High Places – ClashMusic.com Q&A

Brooklyn duo ascend

Forget no sleep ‘til Brooklyn – with the amount of great bands emerging from the borough, it’s a wonder actual residents get any sleep at all.

The latest underground act from the NYC area to begin making waves this side of the Atlantic is High Places, a duo comprised of vocalist Mary Pearson and multi-instrumentalist Robert Barber. MySpace says: “Surf/Hardcore/Trance”. Critics elsewhere have called their sound “beautiful and absorbing”, “mesmerizing”. We say…

What do we say? Sometimes music touches you somewhere that’s not connected to your mouth, to your fingers – communicating becomes irrelevant, indulgence and pleasure consuming all. Precedents are detectable: Deerhunter (and Atlas Sound), Cocteau Twins, Panda Bear. But the pair’s craft is of a singular style, their sonic sculpting unique.

With their self-titled debut album recently released via Thrill Jockey (it followed a compilation, ’03.07-09.07’, released by the same label back in June), High Places are now coming to the UK. Ahead of their first date, in London tonight, Clash caught up with the pair to talk the past, the present and the future.

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High Places – ‘Head Spins’ (live in Brooklyn)

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Hello High Places – please run through briefly, for the latecomers at the back – who you are and where you’re from, when you got together as this band, and what you’ve released so far…

Rob: We are Rob… Originally from Philadelphia, but moved to NYC in ’96… And Mary, who hails from Plainwell MI, near Kalamazoo. We became super friends in the winter of 2005-06 and started High Places on May 28th, 2006. We had an early six-song demo CD-R, three 7″ singles, a split 7″ with Aa, and a split 7″ with Xiu Xiu, pretty much all gone. A lot of that stuff was re-released as a compilation, called ’03.07-09.07’, which is a ten-song compilation spanning that time period. We also have an LP that came out in September. Oh, and some compilation songs.

What inspired the pair of you to first make music as High Places, and what happened first – the name or the music? If the music came first, does High Places match its mood to your mind?

Rob: We were just really psyched on each other’s fledgling solo projects… They were pretty different, yet we also could see how they would complement each other well if we were to meld them. I guess the name came first, like all good high school hardcore punk bands. Luckily we also ended up making music too. We chose the name because physically high places are just simply the best places to clear your mind out and gain perspective, among a lot of other rad things.

Mary: We have yet to regret our choice in band name, and I still think the name is an apt one. In fact we’re doing this interview from a train in snow-covered mountainous Norway and I’m reading Daniel Pinchbeck’s ‘Breaking Open the Head’, about psychedelic shamanism. High places in abundance.

There’s been some success for vaguely similarly styled acts this year – Deerhunter, for one. Has High Places’ rising profile benefited from the work of others, and precedents set, do you think?

Rob: Well, yes people in the last few years have become increasingly more open-minded to the sonic palettes that a lot of bands are creating out of the boredom of traditional rock instrumentation. I mostly credit Lightning Bolt for this. They came out of nowhere in the late ‘90s and just totally blew every weirdo kid’s mind. They toured like crazy, spreading it all over. But a lot of music these days is also polarizing and confusing to people too. Maybe in a good way, because if you walk away hating it, at least you are thinking about it. You just aren’t passively accepting pop structures.

Mary: When we started the band, we doubted we would find much of a niche for what we were doing. It seemed much more self-serving than that. It was a pleasant surprise that some other people liked it, and I’m sure there are countless bands and artists who paved the way for the likes of us.

Is location of vital importance in the creation of music, yours and in general? Do you think High Places would sound the way it does if the band was not rooted in Brooklyn? Has that ever been a hindrance given the number of acts from said place?

Rob: Not sure… as we only have lived here. But we do travel a lot and that is a big influence on me. I love hearing lots of crazy sounds bouncing around the streets all the time, but I am also distracted by a lot here. I think the number of people making stuff is totally awesome and inspires me. Everybody should make something. It is good for you. Nobody sounds anything alike, to me at least. There are just so many weird under-the-radar bands in New York.

Working as a two-piece, do you ever feel choked, or like you’re spending too much time together? I always think bands with four or five members can fluctuate their social patterns; in a two-piece, you’re rather more restricted. Does being a two-piece naturally lend more drama to music?

Rob: I could only imagine having more personalities would be more to navigate on just about every level. Does our music seem dramatic or tense to you or others? I am part of it, so I can’t really say. We aren’t exactly the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Primarily, we make music for escapist reasons.

Mary: Being a two-piece forces us to constantly reinvent ourselves because we have all of these musical ideas that are tough for just two people to pull off. We have very specific roles and strengths. We’re a black and white cookie or a yin-yang or a two party system. Wait, not a two party system. Those are horrible.

