Hey all in Highspire. Please introduce yourselves to our readers. Where are you from and who plays what in the band?
EJ: I currently live in Lancaster, PA. Guitars mostly and some programming.
ALEX: Alex, I’m from Philadelphia . Vocalist.
EJ: There’s also Isaac who’s like good at everythingand lives in Doylestown, PA. We’re all like and hour and a half away from each other.
Your Everything is an amazing disc. What was the writing process like for that disc?
ALEX: EJ and I wrote the entire LP, except for part of one song. We did the bulk of the writing in roughly one week using a sampler, guitar, bass and a mic all hooked up to a PA system. Because we didn’t bring the songs to the band until the very end, they ended up being very true to our vision. We demoed every song several times on 4-track cassettes or on a digital workstation before we actually tried to record them. This meant we revised our songs many times before the final version.
EJ: The entire album was recorded in up to 10 different places. From high-end to low-end studios, 4 tracks to digital 8s to computers, closets and city lofts to a 1720’s farm house in Amish country. We were recording whenever we could wherever we could. The first song was started in mid-2000 and the last finished in January 2003 with the bulk being recorded from early summer 2002 to the end.
Since it was done over roughly a 2 year period of time, our influences varied day to day due to what was going on in our lives, our environment, what we were listening to, etc. And over that amount of time, things ended up being a lot different from when we started. But you can basically tell what songs on the album were recorded relatively close to each other. The trip-hop-ish songs were basically written within a day or two of each other, “until the lights go down” and “slowbeat” are kind of a pair, “turn for the worse” and “love me or leave me” same. All the songs have a partner or two whether its musically, lyrically or recording process used.
The trick was figuring out which songs to take from their ‘period’ to match up with the others of their periods to make up the album. It’s eclectic in that every song doesn’t sound the same, which can get boring. And we never wanted to make a strictly shoegaze album, though a bulk of our influences lie in that music. We like a board range of music and we think we did a good job bringing all those influences together. I’m surprised by the number of emails we’ve received/still receive from people thanking us or congratulating us on the album. Quite unexpected. Especially since we tried to make an album that we wanted to hear and really didn’t have too many expectations after that.
I love your eclectic approach to music. “Skies You Climb” is a really stand out song on ‘Your Everything’. Can you tell us about that song in particular? What made you put it on the album and how did you decide on the instrumentation in that song?
ALEX: ‘Skies You Climb’ was a true collaboration by the members of the band. EJ played the rhythm guitar. Though Ryan had written the guitar part, he doesn’t appear in the final song. The lone acoustic guitar served as the starting point. Ron built the song in the studio from there adding the lead bits he played, the cellos and other little touches. In many ways it’s Ron’s song. I think he was most pleased with it. EJ played the bass. We later recorded Kevin’s drums at another studio, though we scrapped them in favor of a sequenced drum track we felt was more dependable. The vocal track was done on the first take. It was recorded really casually with everyone basically sitting around in one room drinking and watching me sing. I wrote all the lyrics on the spot too. We recorded another version of that song with live drums shortly after that. We included a second and third part in the song and more changes to the rhythm and vocal melody. But in the end I thought it would be better to use the original. It was more authentic.
EJ: At first, all we had was a demo version of just the first chord progression recorded for like a couple minutes over and over. I’d sit around with it looping on a “pod” trying to figure out the rest of the song parts/lead bits for hours. I managed to finish the song – with many more changes – which was the version we used to play live years ago. We recorded the first version in a studio in Chicago but ended up trashing it cos of shoddy musicianship on some parts.
Anyway, I guess we found the demo version on the computer one day and started working on it again. Trashed the acoustic and did that over, decided on sounds, etc. The next time I came down, I listened to what they had done, which was pretty good, but there were too many repetitious instruments that made it ‘eh’. We settled on only having the acoustic continually repeat through the whole song and have everything else change around that. Decided to trash the bass and put one in that had changes, do the long fade in with the distorted guitars and made some of the instrumentation come in and out at certain times. They played with all of that a bit and the next time I came down, after a few level tweaks, it was done.
I wish that some of the other songs on the album had the same recording/sound quality as this one. I think that’s what saved this song; it’s very clean. If it was muddy, I don’t think it would have flown. Unfortunately we couldn’t put the same amount of time and care into some other ones as this one. Or we could have, but it just didn’t happen for one reason or another.
