Doug Haynes of Toronto’s HIGHS discusses their EP, surviving in NYC, and the band’s future

toronto, band, indie, highs

As a general rule, when a friend of mine offers up a new band they’re into I’ll give them a listen. It’s a tough life, you know. So much music out there, so little time.  When this friend’s music taste is tried and true, AND they seem to be obsessing over the band, well… then there isn’t much choice but to listen, is there?

So it went with HIGHS, a relatively new Toronto band (formed in late 2012) that has been breaking out in the city’s scene with a purpose. (*NOTE: This band is not to be confused with ‘Estrogen Highs‘, a Connecticut band that I’ve never heard of but stumbled upon shortly after entering a search query for ‘HIGHS’. Points awarded for band name creativity, though.)

It isn’t often that I say this, but I knew I was in for a treat as soon as the catchy-as-f*ck guitar melody of ‘Summer Dress’ opened the EP.  Although only offering five songs, the EP is a true sign of what this four-piece ensemble has to offer. With unique, ear-pleasing percussive elements guiding the overall tempo and feel of the album, as well as atmospheric reverb-infused guitar layers, the five songs dabble with moments of grandeur and restraint that leave nothing behind. It’s no wonder why HIGHS’s afrobeat-inspired rhythms have been compared to Vampire Weekend, but I would argue that Doug and Karrie’s harmonious vocals set them apart even further from the rest.

Their self-titled EP was released in July 2013 and recorded at Verge Music Lab with Steve Major. The band is coming off their appearance at CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. I interviewed vocalist/guitarist Doug Haynes and heard about where the band is at, and a bit about their experience in The Big Apple.

Interview with Doug Haynes of HIGHS

Your latest EP has garnered a lot of attention and recognition, especially there in the Toronto scene. What was your goal with the EP, in terms of how you wanted it to be received?

We didn’t have many expectations, we were all pretty new to it. For all of us in the band, it was our first release in a legitimate sense. I put out really bad demos when I was 14 before, but that doesn’t count. We just wanted to put our all into the EP, and once we had it finished then really push it and get it noticed to the best of our ability.

We went into the studio expecting it to take a couple months, but it ended up taking six months to do. A few of the songs we rewrote in the studio too, so it kind of became half a recording and half a writing process. We just wanted to put in the time to getting songs to sound the way we wanted them to. There was a lot of effort put into the percussive parts since percussion is a main element of the EP, and also getting the guitars to work well together.

You’re all from different places, and I understand that you all met at Queen’s University in Kingston. Can you briefly explain how you guys got together and when you decided to seriously move forward with the band?

It’s interesting how it happened. Everyone in the band was a Queen’s University student at one point, but Kevin and I were only there for a year during teacher’s college. Karrie did her whole undergrad there and also teacher’s college, and Joel was in Engineering. So we all went there at some point but didn’t know each other collectively yet. I knew Karrie and Kevin separately, but we didn’t make the band connection until after we had graduated. I guess we didn’t have time while we were finishing our degrees, but after in teacher’s college the time seemed to open up a bit.

It’s funny because we didn’t really all come together until after we all moved away from each other after school. We would sometimes get together on weekends and talk about what we could potentially do and maybe work on some songs. Joel, who Karrie knew, we all wanted him in the band because he was a great musician and he really knew the business side of the music industry. He was working in the mines up north though, but he eventually came back and listened to what we had written and it went from there.

You guys are just coming off your CMJ Music Marathon appearance in NYC. The festival is known for helping expose past performers such as Arcade Fire, The National, Mumford & Sons, and many others. Can you tell me a bit about the whole experience, and what it means to the band to be a part of that?

It was really surreal to be included in such a prominent festival, especially as a young band. It was amazing, and none of us had been to New York City before or been involved in the music scene there so it was kind of daunting at first. There’s a blog there based out of Brooklyn called The Wild Honey Pie that hooked us up with a few shows and really helped make the experience positive for us. They made the transition smooth and helped us get to know people. I think we played well on stage because we felt pretty comfortable with our surroundings, we didn’t really know anyone at first but we felt good.

We also played with great bands, they were really awesome. We played two shows, and the Saturday show was the party for the Wild Honey Pie blog. They did such a great job, the promoting was well done, the bands were all really awesome, it was really fun to be a part of not only as a band but also a music lover. Plus we got to spend a week in New York City, so what’s not to like?

What was your favourite part about New York City?

This is going to sound weird, but jaywalking was my favourite part. I’ve never seen so many people jaywalk in my entire life. It was pretty funny because there would be a green light with oncoming traffic and people would just be walking across like it was no big deal. It was pretty cool to see how people interacted with each other and the environment there.

We have this 1990s Suburban, it’s a huge gas guzzler. We drove it over the Brooklyn Bridge and managed to find a spot right in front of the venue.  It was a bit worrisome because we were wondering how we were going to navigate around the city with non-stop honking and jaywalking with this giant SUV. Luckily we didn’t kill anybody while we were down there, so that’s a good thing.

Has there been moments of adversity for you guys yet? 

There’s been a few instances that set up some roadblocks for us. We had a bunch of shows lined up last May, and right before that string of shows I was bitten by a dog in the face. My upper lip was in three different pieces, and I couldn’t sing for a while so we had to cancel those shows. The people putting on those shows were really understanding about it, I sent a few pictures and they understood. So that was not fun.

Another thing, and this is sort of self-inflicted, is that Kevin lives in Ottawa. There’s a geographical distance between us so it isn’t always that easy for us to get together. Practicing is tough sometimes, but props to Kevin for making it work and putting in the extra effort to make sure that we do get together and put the time in when we live four hours apart. It’s a hurdle that we’re getting better at dealing with for sure.

What does the band have in store for the future?

We’re hoping to hit the festival circuit, and things slow down in the winter so that’s the time when we’re planning on sitting down and figuring that all out. There’s also a handful of songs that we’re planning on putting on a full-length at some point in the future. We’re going to look at those critically and think about which ones could stay and which ones should go, which can be changed to be cohesive with the album. Other than that we’re just on the road a lot, playing a bunch of shows in Ontario and out east, and hopefully playing Montreal soon. We probably won’t be doing a big tour until we release the full-length though, but we hope to hit the studio in the next few months and then getting it out in the summer. But yeah, just grinding it out with lots of shows until then. As we mature as a band, better opportunities seem to present themselves for sure. 

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