Shared Islands: An Interview with High Places

high places

High Places is a burgeoning duo from Brooklyn who have already made an impact at festivals like SXSW, have played in places as remote as Alaska, and are scheduled to perform at the MIDI Festival in France this summer. All without having released their debut album yet, and without conforming to any typical formulas or scenes. Bandmates Robert Barber and Mary Pearson both come across as earnest music enthusiasts and as generally good-spirited people, with very different but complimentary music backgrounds–Pearson was trained as a classical bassoonist, and Barber has spent the last decade immersed in punk and experimenting with effects. As High Places, they construct layers of rhythms and treated sounds, topped by sweet wisps of Mary’s voice that never overwhelm their danceable compositions. A well-received EP was released in 2007 (as well as a compilation of previously released 7" singles), and the anticipated full-length album is due later this year.

"I pick up on strange patterns I hear in nature, and I probably inadvertently filter that into my rhythms. Birds, bugs, wind through trees." – Robert Barber

How long have you been playing music together? How did your collaboration come about?

Rob: We actually met through the band The DeathSet. Mary met one of them when he was passing through Kalamazoo in December 2005, where she lived at the time. A couple weeks later, she was in NY for a bassoon lesson, and we met through that (mutual) friend at one of their shows. She did a solo show for me a couple weeks after that in Kalamazoo, and by that point we were talking on the phone every day, and dreaming of doing a band together. She moved to NY a couple months later, that May. We played our first show on May 28th, 2006 in North Adams, MA. We started the band about three days prior to that. So, needless to say, it was a slightly more "experimental" set, complete with an "interpretation" of "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk. The main melody was played on bassoon, and glockenspiel. We bailed on it about a minute and a half into it. I remember people saying things like "awwww," after certain songs, like in a "this is adorable, but tragic," kind of way.

So you two share a living space in order to make music with each other–is music your sole focus right now, or are you forced to do other work as well?

Mary: I babysit an 8-year-old girl in Manhattan a few days a week, but the rest of my time goes toward the band.

Rob: I am doing freelance design (yuck) here and there. We are now at a point where we are doing the band full-time, working less and less, and scraping by financially. It’s tight, High Places has definitely started taking up a ton of time, but in a good way. We are way stoked.

Your music and even your live set is punctuated with unusual sounds and toy instruments. What are some of your favorite found sounds?

Rob: I am pretty obsessed with crumpling sounds. Like paper. I think I am hanging out way too much with our cats because we are starting to become attracted to the same sounds. I’m also a connoisseur of thrift store mixing bowls. They are like really cheap gamelan gongs. I have been know to drive the employees of Midwestern Salvation Army stores crazy, by tapping on every metal bowl in the store, checking for good tone.

Mary: The cats alone make some pretty great meows and scratching sounds. They’re always prowling around while we’re recording, so it’s impossible for them not to add a little something to whatever we’re working on. They’re very musical. I personally always gravitate toward wind instruments. We have a bunch of recorders lying around, and I think each one has a unique tuning.

Rob: But even though we use some pretty simple sounds, we aren’t satisfied with the sounds as-is, usually. It is the recording and layering and manipulation that makes it interesting for us.

It’s intriguing watching you play live because it is unclear exactly how the sounds are being produced. I’ve read you likening Robert to "the man behind the curtain" with his percussion and sample set-up. How much of your live set is composed of samples? What sort of pad are you playing live?

Rob: We have a sampling pad that looks like a drum pad. It is made by Roland, and I break it constantly. I heard they just discontinued it, so I’m not sure where we’ll go next. It’s pretty beat up. It is a nice invention though, because you can load it up with your own sounds, and play them more physically. We also have treated contact mics and triggers attached to the small acoustic stuff. All this is played along with the aid of backing tracks as well. Nothing against the laptop, but we wanted to actually have a bit more physicality in the live setting. I guess that translates to a huge tangled bird’s nest of wires in a box. We are sort of like a dub sound system in approach.

Mary: We use backing tracks and samples because we want to use acoustic instruments to create our music, and it would be physically impossible for us both to be playing guitar, drumming, running our fingers along the rim of a glass, playing recorder, and singing all at the same time. We never use samples borrowed from other people’s music. It’s funny to me when people just say as fact, "They use laptops and string samples and steel drums and Rob plays the keyboard," because none of that is accurate.

Rob: I have heard my "synth work" gets a lot of praise. Sorry dudes, no synths. We may use them someday, though, who knows.

