High Places' Rob Barber and Mary Pearson are sonic soulmates who finish each others sentences and have found a common ground despite their disparate backgrounds--Pearson grew up in rural Michigan playing the bassoon, and Barber came up in the urban desolation of Philadelphia on a steady diet of punk and hardcore music. Though the former roommates started out as one of Brooklyn's ones to watch, the pair recently made the move to Los Angeles to get back to nature and space out, literally and figuratively. Their third full-length Original Colours is due out on Thrill Jockey in October, and the new record finds them toying with more direct dance beats and nomadic melodies instead of the kilter-less found sound patchworks that got them noticed in the first place. Pearson's supernal mezzo soprano paints glorious isolation and far off lands while Barber's layered samples and beats frame the exotic, lyrical tableaus.
They're at the Old Post Office Plaza on August 20 with local musical kith Ra Cailum and US English. The show is free, and it's the second to last Luminary curated Post Performance of the season.
We caught Pearson and Barber the other morning before they headed out to the beach in South Jersey and talked about the new album, their favorite creepy places, Skins and urban decay.
Diana Benanti: What's it like being back in New York now that you've been gone for a while?
Mary Pearson: We're in New Jersey. We had a couple days off so we went to visit some family.
Rob Barber: We kind of go and see our friends, stop at any galleries that we wanted to check out and then we usually split and go to the ocean or upstate or something. Sometimes I feel like we're not as New Yorky as we used to be because we were there for so long.
Mary: We do like a lot of restaurants there.
Rob: Yeah, restaurants definitely are on the list to do.
So you guys used to live in Bed-Stuy. What are some of your favorite places in that neighborhood?
Rob: There was a restaurant called Red Bamboo that was a vegetarian soul place kind of, but they went out of business. They opened right when Mary moved to new York and then they closed right after we moved, so maybe we were keeping them in business.
Mary: There's also a very New York thing of Chinese take out places that are very Americanized. There was one in our neighborhood called New Grace Kitchen. They had this sesame tofu dish, that we got so many times and we were eating it when we were working on a song and so we ended up naming the song "New Grace." I think it started affecting our brains.
Rob: One of those places where you order through like five inches of bulletproof glass.
Mary: It got to the point where they would recognize our voices and would get offended if we tried changing our orders at all.
So how are you guys feeling about the new album? Do you feel like you're in a maternity ward waiting for this little bastard to come out?
Rob: Well, we know the father, so.
Mary: We think. [laughs]
Rob: I think, essentially, you work on something and you listen to it over and over; it's like painting or any other art form, your eyes or ears kind of see what you want it to see or hear and it's hard to be objective about it. When I listen to it now it's like a car alarm or a ringtone. I'm not objective at all because I've listened to it way too many times. Now it needs to go out into the world and hoepfully people respond to it. I only respond to it when I'm playing the songs live. I zone out a little.
Mary: It feels really good. It felt very natural. We just allowed ourselves to work in the way that felt most comfortable and so it all felt very organic. Yeah, we're happy with it and we're excited to share it with people. There was zero agenda when we were writing it. It wasn't like we were trying to manipulate what we were doing.
Rob: Or even like having central concepts or anything.
Well, it sounds beautiful. I've listened to it a few times but I'm kind of obsessed with it. I think I'd walk down the aisle to the last track, that one really gets me.
Rob: Oh, cool, thanks.
Mary: Thank you, that's so nice!
How's the live show playing out right now? Are you mostly running samples or is it more instrumentation?
Rob: I think there's four samplers on stage, but there are different types of samplers. Mary has a keyboard sampler so she can actually play the notes. So we make a sound and we can pull it out into a note. I have percussion samplers, so I can actually play it like I'm hitting the sample. Then we have two just normal samplers with buttons, and also guitar on some of the songs too.
Mary: The songs are pretty structured on the album, so we're toying with changing up structures and allowing more freedom to expand the songs. The way we're doing it now we have more freedom to play around with it and stretch them out more.
So that seems counterintuitive that the more structured the songs are the more you can play around with them.
Mary: In the past we've stayed a little truer to the structures on the recordings and now, because we've separated the layers out so much, we can put it back together in different patterns.
Rob: We've only played the songs live a couple times so right now we're playing them more as songs. The more we play them we'll probably stretch them out more. Some of the songs are somewhat dancy so they can kind of allow for elongating parts like live remix style. There's a lot going on in the songs and there's two of us, we're kind of trying to do too much in a way sometimes in a way so we're trying master the songs before we go off on a free jazz odyssey with them.
