High Vis frontman Graham is used to working up a sweat (and then some) on stage, but during lockdown he’s had to take up a more mundane activity to work up similar levels of energy. “I’ve just run 5k,” grimaces High-Vis frontman, Graham. “And it’s a ‘no’ from me.”
Time to cool down. He takes a sip of wine as he reclines in his mum’s living room in Liverpool, where he’s been spending the coronavirus lockdown. His bandmates proffer their glasses over the Zoom call. “I’m glad I’m not the only one drinking,” he laughs. “There’s fuck all else to do.”
For a couple of years now, High-Vis have been building up a cultish reputation on the London DIY scene, their taut, barbed post-punk leaner and more direct than almost anything else around. Although this band is relatively new, the members of High-Vis – Graham, Ski, Rob, another Rob, and Martin – have been doing this a while.
“We all used to play in hardcore bands – we’ve been doing it for years,” says Ski, the band’s drummer. “Me and [guitarist] Rob used to be in a band called Smear, and I was in a band with Graham, and them two didn’t know each other. They both wanted to start another band at the same time and told me individually, so I brought us three together and cracked on from there.”
You can hear the hardcore influence on the music they make today, in the steely aggression of Graham’s delivery and the raw muscle of the instrumentals, but there’s something else going on here too. Their 2019 album ‘No Sense No Feeling’ has shades of U.S. post-hardcore in its Fugazi-like bounding rhythms and sharp left turns, and the spectres of classic U.K. post-punks like Wire and Joy Division loom large throughout. Graham has a deadpan explanation for how they arrived at this sound
“When we started it was pretty much straight-up [Manchester post-punks] Chameleons-sounding, but I can’t fucking sing.” He’s being a bit harsh to himself there, but his vocal style is definitely more reminiscent of an Ian McKaye bark than an Ian Curtis croon. “Our process is so erratic… we’ll write one song and it’ll be well more aggy than the last one, then we’ll do something super slow and fucking miserable.”
This relative fluidity of (sub)genre has allowed them to carve out a niche somewhere in between the now-institutional outposts of the London DIY scene. “We just fucking fell into it to be honest,” shrugs Graham.
Rob takes a slightly longer view. “We’re all two degrees of separation from each other,” he explains. “I’m from Guildford originally, and Tom Ellis from [cutting-edge underground promoter] Static Shock used to put on gigs in the youth centre there. We’re talking early 2000s. That scene took on a life of its own. Those bands had social links with bands in [other places] – Ski’s old band used to come and play there too. Sadly, it’s a car park now.”
He gets a bit misty-eyed. “The scene had a naiveté back in the day, and it felt like it had a lot more camaraderie then. Gravitating towards London, the big bad city, changed that a bit, and I felt a bit disconnected. But it’s influenced our approach to the kind of gigs we play – being more open-minded.”
“Yeah, we can play the scene around DIY Space or New River Studios, but we don’t necessarily fit into it,” says Ski. Promoters like Some Weird Sin and venues like Dalston’s Shacklewell Arms have also been key to the development of High-Vis.
“It’s people like that, who put the effort in and have the enthusiasm, who make a big city like London pull together around what you could call scenes,” says Rob, with real warmth.
Shortly after the coronavirus crisis gripped the UK, forcing much of its cultural infrastructure to stop dead in its tracks, High-Vis self-released two tracks under the name ‘Society Exists’. Insightful as ever, Boris Johnson had just come to that realisation himself, contradicting a traditional Tory maxim (Margaret Thatcher’s proclamation that “there’s no such thing as society, only individual men and women”).
“People are changing their tune and realising that the working class are the backbone of this country,” asserts Graham. “It was just after my uncle died from asbestosis from working on the docks, and he was the first person to bring the [left-wing newspaper] Socialist Worker up to Merseyside. At the moment I’m a bit amped up on stuff like that.”
The way Graham sees it, his music and politics are inextricable. “I studied art, and making art is a Marxist act. But I wouldn’t like to define myself in that box – it’s a bit lame,” he says, self-deprecating as ever.
“I generally assume that if you’re into punk, you’re left-wing, but that’s quite a lazy assumption now, because people aren’t. I’ve had people talk to me afterwards, and say like ‘you’re not a fucking lefty are you?’ It’s definitely changed in the time I’ve been doing music. In Liverpool it was punk that introduced me to the politics of the left; but the reality is nowadays people don’t know what to think.
“There’s just loads of stuff in the world,” he says, faux-seriously. “And loads of that stuff… is crap stuff.” Can’t argue with that.
“I do wear my class identity on my sleeve,” he continues. “The name High-Vis is definitely a class signifier. It is the unifying clothing item of the working class. And it also just alienates you completely if you put a high-vis on, nobody wants to see you or speak to you unless they want something.”
There’s a mischievous side to their choice of name too, though. “It came from being a scally and putting one on, telling security to fuck off,” Graham says, grinning. “Like ‘you need to go down there’, and they’ll be like ‘oh right, sound’.”
Rob chips in again with another perspective. “Graham and I certainly come from provincial scenes, and from my late teens and early 20s, moshing in the collectivised youth centre, then moving to London… those ideas about politics don’t necessarily get eroded, but I think there’s growing up to be done.” The band politely disagree between themselves about how true that is.
At this point, Graham’s mum walks into the Zoom behind him, calling him for dinner. He wraps up the interview with another pearl of wisdom as he drains his wineglass. “You’ve got so much time to think about stuff at the moment, and if you think about it too much, you just fuck it.”
Rob interjects, lager aloft. “Stop thinking, start drinking!” Cheers to that.
High Vis’ ‘Society’ Exists is out now