Published Sep 28, 2008The best music allows you to escape the tedium of everyday life. Brooklyns High Places insist that you lose yourself in theirs and they help the process by doing it in such inconceivable circumstances where every time you listen its a different kind of escape. Rob Barber and Mary Pearson utilize space shrewdly to achieve their boundless sound. The duo have developed a keen taste for experimentation without losing their sense of melody. Incidental polyrhythms blend into impenetrable walls of reverb that host a multiplicity of melodies and everything converges with capricious results and childlike innocence. Pearsons vocals are sweet yet apathetic, floating amongst myriad elements, playfully mingling. This self-titled debut full-length follows their recently reissued comp, the blissfully coherent 03/07 09/07, with immaculate equilibrium. Arguably a more consistent listen, High Places is but a continuation of their pocket symphonies. Despite the overwhelming feeling of tranquil minimalism theres heavy traffic throughout. "Visions the First mixes Pearsons vocals into a crowd of rustling rhythms and busy synths, while closer "From Stardust to Sentience uses found sounds, much like Matmos, to build a lullaby for the curious mind that never quits. High Places have established a sound entirely of their own, one that is as baffling as it is beautiful.
I read you two simply met through a friend. Was it a shared taste in music that brought you together? Do you remember how or why you guys clicked?
Mary: Rob and I have always had a yin-yang thing going on. We met when we were both performing as solo musicians. We have a lot of similar interests, and that's what drew us together as friends. But our creative approaches are vastly different. We first clicked because we felt inspired and challenged by each other.
Rob: I would definitely say that we learned a lot from each other too. I still learn something new from Mary every time we make a new song.
I've gotta ask: how on earth did you guys find your sound? Was the collaboration between the two of you automatic or did it take some experimenting to get the sound you were happy with?
Rob: We were both doing solo projects that had the same basic approaches to the way High Places constructs music, but put together it definitely felt way more complete.
Mary: Our first song was literally a mash-up of two of our solo songs. Obviously things have evolved a bit since then. But our sound came about in a natural, unplanned way. We thought everyone was going to hate it. Really. We weren't trying to be self-deprecating. We just honestly thought it was too nerdy to ever fly.
Is the music based more on organic or electronic sounds? (I usually just sit back and enjoy the music without thinking about how you construct your songs, largely because as a non-musician, I haven't a clue how you do it.)
Mary: It's mostly acoustic sounds that we then manipulate as if they are electronic sounds. Lots of guitars, wind instruments, percussion, and random things found around the house.
Rob: I am stoked to hear that you don't try to figure it out technically while you listen! That is the whole point to what we do, at least on my end. Making abstract or non-representational sounds are important to us because we want the listener to just hear the sounds, and not get all teched out or obsessed with gear. I mean they can enjoy it as they please, but I personally love to hear music and have no idea how it was made. We do use electronic drum sounds mixed into the existing acoustic elements to help define, or make punchier, some of the rhythms.
Is there a drummer out of the two of you who handles all of the polyrhythms?
Mary: We share the rhythmic duties. Rob's a much better live drummer, but I have a pretty good grasp (if I do say so myself!) on complex meter and polyrhythms.
Rob: But keeping with our theme of scrap-booking and experimentation, a lot of our polyrhythms do come about slightly accidental though. For example, we'll have one beat and then we double time that beat and randomly hack a piece off of it and then it's suddenly this new crazy beat.
I get the sense some sampling is involved in the music-making process?
Mary: Yep! When we play live, we use samples we recorded at home.
Rob: The music is very layered, and honestly there are a lot of parts. So we'd have to be like an 18-piece band with people doing things like dropping change in glass bottles, or like five 12-string acoustic players. In a weird way I was afraid that it might seem a bit static, but it for some reason keeps it a bit more free at times because we are both juggling getting all our settings right from song to song, and the songs are relatively short and morph pretty fast into the next. Sometimes it feels like I'm waiting tables at a really busy restaurant! Sometimes you drop a bowl of soup.
Are there any unusual instruments you utilize to get certain sounds?
