High Highs Talk Elton John, the Price of Beer in New York, and the Isolation of Australia


By Kai Flanders

Last January, Brooklyn-by-way-of-Australia indie-pop songsters High Highs released a self-titled EP. NPR called its underwatery layers “immediately endearing,” and NME listed them as one their 50 best new bands of 2011. Their phone rang. Elton John’s people were on the line. They were signed to his management company, and Captain Fantastic himself gave them a nod during a speech at his annual London Christmas party. That year showed how a band can rise without having a proper album — High Highs’ as of yet untitled full-length is due out early next year.

We caught up with lead singer Jack Milas and multi-instrumentalist Oli Chang over shrimp dumplings, stuffed eggplant, and Tiger beer at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown. (The street was once a deadly place: The Tong Gangs of the 1930s shot each other to pieces in this alley that became known as “the Bloody Angel.”) Chang has Kramer-like hair and is more soft spoken than Milas, but both retain their homeland’s accent. It’s a melodic, almost sing-songy sort of speech; the gruffness of New York’s lexicon has yet to filter it’s way into their mouths.

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How different is New York from Australia, not just living but in terms a being a band?
Chang: Australia is so geographically removed from the rest of the world, it’s hard to get any real success because the population [size] doesn’t support it. That’s why people come here, there is a lot of opportunity, but there’s also a lot of competition. But in saying that I also think that people in Australia try a lot harder because they feel so isolated, so per capita, you get lots of good music.
Milas: What I like about Australian music is that is that it can be so fun, it just sort of exists, in my mind, in this sort of Australian fun zone. It doesn’t need to conform to anything.
Chang: That goes all the way back to AC/DC. It’s fun party rock.

Like Cut Copy. Where do you guys fit into that?
Chang: When everyone parties really hard, they also have to come down, so we’re like the other extreme of internal music, going into the inside mind. It’s not body movement. It’s mind niceness.
Milas: [Before High Highs] Oli was writing this crazy dance music, and I was writing these really quiet songs, and then we just started making music together. It’s sort of a meeting of those two forces.

Well what’s the new album about?

Milas: There’s a lot of things. Part of it was moving halfway around the world and not being around friends and family. It’s about love; it’s about losing love. But I think at the same time, the emotions are about many experiences, and they exist so that people can take what they want from them. . . . Even though they are kind of sad songs, they are always positive in some way.
Chang: It’s never self-pitying or anything like that.

You’re signed to Elton John’s management company. Have you ever met him?

Milas: We met him last Christmas, which was totally insane.
Chang: We were invited to Elton John’s Christmas party in London. It’s a whole thing. It’s a grand-ball-like sort of thing. We were sitting down having desert or wine or something . . . and he came over and sat down and was just like: “Hey, guys. How’s it going?”
Milas: I just looked around and suddenly, he was there. Every year he makes a speech and talks about the artists they manage. He’s not just floating around. He knows intimately every artist. He’s listened to everything a lot.

What was he wearing?
Milas: A pink collared shirt with a black jacket with glitter all over it. And some really cool earrings.
Chang: It was very bedazzled but very tasteful.

Has anything shocked you about New York?
Milas: Going down to the corner store, or the bodega which is a new term for me, and get a six pack of beer for eight dollars or less. In Australia it’s 15 to 20 dollars for a six pack of beer.

Must be hard on bands.

Milas: Yeah [laughs] but we drink VB [Victoria Bitter]. I have a soft spot for VB. We’re going back in January. I’m going to have some VB.