Interview with High Places: Square Off Against Mankind

Challenging folk-derived electro-acoustic duo High Places tie artificial percussion sounds and syncopated disco beats to scintillatingly climactic acoustical dreamscapes with the same glistening pastoral splendor that kept Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill.” Learning the bassoon at an early age before joining a few local musical troupes, heavenly vocalist Mary Pearson once believed her high vocal register conflicted with the prototypical rock compositions her former band mates constructed. But she simply managed to adapt.

A Kalamazoo native, Pearson originally met Classically trained multi-instrumentalist (and Pratt Institute educator) Rob Barber through mutual friends while finishing a music degree at hometown institution, Western Michigan University. Barber initially made Pearson a three-hour mixtape featuring psychedelic-influenced ‘60s combos such as Incredible String Band and Jefferson Airplane alongside primitive Olympia-based lo-fi eccentrics, Beat Happening (and their rudimentary post-Nirvana brethren). Pearson claims unheralded Hawaiian guitarist Bobby Brown’s obscurity, The Enlightening Beam Of Axonda, proved indispensable as well.

Settling in New York City during 2006, the delightful keyboard-manipulating duo developed the creative urge to make homespun music without obsessing over details. Utilizing bright and pastel musical colors to envelop their intriguing textural atmospherics, High Places debuted in ’08 with formative singles compilation, 03/07 – 09/07, issued months ahead of the formal self-titled long-play entrée that’d create a widened underground buzz. The latter contained warm-weathered travelogues like tropical calypso spellbinder, “Vision’s The First,” and tribal Techno transience, “From Stardust To Sentience.” It served notice to the indie scene pronto.

Now living in the warm comfort of Los Angeles with Liars front man, Angus Andrew, Pearson’s muse seems to have benefited from the journey West. Her wispy melancholic melodies and operatic mezzo-soprano hold firmer against the massive polyrhythmic percussive pileups. Oft-times, she dazzles listeners with the same rapturous urbane lilt and lighthearted approach as glorified diva, Kate Bush. In tandem, Barber’s drum machines, treated samples, and turntable twists weave synthetic tonicities to Pearson’s clear-voiced hush-toned sentimentality. On top of that, exotic elements such as chimes, kalimba, clanged pipes, clinked glass, and bongos frequently embellish Pearson’s spellbindingly serendipitous affectations.

On 2010’s moody seasonal treatise, High Places Vs. Mankind, High Places again cast a spell, devising a serious headphone experience out of hazy windswept sketches given shady titular descriptions tersely congruent to the verbose “On A Hill In A Bed On A Road In A House.” Pearson’s echo-laden lipstick-traced whispers resonate through disco-sliced silhouette, “The Longest Shadow,” a vibrant opener with a liquefied groove. Middle East percussion flavoring accents cooing ballad, “She’s A Wild Horse,” and eerier mantra, “On Giving Up,” dips into danceable New Order machinations. The remainder drifts into dewy meadows, ethereal catacombs, and cryptic jungles with equally exquisite results.

As boyfriend Angus tended to outdoor gardening, I spoke with the gracious Pearson via phone in early June.

Why move away from the fertile Brooklyn scene to the cozier comforts of sunny L.A.?

There’s a lot of inspiring artists in New York City and it’s incredible to think how many albums they’ve done. There are incredible museums too. We didn’t pick up so many sonic influences, but instead, created an environment that was a retreat from all the hustle and bustle. We’d talked about moving to California because we loved the landscape. We have friends there from touring. The decision for me was a mental health one to get out of the cold weather and dark nights of winter. Plus, Rob likes to surf. We’re so inspired by nature, but nearly every song in New York was about being completely away from people. What you don’t have could be very inspiring to your art. Being slightly unhappy is always good for business. When we moved to L.A., I wondered how I’d compose music being at such a lovely place without sounding like hokey bubblegum music. That was something to figure out. I don’t know if the new record is so much inspired by Los Angeles as it is just spreading out.