One of the things that sets your music apart is the way the vocals sit inside the mix rather than on top, and are awash in ethereal reverbs or sound distant at times. Can you talk about your philosophy about the role of vocals in High Places? How do you achieve this effect live?

Mary: Everything about High Places is 50/50 with the two of us. We often have different responsibilities, but our importance is always very equal. It’s never made sense for us to have a "front person." I don’t have a lot of stage banter between songs and I don’t stand in front of Rob in photos and my vocals are not the main event in our songs. We have our own mixing board on-stage that we run everything through, and we keep my vocals balanced in that mix–with effects and a volume that makes my voice another color, another instrument within a field of sound. We never try to obscure the vocals. I think my lyrics are always decipherable. We just don’t want the vocals to sound like a separate, dry entity.

Can you talk about your writing process as a duo? Do you take turns with layers of a composition or do you improvise with each other?

Rob: Definitely both. Sometimes we’ll come up with stuff separately first, but often we will improv together, record it, and then maybe we’ll go back separately, as further ideas come up. A lot of the time we are just making little scraps, and archiving them away, to be rediscovered later.

(For Mary): What is your approach to writing lyrics? Do they tend to precede the melodies or follow them?

Mary: My approach to writing lyrics has definitely evolved throughout the years. I never write words before I write a melody. The two almost always come at the same time. When we started High Places, I think we wanted to make it more of a punk band, which probably sounds ridiculous if you’ve heard early High Places. But at the time my lyrics were much more: "This is rad. That sucks. I get bummed when you say that," etc. And I kind of over-sang and thus sounded more childish. My lyrics now tend to be influenced by something I’ve read. I love Annie Dillard, Edward O. Wilson, Kahlil Gibran, John Berger. I’ve been getting away from writing deeply personal lyrics because it’s tough to perform a deeply personal song every night. You start feeling like you’ve cheapened the meaning or that those feelings have been taken from you.

What are some sources of inspiration for you as an artist?

Rob: Not to sound corny, but the sounds of nature. I am not really an academic musician the way Mary is. I pick up on strange patterns I hear in nature, and I probably inadvertently filter that into my rhythms. Birds, bugs, wind through trees. Also, a big influence is the distant sound of bass-heavy music, bumping out of cars, bodegas, or wherever. Hip hop, reggae, Latin, even mariachi. Not so much if I heard it on my own on the radio right in front of me, but the way it sounds from a block away, bouncing off of buildings and distorted because the dude is pushing his crappy speakers way too hard. The sound of rear fenders rattling loose.

Mary: Like I mentioned earlier, I’m really inspired by what I read, especially writings about the natural world and man’s place in it. I think High Places has always reflected our city dwellers’ longing for nature and simple living.

mary and rob of high places

"The whole idea of playing in a band as a way of paying the bills is a new concept to Rob and me. We come from a basement show pass-the-hat-to-pay-for-gas mentality." – Mary Pearson

What music did you grow up listening to? Do you feel that your sound now incorporates the music of your upbringing, or denounces it?

Rob: Anyone who knows me knows that I am a total punk and hardcore nerd. It influenced me in so many aspects of life, not just musically. I learned a lot about DIY ethics, veganism, and personal-political ideas like being straightedge. Musically speaking, I think that a lot of our songs are short and direct and dense, because it just has more of an impact. When we hit 4 minutes with a song, It feels like we are Yes or Rush when we play those songs live. I love listening to long drawn-out expansive psych, but playing it is tough for me. I get bored. Two minutes feels like six, if you are the performer. We are slowly getting more comfortable with expanding the timeline of a song, especially now, as we are working on a full-length. Up until now, we only have done a bunch of 7" EPs. I also LOVE that early hardcore often has some of the craziest recordings and production. In the early ’80s, if you were 17, you played what you could get your hands on equipment-wise. So blowing out that ’70s Peavey practice amp made for the most gnarly and peculiar distortion. Also, if you wanted to record, most studios and engineers then were burnt-out disciples of the first Boston record, and had zero idea or respect for a band of teenage hardcore kids. That effect was all the more magnified in places like Eastern Europe, and Japan, which had some of the most insane-sounding records of that time. It was basically incidental experimental. We record totally backwards, having no idea what we are going to end up with, so I think we can relate in a lot of ways.

Is the concept of "the album" important, or are you more invested in songs as individual experiences?

