HIGH PLACES WAS born in Brooklyn’s underground music scene and built a following in dusty basements and converted warehouses. But the experimental duo’s sample-based concoctions were, from the beginning, infused with a sunny sensibility that evoked vast vistas and tropical locales.
The duo channeled the mid-winter dream, ubiquitous among New Yorkers, of escaping the cold confines of the city and emerging somewhere warm into collages of breezy vocals, impressionistic beats of a Caribbean persuasion and mysterious melodic noises you couldn’t quite put your finger on.
And three years, two albums (one of them a compilation of singles) and a whole lot of touring later, Mary Pearson and Rob Barber decided to move to the setting they’d been sublimating since they started. Drawn by nearly perpetual balmy warmth, along with the trio of mountains, desert and ocean that make Southern California’s landscape unusually beautiful, they relocated to Los Angeles last year. And the change of milieu imbued their sound with a new sort of freedom.
“I feel like our music when we lived in New York was sort of creating a sound palette tonally or color-wise that was based around being somewhere else,” Barber says via speakerphone as he and Pearson cruise through Idaho en route to Salt Lake City, a week into their current tour. “When we moved to L.A., which is, at least as far as the United States goes, kind of like our ideal environment to live in as far as weather and all that stuff, I think other ideas came into play that were not so escapist.”
He’s referring to High Places vs. Mankind, the pair’s incandescent new full-length that unfurls like a transcendent soundtrack to summer.The album reveals an expansion into fresh sonic territory with a movement toward more straightforward guitar and intersperses the usual abstract dream-like melanges underscored by percussive elements with beatheavy tracks you can dance to. Previous records emphasized melodic collages of heavily manipulated guitar sounds that were physically impossible to play live because they were slowed down, or turned backwards, or morphed unrecognizably, Barber says. But for these recordings, both Pearson and Barber wanted to be able to play guitar on tour and rely less on samples and electronic instrumentation, so they crafted more malleable song structures with room for live improvisation. But all these modifications weren’t brought on by the influence of some specific aspect of Los Angeles, Pearson explains.
“I think L.A. is a bit elusive. It’s harder to pin down an exact feel to that city. I think it can be what you make of it,” Pearson says. “So, instead of us responding directly to the weather and nature in L.A., I think it was more just responding to the amount of space and time we felt we had to try out some of these ideas.”
Barber adds that they sometimes felt constricted by their designation as a “New York” band and avoided incorporating elements of certain styles, like No Wave and electronic dance music, that are typically associated with the city. But their pursuits are unfettered now that they live in a place with a less defined sound. He cites the album’s first song, “The Longest Shadows,” with its thumping beats alongside twinkling glitchy samples and Pearson’s ethereal voice echoing above as she sings of a relationship in flux, as “a sort of clubby, icy, night-timey dance song.”
“On Giving Up” has an even dancier beat and a distinctly synthy vibe that marks a departure from a previous “synth-phobic” attitude, as Barber puts it. “She’s a Wild Horse” is more of a reflective return to form, but snatches of guitar distortion weave in and out as Pearson’s ultra-high breathy vocals sound barely there and organic beats underpin it all. But all of these tracks share a common thread in that their lyrics encapsulate a particularly human story, which is the result of a conscious shift in perspective for High Places.
“In the past, our subject matter has been open, more universal, and this record is much more about narratives and the life of a human and minutiae,” Pearson says.
After navigating the streets and the subways of New York, and being regularly surrounded by and even smashed up against strangers, both of the band’s members were struck by the general disconnectedness of car-centric Los Angelenos, which made them think more about everyday human interactions.
“My friend tells me, ‘No one walks in L.A.’ and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s weird,’” says Barber, who prefers not to drive whenever possible. “And I’d start walking around a lot… and basically everyone else on the street was pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum siding or something. Most of the people in L.A., it seems, are just like these pod people who float around the city in their little pod-Priuses. I think just trying to stay grounded with other humans was an interesting concept.”
> High Places
April 8, Shea Stadium, 20 Meadow St. (betw. Waterbury & Bogart Sts.), Brooklyn, no phone; 8, $TBA.