Seem like everyone is going in a more dancy direction these days, from Britney Spears to like, everyone basically. Do you think that's a sign of the times, or is it just what the people are responding to?
Rob: Even in the stright experimenttal noise scene, we have friends who are straight noise people and now they're doing house music.
Mary: That's where Rob and I's taste have overlapped. He has really great rhythmic sensibilities and I really enjoy putting together melodies, so when that works best is when we're doing it in a dance context so for us it feels natural. We were talking about that yesterday as we were driving down here, we were flipping through the radio, and popular Top 40 songs these days, now it's like the original is almost a dance remix.
Mary: Like that Britney Spears single is totally a great example, which I think is awesome. I think it's great.
Rob: Since we've started everything's always been beat driven with some kind of weird rhythm. for the most part I think now whether you're a guy who's doing noise music two years ago, or you're Britney Spears, I think people have realized it's the best communication with an audience. If you're a singer-songwriter or Elton John and you're behind a piano, hopefully you can move a stadium of people, but most people have a hard time with that when they're doing something more subtle. If you're a noise guy and you're sitting behind an oversized mixing board and a bunch of distortion pedals it's hard to really engage with an audience. I think people are less condescending to their audience now, they actually want a dialogue with their audience. Dance music is definitely the best dialogue with an audience, I think.
In the noise vein, what are you guys listening to that we might not be?
Rob: In the last couple of years there's been a big modular synthesizer resurgence, particularly among our friends. There's a lot of people doing almost like a less nerdy '70s kraut rock or Tangerine Dream style drone but using big modular synth. There are some friends of ours in L.A. doing stuff like that, like our friend Ged who was in Pocahaunted which was more of a jammy type band and Dave Stone, he used to be in LCD Soundsystem and also the Melvins, which is a pretty wide range; he basically played like modular synthesizer with straight '80s house music type rhythms. So he's mixing the old style of '70s proto-New Age music, which is cool.
Mary: I've been really into Trentemøller. I first heard them on Eastbound and Down, I don't know if you've seen that show but that one part where he's at on the dancefloor at the high school dance, and my boyfriend and I were like, those are the most amazing bass tones we've ever heard. So that's how I first got into them and then I saw them at Coachella but I think they do some pretty cool stuff with that whole genre of weird, underground-y dance music stuff.
Rob: We have a friend in L.A., John Wiese who's been doing weird experimental type stuff, based out of found sounds with like samples of broken glass and turning into an extremely enveloping, environmental thing based out of really violent sounds, but when it's all put together it doesn't sound aggressive that way anymore, which is kind of a really cool twist on it.
John Wiese I think lived in St. Louis for a while.
R: There's a lot of former Midwest people who are doing that kind of stuff. This guy Daren from Raccoo-oo-oon is in New York now and he's got a really cool modular project called Driphouse, we're actually playing with him in New York on Thursday. It's really cool to see people who were doing one style of music move into new things and get psyched on new equipment or new sounds.
Basically all those people you just mentioned have played at Floating Labs here in the last year or so; Driphouse was just here not too long ago.
Mary: Is that on the water?
Yeah, it's awesome, you can watch the barges go by on the Mississippi while people are playing.
Rob: That's cool. We've only played in St. Louis once before, at the Lemp Arts Center in like...
Rob: Yeah, a really long time ago. We're kind of out of the loop on what's happening. This show came up pretty organically because we were playing Chicago, like oh, you're playing Chicago. I think when you get out there it's like, what, seven hours from Chicago? It's kind of like, just around the corner. And Iowa City too.
Mary: We definitely need recommendations on where to go.
Rob: It's hard to figure out places when you're not there for very long, it's hard to get a handle on what's going on when you're just there for like a day or an afternoon and evening. LA is kind of the king of that, you really have to be there for a few weeks before you can figure out what's going on below the radar.
We're not a user-friendly city by any means, I always worry that bands come in town and leaving thinking 'Ew, St. Louis is dumb' because it's hard to find the places that are really cool.
Rob: It's not like you ring a bell and someone comes out and is like, "Here are all the cool places in our city." And you know there are cool places in every town you go to, we find it all the time, but you have to ask the locals and make a connection with that's going on there otherwise you're just totally cut off. How has the band dynamic changed since you're no longer living together?
