Conversation: High Places

By Kelly Ginger

Constantly on tour, it might seem like High Places no longer has a home base – but don’t be fooled. They’ve recently broke free from Brooklyn and have settled nicely into their new West Coast home in Los Angeles. Yet, I don’t think it is necessarily place that defines this band, and they wouldn’t want it to. That would be too stationary, and if one were to define this band it might be by movement, or change. Here they talk about moving from internal and external, the experience of the show both on stage and off stage, America, Europe, town to town. Nothing is the same, as each person and place brings its own unique perspective.

and where now?

and what will we see there?

and how will we grow? and will we know it when we do?

A lot of your lyrics deal with the metaphysical, as opposed to the physical: “Inside my eyelid looks the same/ No matter where my feet are,” and “…A tree inside your eye. / A flickering of branches hold
your breath/ and then you sigh.” Do you feel, as performers, you find yourselves physically present when playing shows, or, as you say, inside your eye? Also, do you feel there is a difference between
yourself on stage and off stage, as if perhaps, performer is only one of the many roles you play?

Mary Pearson: Both of those lyrics you mentioned are about exchanging the external for the internal. Going on a tour is a job for extroverts. There is little time for reflection and solitude, and it can be taxing on someone who doesn’t draw her energy from social scenarios. Perhaps I write these lyrics to serve as a channel from the internal thought realm to the very external experience of performing. It’s that idea of music bridging those two worlds that makes me feel comfortable and empowered, and also physically present while performing. There are lots of things I would never have the nerve to say that I can easily sing. I am terrible at stage banter!

Rob Barber: I love music that utilizes more than just the sense of hearing. I personally enjoy making, at least at the recording and sound-creating end of the spectrum, music that creates a sensory bubble for me. I enjoy the physicality of it, how it absorbs and washes over you. So it is somewhat transporting or escapist for me. A bit corny sounding, but I get pretty lost in sound a lot. Live situations can be really
rewarding when the shear volume and presence of the sound overtakes you and you stop noticing that you are on a stage in front of people, all gross and sweating. I rarely notice the crowd. I feel bad saying
that, but it’s true. Maybe it is a defense mechanism against me feeling like an nervous boob.

Shifting roles back to the audience member, is there a specific show you are able to vividly remember attending? What do you find striking in that memory? What sort of emotion is evoked for you? What “purpose” did you find in shows then, as an audience member?

RB: I had a crazy week back when I was in high school, where I saw My Bloody Valentine and Slayer in the same weekend. My Bloody Valentine was actually way louder. Like the most maximized and beautifully
violent sound I ever heard. There was absolutely no frequency left unused. It was my main way of feeling relaxed and contained in my own skin. I had a lot of trouble upstairs as a young person, and it
replaced my dark and self-abusive behaviors. I was mostly a “punk” kid, and that world introduced to me the idea that music was more than just passive entertainment.

MP: Although I’m not a Radiohead fan, I had a chance to see them play last summer at the Hollywood Bowl. And I must admit, their set was totally mesmerizing. A lot of it had to do with the lights and video projections and setting and weather, but the music worked with those elements to create this hypnotic, captivating show. I love the idea of creating an otherworldly, full-sensory experience out of performance.

There is usually a lot happening during your sets, with your mix of dance beats, videos, colorful, divergent sounds and poetic lyrics, it all seems a bit dissonant at first. That’s a lot of stimulus to
happen at once. During your set, how much do you feel should be consumed by your audience and how much should be something else? Is it possible to take all of that experience in at once? Would you want your audience to?

MP: A lot of what we do musically is about unexpected relationships that occur between different sounds. We love to layer, and our video projections have a similar aesthetic. Therefore, it’s not necessary for each audience members to pick up on the same things. We’re more interested in creating something full and enveloping that audience members can experience in any number of ways.

RB: I hope that the music and visuals are dense and thick enough to allow the audience to adapt and create their own experience within it. I really don’t want to dictate any particular response to the audience. I hope it means different things to different people. I like when people seem confused by it. I like when I notice two people next to each other locking into different parts of the rhythms, and moving slightly at odds to each other. We have been told that we are a good drug experience band. People can embellish it how they like, but hopefully it can also work on it’s own without any “help”.

Has that purpose changed for you now, as performer? Also, when you experience a show as an audience member now, do you have a hard time shutting off the performer in you, or do you find you can still experience shows as you did in your past?

