Published Apr 03, 2013The Highest Order was born out of the ashes of One Hundred Dollars, one of Canada's most promising underground country acts. Front and centre with the band was vocalist and songwriter Simone Schmidt, whose downtrodden tales of small town woe were as painfully honest as they come. With the Highest Order, Simone's focus has broadened, as she considers themes more universal while also including elements of psych within the expansive collection of songs that makes up If It's Real. There's a palpable chemistry between the members of the Highest Order, who've managed to evolve gracefully from One Hundred Dollars without sacrificing any of their charm.
The Highest Order originally formed when Simone TB filled in for One Hundred Dollars on drums. Was there one specific moment when you realized that there was a chemistry you could get down on tape?
Kyle Porter (bass): The Highest Order didn't really form until after that One Hundred Dollars tour. I think that came as a result of me and Simone TB really loving playing in the rhythm section together and that being the basis for the other guys doing whatever they want. I don't remember a specific moment on that tour but after a while we kind of just knew. Getting that down I think was also a big thing for allowing Simone Schmidt to be doing lots more on guitar, which is an important part of this band too. And letting Paul realize a lot of the ideas he'd had kicking around for a while.
Simone TB (Drums): I'd never really played with a bass player before, I played in a lot of more punk, garage and art rock groups and in particular with a two piece with no bass at all. As soon as I began rehearsing with Kyle for the One Hundred Dollars tour I sat in on, I realized I had been missing something. It was great to be playing with someone who viewed the rhythm section as a team effort. Between that excitement of finding an excellent partner on the rhythm end and the joy of playing with one of the best guitarists and vocalists, it just felt like something worth pursuing as far as it would go.
This is a record that, from what I can tell, is written about a few cold-hearted and pessimistic characters. Is this a winter record? It's being released just as the snow is starting to disappear.
Paul Mortimer (guitar): I have actually thought about this a lot and to me it feels like it changes seasonally throughout the record, starting and ending in the summer. "Lonely Weekends" and "Rainbow of Blues" always feel muggy and hot to me and "Chain Mail" and "200 Pounds" always feels cold and dark. "Sacred Team" comes full circle. so seasonally it kind of works all year round. Moreover I'd say it's a party, good times, bad times record for all seasons. There are uppers and downers. There are mellow vibes and bummer vibes but it's always still kinda partying or having an OK time. I think it's a pretty good driving record too.
Simone Schmidt (vocals): I'd be interested to know where you hear the cold-heartedness and pessimism, because that's not where I was coming from at all with any of the characters or songs. But no, I don't think of it as a winter record.
How much of the record's subject matter is inspired by personal events?
PM: "Sacred Team" is just about the loneliness that comes with missing a dear friend. Definitely inspired by some personal events as well as paranoia, the weather, dreams etc.
SS: Everything I write is inspired by personal events — the people and politics that make up those events will compel me to write a narrative or assume a given character and voice in song. Or they'll make me want to excavate a metaphor to a new depth. But none of these songs are confessional. I don't think that's at the forefront on this record — this record's really about the sound.
Were these songs kicking around from One Hundred Dollars or were they entirely new compositions?
PM: They were entirely new compositions and covers arranged and recorded very quickly. However, the idea or concept of the record is something I've had for a long time and initially was going to be a One Hundred Dollars record. When we went on hiatus I found I had a lot more freedom musically to explore and do the thing I wanted to do.
SS: I'm always writing songs — I've never been a writer that's writing only toward one project or recording at a time. So I was sitting on a few of these, because I hadn't yet found the right unit to realize them. The style and tightness of the playing in the Highest Order, and the ease of our collaboration, makes it really fun to throw songs at. I'm always so happy with what Kyle and Simone TB come to in the rhythm section. Paul's got a gift in arranging in which I feel really confident, and it was great to get to where he led us.
KP: In some cases, we learned and arranged the song on the spot in the studio and only really did a few takes, so the version on the record is very immediate. I think we all really wanted a looser and more spontaneous approach to be conveyed on the record and so we weren't dealing with material that had been hanging around for a while.
If It's Real marries classic country and psychedelic rock very well. Was there a certain balance between genres you were hoping for?
PM: Totally. We would take the classic or traditional stuff and purposely weird it out or make it darker and the initially weirder stuff we would try and straighten out in certain ways.
STB: For me, as someone who knew little to nothing about country drums, it was an invite to challenge to research and interpret that style and incorporate with psychedelic music, something I was much more comfortable with. It's Can sent to California in a time machine.
SS: Also, a lot of the trippiest delivery and playing I've heard is on old country recordings — distortions that occurred because of the recording techniques of old, or simply the vocal turns that someone like George Jones was taking — so in a sense I felt like I was able to take the some of the strangest parts of country singing, and deliver them on a psyched-out instrumental foundation offered up by Paul's guitar tones and the rhythm section's heaviness.
It's still very minimal in terms of song structures. You're not trying to surprise any listeners with the progression within the songs. It sounds as if when they were recorded, the songs were kept very similar to their original form.
PM: I hate surprises. Especially musically. It always sounds "not cool." However, a lot of the song structures were actually even more traditional when we started working on them. "Chain Mail" was in 4/4 and had no key change. "Rainbow of Blues" was originally straight traditional up-tempo country 1-4-5 structure. We worked very quickly on the arrangements but they are quite different from where we started and we wanted that to sound natural. We were going for the pleasant subtle surprise.
SS: The simplicity of the country and old-time forms are what lend much of the weight to the country side of the country-psych balance. A song like "Two Hundred Pounds" has a lyrical rooting in an old time modal banjo tune I wrote to play in Coole & Downes — an acoustic duo I play in with banjo player Chris Coole. When I offered it up to the Order, I changed the chords and two lyrical turns in the song, so as to make it amenable psychedelic arrangement, but it retained its form.
Was it an easy decision to work with Jeff McMurrich?
PM: Absolutely. Jeff and I have worked together on a few things and he knew where I was going right away. He got all the references beyond classic country and folk. He understands the ties between that stuff and weirder psych and acid rock elements and was able to follow us down any road we wanted to go. He's a total head and really got what we were trying to do and pushed us on it.
Tell me about the decision to cover both Charlie Rich and Graham Parsons on the record? You seem very intent on paying tribute to your musical heroes.
PM: The first real concept for the record was to do a live covers record of tunes that we like, country or whatever. Those just ended up on there cause they turned out the best or made the most sense as the record evolved. There's a bunch more that didn't make it on there that we'll maybe put out or do over. We did "Crying Game" and that's the B-side on the Rainbow of Blues seven-inch. A lot of stuff we still do live all the time. I think it's less about paying tribute to the heroes and more about keeping in the tradition of covering tunes in country. However, we were very intent on paying tribute to the closest thing to a musical hero we know: [producer and former Eric's Trip member] Rick White. He's the best and we were really drew from him in terms of guitar tone and mixing.
SS: Neither Gram Parsons nor Charlie Rich are my heroes by any stretch of the word. But both "Lonely Weekends" and "Luxury Liner" have sentiments I relate to fully — lonely guys running around because of the alienating currencies of love and labour, and I love those songs for giving me a conduit to express those feelings. Part of what I love most about the country tradition is that you keep songs alive by singing them in different ways, at different times.