Destined: High Places
originally published at Dusted Magazine, January 2008
“We just played the Floristree in Baltimore, and it was one of my favorite shows we’ve played in a long time,” writes Mary Pearson. “There was dinner before the show, and combining food with shows is the way to my heart. High Places is 45 percent Rob and me playing music, and 55 percent eating nice things.”
Once you’ve listened to High Places, this doesn’t actually seem so far-fetched. Without setting foot inside the Brooklyn apartment where Pearson and Robert Barber (Mary and Rob to you) live and record, you can picture more or less how the lifestyle breaks down: samplers on the windowsill, makeshift percussion instruments cluttering the coffee table, scribbled lyrics on the fridge sharing a magnet with a vegan cheesecake recipe. You can hear the resident cats stalk along the hardwood or scratch around in the litter box; you can see Pearson or Barber taping the noise and cataloguing it for inclusion in some song not yet written. You can imagine band practice as something routine and unscheduled, the way other roommates do jigsaw puzzles or collect imported beers on the mantelpiece. The music that comes out of this apartment is so suffused with domesticity that it makes sense for High Places to be, at least for Barber and Pearson, only partially a band.
What else is it? Under “sounds like” on their Myspace page, High Places list “two dads hanging out”: another desultory image that is, all told, not without some truth. High Places sounds like a birthday party going on upstairs. High Places sounds like a Sublime Frequencies radio collage from a different ecosystem. High Places sounds like the national anthem to every country in the world, played all at once inside an aquarium. High Places write exceedingly short songs and release them wherever they please, on an Australian label’s Christmas compilation or at a friend’s wedding; their longest recording, which is obscure almost to the point of not existing, is six songs and less than 13 minutes long. High Places are straight edge, but approve of consciousness expansion, however you choose to pursue it. The 55 percent of High Places that isn’t music is what makes the other 45 percent interesting: it’s the familiarity of everyday life, what is necessary or customary or effortless, captured and cut up and pasted back together as something foreign.
For Barber and Pearson – whose domestic relationship is free of the heavy-handed themes of blood or romance (a recent entry on their blog hypes a show with Maryland dreamsters Beach House as “kind of a mini festival of boy-girl duos whose members aren’t related or dating each other”) – home is both studio and source material. “We record snippets of sounds and ideas whenever we get the urge, so we have a lot of these sound files saved to use (or not use) at a later date,” explains Pearson. These are part instrumental ideas, part household noises; when Barber alludes to recording with “everything and the kitchen sink,” it’s not hard to take him literally. “We have been known to use crumpled paper, tools, things found in the kitchen, and nature sounds,” he says. “Compared to Matmos, we’re not that outrageous. We haven’t used burning flesh sounds yet.”
The comically enlarged palette is only part of the deal, though. The fuzzy multiplicity of High Places’ sound comes from somewhere deeper into the home-music setup, a loose division of labor that hasn’t so much eroded as been abstracted over time. “We started off each doing a solo project,” says Pearson, “but eventually I think we both got tired of our own ideas. High Places has always been about that surprising quality that the other person brings.” Thus, for instance, while the melodies that recur in loose variation throughout the band’s catalog answer mostly to Pearson – who still puts in the occasional solo appearance as Transformation Surprise – the structural lower end tends to come from Barber. “Usually we’ll start with something rhythmic that Rob has written and recorded,” Pearson explains. “Then we might add an instrumental or vocal melody to that, and then we’ll just layer and layer and edit and edit, and eventually we’ll decide the piece is finished.”
Given the complexity of the duo’s offerings, like those on the four-song, nine-minute EP released last March on Ancient Almanac, it’s not entirely evident how they arrive at such a decision. The bleary, burbling reverberation that penetrates the music could be the watermark of imprecision as easily as the result of consensus; it helps, maybe, to think of it as a learning curve that’s not supposed to ever level off. “We’re always surprised by the finished product of a song,” Pearson says. “I think I know where I want a song to go and Rob has his own ideas, so we have to compromise all the time.” Barber agrees: “Rhythmically, I have more of an idea of what the end result will sound like, but from a songwriting perspective, that’s where the surprise comes in. Communication between the two of us is just trial and error.”
