I interviewed Brooklyn two-piece High Places via email a few weeks ago for New Zealand magazine Real Groove. The printed article is short and meant I had to leave a lot out; a 'first look' at a band who is making many giddy via the internet, specifically with an online-only compilation 03/07 - 09/07. I can't stop listening to it; their wriggly, polyrhythmic pop is hypnotising and beguiling and thoroughly engaging. Here is the full interview with Rob Barber and Mary Pearson, in which they talk (or type) about slugs, Brooklyn, their craft, polyrhythmics, punk and where the flip there album is.
How did you guys get started?
Rob: Mary was living in Michigan and we met through a mutual friend while she was visiting NYC. We instantly clicked. We became email and late-night phone call friends, and a couple weeks after meeting she set up a house show in Kalamazoo for my solo band, the Urxed, and my tourmates Matt and Kim. We decided to make music together through the mail, and tour together a few months later, but as solo projects. She moved to NY right before tour, and at the last minute we discovered how well our song making worked together. So we emailed everyone, and said "Hey, we are a band now". I came up with a few really bad names, that probably still have ghostship myspace accounts with zero friends.
In terms of pouring a lot of time into the songs you make, is it just because yr perfectionists, or do you have a particular interest in art that is obviously worked on for a long time?
Rob: We are sort of perfectionists, but only because when you have a ton of parts mixing together, you have to be so it doesn't sound terrible and muddy. Getting everything to blend and gel well is tricky sometimes. On the other hand, some of our better received songs came together very fast. I think our visual art side definitely influences our aesthetic sound. I want to score a film soooo bad!
Mary: My solo project was all about immediacy and minimalism, so High Places is certainly a departure from that. Occasionally we overwork a song and there's just way too much going on, but for the most part, all the layers of sounds come together to form this new, unexpected thing.
Yr music seems to have a loving sort of touch; a strong idea of ‘craft’ or ‘homemade’. Is this something that’s important?
Rob: We enjoy making a lot of randomly unrelated parts and throwing them together in a big bowl and seeing what happens. Then we sort of obsess over the crafting of song structures. It can be a lot less fun when we are going over recordings of plastic bags being crumpled, trying to make them into something warm and familiar, but when we are successful, we are always pleasantly surprised. It's like working on a puzzle, not knowing what it will be and then suddenly there it is in front of you. Or playing Wheel of Fortune. We don't really buy a lot of vowels though.
At the same time, there’s a big element of like, the ‘whatever’ in yr music; really carefree and childlike. It seems to celebrate that sort of joyousness and haphazardness.
Mary: A lot of that really has to do with the way we record. We are okay with recording vocals when I have a bad cold and only a four-note range, we're okay with the cats meowing or brushing up on the computer while we're recording. So even though we are meticulous about the overall end product, we also leave a lot of the process up to chance.
Rob: It's more like boredom with recognizable instrumentation. The haphazardness is definitely fun in the initial stage of trial and error, like seeing what sounds end up doing what. It can get overwhelming though. We have hard drives and and hard drives of archived sounds we have made, and our organization isn't always the best. Sometimes it's like "what folder was that one rhythm track in? The one with the clang-y thing-y?"
What instruments do you use to make all those sounds?
Rob: Well, we do often use regular old instruments, I like using my twelve string acoustic guitar, and Mary likes wind instruments. We feel pretty comfortable improvising together with them because that is what we historically play. But we record them in odd, non-pro ways, and multitrack the heck out them. Aside from that, we use krinkly things like paper and plastic bags, lots of kitchen items, metal bowls in particular. Anything that grabs our attention, really. Also lots of random percussion do-dads. Mostly it's how we arrange it all that makes it unclear as to what the source sounds are. Also how we record and things like proximity to the mic and room tone are major factors.
With the DIY scene, well, I’m not sure what it’s like in Brooklyn but in Australia, there’s this real gravitation towards the noisy, that no wave sort of stuff that is really anti-musician. It negates the need for sincerity or emotion in favour of aesthetics, whereas you guys have a fun, poppy and carefree sort of vibe but seem to fit into a big DIY thing.
