High Places: Interview
“We have this little Ian McKaye photo that we kiss before each show.”
I get excited for a show when a band wheels up more speakers and stacks them up taller than the speakers that were already there. Hardcases are unlatched and out come tiny drums, bells, and random things that rattle. Cords are plugged into small electronic boxes, drum sticks readied, and then instead of squall, the sound that comes out is that of a sprite singing from behind a waterfall, with a carnival band that's two blocks away and has yet to round the corner.
When I listen to High Places, I feel like I'm a small child who's been allowed to scamper freely in endless rolling fields. It's sunny and warm, and I get grass stains. There's a hill for me to roll down, and I don't get sick from it, and I don't care about the leaves stuck in my hair. I can scrutinize the bugs crawling on the ground and then flip over to stare at the clouds drifting by. High Places is an afternoon of open-air fun.
High Places was borne out of the meeting of kindred spirits Rob Barber, a Philly-bred, Brooklyn-based veteran of hardcore and experimental bands, and Mary Pearson, a classically-trained bassoonist with ties to the Michigan DIY scene. Although a mail-based project never materialized, after graduating from college, Mary moved in with Rob to focus on their burgeoning creative partnership. Frequent tours with a slew of stylistically diverse friends, coupled with a recently released compilation of scattered recordings from a six-month period in 2007, have raised anticipations for their upcoming full-length.
Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with Rob and Mary and discovered that, in addition to making amazing music, they're two of the nicest and most open people you'll ever meet. We ended up talking until the tape recorder ran out; our meandering conversation covered the evolving state of DIY music in the internet age, the challenges of creating buoyant songs that are emotionally resonant, and the aesthetics of really loud music.
So how's the new album coming along?
Mary Pearson: It's going well.
Rob Barber: Sure.
RB: It always takes longer than you expect.
MP: We forget how long it takes us to write each song. Like it varies a lot. Our single for this record took three and a half weeks, and then the B-side I think we wrote in like, two days. And I think I might like the B-side better.
So you know which one's the A-side and B-side while you're writing them?
RB: It just seemed like when we were writing “the A-side” it seemed like a better song for an A-side. I don't know. I think the problem is we spent so much time on the A-side; it's a lot more of an elaborate song.
MP: We have no way to be objective about that song anymore.
RB: You've heard it so many times you're kind of like Aaagh!
MP: It's like when you hear a song and you're like, ‘This song is so good,' and then you play it into the ground, and you can never again get back to that feeling.
RB: I can, but I know what you're talking about. We've basically made well over an album's worth of music since we started a year and a half ago.
MP: We have like three albums worth of music.
RB: Well, three hardcore albums.
MP: I mean in number of tracks, not in length.
RB: We've discussed the length of an album, and I'm like “Man, a Seven Seconds record is like 22 minutes long!” Bands nowadays make like 40 to 50 minute albums.
MP: We're doing all right. Our songs are getting longer. We're learning how to let a song, like, happen, and not just be like ‘I think everyone's getting sick of this idea, let's cut it off right here.'
RB: Yeah. I think there was definitely a point when, where our songs were coming in at one minute fifty a lot of the times...
MP: A couple of our friends were like, ‘you guys, people start to dance at that one point and you just stopped the song.'
RB: It'll be like six seconds and we'll drop something, and people are like, ‘Oh. Did someone just kick the power cord out?' ‘Cause when you're playing music you take a two-minute song and it feels like you've multiplied it by three...
MP: And when you've been working on it for like three weeks you feel like the ideas are so repetitious, but then you realize they're actually only heard once in the song. So I think we're learning how to make things naturally flow and evolve better.
RB: Black Flag had this amazing quote. Did you ever see The Decline of Western Civilization? It's this documentary on LA punk. And the bass player's like, “The songs are fast ‘cause that's what gets us off, and the songs are short because that's how long the inspiration lasts.” And I kind of feel like, we're not fast, but we like to have things in and out, pretty fast, ‘cause I just start to get bored with them. We can only work on a song for so long before we get sick of it. I don't want to do again what we did with the first side of that song, where I can't listen to it, whether it's good or not. I've just heard it too closely for too long a period of time. Maybe it will come around. But even playing it live I don't feel it as much.
