HighSchool: escapist joy in Melbourne trio’s goth-pop dreamworld

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'd have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite bands. This week, HighSchool discuss their thrilling debut EP and an imminent, career-changing move to London

HighSchool have been in lockdown for 267 days, a fact that bassist Luke Scott calls a “real-life nightmare”. When the industrial noise-pop trio – completed by vocalist/songwriter Rory Trobbiani, and his sister, keyboardist Lilli – join NME over video call from their respective Melbourne abodes, they are still processing the news that their beloved home state has, on the day that we speak, acquired the dubious accolade of the world’s longest lockdown. Though less than 48 hours later, it is confirmed that restrictions are finally set to ease on October 21. “It feels like we’ve fallen into an endless abyss of time,” says Rory. “But we’re ready to come out of this mess as a stronger and better band.”

It is thanks to the most cataclysmic event of recent times that HighSchool decided to make their debut EP, ‘Forever At Last’ (due November 1). A planet shift away from the isolated settings that it was recorded in, sonically, it is a sprawling collection of dark, pummelling and strangely beautiful tales of uncertainty and dislocation. Though the songs have a definite mystical quality, they’re also rooted in real-life issues: “Yesterday I felt as though your love for me was wearing out”, sings Rory of an unstable relationship on ‘De Facto’.

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Listening to synthesised, disjointed tracks such as ‘Frosting’ (which sounds like New Order’s ‘Age Of Consent’ reimagined for 2021), you can easily imagine HighSchool kicking out these jams in a basement somewhere, landing on new moments of clarity as they experiment with faster BPMs and heavier drum patterns while recording live to tape.

And that’s exactly what they did. It says something about the momentum of this band that they were able to palm off “at least a dozen potential singles” while working on ‘Forever At Last’ between the Trobbiani family home and a remote studio. In line with Melbourne’s strict evening curfew, which is currently in place between 9pm to 5am, they had to balance their day jobs with limited rehearsal time. “We’ve had to justify that working in music is a real career,” notes Lilli, with a little eye-roll.

“Honestly,” begins Rory, shaking his head gently. “We’d be playing together and then suddenly notice the time; we’d have to pack up our gear and race back home. It’s like living in a non-stop episode of Big Brother.”

The video for ‘Jerry’, a richly detailed one-take film directed and produced by Rory (who works as a commercial editor outside of the band), is perhaps best representative of HighSchool’s enigmatic visual world. Throughout, the central theme of religious hypocrisy creaks and lurches through heavily-filtered lenses and various paraphernalia: Luke finds himself encased by white roses, Lilli teases a snake, and Rory stands lonesome in a room of flickering holy candles.

Drawing from Luke’s “lifelong obsession” with horror movies – which spans old-school J-Horror hits and more recent blockbusters, including Ari Aster’s Hereditary – the trio say that, since Rory met Luke while playing in previous, short-lived bands, they have always wanted to make art that’s challenging and provocative. HighSchool’s collective ability to fuse the music and elaborate, deeply layered visuals into an arresting whole is what led them to a deal with UK indie label Dalliance Recordings, as did their insistence on doing everything properly – understanding the trial-and-error process involved in achieving what they want in their sound, and mastering the production techniques needed.

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“When we started out, we had a strong idea of what we wanted to do with our videos and how we wanted to dress – and we based the sound around that, which is obviously a bit of a backwards way of doing it,” explains Luke.

Lilli continues: “But the art doesn’t end with the music – for us, it extends our fashion and our videos. There’s no reason why we need to make distinctions between music and the visual side of things. Believe it or not, we’re just trying to add a bit of colour to the world.”

When the band listen to ‘Forever At Last’ now, they don’t hear an EP particularly fraught with anxiety, regardless of the precarious circumstances it was crafted in. The experience of making these songs together in such confined spaces was a healthy and productive one for HighSchool – the Trobbianis even insist that their family dynamic hasn’t ever added any creative tension to their work.

“Luke has become our third sibling, and a lot of HighSchool-related ideas have come to life around the family dinner table,” explains Rory. The most crucial of these, he says, was the band’s unanimous decision to pack up their lives and move to London this December, despite only having visited the capital once. Pre-pandemic, Melbourne hosted over 62,000 live events annually, previously making it the music capital of the world, though HighSchool are yet to play a single gig – and they are now itching to get going in a new country. They’re not the only Australian band that have recently looked to move in pursuit of international stardom; alt-pop quintet Parcels collectively settled in Berlin in 2018 – and their status has only garnered greater traction since.

“I feel like putting ourselves out of our comfort zone by moving to London will hopefully give us a bit of a kick up the arse, and throw us into a different kind of lifestyle as a band,” says Luke, grinning mischievously. “And isn’t that exactly what we need?”

HighSchool’s debut EP ‘Forever At Last’ is out November 1 via Dalliance Recordings

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