Today we’re delighted to premiere the second album by North Highlands, though it’s bittersweet: the five-piece actually went on indefinite hiatus a year ago when surviving as a small Brooklyn band became increasingly difficult thanks to the gentrification of the borough – arguably an effect of indie culture’s ever-widening appeal.
North Highlands never quite made it, but they should have: their 2011 debut, Wild One, is peerless dream pop – somewhere between Beach House, Electrelane and Vampire Weekend – made anew by singer Brenda Malvini’s lovely hiccuping (and strangely soothing) voice. They started writing a follow-up soon after its release and recorded basic tracks in August 2013, at which point Malvini moved to Chicago and guitarist Mike Barron to LA. “So many reasons I loved Brooklyn were starting to disappear,” says Malvini. “I finally realised that while I had found love in New York, I was really tired of writing about New York.”
There’s that phrase, “tired of New York/London/etc, tired of life”, but that’s always seemed like bullshit. Author Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ words to people claiming to have tired of Berlin distil the truth of big city ennui more astutely: “What the word ‘over’ really means is that your expectations of a place, your fantasies of who you might have become there, have been confounded by the persistence of you.” The sound of North Highlands’ gorgeous new album is forged from that wistful defeat, the sense of promise deflated but of readying yourself for a new adventure elsewhere. Stream it below, and read a Q&A with the band.
Why has this record taken so long to come out? What made you want to release it despite the demise of the band?
Daniel Stewart (guitar): Ultimately the fact that we took so long to work on it allowed us to get a better perspective on the songs and make a cohesive record. It was frustrating at times but in a way may have been for the best.
You’re splitting because you’re all leaving New York – why was it time to leave?
Brenda Malvini (vocals): So many reasons I loved living in Brooklyn were starting to disappear. And last August, right before we were about to go up to Vermont to record, our touring van, “Dad,” died and we had to scrap him. And while we were tracking in Vermont, and as I was frantically trying to finish up lyrics, I finally realised that while I had found love in New York, I was really tired of writing about New York. I had gotten to a point where I had stopped hanging out and participating in all the reasons one even lives in there… it was time to go away for a while. I feel like every city I want to try out is getting so expensive, so I guess it’s more about finding a place that feels right.
Jasper Berg (percussion): It’s still super expensive to live here, and some of us had had enough… some of us are still naive enough to ‘make it work’ here. But it’s true, it’s becoming harder and harder to be a musician here. I honestly think that as it gets harder and harder to afford to live here, the city will lose a lot of the creatives that initially made this a special place.
How does it feel to be ending the band? The first album kind of centred around how in love you all are with your hometowns, it seems sorta like that was destined to pull you apart.
Brenda: It still feels terrible because it was my decision to disrupt everything… like the end of an era… but hopefully just an era on pause… You get to experience so much when you’re on tour and it’s amazing and the best time of your life but then the mind wanders and you start to miss home and your family and it’s this vicious cycle of guilt and the adrenaline of doing what you love. ‘Saturn’ touches on those feelings a bit – homesickness for nowhere in particular, my obsession with being on tour, as well as seeing a car catch on fire on the side of the road.
Jasper: Rough. The band was our one constant, and we pretty much saw each other more than any of our other friends here, besides our significant others. It was like being in a family, and then leaving for college or moving out.
Daniel: Agreed. But looking back I feel like I was really desensitised to it as it was happening, it felt a bit inevitable. It was like the end of a long vacation when you accept the fact that you will be returning to your routine. But now I really miss that beach. I didn’t realise how much I would.
Could NH not just exist in a different city?
Brenda: We’ve casually discussed turning it into an internet project, but we’re not sure if that would work because jamming together all in one tiny room is what makes our music sound the way it does.
Jasper: It could definitely, but some of us are more rooted in where we live now. Andy owns a business, and I’ve committed to a pretty good job, but shit, if the record took off in some capacity, I’d say we all say fuck it, and go on the road!
What did you achieve that you set out to? What was the highlight of being in North Highlands?
Brenda: I think we finally achieved a sound I always wanted for North Highlands on this new record and that is really exciting, we became better live performers and we even toured a little bit. Highlights: Touring all the Waffle House diners from NYC to SXSW in 2012, getting to collaborate with our friends on cool projects, the Guilford Sound Residency, playing in front of David Byrne…
What would you do differently?
Brenda: Trust my instincts a little more, be more relaxed about the process and have more fun… though we did have a lot of fun over the past five years.
