Experimentation never captivated me quite like this before. I’ve been lulled by a mixture of sounds that lend from the soothing atmospheric ambiance of Armin Van Buren interlaced with various hints of Weather Report and Miles Davis’s jazz funk to a more mellow pop rock reminiscent in the melody and vocals of Mat Kearney’s earlier work. It’s as though I’m being cradled by mother nature and I dread the moment that the suckling ends.
I’d like to say that I found High Above the Storm back in 2009, when they released their critically acclaimed eponymous album under Saints Record. But I can’t. I found them two years after their debut and after the U.K. group had gone underground to work on their second record. They’re finally ready to re-emerge in the summer of 2011 with an entirely new, highly awaited aesthetic influenced by Louis’s South African origins and Jason’s prior experience with African music projects with a synth and acoustic piano twist fit for both, “at a funeral, others at a rave.”
At the least, they’ve hooked my ear with what Louis and Jason of High Above the Storm professes was twenty years in the making, and I’m just glad it hasn’t come later.
Musebox had the pleasure of talking to the U.K.’s High Above the Storm about forming their band, what fans should expect from their yet to be named second album, frustrations of the old school musicians and the peculiar African Hunting Dog ever prominently displayed on their website and Facebook page.
Musebox: Who is High Above the Storm? How would you define your band?
Louis: Jason and I formed the band in 2004 – we are the nucleus, and write most of the music. We have key musicians who contribute to the recordings and live performances, Crawford Blair played bass on most of the first album, and both him and Ben Mclees played live shows with us, on bass and lead guitar respectively.
MB: Are you still under Saints Recording?
Jason: Yes, Saints is our own label, it’s a vehicle for releasing our music.
MB: Why did you choose the band name, High Above The Storm? Is there a religious or spiritual connotation or am I just over analyzing it?
L: Choosing a band name is difficult. We started out as Hats and then became uncomfortable with that so tried to retain the theme in some way but create a stronger name, so we used Hats as an acronym and brainstormed the name High Above The Storm. It felt like it defined our sound, but you know, we’re still uncomfortable with it.
J: I prefer Hats. Louis has an ever growing list of potential band names, but we’re stuck with High Above The Storm now.
L: And no, there are no religious or spiritual connotations.
J: Religion is a distortion, and vice versa.
MB: How did you meet one another and what instruments do you play (if this has changed)?
J: Louis’ previous band had recorded at my studio and when they dissolved, Louis came down to record some demos. We’d always gotten on well and I was looking to get a project going again – also, he’s got a great, original sounding voice and a black heart, so we decided right there on the first session to work together.
I play drums and piano as my main instruments on recordings and live, but for composition I use anything in the studio; bass, electric guitar, synths, effects etc. I also rely on Cubase and a Virus TI synth in both the studio and live as core to the rig.
Louis sings and plays guitars and keyboards live, but also piano and bass for composing.
MB: Why did you decide to make music together?
L: Jason is an extremely talented all round musician with great compositional and production skills. I can sing and am pretty quick at creating melodies. Our skills overlap but also combine well. We come from different musical backgrounds and our personalities are different when it comes to making music; Jason is meticulous with a keen eye for detail whereas I’m impatient and constantly looking for the line of least resistance. We meet in the middle and it seems to work.
J: Yes. We both respect the collaborative process, and really enjoy the unexpected results.
MB: What have you been doing since your last album?
J: After we played a few gigs in the summer we took a small break, but we’re keen to capitalise on what we’d learnt with the first record. So in 2010 we started working on our second record and that project is what’s been keeping us busy for the last year.
MB: What should your fans expect from this new album? What will it be called and are there any surprises?
L: We learned a lot from self-releasing our first album; from composition, to production, to artwork, to press, to licensing, to booking and playing gigs etc. The whole thing was an experiment and we were really finding our sound and how to work it all out. All that learning has gone into the second album, particularly around the writing, recording and producing – we’ve pared down the number of instruments on some of the tracks and the final sound will be more analogue and driven.
Also, we’re using more synths, acoustic piano and high end outboard equipment; compressors, reverbs and the like. We’re hugely excited by how it’s sounding; some of the tunes would work at a funeral, others at a rave. It doesn’t have a name yet, there are a few candidate names, but nothing concrete.
J: Again, another ever changing list from Lou. We actually have the artwork and name ready, he just doesn’t realise it yet.
MB: What has been the inspiration for your soon to-be released album?
J: There’s a huge amount of music being released all the time, and the music from our past also provides inspiration. Some of the records over the past few years that we’ve drawn inspiration from were released by Gil Scott-Heron, Fuck Buttons, The Knife, Colin Stetson, Fennesz, Four Tet, Mogwai, Kanye West & Deadmau5 to name a few. But also, you’re defined by the music that changed your world as you were growing up, we draw from Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Arvo Part, Weather Report, Vince Mendoza, Bob Marley, AC/DC, Guns n Roses, Leonard Cohen, House, Techno, Trance…blah blah blah…the list is endless – then fold in media and information overload, bake in the sun for 20 years – and let it rest. The results should be interesting.
MB: When will the album be released?
