people you want to be like, or the people that do what you want to do. I wanted to be a producer, so I went to events and hung out at studios where producers worked. Instead of me just secluding mysel, I kind of followed that pack. As a musician, when I started touring when I got to Atlanta, I got to hang around the touring musicians. I knew where all of the touring musicians were hanging out and liked to go jam. I’d go and play, and they’d go, “Oh, you’re dope. We can use you for the next tour,” or something. I took myself to the place where I gave myself the best opportunity to flourish.
It seems like some of the best people come from a community of places where—there’s a long-running thing about the musician who, before he had his first hit song, he had odd jobs as a leaf blower around Los Angeles, but the truth is that his dad is a hugely famous musician so he grew up jamming with dozens of super famous musicians in his house. I feel like they’re skipping the step where they were influenced for decades by some of the top musicians in their fields. So, I understand what it means to be embedded in Atlanta and have all of that talent around you.
Who in that period took you under their wing, helped show you the ropes, helped you move onto the next phase?
In Atlanta, there was this artist named Tommy Martin. He played on so many radio records, his discography is crazy. He’s been an o.g. for a while when it comes to musicians. I hung out with him and he actually was the guy who called me to come play something new for him on the beat brigade. He was the first guy who threw the rope down for me and pulled me up in the musician community. At the same time, I was always making beats as a producer, so I was always going to studios to hang out with producers. There was one producer in particular, Bangladesh; I got my first placement with him on this Gucci Mane song called “Lemonade.” All of this happened simultaneously: I was hanging out with guitarists, I was going to the studio and getting placements all at the same time. These two guys were a big step in my career and helped me get to the next place in my live career and in the studio production world.
Even at that point in time, being around Bieber, that must’ve been like, “What’s going on here?” He was a megastar at that point or was at least rising. Were you at least surprised to be in that circle?
Yeah. When I started working with Justin, he was just a new kid. He wasn’t anything. This was before “Baby” even came out. I met him when I was actually doing another radio show with another artist at the time. This was when the shows were maybe 300 people. He was going after the band I was playing for. I would watch his set, just sitting, and was like, “Yo, this kid is awesome. He’s super talented.” Fast-forward the next week, the guy Tommy was like, “Yo, I’m getting ready to work music directing this kid named Justin Bieber” and I was like, “That’s crazy, I just did a radio show with him last week. The kid is dope.” So then we started rehearsing. Once Justin came into the room, he’s jumping around on each instrument and he had to be fourteen, fifteen at this time. Super lively, super talented. I knew this kid was going to blow up. I saw his aura and how people reacted to him and was like, “This is going to be cool.” I took a chance in staying with him. For the first couple of months, they didn’t know if they could even pay the musicians, they didn’t know if they could come up with the money. Things were moving so fast. I don’t know if you saw the Never Say Never DVD, but that’s true; some labels didn’t want to sign him, he was just going off of radio shows. I just took a chance because I believed in him, and fast-forward ten years now, we’re here still working together.
So now you are his music director; what is the difference between being a producer and a music director?
Well, the big difference is the music director, everything is me being a part of the band, me arranging the studio album in the live aspect. Then being a music producer is really creating what’s being played in the live show. Being a producer is painting a picture and giving you a sound, giving you a song that the music director is going to arrange in the concert, if that makes sense.
So what has the process become for you? The song is done, the song is on the album, you guys are getting ready to go on tour, you have your set of musicians—what level of variable exists? Can we extend this portion, can we make this jam harder? Do we try to stick as close as we can to what was recorded?
My process is always first to keep the integrity of the record, to make sure that the song sounds how it sounds. If a fan hears the song off the album or Spotify, you’re going to want to go to the concert and hear it sound the same way. I make sure to keep the identity of the song, and maybe add some sprinkles on it. I might do a little hit or outro that transitions into the next song. Once you have musicians on stage, it’s already live. You don’t have to try too hard to make it more live by adding band stuff. We just really play the music as it is and try to throw a little extra flavor on it.
How much of the show do you have to work around click tracks, or is that something you feel bad about? Is that something you consider a necessity of doing in this show?
Everybody uses click tracks. It’s a funny thing; musicians look at click tracks as a mad thing, but everybody uses click tracks. We’re doing shows for 70,000 people. How can a drummer hear people on time when thousands of people are yelling and screaming? Where music shifted with click tracks was when we went to pop music. When rock and roll was the predominant music, when all of the musicians were on stage just playing the songs, you didn’t necessarily need click tracks. But once pop music started taking over in the 90s, some of these songs…you can’t really play onstage. Now we have to perform with the clicks because some of these sounds didn’t come from a keyboard. Some of these sounds didn’t come from the human playing a distorted guitar, so we need these backing tracks to help keep the identity of the song. I wish we could move past people buzzing people who perform using click tracks, it’s kind of a necessity now.