Another favorite song of mine on the disc is “Portsmouth.” The vocals and subtle backbeat style reminds me a bit of early 80’s brit-pop. Am I far off the mark here? What influences do you see as part of your composition of this song and what inspired it in general?
EJ: At the time this was written I was trying to make music that was influenced by the urban nightlife, more specifically music that encompassed ones senses of walking around the streets of Philly at like 2AM at night. I was working a lot with dirty break-beats at the time and samples on my computer. I was referencing 80’s hip-hop more than say Massive Attack, Bowery Electric or Portishead; going straight to the source.
The bassline just came from screwing around/accident. I did most the basslines on the album and that’s probably my favorite one due to it being so technical and grooving at the same time. I’ve tried teaching it to all our bass players and no ones been able to pull it off, so we’ve never actually played this one live.
I did try to put guitars over it, but ultimately decided that it really didn’t need any. They’d probably just muck up the song. Anyway, Alex and Ron went and worked on it while I wasn’t around and took out the dirty break-beat and the original bass and put a synth one in. So the song came out much more produced than I envisioned it should be. But I was able to live with it. The only thing I would have done different would have been to have kept the live bass in to give it a more organic feel. But since neither of them knew how to play it on bass, they went synth to save time I guess.
ALEX: I wish I could say it was more early 80’s influenced but truth be told, I was inspired by Ian Brown, Radiohead and Bowery Electric. But that’s not too far from New Wave is it? The original beat on that song was a hip-hop sample from the 80’s. We scrapped it.
You mention on your website many of the difficulties that your band has had since 2000. Can you explain some of those hardships and how those hardships may have shaped your band and your music?
EJ: There’s been a lot of difficulties. It would take a while to list them all and I don’t really want to rehash much on the past. I’d say the biggest kick in the balls for me was when I was living in this like halfway house in Philly, cos
I got screwed out of housing by a couple people when we got booted from our place near the Italian Market.
The halfway house was one of those pay-by-the-week places and many of the people living there had like just gotten out of rehab and jail and whatnot. It was the only place I could get on such short notice.
So one day, the day we were gonna go to Lancaster to record what would become half the songs on the record, I rode my bike down to pick up my paycheck so I’d have money for the trip. Got back to my place about 45 minutes later to find that my custom 370 Rickenbacker, recording equipment and all my effects were stolen. And for an extra punch in the face, they threw some of the effects and stuff into a suitcase I had half packed for the trip that contained all my demo tapes. Called the landlord (still think he had something to do with it), called the cops, cops came over. We went room to room in this place trying to find the stuff, cos someone was supposedly sitting on the front stoop the whole time and didn’t see anything. Anyway, you don’t want to piss off a house full of people who have just gotten out of jail and rehab by going into their rooms with cops searching for stolen stuff. Everyone looked at me like they were gonna kill me. And if I stayed, something bad probably would have happened.
To make the rest of the story short, I didn’t find anything, the cops used the fabulous quote “you’re your own best detective” which means “your gears gone for good”, Alex came by about an hour later, I packed up what clothes and stuff I had left in my room, jumped into the car, drove to Lancaster PA, and I never left. Just bought a house here, nice town. I had my fill of Philly. But we did end up recording 6-7 songs on the album that weekend on the fly. The moodier ones.
ALEX: EJ and I have been close friends for 9 years, any hardships have benefited the music tremendously cos they brought us closer and made us focus. We’ve had people quit on us at very critical points when the band was taking off. EJ and I are both very intense when it comes to this band. I don’t blame anyone for not being able to take it. Then some bastard made off with his prized Rickenbacker and stole all his demo tapes and effects. Of course our solution was to get together immediately and start writing twice as many songs. EJ and I have been making music for a long time. Bin Laden couldn’t stop us.
What is the future of Highspire? When can we expect more innovative music and are there any outtakes from your debut that you might release to your fans?
ALEX: We have a minimum of 40 demo songs backlogged between EJ, Isaac and me. They are all quality. There are also outtakes and different versions of songs on Your Everything. Very different rudimentary versions of ‘Until the Lights Go Down,’ ‘Portsmouth,’ ‘No Day Like Today,’ ‘Fade in a Day’ and ‘Vesperbell’ exist. We don’t really know what to do with them. Currently we are outlining tracks for a second LP.