Rob: Yeah, it is like that here a lot as well. But the scene is incredibly diverse too. Nobody really sounds similar here. It's pretty all over the place, and everyone gets along. There aren't really genre divisions. It's more about a mutual commonality and intent. Honestly, I think the bigger picture is more of a universal scene that we see happening, and feel part of. For example, our friend Lucky Dragons just did a split 5" with a guy from Greenland called Goodiepal.
Mary: For a minute I think we considered making more of a pretty noise band or something, but ultimately, we both love melodies and feeling like there is some sort of human connection with the audience.
You mentioned in an interview re: Brooklyn scene “I just feel like we filled a void that was missing at the time, and that was just kind of an accident.”; do you feel like you would have been received differently somewhere else?
Rob: I think that if we lived in LA, people would've been totally stoked. At the time NY was for the most part a pretty aggressive sounding music scene. I guess you had Matt and Kim, but they are still a punk band. It all just kind of goes with the territory, I guess. When we started we were channeling some pretty heart-on-your-sleave vibe-age, bordering on being corny. We wanted to basically create a warmer, beachy-er environment. Escapist almost. We thought that the bar was raised so high for extreme and experimental music, particularly after Lightning Bolt, that we felt like to be punk, the only place to go was to be friendly and positive, and see how many people would get irritated by it. Not that we were at war with NY, we loved the scene and bands here, but we wanted to make some sort of impact on the way people thought about experimental music. Ultimately, we failed, because NYC surprised us and was very accepting and open to what we were doing.
So I’ve never seen you live but apparently it’s really loud? It seems hard to imagine in a way, I’ve always listened to yr music on headphones or at home on the stereo, not mega loud, it just seems like a more quiet/personal/insular sort of sound to me.
Mary: It's important to us for everything to be really balanced so the samples match the volume of the live percussion, vocals, etc. We often use our own PA of four pretty massive speaker cabinets and we don't use monitors, so part of the reason things get so loud is just so we can hear ourselves behind the speakers!
Rob: Well, we are super influenced by hip hop, and dance hall and club music, particularly how it sounds acoustically, bumping out of a car parked 100 meters away in the gas station parking lot at 2am. Plus when you are playing with bands like Lightning Bolt, you gotta keep up, or you disappear. Plus the way bass and bouncing panning percussive sound hits you can be so much fun!
Do you guys listen to a fair bit of hardcore/punk sort of stuff or do I have that wrong? So you haven’t always made these liquidy sounding pop songs?
Rob: I grew up on punk and hardcore, and I still love a lot of it. I don't really follow the current scene though. I'm more historically attached to it. I always listened to a ton of different music though. It's just that growing up, punk and hardcore was the most immediate forum for underground music. I was also very influenced by it in regards to personal/consumer politics.
Mary: We have a side project punk band in the works. I play bass and Rob plays guitar.
(What sort of stuff do you listen to?)
Rob: Everything! Seriously! It's all important!
Mary: Right now we have the new Thank You record on. I've been listening to Brian Eno and the Boredoms a lot.
The track name ‘Banana Slugs’ seems to me a perfect way to describe the way it sounds; well, I’m thinking of this slug in a story by Arthur Bradford (from Dogwalking: Short Stories where there is this fluorescent slug they find in the glovebox of an abandoned car. Its like, a cute slug. Not a gross one.
Mary: When I was a little girl, I saw a slug for the first time at my aunt's house in Seattle. Up until that point, I thought slugs were on par with unicorns or something. I was so excited to see one in real life! In Northern California, they have these slugs called banana slugs that are aptly named. They are yellow with brown spots, and we saw a bunch hanging out on redwood trees. "Shared Islands" actually is very inspired by a John Berger book Here Is Where We Meet. The part "It only goes without saying that this includes shared islands, twilights, deserts, seas, the deer of Nara, some books and engravings" is taken from a dedication by Jorge Luis Borges to his wife.