Mary: At the end of my time in New York, I was living in a place several blocks away from Rob, still close. We would get back from tour and come home and start hanging out immediately, we'd like go out to brunch and realized, this is maybe a little bit unhealthy, spending every waking moment together. It seemed like it was harder in your dating game than mine.
Mary: Having this constant girl around.
Rob: I'd have like a girlfriend or something and they'd be like 'Who is this girl, in your house' because it was just one big room. It was like, "I hope you're cool with stuff."
Mary: We've always lived within a mile of each other. Rob's in his third place now in L.A. And it's always really close to my house. Not even that intentionally, it's always a perk, but not something we seek out. That's really nice. We walk to each other's houses.
Rob: Ever since we started, even when we were roommates, we've made little pieces of sounds and given them to each other for the other person to take, alone, and respond to that. It's always this back and forth, scrapbooky kind of thing. It's weird when you share a computer.
Mary: "I left a file open for you."
Rob: It's almost like you didn't have enough space. If someone's sitting on top of you and expecting you to make something--I sometimes need to be alone to start getting into my own feel of experimenting with sounds.
Mary: I'd always have to kick you out of the apartment so I could record vocals because I couldn't have him around.
Rob: You can't have someone standing like fifteen feet away from you when you're trying to record vocals, it's super awkward. I think now that we're not roommates we basically record ourselves at home. We just send pieces back and forth and work on them on our own time.
Mary: And then we edit the songs when we're together, side by side.
Rob: We arrange everything together, but the writing process is more improv-ing off each other's little field recordings. Which is actually kind of cool.
Mary: It's always surprising.
Rob: I'll send her a beat and I'll have this total idea of what I think it's going to be, and sometimes I'll get something back that's not in the same genre, even. Sometimes it's stressful and I'll be like, I don't know how to respond to that at all.
Mary: You can get attached to an idea and you really want it to go in a certain direction it can be hard, but it's a good lesson in giving up control.
Rob: It negates the idea of control. Usually when you're in a band with more than two people, there's one person who's really spearheading what's going on, or a control freak or whatever. That's good it somehow gives you democracy in a two person band, which sort of seems physically impossible.
Mary: I think now we compartmentalize our time together a little better. We're better as going out to brunch as friends and then working together as bandmates, and the band doesn't creep into every aspect of our time.
What was it about Australia and Mexico that inspired the new album? Were there particular locales that inspired different tracks?
Mary: "Year Off" was definitely inspired our time in Western Australia. It's kind of rare to get to play Perth, and we've luckily gotten to play there twice. We were so amazed to be able to swim in the Indian Ocean, and they have these little tiny marsupials on an island near Perth called quakas, they're almost like wallabys...the cutest most rare little animal; I feel like our time there was really incredible. It really inspired me in how unique the place is, how it feels so cut off from other cultures and lands, and so specific. I spent some time in Mexico in January and played Monterey last year, that really inspired the track "Sonora." I think living in a desert climate, even like L.A., it's pretty foreign to me still, being from Michigan and having lived in New York. That sort of arid, really deserted sort of feeling.
Rob: I don't write any lyrics. I feel like I would have a nervous breakdown if I tried to write lyrics, because when I do my own solo stuff, I'm saying weird fragments of sentences over and over, I don't get lyrically deep. It's funny because that song, it doesn't necessarily sound, what's lyrically and musically at odds. When you're in a place like Perth, and you land at the airport, that place is so remote it's actually spooky. It's funny because you hear this dissonant thing, and you think, okay, it sounds like there's a weird UK or German overtone to the music. I feel like that music is fitting if you're in a place like Bakersfield in the Central Valley, you could put on Merle Haggard, because of the desolateness of it. That's why bands like Korn and Marilyn Manson are so popular in those small, rural towns, there's a weird creepiness to it. It's beautiful but it's also sad and creepy and there's meth and there's all this darkness but you find beauty in it and also a weird sadness. I feel like that same way when I'm home in Philadelphia. I find a beauty and a weird sadness to it. It's this industrialized city, but it has this soul, this really warm orchestral soul background, history musically, stylistically, everything like that. But when I'm there, I don't hear that anymore. I sense it, but I feel more of the darkness of places like that.
Mary: The song "Banksia" is also about Australia. There's a theme of disappearing in remote, beautiful places too, and I think that's kind of heard throughout the album.