Mary: There's a bagpipe chanter at the beginning of "Golden." We used that David Lee Roth book Crazy from the Heat as a percussion instrument in a song once. I was flipping through the pages and then slamming the book shut. Rob is a master at playing metal mixing bowls!
The music really allows your imagination to run wild with imagery. Was that something you put some thought into?
Mary: I often say Rob's approach to music-making is like a visual approach. We want to make these walls of sounds and textures that fill a space and allow the listener to interpret the experience in a multitude of ways.
Rob: Not to sound super corny, but I listen to music for escapist reasons. I listen to it very closely and I like to get lost in it. It can be any type of music too. The last Celtic Frost record, Monotheist, is the most mood-driven, dense and atmospheric metal record ever.
I thought 03.07-09.07 was a pretty superb album, even though it's considered more of a compilation. What made you decide not to market that album as a proper full-length?
Mary: Thanks!! To us, 03/07-09/07 was just a way to make previously released smaller pressings more readily available. We didn't want to market it as a proper record because that was never our intention with those songs. They were more like sketches or studies. We wanted the album to be a complete work that was more cohesive.
How did you approach the new album differently? Was it much of a different experience recording this one opposed to the singles from the comp?
Mary: We were pretty daunted by the task of tackling the full-length format. This is one reason we put it off for a couple years. We've had a gradual evolution that eventually led us to feeling comfortable enough with our collaboration and recording style to make a proper album. So I don't think the experience felt so different from making the earlier stuff. It was just a bigger task.
Rob: I think the length of a lot of albums these days scared me. Like, oh my gosh, that such and such record is 52 minutes long! Then I remembered that some of my favourite older records are rather short, and what made them work was that while the songs were short, they were very dense and had a lot of zing. They would totally propel you into the next song. Like a good Beach Boys or Black Flag or Phil Spector song, for example.
Was there anything you were trying to do differently with these new songs?
Rob: I suppose coming from my end, I wanted the beats to sound much bigger and bumping, and Mary definitely had a lot to do with tightening them up. Not sure if that comes across to the listener, but it was definitely something we spent a lot of time on, craft-wise.
A lot of artists tend to re-record older songs for their debut. What made you decide to start from scratch with the LP?
Mary: We like to keep things interesting for ourselves. We get bored playing the same songs over and over, and we would like to stay pretty prolific.
I was talking with Juan Velazquez from Abe Vigoda back in June and he included you guys in that "tropical music" sound that they and El Guincho are part of. I never really pegged you guys as "tropical" and was wondering how you describe your music to those unfamiliar with High Places? (I read an interview where someone from the dude from Lucky Dragons said "you guys are creating your own genre.")
Mary: Yeah, we never consciously try to make a "tropical" sound, but I think some of our earlier stuff sounded a bit surf-y. We were listening to the Hawaiian Bobby Brown a lot then, and his music is so psychedelic and pretty. I guess I would describe our music as a sonic scrapbook with lots of bass and percussion.
Rob: I guess when you step out of the spectrum of recognizable sounds in your music, and start to approach it in a bit more psychedelic manner, a non-western feel starts to generate in people. It's really cool if it can transport people, but we don't try to academically channel other cultures' music.
I caught you in Toronto and at Pitchfork in Chicago this summer and I was really surprised by your live show. It was like a booming dancehall sound system coming through the speakers. How did you adapt your music for live performances? What kind of reaction are you trying to get from the spectators?
Rob: Yeah, that often is a surprise to people. We honestly love the way large dancehall/dub or rap sound sytems feel.
Mary: We obviously have to scale down some of the instrumentation for the live show. It's not possible for the two of us to play everything live, so we use samples and backing tracks and Rob uses a drum pad that samples. We both play percussion and I use a bunch of reverb and delay and looping pedals on my voice. We want people to feel enveloped by the music, so we make sure it's pretty loud.
How did you get involved with Thrill Jockey? They seem like a perfect fit for the two of you...
Mary: Thrill Jockey has been supportive of our music for a long time. We're good friends with Pit Er Pat, and they were always singing Thrill Jockey's praises to us. Indeed a perfect fit.
Rob: I personally like that the approach to the label is very curatorial. They are also very attentive to all details and communicate with us extremely well.