With a website like Pitchforkmedia giving you positive reviews, have you found this has changed much for you guys? In terms of maybe how you fit into the Brooklyn scene or just generally?
Rob: There is no doubt Pitchfork and other websites have helped us enormously outside of our town, particularly outside of the US. We appreciate so much all the time people spend writing and discussing music. It seems like a much more democratic way of communicating and finding out about music. It's crazy that with all the music out there, that these people actually found us! We have toured the US extensively, but internationally, we have only played Mexico so far. The Brooklyn scene seems perhaps less reliant on the internet, because so much is happening right in front of you. I think playing out live is what people remember us for here, to the point that we actually got a reputation of maybe playing too much for a while, mostly because out of town friends were coming though, and would be asking us to play. Promoter Todd P is basically the lifeline to all that is rad in Brooklyn. Manhattan tends to be a bit different and has more of an "industry" vibe, people who make and follow blogs, or write about music for a living, or just out of love. It also has a lot of college kids. That crowd seems much more informed by the internet, but it is equally enjoyable to play to new people.
Do you feel any pressure to put this album out? Or do you feel affected by medias in working on songs for it?
Rob: Well, to further confound the "where's their full length?" What label are they on?" questions, we have yet another 7" and split 7" with Xiu Xiu both coming out any day now. We are making a full length at our own cautious pace because we see it as growing into something new. How do you construct a good album? What makes the whole thing interact and flow with itself? We made our 7" more like mini albums, and I guess we are learning how to stretch that out to album length. That is what we are figuring out right now, and we don't really want to be on a schedule about it. That ruins the fun.
Do you play many house shows and things like that (as opposed to music venues)
Rob: It really depends on the town. Some towns such as Brooklyn, Baltimore and Denver have amazing diy spaces, so playing a club is actually a bad choice. Oakland only has diy stuff. Some clubs are cool, and others are scary and uncomfortable. You just need to have a good ear to the ground to find out what's happening in any given town. We actually play in an art context fairly often too. Basically we like to mix it up, just to learn new things and keep it all fresh.
In terms of the new album, do you find yr approaching songs differently so they fit into an album context?
Mary: I think our writing process has naturally evolved into making longer, more complete sounding songs. In the beginning, we were so worried about people getting bored with our ideas, we often just chopped songs off at the two minute mark. We're learning to give the songs time to grow.
Do you have any broader ideas in terms of this album? I mean, what are you going to try and do on the record?
Rob: We have been trying different ideas like a repeating or re-ocurring idea. Also blending the songs so they seem linked in a way.
Mary: The songs feel a bit more meditative or introspective, but still loud and dance-y. I guess the lyrics are more meditative and introspective, and the beats are dance-y. We're also making the recordings relate more to our live, slightly more raucous sound.
There’s the polyrhythmic thing going on with yr songs; do you have any interest in that? I’ve been listening to quite a bit of African sort of music lately, ‘Graceland’, and also Arthur Russell was really into that I think. And now Panda Bear and a few others get on that vibe too
Rob: We actually think about it heavily. I love the idea that different people will pick up on different patterns and hopefully will groove on it in a more personalized way. The more rhythm based Moondog songs pull that off really well. I think we aren't very academic with our "non-western" (for a lack of a better term) influences, and I think we confuse them a lot when we unconsciously and inevitably channel them. So it all blends. Luckily this works to our advantage more often than not.
Mary: One of my teachers in music school had some really awesome mnemonic devices to help us remember polyrhythmic patterns. I think my favorite is "pass the gosh darn ketchup," which helps you remember 4 against 3. There's a lot of passing the gosh darn ketchup in our songs.
What’s next after the album?
Rob: We are touring a tonne this summer, mostly as support (Deerhunter in Europe, and No Age in the US) and some festivals. The record will come out in September, when we will then tour the US more extensively, as well as trip over to Australia and (hopefully) New Zealand via our Australian label homies Mistletone Records.
[High Places MySpace]
[High Places Blog]