Jasper: Definitely have more fun. We let things get to us and that affected our output sometimes. The nature of NYC is that it demands success, and sometimes we got wrapped up in the idea that we weren’t successful enough at some points. So yeah, just loosening up a bit.
How come you self-titled this record?
Daniel: We spent some time coming up with titles, most of them were ending up kind of snarky and dark for whatever reason. We didn’t necessarily want to contextualise the record this way, or in any way really. We’re all very proud of the collection of songs and feel like, more than any music we’ve made before, they represent the musicality of the band as a whole. If this was going to be the last North Highlands record, we wanted it to be the one that defines the band. Just felt right.
What were your original aims and plans and hopes for the album? Now that you’re putting it out after NH have ceased to exist, what are your hopes for it?
Jasper: We just want people to hear it! It’d be great if it got some traction, but really, I think we all needed a bit of closure, and releasing this record offered some of that.
What period or experiences do these songs document? Where and when did you write them, and did the process differ to writing ‘Wild One’?
Brenda: This record is a documentation of me falling in love for the first time as well as all the panic one experiences when trying to figure out who they are.
Daniel: Music and arrangement-wise this record was a wholly collaborative effort on behalf of the band. We spent so many marathon writing rehearsals in the months leading up to the recording and everyone was bringing a lot to the table. Some songs were deconstructed and reconstructed several times. Some came more naturally, and everything was subject to continual critique and editing, right up to the end. There was some aspect of this working on ‘Wild One’, but many of those songs were more complete before we worked them out as a band. Over the years we’ve just gotten better at understanding each other’s musical sensibilities and writing together. In some instances we’ll write basically a whole song in five minutes of jamming, then we’ll spend the next six months making sure its exactly how we want it.
You made the album in Vermont as part of a recording residency – what did that entail? You won a competition, right?
Brenda: Yes, Daniel entered us into the contest and I still can’t believe we won. The residency was designed by Dave Snyder at Guilford Sound to give an unsigned band from the Northeast an opportunity to record at a destination studio, a cost prohibitive venture in most cases. We are unbelievably honoured to have been chosen. As a part of the residency, Guilford Sound invited us to record for 12 days, put us up in their incredible artist housing (a farm house from the 1800s) and gave us a living stipend (which we promptly spent on sandwich making materials and booze). It was a dream come true – we’d wake up, make breakfast, record for 10 hours, I’d run off to write lyrics in the woods somewhere and then we’d make dinner and chill out. I hope that experience comes through in this record, that, and how incredibly hard Dave Snyder and Matt Marinelli worked on it.
Daniel: It should also be said that before the contest came about, we were ready to record. We had even booked time at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn. But because of some of the aforementioned woes of struggling New York musicians, we were still feeling a bit deflated. Being awarded the residency was huge and unexpected, and without a doubt the most exciting thing that has happened for the band. It was like a second honeymoon. Hopefully that excitement also shows. We are so grateful to Dave for believing in us. Thanks Dave.
Do you have any other musical projects on the cards? Would you form another band? Does that feel like a sustainable thing to do any more? Your last show was at Glasslands, which is also over now, as are many other DIY-ish venues – it feels like a bit of an end of a certain era for NYC indie rock, do you think?
Brenda: After 10 months, I’m finally starting to write again, I’m definitely open to forming something new, we’ll see! And yeah, Glasslands and Death By Audio (RIP) closing was a painful blow. It sure feels like the end of something, but I hope the people behind those venues will go on to do other cool things. As for Mike, he is already collaborating with people in LA, which is awesome, as well as Andy who’s been jamming with friends and playing shows.
Jasper: Daniel and I are starting to exchange LOGIC sessions, which hopefully will birth something fun and new. I’m kind of a free agent drummer these days though, so if anyone wants to jam, holler! I always wanted to play music because it’s fun. If success comes from that, then rad, but the goal has always been because it’s fun, and so in that respect, I think it can always be sustainable. If practice space rents stabilise, then the power of rock will live on forever.
Have you got any hard-won wisdom you’d like to share?
Brenda + Daniel: Don’t buy such a tremendously heavy keyboard. Drink like nobody is watching. Taco Bell is your best bet. That five-hour energy drink can kill you. Don’t get baited into fights with drunk bros. Try and eat some salad every once and a while and call your parents. Honestly though, give yourself the freedom to evolve, and once you release your songs, move on and keep writing. Work as hard as you fucking can to make as much music as you are able, record it, share it with people and play more shows.