MP: It's fun to write those songs that just kind of happen.
RB: Yeah. It's weird. But then you feel like if you spend too little time on it, I question that aspect too. Is it just thrown together?
Yeah. You hear some homemade music and you feel like they didn't devote enough time to it.
MP: There's a lot of computer-based music that seems like, I mean everyone does that these days...
Yeah, or bedroom pop, where there's an inkling of an idea there, but then they go ahead and release it instead of working it out, adding more parts to it.
MP: My solo projects are always super immediate. I would just hit record, sing the vocals... I mean that approach is fun, but as far as the quality of the music, it's definitely a totally different thing.
"I think if you can't see the humor in what you're doing you're destined to drive it into the ground by taking it too seriously."
RB: For the audience too. I think that everyone should make something. I really feel like for the good of the world, people should be better at being creative. ‘Cause a lot of people will be like, ‘oh I'm not a musician.' I feel like the playing fields are more level for people who aren't used to making stuff. I've heard a lot of people saying there's too much crap being made now because of digital technology and mp3s and everything is so easily grabbed. There's more music being made now then ever. I mean, I think. But if anything it makes people work harder to be into music. It also makes it easier when you travel, people are more open-minded. You get to a town that maybe three years ago they didn't have much going on, like whoever was there was looking outwardly to what was outside their town. And now you go to some small town and they have an awesome scene. ‘Cause suddenly they're like, ‘we don't need a recording studio to make a record.' I can make something weird on my computer and play it out of my iPod and go nuts and roll around on the floor. Maybe it's not Pet Sounds or The White Album, but at least they're making it, and I think it's better for society and the world that people are creating things, whether or not it's high or low art. If someone's really amped on what they do it totally gets me excited for them. Sorry, that was almost like a love-bombing there...
No, it's funny ‘cause I have this really loaded question that I was gonna ask right at the beginning. ‘Cause I've noticed that if you're like angry or upset and have these really downer feelings you command respect, but if you're amped on life, it's just kind of frivolous in a way. It's just not taken on the same level as something that's serious. Like you look at the Oscars or whatever, it's always a drama that wins, it's never a comedic performance or any kind of uplifting thing, it's always somebody dying or killing people or whatever.
RB: We've talked about that a little bit. I feel like we wanted to go in a more positive direction when we started. Almost to the point that when we started it was borderline hokey, how upbeat it was.
MP: From the scene I came from in Michigan it was more like positive kind of punk folk type stuff. We would have shows in an attic, acoustic, and I would have my solo project with my bassoon, no amplification, little kids running around, vegan pancakes, that sort of scene. So I think we ended up going for more art music too. More kind of avant-garde stuff. I think we wanted to bring all those elements together and make something. I had just moved to New York, but I don't feel like our initial music had much to do with New York. People have always thought we were from the west coast, just because of our interests and aesthetics. And I had just moved from the Midwest, living in rural Michigan. So people are like, ‘your songs don't really sound like New York,' but they weren't really influenced by New York.
RB: I think it was more a reaction to New York in a way.
MP: Now more it's a reaction. I mean that's how everyone's place is in the city; you're not gonna make your apartment reflect what's going on outside, you want to have a haven to go to, and I think our music is just a form of that. We've told people before too that High Places isn't just a band.... It's like, we really like the idea of...
MP: We like the idea of...
RB: It's a lifestyle!
MP: ...communal living and stuff. Like we're just two friends who have a lot in common and it's really easy to live together because of that.
RB: That's why we were drawn together, ‘cause we were both coming from what I call punk ethics, like DIY ethics. For her it was the norm in Michigan, and I was here and I missed that.
MP: We have this little Ian McKaye photo that we kiss before each show.
RB: Basically what I'm saying is that I'm really glad that music is as varied and diverse as it is, and you can basically do anything, there's no genres, there's no whatever. I mean no one in New York sounds the same anymore.
MP: I think it's ‘cause no one knows what to call this decade. I mean everything is referencing different points in history, different scenes. I do think the dust clears after a certain time period and you see things more clearly. Or maybe you don't. I remember in the ‘90s thinking the same thing and now it's clear what the ‘90s were all about.