You’re sure to receive a few ‘tips for 2009’ pieces – but who do you expect, or hope, to do well next year? What means success to you – making enough to do this and support yourselves, or more? Can High Places sustain itself without massive budgets?

Mary: These bands should and will (I hope!) get more attention in 2009: Bow Ribbons, Awesome Color, Krallice. I really love them and I think they’re creative and amazingly talented. Success means to always move forward and to learn new things, and to eventually look back on what you’ve learned with some feeling of accomplishment. I think the creative impulse keeps you from ever feeling like you’ve arrived anywhere, but every now and then, it’s important to look back and realize you’ve come a long way. High Places has always operated on a shoestring budget. I think that’s just part of our ‘thing’.

Rob: There are so many amazingly talented people out there we meet in our travels and they all deserve ‘more’. They need to define that reality for their own comfort levels. Success to me is that we don’t hit a wall, and stop enjoying ourselves. We only intended to do this band for a summer project, so I would say the fact that I am currently typing this from a train traveling through the Tolkien-esque snowy mountains of Norway would make me feel pretty content. If we stopped tomorrow, I would be just so happy I had this time with my best friend.

Do you think of yourself as a particularly experimental group, or is this music as ‘pop’ to you as possible? When journalists apply colourful adjectives to your work, do you baulk or embrace them? Do you have any favourite descriptions of the band that you’ve read?

Rob: I think we are experimental in the sense that we have to seek out the sounds to make our songs, as opposed to just dialing in a sound that we use throughout a specific set or record. It takes a while and it is rewarding in the end. I am not really into ‘gear’ fetishism. I like being surprised by the outcome of a song. I feel like if a listener/writer feels something when they hear us, and comes up with a way to verbally explain that feeling or emotion, then how can I question that? That’s more on them to make sure they aren’t sounding contrived or silly. We just make sound, send it out into the world and it bounces off people and they respond to it. We can’t control that response. Maybe it is a bit dishonest if they report it as fact, like “HP is influenced by…” But what can you do? I am mostly in tune with the people I meet at shows who talk to me, because that is the most direct and honest line of communication.

Did High Places begin with live performances in mind, or did the band’s material have to be worked back through to enable the two of you to play live? You’re about to play in the UK – have your past experiences been positive, and do you find British crowds to be receptive? If so, is that primarily in London, or absolutely not in the capital?

Mary: We began as a mostly live band. We played very often in New York, and our recordings (CD-R demo aside) came a little bit later. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about any one place because venues and days of the week and crowds vary so much, but yes, we have felt a warm reception in the UK. We’re looking forward to returning.

Rob: Yes, the UK is a really supportive place. We have only played there on one stint, as a support band in June of this year. Aside from that, the shows were super different from each other so I don’t have it all figured out yet. Off subject, but, Poland was just super AMAZING.

What have been your high points of 2008, as we near the year’s end? Are there any figures in the media you have painted as either heroes or villains?

Rob: I am mostly just stoked on all the personal growth I have had. I feel like I have learned so much. I think I just process what’s around me more than following the media. I am a little bit of a space cadet. I am inspired by my friends around me, creating things and overcoming obstacles in the most positive ways. I am not one for viewing the world as good or evil.

Mary: There’s a certain new president for whom I have high hopes. I don’t know if I would call him a hero, but it seems like he has some heroic potential.

Do you have a favourite album of the past year, and if so would you like to tell us about it?

Rob: I am still really amped on Lloyd and Michael‘s album. It is just the most timeless, honest and emotionally present pop record ever. They don’t live in the same area right now so it’s a bit on hiatus.

Mary: Grouper‘s ‘Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill’. I’ve done lots of traveling this year, and it is great music to accompany long drives or train rides.

Finally, what’s planned for 2009 at the moment, band-wise?

Mary: We’re traveling to California, New Zealand, Australia, and Scandinavia (plus Finland) in early 2009. We’ll be recording a new record, and touring the States and Europe.

Rob: Lots of brunch and finding every vegan baked good in the universe.

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High Places – live in London

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High Places’ self-titled album is out now on Thrill Jockey and the duo tour the UK and Ireland from TONIGHT – get more information and music on MySpace and see the band as follows…


13 London Old Blue Last

14 London Lexington w/ Gentle Friendly, Banjo Or Freakout

15 Leeds Son of Nastyfest w/ Rolo Tomassi, Future of the Left

16 Newcastle Head of Steam

19 Glasgow Nice N Sleazy

20 Belfast Speakeasy

21 Dublin Crawdaddy

22 London Pure Groove in-store (free entry)

Listen to the pair’s ‘New Grace’ by clicking the player below…

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