RB: I still watch 99% percent of the people we play with, even if we are touring with them and seeing them every night. I feel like it really helps me to see how different people approach their own music. I learn a lot. Not so much technically, but more so in how they live and function within the weird world of musician and artist. Sometimes I will be so stoked on somebody’s energy or honesty, and other times I am bummed or alienated by someone who maybe is doing it totally for the opposite reason I do it. When I am not touring, I am always surprised I am not totally “showed out”, but it is actually nice to attend a show with out having to think about anything.

MP: I definitely watch shows differently these days. I think I’ve become more forgiving and more protective of my fellow performers because I know how difficult it can be up there on stage.

On stage you must get an interesting view of the audience’s faces. In Culture and Value Wittgenstein says, “Someone who understands music will listen differently (e.g. with a different expression on his
face), he will talk differently, from someone who does not”, do you believe this to be true? How do you feel people respond to your music? How do you want them to respond? How do you respond to music that inspires you?

MP: Some people have such pleasant expressions on their faces while they’re listening. It’s the hardest thing to perform to a room full of blank faces. When we started the band, I quickly realized that my own “listening face” looks like a scowl, so I’ve been trying to change that. I actually don’t know if a musical understanding helps people listen to music better. Sometimes I think the brain gets in the way of enjoyment. Whenever I hear something particularly inspiring, I try to talk to the performers afterward. Even though I find it hard to put that sort of gratitude into words, I know how much it means to get positive feedback from listeners.

RB: Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I don’t really notice people while we are playing, but I am really into to talking to people afterward. We just played in Perth, and the stage and crowd were pretty massive,
but so many people were so awesome about coming up and speaking really forthright about how they felt. Maybe because Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, people are really open. It was really
refreshing. We do get a lot of “smart” music-nerd responses from people, but the most exciting are just really basic gut feelings people share. Children and older people are usually rad for this.

You both have been traveling a lot; do you find the American audience experience to be any different than, say, the European or Japanese audience experience? Or, does each audience seem to expect different things from you, or much the same? Do you respond to each audience differently, for example; if they are dancing you will become more energetic, etc?

RB: It is definitely town to town. Even within the same country. I have generally found no rhyme or reason to different responses. Except for maybe some scenes that have more handed to them are sometimes less
stoked or appreciative. I really notice sometimes that people often do not appreciate the promoters, the person sticking their neck out to make awesome stuff happen in their town. This is surprisingly not
related to the size of the town. A big scene can be really stoked and appreciative while a smaller town will be really spoiled for a year or two without knowing it, and then when the local promoter gets tired
of dealing with an unappreciative scene and moves or burns out, then the locals are the first to be all like “aw, man this town is soooo boring.” It is really perplexing….

MP: The more I travel, the more difficult it is for me to make any generalizations about particular places or people. People everywhere or unique and complex, and therefore every audience feels different but also kind of the same.

At this point, how many times do you feel you have played each of your songs? Do you feel they have become almost like a mantra? Or, do you feel it is something much more subtle, perhaps akin to Franny when she first discovers A Pilgrim’s Way and praying without ceasing?

MP: We’ve played each of our songs hundreds of times. You go through a phase where just hearing the introduction of a song induces nausea, but then it starts to be fun to feel like you’ve mastered something. That’s when you begin improvising more and stretching out within the song. Whenever I start thinking about lyrics I’ve sung night after night, I suddenly panic that I don’t know the words, and I mess them up every now and then. It is mantra-like in that way.

RB: I have an extremely short attention span. I can’t believe our record only just came out in the fall. Not to totally be super self-deprecating, but I am chomping at the bit to make new music and continue to grow and evolve. It is maybe our biggest conundrum, touring and seeing rad places, versus chilling the heck out and making something new.

Does playing a new song change this? And, with 2009 well under way, what sort of changes are you looking forward to, other than your recent move out west?

RB: In the first half of our existence we were playing a lot more locally, and only releasing EPs and singles. So every month or so, it felt like we were making a new song or two. That sort of ended when we started touring constantly to support the full length. However, we are not touring too much after the spring, so I think we are a point of a total tear-down and rebuilding of our process. In the past we were definitely growing, but maybe only in baby steps.

MP: Playing a song for the first time is always terrifying and I always mess up. It’s totally psychological because the second time is always fine.
Rob and I have so many plans for the future. We’re very eager to start trying out some of our ideas. I realize that is totally vague, but it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding! We don’t want to spoil the surprise!!