RB: From ‘99 on music became totally limitless. Prior to that underground music was more genre-specific and location-specific. But one thing that went completely out the door, and maybe that's because there's so many different mindsets about making music now, is that the ethics side of things are definitely not as much of an issue. And maybe it's because there's no money in it.
MP: It's more obscured. I think the internet helps it. But back to your question about the positivity thing. We were really surprised that anyone would like our music, I think, just ‘cause we felt like it was something we were doing just ‘cause it was something the two of us wanted to be making. And we knew that it was pretty, for lack of a better word, childlike or something, our approach to things. But I think that's definitely changed. I mean, I had just turned 22 when we started the band, I was fresh out of college, and my ideas have changed. But New York is made up of people who have been transplanted from all over the country and the world, and I think that, especially right now, there's a niche for everyone.
RB: I just feel like we filled a void that was missing at the time, and that was just kind of an accident.
MP: But we've been really surprised that people have been so accepting and kind, ‘cause I think we expected to get like heckled a lot. And for people to see that we're two introverted people trying to make something that's... I don't know if it's still some like some totally positive thing we're trying to do, but it's definitely something that's beautiful, I guess, or pleasant.
I guess that's what I meant, that you can have something that's positive that's also really profound at the same time.
MP: I hope that my lyrics are getting more contemplative and not just ‘Oh gee! What a lucky kid I am.'
RB: It was never that bad.
Even beyond the lyrics, it's kind of the way it makes you feel, like it takes you to a really nice place.
RB: You know it's funny, I was thinking about what you just said... like the volume thing and the bass thing and all the stuff we have live, I like the impact of that, aesthetically. I like how loud bassy music comes across, and I just felt like I wanted to do that on our end of it, but I felt like maybe subconsciously... I mean, we've said this before, there was a point where we were playing with bands like Lightning Bolt, and if we're not really loud we might as well be just standing in the corner making armpit fart noises. It's just gonna get totally buried. I don't think it was really that conscious maybe, trying to change people's perspective of volume, and what's considered abrasive. ‘Cause I remember when I was really young and impressionable, in the same week I saw Slayer and My Bloody Valentine when they came over in ‘92. And My Bloody Valentine was louder than Slayer. I still think it was the loudest band I've ever seen, but it was the complete opposite of what you'd think of as loud and what's gonna blow your eardrums out.
"We were playing with bands like Lightning Bolt, and if we're not really loud we might as well be just standing in the corner making armpit fart noises."
MP: There's so much music that's just loud to be loud. I'm talking more about bands that are like, ‘Well we're not really doing anything so let's just make it painful so it seems really powerful and cool.' I guess loud isn't so much the object as, like, full.
RB: But if what they're doing is based on happy, and they're doing it with a pure intent I feel like then that's totally fine.
I understand. But did you think that like, people wouldn't get it in a live setting, ‘cause the live thing versus the recorded thing is kind of two different ways of experiencing it.
RB: Yeah, it's weird.
MP: ‘Cause it feels so different really for people at the shows.
RB: I think people are surprised that it's a lot bigger sounding live.
MP: Our new stuff I think we're trying to bridge that gap a lot more.
Or that they don't understand that you're not trying to have the singer be the center of attention. ‘Cause you said that the voice is just kind of another part of the sound.
MP: Yeah, just another part of it. Like I'm not the front-person of the band.
RB: I do a solo project once in a blue moon, usually I'll play benefits or whatever, but I'm not super go-for-it, but I feel like I wanted to play with someone who was more engaged. I don't really look at people when I play because I get really distracted. I might look at a friend, if I see a friend. It's weird though ‘cause we both make all the music, but then when we play it live, a lot of the stuff she makes gets programmed into the sampler.
MP: I guess we want everything to be somewhat level, to create like this whole field. ‘Cause sometimes when there's something that's really vocally based, the music gets turned way down, you know when somebody has a laptop and they sing or something, so many times the laptop is so quiet and you just have vocals. They don't feel like they're intertwined. What we're trying to do is make everything have its moment.
RB: We toured with her recently... do you know The Blow?
Yeah, I was about say. ‘Cause she started out with like a multimedia type thing, where it was just her talking and a CD player.