There’s a moody seasonal theme threading High Places Vs. Mankind.

Maybe we created it from what we don’t have out West—bad weather and four seasons. Our music has a lot of recurring themes, at least lyrically. There’s also the idea that the music we wrote in New York City was creating our ideal environment. So being in L.A. is reverse escapism.

I’d be remiss to not ask if you were a fan of Kate Bush’s dramatic Classical pop arrangements.

Any women making music would be honored getting compared to Kate Bush. It’s not intentional. I played in a rock band in Michigan. I was kicking and screaming not to be the singer because my voice was so choral-y. I thought it should be a dude singing. It’s taken awhile to accept the voice I have and do what I’m doing. On this record, I figured out how to write in a vocal range that suits me better in a key that’s easier to find. It’s a learning process.

Could High Places drop the synthetic electronics and go completely acoustic if need be?

Yeah. We’re interested in the whole idea of acoustics versus electronics. We get called an electronic act but neither of us feel that’s what we do. We saw it more as two people filling in spaces with electronics to take care of ourselves onstage. We like the idea of an acoustic record. The whole thing with us is the duality of inorganic versus organic. This record goes deeper into the idea of the natural world versus manmade things. Live we use samples.

It’s a great headphone experience.

We like to use a lot of stereo ideas so the sound bounces around a bit.

Syncopated disco beats juice up a few of the more accessible tunes.

That wasn’t a conscious decision. But we both really love dance music and wanted to have a few unabashed dance songs on the record. The record is supposed to be about the life cycle of a person. It feels like different chapters in a book with dance beats going against challenging experimentation. For us, High Places wasn’t about a specific sound. It’s more about what happens when a collaboration between Rob and myself results in all the tracks working together to form a complete story.

What’s up with ‘Constant Winter’ and its verbose family tree thesis?

I had Tom Waits in my head. I remember him in the Jim Jarmusch movie, Down By Law. I was thinking of someone leaving home to lead a new life but maybe being conflicted about starting a family while still wanting to be wild. It’s a bit of a universal feeling about turning into an adult. Is it made by choice or does it just happen? That song’s more of a rock number.

Perhaps the following track, ‘On A Hill In A Bed On A Road In A House,’ with its cadaverous profundity and distant voicing, exposes that loss of freedom best.

That’s a bit more introspective. It contains my favorite beat Rob made.

Did Joni Mitchell’s lyrical prowess serve as inspirational in any way?

She’s my go-to inspiration. I always liked the Canadians—Neil Young. My sister and I performed Joni Mitchell songs in high school and I do some at soundcheck. Her storytelling is impeccable. I also listened to a lot of Jazz. Rob was into punk and hardcore. When I was in college I was into folk-punk acoustic stuff. I did house shows with homemade instruments and honest heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. Early on, High Places straightforward lyrics were noticeable. Growing up, my mom was a music teacher and my grandfather was a university choral music instructor. I fought the theatrical influence but ended up in a lot of high school musicals. So there was Classical music around offsetting my Weezer and Green Day rock stuff.

Obviously, there’s an appreciable theatricality informing many High Places tunes.

We’re real interested in not being confined to rock clubs—the whole idea of playing art galleries and mixing different art forms together. A theatre piece would be great. We were thinking of doing incidental music for plays. I’d always sung in choirs so it’s hard to take the choirgirl out of me.

How’s the current Michigan scene looking?

In Kalamazoo, scenes pop up then die quickly. The noise scene in Michigan is still alive and kicking. Awesome Color. I was proactive there. Great café scene and moped riders. Brooklyn bands like Japanther and Matt & Kim loved coming through. Unfortunately, a lot of people moved away since Michigan suffered with the bad economy and housing market. The paper and auto industries are tanking. Still, Detroit’s always interesting. Many empty lots left have become farming areas. That appeals to artists wanting cheap rent.

Catch High Places on June 26 at the Northside Festival in Newton Barge Park in Brooklyn, NY, and on July 2 at the Whitney Museum of Art in NYC.