For a city with a notoriously brutal winter, Toronto has produced some of the brightest, and energetic pop bands in North America. Leading this glowing tide is HIGHS, an alt-pop four piece that seems to effortlessly breathe life into every one of their songs. After releasing their eponymous 2013 EP, a six-song compilation that captured crowds and critics alike, HIGHS has embarked on Canadian and European tours, a show in New York City, and a swath of summer festivals. Rarely is a band’s rise so meteoric, but HIGHS has managed to craft indie-pop gems that offer a little bit of inspiration in every facet; their percussion, rapid-fire and joyous, recalls Vampire Weekend, their echoing melodies contain traces of Local Natives, and their capacity to combine walls of sound with soaring vocals brings to mind Passion Pit. Despite these similarities, HIGHS also brings its own twist to the table– the kind of melodic magic that defies explanation until you’re already dancing.
What’s going on with HIGHS right now?
The big thing right now is getting ready for this first full-length release, which is really exciting, but we wanna do it right. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting all the songs ready for recording and to finish writing. We’re really close, and it’s exciting, but it’s one of those things that has a lot riding on it.
I also understand you’ve been working with producer Luke Smith on this record. What can you tell us about it?
It sounds like a HIGHS record, but it also sounds a bit different. We pushed ourselves to write songs that varied from the EP a little bit. The EP was very positive sounding– very happy. That was great for a 6 song EP, but personally I feel that gets a bit old. The songs I started writing after just got a bit darker. Which I actually think is kinda cool; there are elements that are still the same, but the vibes and the lyrics if you listen close enough are slightly darker than the EP. The sounds that we get on this album are also totally incredible– Luke is a bit of a music nerd, and it’s really fun to work with him.
I know that Luke has worked with Depeche Mode in the past, which might relate to that darker sound.
Yeah, and he’s worked with Foals too– that’s actually how we found him. When we looked deeper into the artists he worked with, we were like “Oh man, this is the guy”.
You’ve talked about the EP a bit, which was really well received. Do you think people will expect the same kind of sound will the full-length, and are you worried about that?
We released the EP right out of the gate– I think that’s what inspired us to be a band. Initially, I had that in the back of my head “Okay, maybe these songs are too far from the EP for people to like them”. But as a band and as songwriters, we always want to expand our writing ability in terms of what we can write about. We wanna make this a HIGHS album without being a repeat of the EP– we can’t play the same 6 songs years from now. Our goal has been to push ourselves to write a unique-sounding album, rather than the EP reincarnated.
You’re playing a whole whack of festivals this year– Rifflandia, Summerfest, and the Wayhome festival just to name a few. Which are you most excited for?
It’s a tricky question because we’ve played none of these festivals, except for Summerfest. We’ve heard a lot about them, so they’re all kinda exciting because of the prospect of these amazing festivals. And they’re all great for different reasons. We’ve always wanted to play Rifflandia, and it’s in Victoria, so it’s super cool, but then Wayhome is in Toronto, our hometown, and we’ll be playing with friends too. I can’t really pick one, but they’re all exciting for different reasons. It’s exciting to travel to a festival, but it’s also exciting to be playing a hometown festival.
Before you played in HIGHS, I understand you used to play in a few other bands. What is your musical background?
My musical background is…hardcore metal bands. Growing up, I played bass and then quickly took to guitar, and started my first band when I was 12 or 13 and got right into hardcore metal. I stayed pretty dark for a while and …well… I don’t know what happened. Everyone in the band has some kind of musical background– Karrie is a classically trained pianist and vocalist, and she’s been playing music for a long time. But my musical journey is especially strange.
Fun little note here though; you’ve been compared to Local Natives, who I had a chance to speak to about a year ago, and they also used to be a heavy metal band. I feel there might be a connection there.
I think there is definitely some crossover, especially with how percussive the guitar can be. They’re not overly technical, but there’s a definite connection to super positive, happy stuff and the hardcore style.
Before you became HIGHS, you and Karrie were at the teacher’s college at Queens, and you ended up teaching in Tanzania at one point.
Yep! Karrie and I went to Tanzania through Queens on the cross-cultural education practices program, so we were there for about a month and a half. It was focused mostly on types of education, but with both of us enjoying and having a background in music, it kinda found its way into everyday life, with us singing with students after class and stuff. Conversations started about our shared love of music, which really is what got the band idea rolling.
It was all Tanzania, really.
Travelling can definitely have an impact on people.
And speaking of that, HIGHS has been to New York, all over Canada, and all over Europe– what’s still on your checklist of places to go, at this point?
We really want to go to Australia and we really wanna go to Iceland– they have this amazing festival called iceland Airwaves that we really wanna play. As to Australia, we have a lot of friends there and I think teh vibe would really work with our sound. It could change, but right now Australia and Iceland are on the top of our list.
I’m really looking forward to this question because of your metal background. A lot of bands when they grow throughout high school use some truly atrocious names…
Oh no. You’re not doing this to me.
What is the worst name…
…you’ve ever performed under?
Nooooo! Zak. What are you doing? My friends will ask me about this and I’ll be like “uh, nothing”. It’s so bad. Ugh. Do you want the story behind it as well? Okay, so I was in a band in high school when I was around 15 with my friends Mike, Carl, and Brendan, and we were sitting in class reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And something came up with Percy Blysshe Shelley and somehow drowning came up. So Mike, the vocalist, said “Hey Wednesday, I’m Drowning”. And we were all like “Yo, sick band name man! Hey Wednesday, I’m Drowning!” So for three years, that was our band name. We weren’t so bad, but we weren’t very good, so it ended up being a very manipulable name– people would change it to “Hey Wednesday, I’m…” and just fill in the blank. I’ve had some other good ones too– “Moby Dick and the Sinking Ship” was a very Explosions in the Sk- esque band right before university.
Mad props for coming clean on those names. My final question is; for HIGHS, what’s next?
Getting through this album release, and just taking it from there. There’s a lot that has to go into it still, and I think we’re really excited about the creative content that we can have for it-= getting videos, getting the songs together. We’re feeling very positive about the whole thing. Releasing your first record is a big deal, no matter what people say, and the fact that we’re feeling positive about it shows that we have faith in the songs that have recorded, and that makes it easier to get fully behind it.
To get more on HIGHS, visit their website here.