RB: Seems like what I understand about her early stuff, which I wasn't that familiar with, I think it's more four-tracky, so sometimes she'd use real instruments, not so much the electronics, and just kind of whatever. And one of the things I've heard with her, or our friend Barr, he does a similar thing, and when they would play shows they'd have to tell sound people that you have to treat the laptop or iPod or whatever as like three channels of what would normal be a band, not just like a keyboard, so you have to have it pushed way up. Mostly what I was gonna say was that, even though the vocals aren't super... it's not like Björk, that she's out there singing and I'm off in the shadows making everything happen musically, we still didn't want to both be standing behind a bunch of shit going like this [fiddling with knobs], it's just not very engaging for people.
Well that was another question I had, like what's going on on-stage? ‘Cause I just see you singing and you drumming on something in a box, and then these gorgeous sounds come out.
RB: It's like The Wizard of Oz; it's just a dude behind a curtain, it's all smoke and mirrors.
Well the funny thing was that the first time I saw you was with Lucky Dragons at Cinders, and he had that snake thing, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.
MP: Touching Music.
RB: Yeah, that guy's a genius.
He really is.
RB: He works for NASA. He got this job for like a think tank, where they send rockets and satellites into space, and they evaluate them, and they have a cross-section of people that represent different things, and he represents the artists.
He's the one artist at NASA?
RB: Yeah, isn't that funny. So they send him to launches and stuff.
That's so cool. I had no idea.
RB: He's a total genius.
He's really nice too. He totally explained exactly what it was, in really simple terms, and I was like ‘Wow that's so cool, I'm gonna go home and build one,' and then I got home and was like, ‘I don't know what he was talking about.'
MP: Other people are doing it now.
RB: He's like your grandfather in a lot of way, like he's got a really grandfathery demeanor that you don't see much in people of our age group, and I think it's ‘cause he has that nurturing side to him. As far as what we do, most of our sounds are acoustic sounds that we just record and totally manipulate the sound by slowing them down, speeding them up. Kind of like the “Strawberry Fields Forever” approach, it might as well be tapes that we're slowing down, speeding up, cutting in half, whatever, chopping it up. We don't use that many effects. We use a lot of delay.
MP: Delay and reverb.
"I'm really glad that music is as varied and diverse as it is, and you can basically do anything, there's no genres, there's no whatever. I mean no one in New York sounds the same anymore."
RB: And some pitch shifting. But then, when I say acoustic, it's not like we're using acoustic guitar. We do, we actually use a lot of guitars, but I don't want to play guitar live.
MP: On one of our new songs one of the main “instruments” is me scratching the head of a banjo, but I was also [sniffling] when I did that, so you can hear that too.
RB: She had a cold, it wasn't like we were doing lines off the banjo.
MP: But it's weird to hear that through our PA, ‘cause it's so loud.
RB: But that's what's different. You hear it recorded and it's this thing that's a little more contained.
That's another thing we've sort of talked about, how volume kind of changes sound. That you can play something in your living room and it will sound one way and then you feed it through a gigantic PA system and it takes on a whole new dimension.
MP: Yeah, I think some people have been a bit critical of our recordings ‘cause you don't get that feel, but it's like, dude we can't just blow out each channel.
RB: The channels are pretty redlined as it is.
MP: You can blow it out on your stereo at home.
RB: It's purely what it is. Volume is all it is. It's just the amount of air that's being moved makes it sound bigger, it's still the same sound, it's just when you listen to it coming out of your headphones or computer speakers it doesn't push as much air, but it's the same sound. I don't think there's anyway to change that...
MP: Well also when we're writing music we're not just using computer speakers, and then you hear it through an iPod and you're like, ‘oh it sounds so weak.'
RB: Well, not weak, but different. I think our music translates ok to headphones.
I think it's great headphone music. It makes it feel very personal too.
RB: I think the thing that's funny about what you just said, I never really thought about it, but I guess you're right. We use a really old program, like ten years old, but we play it through really big speakers. So when we're recording it's like loud.
MP: Sometimes we'll be like, “Oh this is so loud!” But we're listening to it really, really, really loud.
