NYRMS Archive: Interview: HIGHS discuss songwriting, debut full-length album

(Originally published on Examiner.com on January 14, 2016)

Alt-pop band HIGHS has been making waves recently with their blend of airy, ethereal synths and guitars and deep lyrics. Currently in the process of completing their debut full-length album, 2016 is poised to be a big year for the band.

Formed in 2012 by vocalist/guitarist Doug Haynes from his solo demos, HIGHS is rounded out by keyboardist Karrie Douglas, drummer Liam Cole, guitarist Joel Harrower and bassist Paul Vroom. In 2013, the band released their self-titled debut EP which, according to their Facebook bio, is “influenced by time spent in Tanzania” and “reflect on growing up, the concept of home and spirituality.” A mostly upbeat, sunny debut, the EP excels at telling vivid stories with amazing harmonies and a light feel.

Since the release of the EP, HIGHS has been on a whirlwind journey. Released to wide praise, the EP charted in CMJ’s Top 200 and in the top 30 on Hype Machine’s charts. The song “Nomads” was prominently featured in the trailer for the movie “Adult World” featuring John Cusack. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, the band has shared the stage with the likes of Modest Mouse, Cold War Kids, Twin Forks and the Kopecky Family Band, among others, and has played various music festivals all over the world.

HIGHS is currently putting the finishing touches on their debut full-length album, “Dazzle Camouflage,” which is set to be released on April 8. Last year, the band released the album’s first single, “Handsome Man,” an introspective yet upbeat, airy piece with a gritty opening that drifts a bit from the buoyancy of their previous EP. The album’s second single, “I Do, Do You,” premiered with Indie88 on January 12. A bit slowed down, the song is beautiful in its echo-y reminiscence. If these songs are any indication, the new album looks to be taking a more mature turn while still keeping the ethereal tones of the music that got them noticed in the first place.

I had the opportunity to speak with HIGHS before their CMJ 2015 set at Arlene’s Grocery to discuss their sound, songwriting process, their upcoming album, “Handsome Man,” and writing based on experience.

Elise Yablon (New York Rock Music Scene): How did you guys decide that you wanted to get into music as a career?

Doug Haynes: It’s weird. It’s one of those things where I feel like you don’t necessarily… It’s like you decide not to do music as a career as much as you decide to take a chance on it. I think all of us, we all are passionate about music and it got to the point where it was like, “alright, we can do some really cool stuff with the music that we make.” And as a result, we took a chance on doing it. And I don’t think it’s like… You can decide to go to university for engineering, for education, for history, for audio engineering, for music, whatever. That’s a decision you make. But I think with a band it’s like, you make that gamble. I can’t speak for everybody, but for me it was like, you have enough faith in the music you make and your passion for it, so you see how far you take it. That’s kind of how it goes.

EY: How did you guys develop your sound?

Liam Cole: I think we’ve always just written the music that we’d like to have written. I don’t think we’ve ever… Well, I guess there was a point where we had to pick what our sound was.

DH: It’s not so much that we picked our sound as much as we picked… For instance, if I listened to certain songs, I’ll pick out specific aspects of it, “that’s really cool,” like that. We piece together our sound, not from other bands, but just kind of like what we’ve listened to through our entire lives. We weren’t like, “alright, we’re gonna play indie-pop” or “we’re gonna play alt-pop.” It’s like, we’re gonna make a song like this because this is what resonates with us musically. So it’s kind of like, the songs are very much ours because they’re bits and pieces of things that we really love.

Joel Harrower: …And love playing too. It’s a lot of stuff that’s like, “this is so much fun to play and let’s keep on playing this,” you know. And those turned into more fun things to play and just layers of fun things to play.

EY: What inspires you guys to write songs?

DH: A lot of things. For one, we’re all kind of just drawn to write songs. I don’t know what it is, from like an artistic standpoint or biological standpoint, I don’t know what that is, or scientifically, I don’t know. So in terms of what inspires us to write songs, we just all feel the need to do so. We all write our own notes for the band and we’re always just writing songs, but in terms of what inspires them specifically the songs that we write… Without giving away what a lot of the songs mean, just kind of like every day experiences, and as cliché as that sounds, it’s kind of true. A lot of the songs aren’t necessarily blatantly clear as to what they’re about, but they’re just about your experiences as you develop into a full-blown adult.