EJ: We’ll start working on new material sometime soon. Hopefully kick out a new album within the next year. I’d like to do more touring, but only if its feasible. I’d doubt we’d even break even on a bigger tour at the moment. Actually, we’ve almost never broke even, which is fine. But we have decent jobs now and bills, I have a mortgage.
I have no problem with touring and meeting people and breaking even. I love that, love being on tour. But having no income coming in and losing money on the road and coming home to a ton of bills isn’t so great. Unfortunately touring for us is like planning a vacation; save money all year for your bills and expenses and the time off and then go. Ideally it would be to places that we’d like to go to like Europe. If we have to foot the bill, why not go someplace we’d want to see?
I think for the first couple of years we took things a little too seriously. And looking back, I think that actually hurt us because we put too much unnecessary pressure on ourselves that got us stuck in a rut of sorts. Some people that were in the band back then wanted to be like “instant rock stars” or something along those lines. Now, the current members are all friends and pretty laid back. We have no timelines to get things done and that helps in the creative process. Makes the music better.
Music is supposed to be fun and it shouldn’t be so stressful or breakdown relationships amongst members. The band Monster Movie seems like a good example of all this. A couple of mates who have lives and don’t tour and make really great music and don’t appear to take themselves too seriously. I think that’s pretty awesome.
Do you have a philosophy behind your writing? How do you approach a song and what makes a good song, in your opinion?
EJ: I try to record or write something every day. I end up tossing the bulk of it out. But its nice to have a stock pile of ideas recorded that you can come back to months down the road and be like, “yeah, that’s alright. I think I know how I’d like it to go now”. I rarely ever finish anything on one sitting. Doesn’t usually come to me like that. Its more of a drawn out process.
I think having a bit of pop sensibility is important. Not real interested in the bands who all their songs are slow/midtempo with no hooks and swells of delay and reverb on a clean channel. MBV, Ride, Slowdive etc. all rawked in their ways and had a definite pop sensible element lying underneath all the effects, which were also interesting. Sound sculpting is important.
And making sure a good vocal melody can be found and sound good is important. I usually come up with a lot of good vocal melodies over the music, though I don’t sing much in the band. I’ll toss good songs away just cos I can’t figure out a good way to sing over it. There are a lot of bands out there that write great music but their singers either don’t have a good ear or just can’t sing or are picking really abstract notes to hit/go over the top. It’s quite maddening. Instant turnoff.
ALEX: Most of our songs start out as just one part recorded on tape. Then we’ll go about adding second and third parts and making them work together. EJ has finished songs I started like ‘Fade in a Day’ or ‘Love me or Leave Me.’
I take a really abstract approach to writing lyrics and most of my lyrics come from my poetry. I pour over every detail of the lyrics until I feel they are perfect. When I get stuck EJ kicks in a good lyric.
EJ and I also believe strongly that the surroundings influence the way a song gets recorded, so we try to make our surroundings interesting and invigorating. On ‘Your Everything’ some work was done in Chicago’s Engine Studios, other work was done at Ron’s home studio and in my apartment. Yet more work was done at a farm estate in Lancaster, Penn. Between takes we would walk in the gardens, smoke cigarettes and discuss the direction the songs were going in.
If you could play with any musician or have any musician play on one of your own discs, who would that be and why?
EJ: I’d like to watch Ulrich Schnauss’ recording process, whether it was for us or for one of his projects. Really I’d just like to play with 5 people who all got along, who understand what we do and can contribute relative input or at least execute their parts with aplomb. Someone you don’t have to say to them, hey, your delay is off time or your strumming is wrong. Or, no, that deep flanger effect isn’t cool or please don’t play that generic shuffle beat.
ALEX: I would like to get the guys from Toto to do backing vocals on one of our songs. There are a million musicians I admire, I guess I would pick Syd Barrett, Damon Albarn or Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks.
What are you listening to now?
ALEX: Crowded House, Prince, Interpol, Manic Street Preachers, Rolling Stones,
EJ: Ulrich Schnauss, Loop, the Smoke, Global Communication, first half 90’s Blur and whatever crap they play out in the pubs.
What are you reading? Are their any authors that specifically inspire your music?
ALEX: I read and translate Old English poems like the ‘Battle of Maldon.’ T.S. Eliot is the only author or poet who is even remotely influential to me.
EJ: Computer/tech books., graphic and design magazines, furniture catalogs and a lot of newspapers/sites. And always the fine print.