High Places: Nature Sounds, Urbane Electronics

fromWNYC

High Places

hide captionPerforming as High Places, Robert Barber and Mary Pearson have one full-length album, 2008's self-titled release, as well as several singles.

Courtesy of High Places

And now, the story of a boy meeting a girl — and how together, they form an electronic music duo.

High Places is Mary Pearson and Robert Barber. They may not be a couple, but they say their music is a composite of their two characters.

The band visited WNYC's Soundcheck for an in-studio performance and conversation. Between songs, Pearson and Barber fielded questions from host John Schaefer.

That same day on Soundcheck, the show also featured conversations about lust in music and recently deceased Cramps frontman Lux Interior. Those discussions resonated with Barber, who had recently read an interview with Interior.

"He talked so much about ... all the music that basically means anything comes from shooting from the hip with lust," Barber says. "And I think that everything they were ever channeling was superimportant, because it was the main catalyst doing what they do."

Sounds Of Seas

High Places' members strive to humanize what can be a very emotionless style. Their song "Oceanus," for example, was the result of an unusual commission from Esopus magazine: Several bands were each given a separate dream on which to base a song. High Places drew one in which a woman remains rooted to a beach, knowing that the ocean's tides will eventually seize and drown her.

"And so the song is kind of lusty in a way, where you're totally in awe of something, but you know it's going to lead to your destruction," Pearson says.

"Oceanus" is full of sampled sounds of waves crashing and forest ambience.

"We use a lot of sounds from nature," Pearson says. "And I think our subject matter is often more about the natural world than human interactions. But I did have an English teacher once who was convinced every reference to a flower or everything growing in nature was very sexual."

In the WNYC performance studio, Pearson and Barber stood side by side behind a long table littered with cables and boxes. Though they were busy flipping switches, much of what escaped from their samplers were natural sounds: voice, bird calls, oceans.

"Well, I think we're two city dwellers who love nature, you know?" Pearson says. "And so we love dance music, but we always hated the sterile quality of dance music, and how you can't hear any human emotion — it sounds like a machine made the music. And so we tried to put as much human qualities and 'real' kinds of sounds we can all relate to into the music."

Singing And Sweating

Pearson says she tries to keep the lyrics engaging as well, even if the way her vocals are filtered and recorded makes them somewhat difficult to understand.

"We've always kept the vocals fairly low in the mix, because we are a duo, and we're not dating, and we're not related, and we have to be very democratic about everything and make sure each person is contributing their 50 percent and nothing more," she says. "I'm not the front person — I'm just another part of the band. So the vocals are not what it's all about — it's just another melodic contribution, with some lyrics."

Though watching electronic musicians performing live can be tiresome, High Places' members try to give crowds something to pay attention to. The band often brings out visual projections and plays at a very high volume to keep the audience engaged.

"Also, I sweat a lot for someone who's playing electronic instruments," Barber says. "Because I move around a lot, and I'm hitting things — it's more physical. So maybe the sweating all over the gear is probably slightly a little bit more exciting than someone with a laptop?"

Barber also plays percussion with High Places, though he doesn't call himself a drummer.

"I was a mediocre punk guitarist growing up, and just kind of got mildly into lots of different instrumentation, drums and percussion being one of them," he says. "I think I'm more of a percussionist than a kit drummer. I just like getting as many different sounds out of things as possible. And I think that's why I stay away from an actual kit."

Prints, Bassoons And Turtles

Before starting High Places, Barber was also an art instructor at the Pratt Institute, where he taught lithography and etching. He says it influenced the way the band works.

"It's a really technical form of printmaking — it's a lot of process-based [thinking]," Barber says. "And the way we arrange our music and everything is ... it probably works with the same brain waves."

Pearson was trained as a bassoonist. But after constantly playing classical repertoire written by others, she began writing her own.

"There has been some bassoon here and there with High Places," she says. "I've played a few shows with bassoon, but it's pretty distracting for people to be in a rock club and see a bassoon. Plus, everyone starts taking your photo as soon as you play a wind instrument, and it's just, like, 'Oh, terrible.' It's so embarrassing to see yourself playing a wind instrument."

Barber is equally uncomfortable on his vocal mic at times; he makes odd noises while banging on things.

"I basically end up looking like a turtle searching for the last gasp of food, you know?" he says.

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