RB: I never thought about it until more recently, but my old girlfriend said it was the most annoying thing in the world to hear somebody else making music, because it's just little snippets. Like last night when you guys came home I was working on my own thing, and I stopped after five minutes ‘cause all they must've heard was bdlupp... bdlupp. Just me trying to move something. To me I'm not thinking it's a weird sound but to somebody who's not making it, it might as well be somebody's alarm clock going off, it's not in full context. You're self-conscious about people hearing what you're working on?
MP: Yeah. Like in music school you go in a practice room and you can just be so obnoxious ‘cause it's a soundproof room. So, you practice the same three notes for like two hours and no one cares. But then I would try to practice in my apartment and the girl downstairs would be like, “I heard you playing!” And I would be, like, oh...
RB: I like hearing you practice. Her room is what used to be the soundproof drum room, and she plays the bassoon, so it's pretty loud instrument, and pretty bassy, but I still like hearing it. It's not like it hits you like a trumpet, but it's like you feel it more than you hear it.
How'd you get into the bassoon?
MP: I started right in sixth grade on it. I just always wanted to play. I remember hearing it on NPR and asking my mom what it was. My mom's a music teacher. My sister's both play flute and I was like, eh, typical.
Do you still play?
MP: Yeah I still play sometimes. I mean I don't play four hours a day. I actually don't want to stop playing, which is really depressing, but then I see it in the corner of my room and I'm like ‘Oh, I'm sorry.' But I've mostly been making recordings with it. We haven't used it in High Places in a while, but I'm sure we will.
RB: We just used it for bass tones and stuff and it worked really well.
MP: We had that one song where it was like b-lup, b-la. But yeah, I've made some recordings for the Xiu Xiu Polaroid book. I made a recording for that and there's a CD in the back. Oh and that DVD that's coming out. We made some videos for this DVD that's coming out on No Age's label, PPM. And I made a recording and some photos for that.
So do either of you have any kind of background in electronic music? Or dance music?
MP: I really like hip-hop.
RB: I think dance music and electronic music is really difficult to get into, for me. Like there's this weird store over on Myrtle that's got tons of dance music, and I went in there once and I saw nothing but white label 12-inches and I had no idea. I stumble across things that are probably on the bigger end of the spectrum and I listen to that. Like who doesn't like Daft Punk? I listen to dance music on that level, but there's something about the impact it has on humans that I'm just really drawn to.
MP: People bill us as an electronic band some times. But we don't really get typecast when we get billed.
RB: Yeah, we've been lucky with that.
MP: I think people aren't really sure what genre we are, but that's nice. If you play in a garage band or something you're only ever gonna play with garage bands. We play with our friends a lot, and our friends all play pretty different stuff. I think the closest thing to what we're doing is probably Lucky Dragons. That seems to make a lot of sense when we play with him. That definitely helps determine how the audience accepts your music too, like if you're just playing with a bunch of friends. Whenever we tour with someone we get all these write-ups saying we sound like that person.
RB: They'll be like, ‘They sound like Lucky Dragons crossed with The Blow,' and we're like, duh.
MP: We tried to create a genre called New Age Comedy.
RB: I think if you can't see the humor in what you're doing you're destined to drive it into the ground by taking it too seriously.
"I think that everyone should make something. I really feel like for the good of the world, people should be better at being creative."
You guys have gotten on quite a few Bands To Watch-type list. Do you feel like things are starting to snowball?
MP: Yeah, my mom called me yesterday, ‘cause my sister had sent her the Pitchfork review. It was my mom's first time looking for stuff about us on the internet. She was just reading me stuff she had found. It was really cute.
RB: I hope she doesn't find the weird stuff.
It's hard to Google you actually. I found a bunch of spiritual websites.
RB: It's funny, we didn't realize there's was this weird Biblical negative terminology in the Old Testament. Like High Places was the place where you went to worship false idols. People in high places were looked down upon because it was like you were going up...
MP: Like the Tower of Babel.
RB: Yeah, like you're trying to reach heaven. So I kept seeing stuff like that and I was like, whoa, that's pretty heavy.
MP: It's kind of cool, too.
RB: We looked at it basically...I like high places. Like if I'm bummed out I just like to go some place where you can see far. You just go on a bridge or something. As soon as you get up there and everything looks smaller and you can look down on it, you don't feel as trapped.
