“I feel sometimes our music can be emotive”, says Jack Milas, lead vocalist of the gorgeous and sparkling High Highs. A fabulous understatement in its purest form; the High Highs’ dizzyingly ethereal, self-titled, debut EP is emotive and some.
Signed to Elton John’s management company, who we’re to thank- apparently- for giving us Lily Allen and Ed Sheeran, the High High’s have been loudly lauded by the NME, The Guardian, Zane Lowe and, hell, pretty much the whole blogosphere. Their talents lie in making songs that are illusory and gentle; put simply, think dreamy singing and acoustic guitars but with added synths.
Though the band are based in New York which they love (describing it as being, for them at least, the ‘centre of music’) two of its three members, Milas and Oli Chang, originally hail from Australia. The pair met and formed the High Highs whilst working in a music studio in Sydney before independently of each other moving to the Big Apple. In 2009 they reformed and met Zac Lipkins, their drummer. It was at that point that they became what Milas describes as a ‘proper project’.
With Chang having previously been making intense electronic music, the High High’s early marriage of sounds was not always harmonious. According to Milas, their early compositions were “really weird”; these are tracks that he hopes will never see the light of the day. With his own influences stemming from a love of writers such as Neil Young, his work’s collision with synthesisers’ was uneasy at best. “Initially the songs were very folky,” Milas muses. “I was writing acoustic guitar songs and he [Chang] would take them and mess around with them.”
This messing around gradually grew more confident. Musically the pair were weaving together more and more elegantly two somewhat disparate worlds. With an impressive helping of Chang’s electronic prowess, their debut EP strays from merely being a poor incarnation of a Fleet Foxes or Bon Ivor record- the result is a set of haunting and beautiful songs.
“I would work on something, take it to Oli and we’d build the pieces together in the studio and then we’d figure out how to play it live”, Milas explains. “Now the ideas usually come from a guitar idea I’ve had, and then Oli and I will develop it to an extent and then we’ll jam on it with Zac. It’s very much been like putting pieces together in a studio. It’s all in the piecing it together rather than band-y arrangements.”
‘Flowers Bloom’ is the High High’s favourite song from the EP, the one that, if pushed to choose, they say they’re most proud of. It’s not hard to see why, but it should come with a caution: the melody gets stuck in the head for at least 72 hours after its first play. “We really liked the simplicity of the keyboard, and that the chorus was wordless and breezy”, he says of it.
And indeed, by their own admission, lyrics do take second place in the High High’s song writing process, though that is not to say they don’t hold weight; without exception they feel ‘right’. “I really like what Bon Ivor said in an interview once when he first started out,” Milas says. “He’d write a song where it sounded right and then the words would fit around that, and I guess I kind of do the same thing.” There’s a thoughtful pause before he continues. “I don’t think any of the lyrics directly or intentionally reflect my life, it’s more about how they sound I think. We always try to focus on that. I think if we’ve done it right the meaning comes anyway. Hopefully it connects on a deep level anyway.”
Certainly, levels don’t seem to come much deeper than the ones the High Highs seem to try and carve out. The opening chords of ‘Horses’ are enough to make the listener reminisce about sun-sets over cornfields whether or not their youth was in fact spent in the concrete abyss of Milton Keynes. It is ‘Open Season’ though that perhaps shows best just what the High Highs are capable of; the hook is strong and the melody is at once gorgeous and chilling.
But, as much as this EP has been rightly lauded and critically acclaimed, the High Highs evolution is not yet complete. “I feel like we’re changing a lot now. I think our album’s only going to have maybe two or three acoustic songs on it, out of about 11. We’re becoming very synth-y and electric guitar-y now.”
Though we don’t yet know what’s around the corner for next year’s album, I for one accept, happily and wholeheartedly the High High’s current challenge. “Try and look the other way,” Milas lilts on ‘Ivy’. With a track record as delicately haunting as the one they’ve created, you can be sure this won’t be possible- for any of us.
Words: Charlotte Armstrong
Photo: Camilo Fuentealba