One-on-One with HIGHS

HIGHS//Photo: Michael Thomas
HIGHS//Photo: Michael Thomas

by Michael Thomas

The music of HIGHS spread throughout the blog like a virus. Pretty soon, all three of Grayowl Point’s editorial staff were in rare unanimous agreement on the excellence of an album. HIGHS have only recently released their debut EP, but they’re already commanding impressive crowds on the strength of their insanely catchy music. Doug Haynes, Karrie Douglas and Joel Harrower sat down with us recently, and to dive into the world of HIGHS is to dive into a world of multiple cities of residence, recording ideas on BlackBerrys and Queen’s University.

Douglas and Haynes both come from musical families.

“My sister started teaching me piano when I got into high school and I was a little tiny kid,” Douglas says. “We’d sing all the time, my dad would make up songs on the spot.”

“My family’s best musical memories are being at the cottage and playing this big jam session,” Haynes says. “And me as a three-year-old trying to play this harmonica but not knowing how to, until they finally asked me to stop because I was ruining the jam. So probably got my roots in harmonica as a three-year-old and then just made my way from there .”

Harrower’s story is pretty fascinating on its own. “I was in grade , maybe, eight, I got mono like the first week of summer,” Harrower says. “I had nothing to do at home, but I found a Guitar For Dummies VHS tape under my dad’s bed.” His dad had an old guitar and had probably meant to learn guitar, but never got around to it.

“I learned guitar in the six weeks that I couldn’t get out of bed. With the VHS and dial-up internet.”

The band met at Queen’s University, eventually. Three out of four of the band members were getting degrees in education, with Harrower’s degree in civil engineering being the only differing area of study. Every band member comes from a different area of Ontario, though: Haynes from Whitby, Douglas from Petrolia (“Canada’s Victorian Oil Town”), Harrower from Muskoka and drummer Kevin Ledlow from Ottawa.

“So, really scattered,” Haynes adds as they go over their various places of origin.

The music that HIGHS began making together can be compared to Vampire Weekend or Paul Simon, acts that the band enjoys, but they’re clear that they’re not trying to rip them off.

“I love Paul Simon and I enjoy Vampire Weekend, so it’s kind of impossible to say that there isn’t some type of inspiration coming from those sources,” Haynes says. “But we weren’t trying to emulate this Paul Simon song or this Vampire Weekend sound. I think there’s a lot going on in addition to those influences.”

Although Haynes admits that Graceland definitely had some pull on some of their newer songs, particularly an as-yet-unrecorded song, “Mango.”

“It’s pretty Paul Simon-y, not gonna lie about that.”

HIGHS found the studio they would record their first EP at through a rather unconventional means—they noticed the Verge Music Lab while watching a Mojito Sessions YouTube video of the Elwins and Luke Lalonde covering “Countdown” by Beyoncé. That led them to Steve Major as well.

“It was amazing. He’s really a great guy and great at what he does, so we’re really fortunate for that,” Haynes says. “We thought five [tracks] would work together best for the EP and were our strongest songs. But it took a little longer than we anticipated, and in that six months of recording we came up with some new songs that will hopefully released at some point down the road.”

Now that the band’s lineup is almost solidified, songwriting has become more of a collective process. Previously, Haynes was the primary songwriter.

“I wish there was more structure, but it just kinda happens,” Haynes says. “Sometimes I’ll have lyrics and I’ll be singing them and think ‘That’s a cool melody.’ Or I’ll have the instrumentals and then I’ll be like ‘I need lyrics for this’ and…I’m probably a rather ineffective songwriter, structurally, it just kind of happens.”

“You’ll hear lots of noises coming from his room,” Douglas adds.

Harrower mentions that the story of how the song “Summer Dress” came about it is an interesting one, and Haynes obliges to explain it. He got the idea while he was driving in Brooklyn.

“I had this melody in my head, so I pulled out my BlackBerry, which doesn’t work very well, and recorded it as video,” he says. “It’s not very safe, recording while I’m driving, maybe doing six different takes or variations of it. Then I got home and used the melody from the video and went through some old instrumentals I had been working on, and then fused them together. I do a lot of video recording, some awkward-sounding songs in my BlackBerry.”

“What’s funny is how easy it is for us to do that now,” Harrower continues. “If we have an idea it’s just like ‘I need to remember this.’” Harrower brings up the example of John Tesh, who recorded a rough demo of the iconic NBA theme song not in a recording studio, but by calling his house and leaving a message on the answering machine.

Following their early-July release of their debut, self-titled EP, HIGHS went on a tour of various Ontario cities. The tour seemed to be nothing but good for them. Harrower mentions that when they played the Phog Lounge, they met a legendary guy who is simply known as Jon. Jon will sometimes give bands care packages, and HIGHS were one band he treated.

“That was amazing for us,” Harrower said. The care packages had, among other things, card stock paper to write set lists on, picks, custom-made stickers, sharpies, and the coup de grace, a huge tupperware container of homemade granola bars.

“We’re still eating the granola bars, they’re delicious,” Douglas says.

Other highlights include the opening show of the tour in Oshawa, at a new venue called the Mustache Club.

“The sound is excellent in there,” Douglas says. “Their slogan is ‘The Mustache Club will grow on you.'”

Guelph was also a pleasant surprise.

“We know some people in Guelph but…filling up the venue was really awesome,” Haynes says. “Pretty much all the shows have been pretty awesome for us.”

Nothing will top their release show at the Rivoli, however. They made new friends in Most People and got to play with their old friends, James and Blackburn.

“The Rivoli was probably the best show we ever played,” Haynes says emphatically.

The tour having now been completed, the band will be taking it easy for August — Ledlow was married just a few weeks ago and his wife agreed to put off the honeymoon to allow HIGHS to tour. Then they hope to play some university towns in September before, potentially, getting into the studio to record some new music.

As a final bit of information, HIGHS’ current favourite band to listen to is, perhaps unexpectedly, Die Antwoord.

“After our Windsor show we were driving on these back roads, taking 32 different rights, and crossing like 43 different railroad tracks, with the windows down,” Haynes says. “The moon was out, there was this beautiful, serene, drive, just blasting Die Antwoord. At 3:30 in the morning.”

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