He grew up acting, was in a band called Sukia in the ’90s that toured the world with Beck and Stereolab, and then started making music videos. Ross Harris has done a shit ton of stuff.
California-based actor, musician, artist, photographer and filmmaker Ross Harris is, as you can see, a man of many talents, but for a lot of people—including us—he’s best known as the guy who documented and assisted the rise of one of history’s greatest songwriters: Elliott Smith.
Ross worked with Elliott on the seminal music videos for ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Miss Misery’ back in a magical, virtually internet-less time called the ’90s. If you’re a young whippersnapper who wasn’t around to catch those vids, we recommend you get on YouTube and watch them both right now—they’re brilliant. Also, this interview won’t make a whole lot of sense if you don’t check them out, so check them out.
Ross was instrumental in bringing Elliott’s genius to a wider audience, and he continues that tradition today, shining light on other talented young artists, such as Aloe Blacc and Anderson Paak, among others. ‘I’m able to show them in an authentic light and help them express what they want,’ says Ross, ‘and I learned that from working with Elliott.’
Monster Children talked with Ross Harris about the friend he met at LAX: the late, great Elliott Smith.
Interview by Jason Crombie.
You’ve done a bit of everything, but you started out as an actor?
Yeah, I started as a child actor.
Incredibly, you’re Joey from the movie Airplane! (or Flying High! outside the US), the kid who goes up to the cockpit.
Yeah, that’s me.
That’s insane. You’re that kid?
Yeah. Basically the best thing I ever did, I did when I was ten years old, so…
Do you remember doing that movie?
Were you in on the joke with the kid—you—and the creepy pilot?
Well, the funny thing is I didn’t understand it while we were shooting, but then a year later, when the movie came out, I went to see it with my whole family, and all of a sudden I understood everything.
I don’t know what happened in that year, how I developed and grew up, but when I saw the movie I was like, Oh! That’s what all that was.
It was pretty funny.
So you grew up acting, you were in a band called Sukia in the ’90s that toured the world with Beck and Stereolab, and then you got into making music videos, most notably with the late, great Elliott Smith.
How did you come to make the first video with Elliott, ‘Coming Up Roses’?
I used to shoot a lot of photos and video, and make music with Beck.
Did you do his ‘Loser’ vid?
I just worked on them, wrote ideas and stuff. My friend Steve Hanft directed them. I shot the stills for ‘Loser’ and ‘Odelay’.
Anyway, Margaret Mittleman, who was Beck’s publisher back then, was one of the people who discovered Elliott. She signed him to a publishing deal and she wanted to get a video done. So she contacted me and a couple other people, and she was like, ‘Hey, there’s this guy Elliott Smith, he’s making amazing music, you should listen to it, maybe you two should make a video.’ The other directors she contacted all wrote elaborate video ideas, but I kinda got a feeling just from listening to his music that Elliott wasn’t an elaborate-video-idea kinda person.
Right. So you hadn’t met him, but you were able to glean that from the music?
I kinda got that vibe. And then she [Margaret] goes, ‘Why don’t you just call him?’ So I called the studio he was working at two or three times, and they were always like, ‘No, he’s not here.’ It was really hard to get a hold of people in those days. Finally, I called and talked to him, and after a few minutes I was completely vindicated, like, yeah, this guy does not want a huge video production.
So I said: ‘Hey, I live about an hour out of Los Angeles; I’ll pick you up at the airport and we’ll go straight to my house, and you can just live with me. I have a trailer there you can live in for the week.’
‘Come stay at my house’?
Yeah, and ‘I have a couple of cameras, so we can just shoot whatever we feel like shooting’.
Can I just stop you right there?
The guy shooting the video is picking up the talent from the airport and then letting him crash at his house for a week. Can you imagine that happening nowadays?
Where was Elliott flying from—Portland?
Yeah, he was in Portland. And that was the other thing, like, back then in Los Angeles and Portland and San Francisco there was a lot of animosity. If you were in Seattle, going to LA meant you were selling out. LA represented Guns N’ Roses and hair metal, so guys from Portland were very wary of coming down to LA. The first thing I told Elliott was: ‘I don’t actually live in Los Angeles. I live a little bit out of Los Angeles, so you won’t have to spend any time in Los Angeles except at the airport.’
So he came down and you took him back to your house, and then you guys hung out for a week, shot the video and became friends?
Yeah. I picked him up, we had a little dinner, smoked a joint, talked about what we wanted to do, and every day for that week we’d get in my old station wagon and drive out to these little towns near where I lived and just film.
Wanna hear the rest of the interview? Wanna see other cool shit? Easy, click here to get Issue 51.
Shot by Scottie Cameron // @scottie_cameron
Check out Ross’ incredible work here // @imrossangeles