“Including all the shit high school efforts, it’s like the sixth or seventh album I’ve done. So it is your debut record, but it isn’t, in another way.”
High Highs' debut, Open Season, is an album of cresting, cloudy, hazy dream-pop, in which Jack Milas's slightly-wonky falsetto rings out amid endless echo. The songs sound like the indie jangle of Wild Nothing (who they've covered) taken to a desolate place, and in a Bon Iver-crashes-the-Grammys era, it feels like a hushed, hesitant record already anticipating success.
“It's been a long while coming,” says Oli Chang, who plays keyboards and commands electronics, essentially functioning as the producer to Milas's guitar-strummin' songwriter. “Including all the shit high school efforts, it's like the sixth or seventh album I've done. So it is your debut record, but it isn't, in another way.”
Chang's history is long on music and wanderings. He spent his first eight years in Sydney before rooting in Bali, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan and Singapore over the next 11. He returned to Sydney to go to school, realised his musical references were different to his classmates (“People will say something like 'that sounds like Pink Floyd', one of those big Western touchstones, and I've never actually heard Pink Floyd”), experienced a kind of cultural assimilation (“I guess I'm more Australian than anything else”), and started playing “dancey” electronic music in Ubin and the Theatre Of Disco.
Chang met Milas when the two were working at the same music production company in Sydney, and was drawn to the sad, acoustic music he was making, thus High Highs was born, essentially as a marriage between simple songs and vast atmospherics. “We recorded early versions of the songs in Sydney and did one or two stripped-back, really negligible shows,” Chang recounts. “We only really started to do it seriously when we arrived in New York a few years ago.”
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They moved to Williamsburg in late-'09 for strictly careerist reasons. “It's hard to make a real career out of music in Australia, so we decided to come here to have more scope,” Chang says. The pair scored full-time production jobs, which allowed High Highs to progress at a natural, gradual pace in a city that was, at first, oblivious to their existence. “It's easy to feel really insignificant here because it's such a big place and there's so much going on,” Chang says. “But that same vastness can be really liberating, too, because you're aware that you're really just doing what you're doing for yourself, and you can just get right to the core of what you actually want to do as an artist.”
And what High Highs want to do is make something determinedly “dreamscapey”, with its long, lingering notes suggesting a “minimal-yet-expansive” sound design. “We conceive it as music that we're writing to fill a physically large space; a church or a cave or a canyon,” Chang says. “If you take something like Bach or Autechre, something that has all these very fast and precise sounds moving all over the place, and then played that in a big space, all those precise notes would start bumping into one another and it'd become a big mess. That informs how we approach our music. It's not short, percussive music with hard, precise sounds; the melodies are long, melodic notes bleed into the next phrases, there's a lot of reverb on all the parts.”
And do High Highs ever get to fill physically large spaces? Have they been booked for a run of shows in caves? “Sadly, no,” Chang sighs. “It's really rare that we actually get to play a large acoustic space. Only occasionally does it happen, so we always just have to tell the sound guy to put as much reverb on everything as possible.”
High Highs will be playing the following dates:
Wednesday 30 January - The Toff In Town, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 31 January - Oxford Art Factory, Darlinghurst NSW
Friday 1 February - Laneway Festival, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 2 February - Laneway Festival, Sydney NSW
Sunday 3 February - Laneway Festival, Footscray VIC
Friday 8 February - Laneway Festival, Adelaide SA