Sure enough, you can hear the gentle push-and-pull between Barber’s beats – muffled and paper-thin, but meticulous as clockwork and surprisingly danceable – and Pearson’s drifting melodic watercolors. At times the two seem in ideal balance, as on “Cosmonaut” (which is about one of the cats), but balance isn’t the rule. More often, they start on separate wavelengths and eventually, when curiosity wins out, grow to inhabit the same space. “Shared Islands” couples a bristling tropical undertone with a frosty abstract lullaby; “Dream Team” casts a blurry keyboard waltz over almost-forgotten flurries of chimes and woodwinds and something else, a castanet or a misfiring stove or falling rain. The upshot of High Places’ constant compromise has been learning to capitalize on this kind of elemental incongruity. If their material has evolved appreciably since the CD-R demo they self-released in June 2006, it’s that now you hear much less effort to make the disparate parts dovetail.
That desire to transcend the domestic, or at least make it weirder, is especially apparent in Pearson’s lyrics. What at first sounds like shyness masked by strangeness (“The only way I can work on a vocal idea is if no one is in the apartment,” she admits) is actually a fair mirror for the composition process: crafting foreign worlds out of familiar things. “The Martians had a picnic / They sent a telegram,” she sings on “Sandy Feat. “I think they meant to call me sir / But instead they called me ma’am.” And in her unassuming chirp, above a distressed Casio pep rally, such a marriage of elementary form and extraterrestrial subject matter sounds about right. Elsewhere she sings about dinosaurs and evolution and beaches in the south of France, but it always comes off with the same winningly fractured take on reality, the same urbanized approach to expanded consciousness.
The same goes for the live show: Barber works a console full of samplers and contact mics and Pearson shuffles about with a microphone, while a wall (or hanging bedsheet) full of visual projections neither quite complements nor contradicts what they’re up to. (Sometimes the graphics come from Barber, who studied printmaking at NYU, sometimes from Pearson; sometimes they’re courtesy of a friend like David Horvitz, who also designed the picture disc for “Shared Islands,” out on UK imprint Caff/Flick, and a web-ubiquitous video for “Greeting the Light.”) At least according to video footage, the audience remains suspended in a friendly stasis between the impulse to dance and the desire to watch, to listen, to consider.
Of course, this is just one way among many in which the live setting, whether an off-the-books all-ages venue or an impersonal smoke-filled club (and guess which High Places prefer), is a far different thing from the gestation space of the apartment. Like the lyrics, the songs’ part-time multimedia allure seems like a lovingly calculated effort to make the transition to the outside world as smooth – or rocky, but in that High Places way – as possible. If, as Pearson says, she and Barber are both attracted to the idea of creating whole environments with High Places songs, then it’s not so hard to think of these post-product cues as drafts toward mapping those environments. And a few arrows and road signs suffice, because of course the long-term navigation is left to the listener.
According to Barber, strangers have started making High Places videos. It means the maps are working, that the world outside the apartment is safe, that there is a whole demographic of the like-minded out there, ready to explore the non-existent territories forged from not so much more than jingling keys and stories about the ocean. “There are so many amazing DIY scenes around this country, and to be honest it feels like they all overlap and intertwine,” he muses. “I don’t think it’s based on location or genre. It’s more a mentality on how to approach life and music together.”
In 2008, High Places will finish and release a full-length album, one which Pearson says will offer “slightly longer tracks and maybe a song or two about nonverbal communication with houseplants.” It will be a revelation, one way or another, to see how she and Barber fill the space, what sounds they use, what environments it takes them to. No matter how far out they get, though, it’s safe to assume they’ll keep it close to home.back