High Places Interview

As they release their sophomore album, ‘Vs Mankind'.
High Places
With the release of their sophomore album, ‘Vs Mankind’, Los Angeles-based duo High Places are certainly beginning to live up to their name. An experimental musical project between Mary Pearson and Robert Barber, they began life as friends and housemates in New York back in 2006.

Their eponymous debut record was a compelling (and highly regarded) combination of found sounds, noise collage and ethereal melodies, with Pearson’s delicate vocals submersed deep beneath layer after layer of sound. It was recorded at the home they then shared in Brooklyn and subsequently picked up and issued by respected chicago label Thrill Jockey. The new one was recorded similarly, but there’s a distinct shift in the swirl of patterns that form this newest set of songs and the methods behind them.

“For the first record,” explains robert, “we were always scrapbooking every little peep that the two of us made around the house - any kind of weird sound, anything odd. We’d have little jam sessions where we’d sit down with a banjo and we’d make these little snippets and randomly put them together. But I think with the new record, we wanted it to be not so ramshackle, but a little bit more direct. For me, at least, one of the big issues was being able to have it more playable live. But we also didn’t just want to create the same thing again. We wanted to force ourselves to work in different ways.”

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This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the May issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from April 2nd. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.

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One of the biggest differences to way the duo work now that they’re on the West Coast is that they’re no longer sharing a house. What that means is that they’ve been getting together specifically to write and record songs - rather than just improvise upon found sounds from their house or their surroundings. Does this mean they’ve started making a concerted effort to compose - shock! horror! - proper songs?

“Yeah,” confirms Mary. “And we can hear that. It’s not like we totally notice the changes in how we put our songs together. We actually always thought our songs were straightforward, but other people were like, ‘No, actually, that’s pretty weird!’”

“And especially,” chips in robert, “when it comes to our early stuff, with our first EPs. You listen to those - and I’m still glad we did them and everything - but you listen to those and from a technical recording standpoint it sounds like they were recorded at the other end of a rain gutter or something. I think we got better at honing in our ideas. at first, Mary wrote a lot of the lyrics afterwards, but with most of these songs she started writing the words when the first beat was made. and I think that that really changes things, because then I have to take my parts and fit them to vocal phrasing, which, for me, is a lot more difficult than just writing something off the top of my head.”

The result is a record that’s more immediate than its predecessor, yet full of the same artistic and iconoclastic integrity. It still sounds different, but in a different way. Their sound has expanded and mutated, become somewhat bigger and bolder and prouder and catchier and braver than it used to be. It’s also brighter than it used to be - a direct result of the warmer la climate and its laid-back californian attitude, which is a stark contrast from their previous life in the hustle and bustle of new York - even in the relatively slower-paced borough of Brooklyn.

“Moving’s had a huge impact,” says Mary. “Mainly, it’s because we now have a little time and space to spread out and try some ideas. I think the first two years of the band were really great, but it was pretty whirlwind. We were writing our debut album and we’d have a day or two home from tour, so we’d come back and stay up writing all night working on it, and then go away for a few weeks and then come back and work on it some more. and you know, it was fun, but we never had the time we really wanted to focus on making an album until we moved here. There’s just something about L.A.. It feels like there are more hours in the day, which is probably a lot to do with the weather, and that there’s more space here than in new York. There’s time and room to try things out.”

Listening to ‘Vs Mankind’, it’s clear that their new-found space is working for them. It’s allowed the duo to truly experiment, yet create proper songs while doing so - making the inaccessible fully accessible and vice-versa. As a result, with this album they’ve reached the peak of their career so far. But who’s to say they won’t reach even higher places in the future?

Words by Mischa Pearlman

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