“I thought it would be cool if Harry started his own scrappy punk rock band,” explains Paul DeGeorge, co-founder of the series-inspired fan band Harry and the Potters.
Since its inception 20 years ago, J.K. Rowling’s billion-dollar Harry Potter series has spawned feature films, snacks, board games, housewares, jewelry and its own Universal Studios theme park. In the early 2000s, the books even inspired their own musical genre, known as “wizard rock” — and of all the acts in this extraordinarily niche scene, the most prominent was Harry and the Potters.
Founded in 2002, the Potters specialize in lo-fi indie rock, sung from the perspective of the protagonist, played by both DeGeorge and his brother Joe. Musically, they take cues from the nerdy meanderings of They Might Be Giants and Magnetic Fields, adding on silly lyrics sourced from the books’ plot lines. Together with comedian Andrew Slack, the duo eventually founded their own nonprofit organization, called the Harry Potter Alliance, which has aided various causes, including global literacy drives and fundraisers to provide health care to Haitians in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. “It’s incredible,” said J.K. Rowling of the group in 2007. “It’s humbling, and it’s uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character.”
This writer’s first vivid memory of the Potters dates back to summer 2007, when the band played outside the gilded columns of the Brooklyn Public Library. A three-piece punk band in disheveled school uniform, the Potters played to at least 25 young people (and their parents). As a gaggle of cloaked teens began to collide in a dizzying mosh pit, out flew a pair of pink panties, tossed onto the stage by a young woman in green Slytherin garb. Still rocking hard 11 years later, Harry and the Potters spoke to Rolling Stone via email about their DIY roots, the political parallels between the Wizarding World and ours, and their upcoming album.
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When did you guys first get into the books? What about them fascinated you the most?
Joe: In 1999, my friend Alex came to me and told me a little bit about a boy who lived in a cupboard but soon gets to go to a wizard school. I made a mental note about the story and took his recommendation seriously — we bonded over reading The Hobbit together when we were eight or nine. It wasn’t until I got the books as a gift a year later that I actually read them, and once I was reading them, I could not stop. The story and writing of the Harry Potter books has such an easy and compelling flow. I was fascinated by the world created in the stories and wanted as much as I could to explore it.
Paul: Joe got the books from our aunt for Christmas when he was 12. I was in college at the time and he passed them on to me, mainly because I was curious about the phenomena: What was it about these books that was turning thousands of young kids into obsessive readers? When I first read them, I was really drawn to Harry’s anti-authoritarian streak and his bravery. His attitude was similar to a lot of my rock & roll heroes — like Bruce Springsteen and Fugazi — and I thought it would be cool if Harry started his own scrappy punk rock band.
…And thus you became Harry and the Potters. How did the band actually come about?
Paul: While Joe was in high school, he would host infrequent concerts in our parent’s shed in Massachusetts. A few of the bands cancelled one day and, instead of canceling the show, we sat down at the kitchen table and ground out a half dozen songs in an hour. We put on some old graduation robes and ties and then played the songs for a handful of friends. Instead of arguing about who got to be Harry, we both decided to do it. That’s why there’s two Harry Potters in the band (Year 4 and Year 7).
Joe: When we first started, we were relatively limited in our musical ability. We intended to write songs that we could perform at libraries or kids’ birthday parties. After we started playing more, we began to write songs with more of a vision for how they might be performed live — like “S.P.E.W.,” where we run around the audience and have kids yell “SPEW!!” into the mic. We try to involve our audience in our songs and performance [whenever] we can.
Paul: We owe a serious musical debt of gratitude to bands like They Might Be Giants and Atom and His Package, bands who [are] both fun and intellectual (and also aren’t afraid to write a 30-second song). TMBG has a way of writing songs that appeal to a really broad age range. They were a band I fell in love with in junior high and continue to connect with as I get older. Their music is flush with jokes that you age into. It’s something we keep in mind when making music, knowing that lots of young folks will hear us for the first time during a gig at their local library. Hopefully we create something that will still hold value for them when they’re older.
Joe: As we got older and became more practiced musicians and performers, our sound broadened. We worked a lot more musical references and allusions into our writing to aid in our rock and roll illustration of Hogwarts that is this band. For example, say we make a snarky song about how having a famous relative gets you into Professor Slughorn’s elitist networking club. Then we do our own interpretation of the snotty, satirical punk of the Dead Milkmen.
How would you describe the wizard rock scene to somebody who’s never heard of it?
Paul: Wizard rock is a subgenre of music where all the songs are about the Harry Potter books. Some groups — like our band — write first-person POV songs from the perspective of a certain character. Other groups work with a shifting POV (The Lovegoods) and some take a more meta approach and write about their own fan experience (Lauren Fairweather). The music can vary pretty widely stylistically, but in general, it’s a pretty DIY affair with a small, but very supportive fanbase that really encourages folks of all abilities to try writing wizard rock songs. The heyday of wizard rock was probably toward the tail end of the MySpace era, when close to 1,000 different groups and performers had posted wizard rock songs on the platform.