Rob: In the beginning we were trying to create utopic natural environments in the idea of the songs, which is not a totally healthy way to look at it. I've only lived in urban areas my whole life, and I've always had this romantic idealized version of nature and remote, rural areas, but when you go there you realize, there's tons of darkness. If you go to Alaska, we played up there in the winter like two years ago and people were so stoked that there were shows going on, and they were just drinking way too hard. There's an aspect of it that you pick up on, you can't romanticize that pastoral, utopic thing because it doesn't exist anymore.
Mary: Which is funny because we were just shooting a bunch of video footage on the ranch where Charles Manson and the family once lived.
Rob: There's this really awesome park in the mountains, huge boulder fields, and I'm like, you realize this is where Spahn Ranch was, someone's head was found over there, stuff like that is just dark.
Mary: You can't tell in the video that there's any dark history to the place, but I think Rob and I are a little bit fascinated by things things that on the outside look really beautiful and alluring and then you find out, not quite what it seems.
Rob: You go into this beautiful cave, and then there's gang graffiti inside the cave.
Mary: Or you almost step on a rattlesnake.
Rob: At least that was natural though, it wasn't like a meth smoking rattlesnake...I really dig rattlesnakes.
Mary: I was actually reading 2666 by Roberto Bolano when we wrote "Sonora," and it's all about young women disappearing and getting murdered in the Sonora Desert. Gosh, we're so dark this morning.
Rob: Yeah, the Mexican desert is really beautiful, but it has this crazy history, it's been exploited and used for thousands of years. We're drawn to those places that are forgotten, beautiful and kind of sad.
It's funny you say that, that's how I feel about the city of St. Louis sometimes --forgotten, beautiful and kind of sad.
Rob: I've only lived in Philadelphia and New York, but like when I'd go back to the Midwest to visit Mary's family or something; like, no place embodies that more than Michigan right now, Where her parents live is really beautiful and rural, but their neighbor's house burned down because it was a meth lab. And like, Detroit...I know St. Louis has it too but Detroit is this industrial, forgotten place. I don't know how St. Louis is these days, but Philadelphia is kind of like a big Detroit now too. It's not like you can leave Philadelphia and enjoy the that barren kind of flat beauty you find outside St. Louis or in the Midwest; when I visit there it just seems so otherworldly.
Yeah St. Louis is super blighted in areas of the city, and those industrial monoliths have been sort of loved and lost. Then you drive out to the county and it's like, McMansions and everything new. People have been trying to bring the city back to life for years and at times it seems like very little progress actually happens.
Rob: I didn't know it was like that, I mean, I'm 37, and I've been watching people get displaced from neighborhoods since the '80's -- if there is an arts movement in a place, it's a beautiful thing, but it also leads to gentrification and displacement. I don't know how I feel about it, I've just seen it happen too much.
This is going back a little bit, but I like, died a couple years ago when I heard two of your songs on the UK Skins. How did that end up coming about?
Mary: We were aware of the show, they just asked us what if they could use a couple of the songs and I guess we didn't know it was as popular as it is.
Rob: I had never heard of it, and the woman who heads the British and European office of our label, she was like "Oh my god, it's my favorite show ever." I was like, it's not a British version of The O.C, is it? And she was like 'Oh no, nothing like that." When we were on it, musically it's like a weird yearbook of what was going on that year. Like, we're on it a couple times and our song is like mashed up with a Gang Gang Dance song, like that scene they're all at a weird rave in the woods and it's crazy, and then when they start to crash and come down off the drugs, it morphs into our song. At that time, the average person hadn't heard of us, and Gang Gang Dance was pretty off the radar too. There are all these video montages on YouTube of the characters that teenagers make, and they have like over 100,000 views, and it's like, these people don't go to our shows.
Mary: When we play in London we know when people have watched the show, because they request the song "Banana Slugs" which is definitely not one of our hits.
Rob: It's this weird intro to a song that's really abstract and minimal, and another song they used was commissioned by a elementary music program that's totally goofy and youthful and not representative at all. Now there's all these kids that know this weird children's song, I think we played it once for fun at our friend's gallery, but when we play in London, there's like this thirteen-year-old kid going "Play 'Jump In!'"...When we were starting out, I was coming out of an aggressive noise scene and wanted to do music that was not quite as aggressive but still really weird. So some people sort of picked up on this twee-ish aspect of the music, and other people thought we just did a lot of drugs, because it sounds like if you just gave kids drugs, that's what it would sound like.