There’s something innately “art school” chic about the first time you see or hear High Places. It’s nothing pretentious; the duo of Robert Barber and Mary Pearson play around in something more precious, one-of-a-kind in their craftiness. Slouching over various samplers, noisemakers and percussive toys, Barber assembles short-order beats and eclectic fragmented melodies, while Pearson goes sťance with wispy vocal spells, mantras plucked from nature. Without much form in their function it might be easy to be offput by their aloof formula. Once they get going, though, shapes and colors appear in bursts, polyrhythms congeal into tribal synergy, and vibrant Dadaist pop songs emerge in constant opposition of any semblance of “art school” signifiers.
In a genuine symbiotic bliss Barber and Pearson never cut a clear path, usually bouncing ideas back and forth until the layers sound like a strain of exotica without borders. It’s often impossible to tell if their bright, discombobulated, psychedelia is broadcasting from Western Africa, Northeast Brazil, Iceland or India. High Places tend to orbit an “all-world” philosophy of sonics, serving a higher purpose that shepherds both the insects on the forest floor and the alien communication trying to transmit from the cosmos. Even more than the playful experiments gathered on their early demos (collected on 03/07–09/07), the duo’s first, self-titled full-length finds them focused, almost cleansed, though the traditional mode of operation is still nowhere in sight. It’s a focused testament to their fantastical vision, rooted in the primitive, the grotesque, but realized as an alternative to the faux-eccentrics as they mix catchy pop tropes with a new blueprint on the dance-floor.
I recently caught up with High Places via e-mail, questioning them about their oblong process and that journey into the unknown they take every time they compose.
Mary has studied music in a “proper” school and Rob has taught art, but in your music together it’s hard to hear any structured influence from any schooling. Is High Places a reaction to that at all?
Mary Pearson: Studying the arts often teaches you what you don’t want to do with your own creative output. I think that’s just the student’s tendency: to rebel from the institution. I received a lot of really valuable instruction from music school, but I try to approach my current music-making in a very different way than I approached Western counterpoint composition in school.
Rob Barber: I sort of have this idea that the best music and art these days is made by untrained folks without the burdens of technical and academic self-editing, which often paralyzes some potential radical ideas because of fear of it being critiqued. I personally loathed teaching art and have been actively unlearning art school. That sounds harsh, and I’m jesting a bit, but really, you just need to keep it as urge-driven and pure as possible.
Did either of you play music in more traditional “structured” bands before? What type of music were you playing before High Places?
MP: In college, I played in a band with two guitars, bass, drums, and I played keyboards and bassoon. I eventually sang in the group. My bandmates made me watch the Joy Division half of 24 Hour Party People a million times. I guess we were going for a post-punk, moody thing. And we did a Bauhaus cover.
RB: I was in a band prior to High Places called Bad Waste, which was sort of the impetus of how I approach music with Mary. I did a really loud noisy Blue Cheer rip-off with Ian from Japanther in like 2001 called Plastik Casket. We played three shows and made a 10-minute recording that sort of sounds like three damaged copies of Live at Leeds by the Who, playing at the same time. Prior to that I was in a couple short lived hardcore and punk bands that never played or had names. The best being one with Mark from Das Oath/Holy Molar/Charles Bronson.
Do you at all attempt a conscious naivety when piecing together your songs or is that a contradiction?
RB: Hmm, I see where you are coming from with this question. It’s weird because we really don’t do it as like a choice. I think we are just interested in being immediate and honest and upfront about our personalities. We aren’t into acting or performing or creating a stage persona. It’s cool for people, but it’s not really us to posture all deep. And we are pretty normal and down to earth people. So I guess this is what just sort of comes out. But if you read between the lines, I think Mary’s lyrics are pretty out there and deal with some pretty deep thoughts.
There’s a song on the demos album that is “for Gilkey Elementary.” Can you elaborate on how that song came about, what it was for?
RB: Mary’s mom is a music teacher there and she asked us to make a song for the school’s yearly theme “Jump In”, which is a motivational “go for it” theme. And it was also to get the kids into things like polyrhythm and other musical ideas. We played a few assemblies with the students, which were actually pretty large groups, and they performed with us and had come up with choreography. It was actually the most nervous I have been playing. It was also 8am.
Was the “exquisite corpse” method still used when forming your first full-length or did you intend on the debut being more cohesive, like one long thought?
MP: Yeah, we always work in that way, surprising each other with our very disparate ideas. We wanted the record to have a marked unity so we thought a lot about how the songs segued and connected to each other.
Were there any other albums from your past that you wanted to emulate when making this first album?
RB: Geez, that’s a tough one. I often really love a certain record’s ability to convey emotional warmth, and that is a definite influence on me. But saying I wanted to do Pet Sounds is pretty ambitious, and let’s face it, it can’t be recreated. So I guess I’m more inspired by the spirit of certain records.
MP: Bobby Brown’s The Enlightening Beam Of Axonda (the Hawaiian Bobby Brown!) is a pretty inspiring record to us. Bobby uses so many rad instruments, and the lyrics are about leaving home and embarking on a spiritual quest.
Mary makes many references to nature throughout the album. Are you using field recordings from the forest/jungle/desert to accent that? Is it something you’ve wanted to do?
MP: We used a field recording of birds at the end of “Papaya Year,” but often we just allow outside noise to enter into a vocal or instrumental recording. We’ve found that really adds a human element to what could otherwise be considered “electronic music.” Also, yes, we’re pretty interested in bringing as much of the natural world into our urban environment as possible.
RB: Often there are things that sound like field recordings from nature, but it is usually us emulating them in other ways, as opposed to going out and grabbing sound from hikes. We are actually really influenced by natural sounds, but the end of “Papaya Year” is the only part that actually uses nature a little bit. A lot of it though is actually me just making weird sounds with my mouth and speeding up and slowing down the recording.
Is there a higher philosophy that High Place subscribes to?
MP: I saw this great quote the other day on the subway from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” It basically says that each individual has a unique idea of what is moral and good and that true freedom means no one imposes his or her idea of morality on anyone else. I think it’s important to discuss politics and spirituality and moral issues, but I would never want High Places to come across as preachy or ostracizing. I’m interested in singing about the things that bind everyone together, universal feelings.
RB: Mary and I definitely have strong feelings about certain things we believe in, but it does those ideas a huge disservice to be off-putting about our life choices. We just do our thing and if it has any positive impact, it is more by example. †A person has to figure out their own path.
As your scope of sound becomes more expansive would you consider adding members to the live show? Are there any limitations in playing as a duo?
MP: To keep everything 50/50 and democratic, being a duo suits us just fine. We’ve talked about this and we’ve agreed High Places is such a specific title for any Mary-Rob collaboration. I can’t see us adding anyone else to the band.
RB: I don’t really see it as limitations, just factors that hopefully make us continue to grow and evolve. I have often thought that if we were to employ people making more of the sounds live, it would turn into this weird Blue Man Group or Stomp thing, where it would end up being gimmicky and about the “cleverness” of making weird sounds with non-traditional objects and instruments. I like to think people can just hear and experience the sounds as is, without being distracted by the process and gear and other such potential hokeyness.
In what way do you want the sound of High Places to expand in the future? Are you constantly working on new recordings?
MP: Yes, we are constantly working on new recordings. We’ve also been working on a lot of visual art projects lately.†Our sound is already evolving away from where it was when we wrote the full-length, but I have trouble describing where it is heading exactly. We want to make some fairly straight ahead dance tracks, and I’d like to play bassoon and guitar more. Maybe Rob will take on more of the singing responsibilities.
RB: Be afraid.