Climbing Aural Altitudes and Visual Vistas: High Places
Performer Magazine, June 2009
Story by Patrick Hurley, Photo by High Places
Rather than freezing, bleak mountaintops, High Places lend themselves to a warmer, abundant garden of sound. “Things just kind of grow from pretty simple, initial sources,” states Barber. “Essentially everything starts from little scraps and snips of things.”
And that is what makes High Places so engrossing. Each song is almost like a whirling dervish, spinning faster and bringing you deeper into a soundscape that develops from basic rhythmic, sonic and visual flavors. Picture a blender-chopped waterfall of vaguely tribal beats, descending through a floating mist of delicate vocals.
Shortly after beginning a set at one of their Middle East shows in Boston, Pearson asked the crowd how the house sounded. A few audience members replied that the vocals weren’t as prominent as they would have liked, but that is certainly not by accident. “We’ve always treated the vocals, and the vocal melody especially, as another instrument,” she says. “We don’t see them as needing to be the main event.” And yet this begs the question, if the vocals aren’t a focal point, does that diminish the importance of lyrics? The vinyl version of their full-length, eponymous debut did contain an insert with facsimiles of Pearson’s handwritten words. Chinscratching poetics from the track “From Stardust to Sentience” like, “Millions of forces of physics and providence/Teamed up and brought us all here/Waking and sleeping and yielding to gravity/Pointless to measure in years,” are nothing to dismiss. Pearson responds, perhaps too humbly, “I think that’s always a tricky question because I do really love lyrics and I try to make our lyrics available online.”
The duality of High Places is unique in that the songs themselves benefit equally from contributions of both parties. The writing process, however, is not always a simultaneous effort. “One of us will kind of have this little piece or snippet of an idea and the other person, maybe while they’re alone, will respond to that piece and add something to it and the song starts to grow that way,” says Barber. And the songs grow not only to aural altitudes, but into visual vistas as well.
In the last several months High Places have been touring with video projection behind their otherwise minimal stage setup. “We like to incorporate visual art and musical art to make it more of a complete experience,” says Pearson. “We’ve been having projections all the time lately. Seems like most venues these days have a projector or access to one, so that works out pretty much every night.” And the images that accompany the music depict the evolution of High Places as they travel more extensively. “It’s constantly changing,” Pearson says. “The most recent scenes we have now are from our tour of Australia and New Zealand, and before that, Norway and Switzerland.” Barber adds, “I like seeing the videos while we’re playing because it reminds me of why we’re doing it.” As the visual side of a High Places performance
expands, the songs do as well. “We’re getting into the idea of more improvisation,” states Barber. “That’s something that has always been exciting for us but is becoming more paramount now while we’re working on new things.”
That improvisation comes from the utilization of different samplers, drum pads and mics set up with different types of delay and reverb. When viewing a High Places show, and their simple table stacked with equipment, it’s somewhat hard at first to figure out exactly what is going on. While Barber pounds away with various implements on the right, Pearson adjusts dials and settings for her vocals on the left. “Initially we were heavily reliant on samplers because the sounds we were making were kinda scrappy,” Barber says. “Things like household items, things that aren’t real instruments like glasses of water, you can’t really play in a live setting. So samplers were kind of necessary to get it across.” And while he cues those samples (all of which are original High Places creations), Pearson explores more ethereal textures via her vocals. “I’ve gradually figured out the best way to put reverb and delay that work for me on my vocals live, because we like to change those settings a lot,” she says. “The more we perform a song the more we have ideas about ways we can change it.”
Similarly, as the group develops they’re seeking more organic ways to produce their sound. “I really think that technology is a lot of fun to use, but I do feel that from more of a growth perspective, in terms of live shows and improv and all that stuff, that it can be a little limiting,” Barber says. “So I’d like to figure out a way to not be so reliant on samplers.”
Clearly High Places are constantly shifting. Their progression extends not only to their music and performances, but also to location. Recently transplanted to Los Angeles, Rob and Mary are looking to create their next offering. “After this South American tour we have quite a bit of time to start working on some new ideas so things are going to change even more,” says Pearson. So don’t be surprised if the next High Places album is a little tangential to their first. Rob and Mary function at high altitude and just like the ever-grinding rocks of storm-battered Everest, they’ll never look exactly the same day to day.
Read more in the Digital Format Mag