High Places' Rob Barber and Mary Pearson on Moving West and Ditching Nostalgia
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.