Rob: I am really attracted to the relationship of a group of songs. Even when we make a 7" (particularly our first), it’s like a mini album. I was sort of worried that our compilation (3/07-9/07) of all our out-of-print records would seem choppy, but I look at it as more of an archive. But maybe there is something to the phenomenon of "the hit single" worth exploring.

Mary: I like cohesive albums, but sometimes concept records take the whole cohesion thing a bit too far, I think. Although I was entertaining the idea of naming every track the same name… That would just make writing set lists way too difficult, though.

Rob: George Foreman made it work!

Can you talk a little about your upcoming full-length album? Do you have an expected release date?

Rob: We are aiming for late summer, or September.

Mary: We’re writing and recording the album as we speak. We do everything at home, and the process of crafting each song is a slow one because there are so many layers to record. Our songwriting process is evolving and the resulting song is generally longer in length.

You don’t have a traditional website, but rather a regularly updated blog and a MySpace page. And you are, as far as I know, not associated with a label. Are these conscious choices that you are making to handle your own exposure?

Rob: Well, the web representation side of us is not too calculated. We love the format of a super simple blog, just to throw out thoughts and info, as needed. MySpace, as weird as it is, has obviously helped a lot of bands. We are fortunate to live in a large town, with a vibrant and diverse scene, where we play a lot. But MySpace and blogs are probably more important for a musician living in a more remote environment, where they can link and find others in their own area as well as around the world. I love that MySpace has, in a sense, been hijacked from the owners and creators. Like all these people hearing each other and networking through this terribly designed and malfunctioning ghostship of a social network website, totally ignoring the really weird advertising.

Mary: Until very recently, we were handling every aspect of the band ourselves. We just started working with a booking agent, but we still aren’t associated with a US label and we don’t have a publicist. The whole idea of playing in a band as a way of paying the bills is a new concept to Rob and me. We come from a basement show pass-the-hat-to-pay-for-gas mentality. So having a free blog and doing everything ourselves is just what we know.

(For Mary): Do you see a relationship between your classical background as a bassoonist and the music you’re making in High Places? Are pop and classical music entirely different species, or do you find an intersection?

Mary: Playing in bands was always my escape from music school. I found it so refreshing to play with "untrained" musicians because they wouldn’t even realize they were playing something in 7/8, whereas a classical musician would be like, "Ooooohhhh, this song’s in 7/8! Tricky!" Sometimes understanding what you’re doing too well just complicates things. I honestly don’t see much overlap with pop and classical. The orchestral world is all about perfecting someone else’s music, and I just got so tired of playing the same excerpts year after year and never feeling satisfied with my performance. There’s always someone better than you in that world. Writing my own music and knowing exactly how I want it performed is so fun for me now. But don’t get me wrong, I feel very grateful for my classical training and I will always love playing the bassoon.

Do you find that your surroundings have an effect on you as an artist? Has relocating to Brooklyn influenced your music?

Mary: Our music has gotten more bass-heavy lately as we’ve been listening to more reggae and hip hop. Those sounds are heard a lot in our neighborhood, so maybe that has subconsciously influenced us to listen to them more.

Rob: I grew up listening to hip hop and was around it, too, but maybe I’m more comfortable now about integrating it with more psych type sounds.

What are three things that you love?

Mary: My family, warm weather, morning rituals like making coffee and brunch and walking to the post office.

Rob: Oceans, forests, Vegan Treats Bakery.

What makes you unhappy?

Mary: Being away from loved ones, jokes about people with disabilities, the situation in Iraq.

Rob: Yeah, seriously. I totally agree with Mary. I am mega-sad about the resurgence of certain hurtful junior high vernacular that involves a derogatory word for people with disabilities. It’s doubly malevolent when you use it in your band/stage name because you are under the lazy illusion that you are "edgy."

What recent albums or artists are you enjoying?

Mary: I’ve been listening to a lot of Eric Copeland, K-Swift, DJ Blaqstarr, and Ecstatic Sunshine. Lots of music from Baltimore!

Rob: I just bought the Los Crudos discografia, which was an AMAZING hardcore band from Chicago in the ’90s. They really mean a lot to me. Sister Nancy is getting played a lot. My friend Ethan just gave me a bunch of rad dancehall singles. Early ’90s hip hop. Soiled Mattress and the Springs and Mika Miko are the two raddest live bands around.

Visit High Places at MySpace.

Identity Theory’s Recommended Listening: "New Grace" and "Golden" by High Places

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