L: Sometime this summer, 2011.
MB: Do you have any frustrations with the current state of the music industry today and do you think it’s easier than ever to become a musician?
J: Not really, I mean it is what it is, no reason to complain. It’s very easy to be a musician, easier than ever. Everyone is making a record. But that means there’s a surplus of music available. Also, with all the tools available and of course the digital/internet revolution there’s very little quality control. So whilst there’s a tonne of music being created, there’s also a load of mediocre (shit) music being made. Also, people’s listening habits have changed; they snack on a few things here and there and then never go back to it. It’s frustrating to know a record you put a lot of work into will be skimmed through once because there’s another 100 in line to be snacked on.
MB: If so, would you say that musicians are feeling frustrated at the fact that they’re competing with a young generation who are marketing savvy but may not be deserving of their recognition?
L: I think the heritage acts probably feel frustrated because they think that the digital revolution has killed off selling physical records and how the public interacts with music and its abundance. There’s definitely a sense of frustration from the old stadium-filling-guard, read the Lefsetz letter on any day and this stuff jumps out at you. But I think the people who ‘get’ the internet and the tools available that help cut out the old music industry gatekeepers are having a field day. To be honest, we don’t consider ourselves part of the music industry or competing with anyone. We just do this and then try to find people to listen to it and places to play it. And most importantly enjoy the process.
MB: I’ve heard mixed responses, but from your own personal experience, what do you think about the UK music scene?
J: It depends I guess on what you like, if you look at the All Tomorrow’s Parties promoters, or people like EYOE or the Field Day guys, they’re promoting decent music, take a look at most of the bands on their bills. There’s a lot of good music coming out of the UK, as there has been for decades. We have no problem with the music scene over here, there’s always someone doing something great somewhere. But also loads of regurgitated lightweight nonsense too.
MB: What do you believe are some ideal countries for starting out a music career?
Louis: Any country where you don’t need to do a job to earn a living…oh, there’s no such place. The Mentawai Islands would be good, all you’d need is a surfboard, Macbook, a few guitars and some local percussion and you’re away. Easy.
Your music is mellow and even calm, but you state influences of the more fast paced and rock and roll legends like AC/DC and Guns & Roses. How do incorporate these influences into your music?
J: Whilst we love those bands, they aren’t our only influences, we like loads of ‘slow paced’ stuff too; Arvo Part, Miles Davis, Fennesz, Hecker, Sparklehorse to name a few.
L: We both have very broad taste in music…but since you mentioned those hard rocking acts – the great thing about GnR and AC/DC is that they’re the best at what they do. And their song-writing is impeccable, Paradise City or Highway to Hell for example, pure, crystal clear, hard rock – few come close to getting it so right using the rock format.
MB: You prominently display a hyena on your website and Facebook page. What is the story behind that?
Louis: It’s a great photo – the dog looks so naturally relaxed but is pure wildness. It’s an African Hunting Dog and our new album has references to Africa; I’m from Africa and Jason has been working with African musicians over the years – recording guys from the Congo, Nigeria and most recently a project in Morocco, where he’s working on a Gnawa music project. Some of the percussion and ambient sound footage from that project is destined for our next record. I’m fascinated by Africa too, the troubles in so many of the countries – the horror stories coming out of places like the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe etc, just unfathomable that human beings can do that shit to each other.
MB: You pointed out that you’re from Africa. When did you move out to the UK and where does Jason’s interest in African music stem from?
L: I came to the UK from South Africa in 1995. Jason’s interest in African music is largely circumstantial – he’s a music producer and some of his early clients were North African and over the years his interest and network has just expanded from that. The music we make is distinctly not African, but we’re just incorporating these themes because we have these links.
MB: In the most ideal circumstances, where do you see your band? (i.e. opening for a certain musician, performing to sold out crowds, etc)
J: The ideal situation for any band is to be able to make enough money from music to be able to carry on making music, all day, and every day – and to work on the music you want to work on – and for that lifestyle to pay all the bills. Not much to ask for really.
MB: I noticed that you had your own website. Are any one of your programmers?
L: No, we’re not programmers; I know a bit of scripting and am an internet fiend. That helps navigate the mire.
MB: How heavily do you rely on social media or the internet in general to market yourselves?
J: A huge amount, Facebook and Twitter have been particularly helpful for us in talking to and reaching people who’re interested in our music. But they’ve all helped in their various ways. Over the years we’ve used Myspace, Soundcloud, Sonicbids, last.fm, Jango, iLike, Spotify and we’re keeping an eye on Bandcamp, Topspin, Musicglue and the like. Louis has an amazing passion for this stuff, without him our music would only been known in a tiny corner of Maida Vale.
MB: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
L: Well, as we’re aspiring musicians ourselves, our advice comes with a pinch of salt. Have fun is the best advice we give ourselves – if someone else listens to it and likes it, then that’s a bonus. If you’re in a band, making and releasing music and playing gigs, you’re a musician – that’s it, you’ve arrived, ‘livin’ easy, livin’ free, season ticket on a one way ride’ etc.
J: I agree. Enjoy the ride. Carpe Diem.