MP: It's kind of cool too because there are all these cat photos, like up in a tree or on top of a dresser. They're all like, high places!
From you guys?
MP: No no, people like to take photos of their cats...
Oh and then the tags they put...
RB: It's weird. My family informed me over the holidays that they were researching me on the internet. But my family's pretty different, like they don't understand what I do at all, so it's a little nerve-racking to know that they can do that because I suddenly feel like they're gonna trip over something. I mean, granted it's not like we're shooting heroin.
I think there are way worse bands for your kids to be in.
MP: Some bands... that would be so embarrassing for like your coworker or a relative or someone to even know the name of your band.
RB: I mean, I'm like an open book, I'm really honest about stuff in my personal life, but with my parents, it's like opposite of that; I'm like, ‘Things are good.' Not that I'm living in a factory, I don't live some weird hard New York lifestyle. We're not like the Velvet Underground. I just think they wouldn't even get what we're doing musically, like they would hear it and they wouldn't be able to latch on to it.
Kids nowadays are really open-minded about music and different kinds of things and they'll listen to a lot of different music and think it's equally good, whereas before if you were into punk you were a punk kid, or if you liked rap...
MP: Don't you think that's part of the internet generation thing, that everything's so much more accessible, and you can download music and not commit to buying records?
RB: But it's also the touring structure too. I feel like certain bands that are weird, bands like Lightning Bolt and definitely now Animal Collective... Like a friend of ours is their roadie/tour manager, like he tours with them all the time, and he was saying like, you can't believe how young their crowd is. Like their crowd is largely high school-aged, in a lot of places. I still feel like as popular as that band is and them being on Letterman? Conan O'Brien? I still think that album is really weird, like for how big it is, like weird in a good way. And it's really blows me away. And other bands, even a band like TV on the Radio is pretty huge.
MP: I remember feeling that way a while ago about Radiohead.
RB: Like, why do they play Madison Square Garden?
MP: I also remember feeling that way when I read Catcher in the Rye when I first read it. Like, ‘This book is really specific. This book is maybe only talking to me. How do all these other people feel that way?' And then I was like, how do all these people think that Radiohead is their band? So I think that's cool, I guess. I'm not really that into Radiohead.
RB: I'm glad they exist.
MP: I could do without the singing.
RB: I'm not into Radiohead either, but I have friends who are obsessed. And like I said it just blows me away that a band like that could play Madison Square Garden.
MP: I feel like they help bands like Animal Collective.
RB: Like a gateway? But I still feel like... those bands aren't going to Arcata, California. You could throw a football across that town. And we played there and it's awesome. Even Kalamazoo, where you're from. She set up a show for me, when I was doing my solo project and touring with Matt & Kim, this was when they were much smaller, and we came to a house show and it was like utopia. But I feel like those bigger bands don't play there, but kids become aware of that as teenagers, and then they start their weird band, and their weird band plays house shows, and the next thing you know there's this little scene of weird bands that maybe was informed by a larger band. I guess the internet helps you dig things out, but I still feel like you need to see it in front of you, like it makes you want to be a part of something. Like, ‘Oh my god there's a show happening in a basement? That's crazy.' My mind was totally blown when I first started seeing that when I was growing up. It wasn't just a party. I remember seeing a band from California playing in a basement and being like, ‘This is awesome!' It just felt like the playing fields were so level.
And then you can go up and talk to the people after the show.
RB: Yeah, it's real right there. And small towns I think inherently foster that more.
MP: Even where I was from, you couldn't be a local band and get paid for a show. So, you couldn't have a band and expect it to be anything other than a hobby, there's no chance of getting big. I mean the shows would always be free, they'd like pass a hat for the touring bands. Maybe a potluck beforehand. So, I've always gravitated towards shows like that in the city, that feel a little more homemade.
RB: But then the internet definitely takes that band and helps them meet people. So, suddenly with the help of the Internet you can live in remote places and still be connected to people. I think we both have this dream of being able to live somewhere really remote and be able to focus on our stuff and not get distracted.
MP: But we also like playing shows every weekend. Here you can play somewhere different every week.
RB: But what I was saying is that as long as you're not totally cutting yourself off from the rest of the world, you can almost live anywhere.