That first decade of the 2000s was a brief but wonderful moment where both music and fandom became uncoupled from industry gatekeepers and the corporatized platforms you see today. The result was that all sorts of weirdo art was able to reach much wider audiences. It was so cool to witness because many of these wizard rock bands were young and they would post their first recordings online — often just created with GarageBand and the on-board microphone — and immediately have hundreds of people giving them positive feedback and encouragement.
You dropped a song today as part of the new Wizard Rock Sampler compilation — and you’re also preparing a new album for 2019. What sets the new songs apart from your past releases?
Paul: The album will be our first full-length in 12 years and it deals almost exclusively with the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — our previous releases largely cover the first six books. After Trump’s election, we had a lot of folks revisiting and finding comfort in certain songs from our catalogue, particularly a song like “These Days Are Dark,” a rallying call to allies set in the aftermath of Voldemort’s return. We were invigorated by this and by the live shows we’d been playing and I guess just felt like we had a few more things to say.
The new album (out in early 2019) is certainly our most pointedly political work to date. Playing a bit off our work with the Harry Potter Alliance, we’re hoping that parents and their young kids might see us play at the library, hear a song explicitly critiquing pureblood supremacy and then later have a real discussion about white supremacy and how it manifests in their own lives.
You’ve channeled a lot of your resources towards promoting social justice and civic engagement. When did you decide to go this route, and eventually start a nonprofit?
Paul: The Harry Potter books are very political. J.K. Rowling has described them as “a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry,” and that’s frequently been a source of inspiration for us, both in our songwriting and our live show. In translating these themes from books to music, our band was able to re-contextualize them. Andrew Slack — our co-founder in the Harry Potter Alliance — wanted to do a similar thing with the goal of mobilizing the power of Harry Potter fans for social good.
We started working together in 2005 to use these stories as a framework for introducing people to social justice work: to create a real-world Dumbledore’s Army. I’ve seen a handful of think-pieces recently that are basically like “Harry Potter isn’t real and it should be a basis for any sort of activism,” but I think those takes miss the point entirely. That’s fine if you came out of the womb super-woke, but people learn in different ways and follow different paths to activism. The Harry Potter Alliance has been particularly successful at creating thousands of first-time activists, many of whom have gone on to make this work an important part of their lives.
Without visionaries imagining a progressive and just future, we will never be able to create a roadmap to get there. More utopian fiction please! —Paul DeGeorge
Many HP fans have drawn comparisons between the dastardly work of Harry Potter villains and that of the Trump administration. But what are some actual history books you recommend to Harry Potter fans, to better contextualize what’s happening in the U.S.?
Paul: A couple years ago, I realized I was old because I was having a lot of fun shopping in the non-fiction section at the library book sale. Here is a list of what’s on the coffee table right now: Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power, Matt Taibbi’s Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, and the latest issues of Jacobin and The Baffler.
Joe: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a great starting place if you’ve never touched it. There’s a relatively new book I’m getting into now called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, by Kurt Anderson.
Paul: I also want to give a shout out to Ursula K. LeGuin and Star Trek, primarily because there are so few stories with the guts to imagine a utopian future. There’s loads of dystopian literature out there and it all can feel particularly relevant in this moment in time. But it’s important to recognize that without visionaries imagining a progressive and just future, we will never be able to create a roadmap to get there. More utopian fiction please!
Which Harry Potter book is your favorite and why?
Joe: I don’t always have the same answer to this question, but I’ve been thinking about the Order of the Phoenix. That’s really where Harry and company are at their most punk. They’re starting their own student union with Dumbledore’s Army and advocating to be taught what they think should be taught, and really working together to create a collective movement of resistance against their school’s authoritarian takeover. I remember people taking a lot of issue with this book because they found Harry’s character too angsty to the point of annoyance. But I think there’s a realness to that all caps passion, that reminds us to hear people out when they feel ignored and powerless.
Paul: Deathly Hallows. I’m closest to it right now because we just wrote this record, but it is such a joy to watch these characters grow and age over the seven books and then, in the final volume, see them fully manifested as complete badasses, collectively working at the top of their game with such clarity of purpose. And I’m not just talking about the main characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron. So many ancillary characters are also extended this gift: Neville, Luna, McGonagall, Molly and Arthur Weasley, heck, even Aberforth. The work of the Order of the Phoenix continues to inspire me.
Which Hogwarts Houses do you each identify with?
Paul: I definitely have my Ravenclaw and Slytherin sides, but I think, at the end of the day, some of Harry’s character has really rubbed off on me. I’m a Gryffindor.
Joe: I’m a lion and I’m flying with a little bit of a bird brain.
What was your favorite moment in the entire series?
Paul: Dumbledore’s speech to the school after Cedric Diggory was killed by Voldemort.
Joe: I like when Aberforth shows up at the Final Battle. When we meet him in the last book we don’t really know how he’s going to align himself, it seems maybe as if he’s given up hope and is resigned to let the Death Eaters take over. He has good in his heart, but because he is afraid, we don’t know if he’s going to actually show up to the fight. But he does show up and is blasting at the Death Eaters. I want to see more of that.