High Places Have Abandoned Us

Bad news, folks: This new High Places album is easily their best yet. Since they no longer live here, this deals a blow to New York’s collective musical ego, which, quite frankly, might actually need a bit of a takedown post–”Empire State of Mind.” So here goes.

Back in 2008, Rob Barber and Mary Pearson’s abstract pop duo was one of Brooklyn’s most celebrated breakout acts, their full-length, self-titled debut irrepressibly twinkling just a smidge brighter than any other bedroom recording project. Tracks like the disorienting “Gold Coin” and the spellbindingly fractured “From Stardust to Sentience” coiled homebrew squeaks and found-sound whooshes atop one another in pursuit of pop-song forms that never fully solidified, evaporating instead into cautious, barely premeditated textural washes. Still, this very paper dubbed them “Best Overhyped Brooklyn Music Duo”—and this was the year of MGMT we’re talking about.

But then, in a flash, they packed up their samplers, accolades, and seasonal affective disorders and took off for California. “Seasonal depression is a real thing—am I going to take a proactive step and change something in my life?” Pearson remembers pondering. Well, briefly pondering, at least—”I decided to move in December and then moved a couple weeks later,” she adds with a laugh. Barber reached the same conclusion over the next couple of months, his 13 years as a New Yorker notwithstanding: “Now we can go on tour and then come home and be super-excited to be home,” he says. “Last winter, we toured largely in the Southern hemisphere, and we’d come back to New York and be, like, ‘Ugh.’ “

If you think that smarts, wait until you hear their L.A.-derived High Places vs. Mankind, which effortlessly trounces its New York predecessor, most notably in that those song forms are no longer elusive vaporware: “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House” ends dramatically with Pearson’s most purposeful lines ever, while lead single “The Longest Shadows” plods along with an insistence that almost borders on aggression, like when the shy kid in class finally snaps during recess. “In the past, the lyrics were always about universal truths and man’s place in nature,” Pearson says. “With this album, it was just a conscious decision that we’d just talk more in narrative, and it would be more about personal interactions.”

But there were also subconscious forces guiding those initial pastoral inclinations: “A big part of the music that we made while we were in New York was actually inspired by New York, because we were trying to create our own sort of idyllic place,” Pearson says. “We both are big nature lovers, and I feel like we were trying to make a little miniature California. That feels a little different now.”

So if this growth could only happen once they no longer needed to rely on the music as an insulating mechanism, the move was probably for the best. Barber will happily wax philosophical on this point: “I think that humans do have a tendency to forget they’re matter—that they’re things, they are part of the Earth whether they like it or not,” he says. “They don’t really equate themselves with their environments.” This, in turn, would mean that New York no longer has a claim to High Places at their apex, which might sting a little. But, as they say, if you love something, set it free.

High Places play Market Hotel April 8


High on Life

One night, someone threw a beer can at Mary Pearson of Brooklyn indie-pop duo High Places. She laughed. Thinking back on it, her bandmate, Rob Barber, stares into his tea and squints: “I mean, throwing something at us is like walking into a petting zoo and punching a baby deer.”

Fact: What High Places do is cuddly, but it’s also anomalous—doe-eyed, highly rhythmic psychedelia built from layered glass clinking, wayward vocals, and echoed thuds of cardboard boxes and small drums. The approach is 21st-century computer-aided D.I.Y.: “Ninety percent of the stuff we record is through the little hole,” Rob confesses. “You’re not supposed to tell people that!” Mary exclaims, sitting up abruptly. “I don’t care. I mean, that little hole is, like, great.”

That little hole is great—what’s really great is that High Places aren’t afraid to use it. The nine minutes of music on their first seven-inch present a weird sense of economy: Short pop songs made with household items on a shoestring budget recall Pacific Northwestern revolutionaries like Beat Happening, but somehow, Rob and Mary transpose folky minimalism into a lush, intimate world more synonymous with dance music, a dub record, or Martin Denny’s transportive exotica. “When we started, we wanted to be the most un–New York– sounding band we could be,” Rob says. “I thought we’d be invisible here.” But really, city folk probably have better jungle dreams than people actually living in the jungle—broadscape on a small scale makes perfect sense.

In any event, vaguely arty bands from Brooklyn aren’t supposed to be so unabashedly sweet, so sincere. Rob explains that he spent his teenage years on acid but now doesn’t touch drugs or alcohol. “I wondered why you couldn’t get that feeling by … well, take this tree here.” He grabs a leaf. “No, I’m not going to do that—that’d be so corny.” It’s a liability. But good, clean fun is an ambiguous goal. “We tried to make an instructional video about how you could have a great experience without doing drugs—” Mary relates. “But we realized it was just the trippiest thing,” Rob finishes.

For all the reasons High Places shouldn’t work, they do. They’ve become a fixture at small venues in Brooklyn, and have played out-of-the way shows at schools in Michigan and even a biker bar in remote Alaska. “I thought we were gonna get beaten up—two people told me it was the best night of their entire lives,” Mary beams. “Someone [at another show] in Michigan yelled, ‘Play some more inoffensive music!’ ” She laughs again. We all laugh.