Paul Vroom: A lot of human interaction, self-reflection…

DH: There’s actually a lot of self-reflection, a lot of looking. A lot of songs are written about the basic same things, like love [and] sex, and I think that our songs, a lot of the songs are written in a very introspective way. It’s not so much commenting on relationships with others, but more so, like, your place and all that sort of thing.

LC: Also, writing songs, you get things stuck in your head or you get thoughts, either musically or words or riffs, anything like that, and it kind of just gets stuck in your head and it’ll run its course in kind of the good way to relieve yourself or organize all these things to get them down, to able to put them into songs and it’s kind of a way of clearing the mind of those expressions. I think that’s honestly why… sometimes it just feels like all these pent-up thoughts and emotions or whatever in your head and the best way to get it out is to jam on it, express it through music.

EY: Your Facebook bio says that your debut EP was sort of inspired by a trip to Tanzania…

DH: Yeah, Karrie and I spent a little bit of time in Tanzania a few years ago and I think that with almost anything that you experience in your life as a songwriter it will impact what you write artistically, if you are a visual artist, if you’re a poet, anything really. I think your everyday experience impacts what you create. So obviously, experiencing that had some impact on the songs on the EP. A lot of those songs were written in that general time period that I was there and then Karrie was there. Without taking up all of your time, I could rant nonstop, basically, it’s hard to separate as a songwriter your experience from what you write. Not that you’d really want to.

EY: What is your songwriting process like?

JH: Doug generally writes the bulk of most of our songs at least, if not all our songs, so I think I can speak for him when I say he…

::All laugh::

JH: You go ahead…

DH: No, I want to hear this…

JH: I think that he sits down at his computer and opens a Logic session and then programs a drum beat… no, that’s not right… then he puts down a quarter-note kick-drum pattern, and he puts in a 150bpm drum hit, and then he’ll write a guitar riff. And then once he’s got the initial guitar riff, he puts a more complicated beat in and the rest of the song comes together.

PV: He always puts on over-modulation…

DH: That just kind of happens… I do start with a quarter-note kick-drum every single time because I hate the sound of a metronome. I have to have that fake drum sound on my computer. So that gets me going… Actually, what we’ve been doing a lot recently is, we jammed in a new jam space recently and I think somebody just started playing a guitar riff and then Liam started playing drums and then the other person started playing a guitar riff, Paul started playing bass, Karrie started playing keys, and we just jammed that for 25 minutes, and about 99 percent of it was the same or with slight changes. But we all try to record a lot of it and then we go back, like, “Oh that one part is really cool. Maybe I’ll take that part and I’ll see how to develop it into a full song” or something like that. So we do, as much of it is someone spending time at a computer, a lot of it is the songs are really given life when we’re jamming them.

EY: You guys are starting to write a new album?

DH: We actually have written an album, recorded the album, we’re just waiting to release that album…

EY: You guys released a new single in September called “Handsome Man.” Could you guys tell me a little about the song?

JH: There are always a lot of jokes about which one of the band members it is about, “handsome man” reference, most people say Karrie… But what can we say about the song… We released it first because it’s such a contrast to what we’ve released in the past. It’s probably the second-most contrasting song we’ve released. So it was pretty fun for us to put it up there and just be like “things are a little bit different now. You can expect something new.” It starts off with a fuzzed bassline, which is very uncommon for us, but very fun for Paul.

PV: I only use one hand for it…

DH: Recently when I listened to it, I envisioned a cartoon machine eating another machine. Like, “Brave Little Toaster” meets those big trucks that crush other trucks.

PV: It’s got a lot of the same things too, like a lot of vocals, harmonies, unisons, a lot of riffs… fun stuff too, but at the same time quite different.

DH: It’s like the most introspective song out of them all. To be honest, the “handsome man” title is more like… I don’t know if ironic is the right term because it’s kind of exploring all the things that are not handsome about a person, things that are just not attractive.

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