The number of people that I listen to who are old-school rock people who are like, “You come to our show and you’ll never hear a click track, we’re doing the music for real.” Part of it has always seemed like click tracks came as a necessity from when you needed to sync up the lights and the live show stuff. But their rock and roll shows don’t look any different from shows that have this. I think that it seems to come from that place where—are you playing music behind the band that isn’t there Is this almost karaoke and people are pretending to play instruments onstage? Certainly not what you’re doing, you’re just having some things there.
Yeah, definitely. I’ll tell you now, I mute all the basses and drum samples, and my drummer plays the drum samples. We turn down the—if there’s a particular key patch on the track, we turn it down and the piano player plays on top of it. The guitarist just plays his guitar on top of everything. I really think it’s an ignorant and non-progressive way of thinking when people try to criticize the new generation of how things are done. Your song has three instruments in it: the bass, drums, and the lead singer. Of course, you don’t need click tracks for that. But now songs have twenty different-sounding instruments, so it’s just a necessity now.
I feel like the one that was egregious was Eminem doing “Lose Yourself” at the Oscars; every time he ran out of breath, all of his vocal lines were still playing when he wasn’t talking. In the 2000s, Eminem was writing songs about how Britney should be killed because she sang along to backing tracks, and here we are. Everyone grew up ad now someone else is doing it. So when you’re planning these things out and you say you want to keep the fidelity of these songs, do you ever come to an idea where you took a song and do the acoustic version of it or try to take it in a different direction? Do you spend a considerable amount of time on that or do you consider your job to re-create it as best you can?
No, we’ll sometimes do acoustic. If you remember Justin, he plays the acoustic guitar, so in our set, we may do a thirty-to-forty-five minute acoustic set in the middle of the whole performance. So yeah, we’ll do a few of his hits acoustically, and it’s cool to switch it up and give a different color to a song.
So, you’ve produced three songs for the new album Changes. Where did they come from, and what di you want to do with them? Did you get inspiration to take the lead on these? Did Justin point to you and say, “You’re the guy to do these,” what was the process to get these together?
Each song was different. “At Least For Now” was one of the songs, and it was very dramatic and slow. I was feeling in a mellow mood and I just started playing the piano. I tracked it, and Pooh Bear, the writer and executive producer, he liked it and wrote to it and we sent it to Justin, and Justin loved it. The song was already written, and I recorded and put some drums around it. I already had a direction for that song and added a whole bunch of extra stuff to it to finish it fully. “Forever” came down from the heavens. It was the last song we recorded on this particular night at the studio. We were all getting ready to go and I was just messing around on my computer with a little plug sound, and I played the line [scats] and Pooh Bear was like, ‘Did you just play the beat for ‘Forever’?” It just happened, we wrote that song in thirty minutes, tops. I don’t know what we were inspired by, but it just came from the heavens. It just happened really fast.
Is this the sort of thing where you’ve worked with Justin long enough where you have a certain set of ideas for what makes a good song, or are you in a place where he trusts you to bring him stuff?
I think, at this time, he kind of trusts me to bring him something good.
I’ve read about Changes, and I suppose this is a more personal question. You’ve been with him long enough, and I have a very arm’s length understand of what the last few years have been like, but Changes seems to want to acknowledge that directly. What have you seen change in him as a person and him as an artist?
I think his growth; especially right now, he’s really mature and confident. There was a time when he was easily persuaded to follow the crowd into something he didn’t necessarily want to do in order to fit in. This is the most confident I’ve seen him in the time I’ve been around him. He just knows what he wants musically, as an artist, as a friend, as a person. I think that’s one of the things I’ve experienced the most with him now.
I got from the press release that there was something like ninety songs produced for Changes and they were just whittled down from there. How many songs did you work on that didn’t make this cut, and why didn’t they?
For this one, I personally probably worked on forty songs. They probably just didn’t fit the continuity of the album; maybe too slow, just didn’t fit. I know this time we wanted to do R&B in a different way, so maybe they didn’t fit that sound. At the end of the day, it still may be a good song, but it didn’t fit the Changes album. If we were to go back and work on another album, this song might fit. Or we might use this song with another artist because it might fit with that artist at that time.
So, this isn’t the sort of thing where there’s a triple album coming in a couple of months, just one at a time?
No, no. I think there’s another album coming, but I don’t know when. I don’t know the exact date. We’ll just keep putting out good music.
What’s the best part of being on the stage every night, helping run this stuff?
Really, living out my dream. For me, it’s really cool because I always remember that little boy back in KCK with a little dream of doing something special one day. I had this special talent and I wanted to use it at the highest capacity. So, when I’m on stage and I look out and see 70,000 people, I remember myself at the high school lunch table. It’s a really cool thing to see your dreams manifest themselves. So, I don’t take it lightly at all.
I guess we have to end with the big question: what advice do you have to that kid in KCK who wants to be you?
Don’t stop dreaming. Believe in yourself. Work hard. Be patient with yourself, follow your dreams and your heart.