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"Seasonal Depression Was a Big Inspiration": An Interview with High Places

"If we lived in LA, people would be stoked," High Places Rob Barber said in an early interview. And despite lots of love for their debut album for Thrill Jockey from East Coast tastemakers like Pitchfork and the Village Voice, and from the blogosphere, soon enough, Barber and HP cohort Mary Pearson loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly Hil... well Silverlake, that is.

For a band that traded in crafting exotica miniatures that pined for a tad more nature in their daily lives, High Places surely got everything they wanted by being on the West Coast. And yet, instead of releasing a tanned and rested follow-up High Places got a bit darker the second go-round with the recent Vs. Mankind. Seated at a local café that offers us sipping options such as a Balinese bean with a taste of maraschino cherry or a Kenyan one promising notes of black currant, we discuss the band's turn away from world rhythms and towards the darker side.

So why did you guys move out west?

Rob: I just wanted a change of scenery, but I was afraid I was going to miss the snow and winter moving out here.

Mary: We had a lot of friends out here and it seemed to fit our aesthetic. I've had pretty bad seasonal depression and bad circulation as well, so I don't handle the cold as well. I just try to be outside as much as possible. I used to get sick in NYC every other week.

In NYC, you start to fetishize nature, as you're so removed from it, so I'm wondering how being in a more natural environment affected the music?

Mary: In NYC, I think it was easy for us to write music and be inspired, because we were trying to create this utopic place in our heads. Whereas when we moved out to LA, we went, "Uh, now what are we going to write about?" Seasonal depression for me was a big inspiration for lyrics. So many things are about having trouble sleeping and getting depressed in the winter that when we moved out here, I realized I was sooo happy, that I didn't know what to do. And so I started writing about really dark stuff. I did the opposite. I wanted to write songs about kicking addictions and dying.

Rob: Even though we moved and relocated, it was a tough year. 2009 was hard. Even living in the sunshine, there were other things going on that affected us.

Mary: The first song we were writing, "When It Comes" (the last song on the album), was about death and me thinking that people need to get over worrying about death. That's where it was coming from. But while we were writing it, the friend that introduced us (The Death Set's Beau Velasco) actually died. So that shadowed it. It gave me pause. Being in denial about death wastes life, too.

Aside from geography, what did you set out to do with the new album?

Rob: My biggest thing was trying to be more straightforward. I used to make beats like trashcans falling down a hill.

Mary: We felt a little like we made these rhythms that people were quick to reference as African things, so the new stuff is us rebelling from those labels. We're not that into Tropicalia. We just want to try something different on the new album.

Rob: With samplers and delay pedals, it's hard to do anything with it. We're both playing guitar now. The beats got simplified because I can't be triggering beats while strumming a guitar. We have to streamline the beat for live purposes or for playing with a drummer. But now we can play acoustic on Daytrotter if we wanted to.

What else about living in LA comes up on the new album, Vs. Mankind?

Mary: When we lived in NY, we were surrounded by people all the time. But here, we wrote in complete seclusion, in a room with no windows and in Rob's garage up this mountain road.

Rob: People are like pod people here. You see it driving. People have that "Hi" niceness but behind the wheel of a car, they change into violent beasts. I think of the title as this weird bubble society that how do you then navigate it while maintaining your humanity.

Mary: Every record is about being a person but it was a big deal to us. We were always about nature and making these exotic things, but we zeroed in on specifics here.

Rob: All our friends out here are about Meditation Hut, being escapist with their lyrics. For me, it was exciting to re-engage.

I kept thinking that the "Vs." in the title might stem from road rage and sitting in traffic.

Mary: The new thing for me is driving in a car and listening to the radio. It's the first time since elementary school where I've known every song on the Top 40. I really like hip-hop so I listen to KDAY and Power 106. there's also really cool Latino hip-hop stations. My neighbors play that all the time. We have a practice space in Burbank now, but driving there, you have to get on the 5 and you're stuck in rush hour traffic. But I'd be driving to the space, listening to Snoop, so I think that affected some of my ideas, too.


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