INTERVIEW: High Highs
Everything is better when coincidences happen, and for HIGH HIGHS, it was their moving to New York that brought everything to light.
Beginning as just a fleeting song swap, Oli Chang and Jack Milas both realised that their music could become something amazing and so HIGH HIGHS was then born. Jack Milas was sitting in New York, looking over the dark night as I found a photo with him an a certain musical legend that got the conversation going.
I saw on your Facebook that you had dinner with Elton John
Well we just got back last night, and it was awesome. [laughs] Well Elton’s [record] company Rocket Music manages us, and they’ve been managing us for a while now, and basically every year Elton has a Christmas lunch with everyone involved with Rocket, like all the artists, and the managers, and the people that work there in London and New York. Even people from the Elton John Aids Foundation, it was like 100 people in this beautiful room, and we’re super lucky to be able to go. We went last year, and this year, and it’s just amazing, we’re so lucky. When we were there, he was at the next table, and he comes around and says hi to everybody, and we have a lovely meal, and we chatted to him afterwards, and it was just totally amazing.
It must be wonderful being managed by Elton John!
I kind of have to pinch myself all the time reminding me that we’re working with him. It’s a wonderful family to be a part of because everyone that works for him is just such a great person, and we’re really lucky to be working with them for sure.
What made you and Oli begin High Highs?
Well, it kind of evolved naturally. We met and it took us a while to start, because we were friends before we started making music together, and eventually I just started sending him some songs that I’d been writing at home. This was all happening back in Sydney like, three years ago, or four years ago maybe, and we just started bouncing songs back and forth. This song called ‘White Water’ that is on the record, was the first song that we finished together. No one will ever hear the original version because it just sounds insane! The early stuff was cool, and then I moved over here, and then Oli moved over here, just unrelated to the band six months later, and then we were like, lets keep this thing going. So we did and we’ve just finished a record, basically three years after we both found ourselves in New York.
What was the transition like from Sydney to New York?
The hardest thing for me was finding that first place to live. Anyone that’s lived here will know that finding a place can be a real hassle, and I was really lucky to find a great group of friends here and that was the key for me, but then it was like, yes I’m meant to be here finding a place to live here, and write. I think otherwise it’s really hard, I think a lot of people find it tough here because it can be a big scary city. Musically it’s a much bigger market obviously with all of the exciting artists and it’s a very exciting place. It’s definitely positive in the end.
So what is the music scene like over in New York?
There are a lot of great bands that live here, but it’s also a great destination for international artists. It’s really special sometimes, I think you can get pretty overwhelmed. People look up on the website what’s going on at any night in the city, and it’s like oh my god! It’s pretty amazing and sometimes I forget to embrace it. The music scene is great, but it’s just crazy! But I remember being a big Radiohead fan growing up as a kid, they’re one of my favourite bands up there with Neil young and stuff like that, and they never came to Australia, I mean it was really rare, and then I saw them twice, no three times over here now and I was so lucky. And I ended up seeing Neil Young last week as well, it’s overwhelming here. I’ve become so bitter, I’m like [in a deep moody voice]“oh yeah I’m gonna go see Neil young tonight” [laughs], it’s a great city for sure.
How did you guys pick the right songs for the record?
We’re not one of those bands that writes up 80 songs or 40 songs, and then cuts it down to 12 or 15 or whatever. There were like 15 and we only used like, 12, but it can take us a while to get a song up to the point where we’re happy with it, so I think the choice was fairly obvious, there were just three songs where we’re like, should we leave it or.. like the song ‘Horses’ from the EP we crossed off, for various reasons. We just sort of went yeah, we just didn’t really have to talk about it with the mood of the record was with these songs and there was no official meeting, it was just “do you agree with this?” and that was it really, it was very clear.
And you also used to not be that comfortable with your singing voice, do you feel more comfortable with it now?
More and more, and I think sometimes before a show, I’m warming up in the middle of the day and then an hour before I go on, because I just don’t wanna get up there and completely [crash]. My voice is a strange thing, but I’m definitely getting more confident with it. I remember joking with my Mum when I was a kid, she was like, “maybe you should start your own band or something,” and I said, “mum I’m never going to be a singer in a bad,” you know, just jokingly. And it happened, and it’s very weird, I mean I still feel like I just get away with it, and Oli’s always there to support me and say that I’m doing fine. So it’s an odd thing.
What would you say is the best part about recording for you?
It’s a lot of fun peiceing together a track. The recording process for us has been a weird one because it’s so gradual. In the last three years it’s hasn’t been us in the studio, it’s more like, let’s piece together this album, when we can because of our personal lives and we were just busy. I think I’m just really looking forward to getting lost in making noise and new sounds these days, it hasn’t been a very traditional recording process for the record. The feeling of when you’re walking away from a day of hard work, and you listen to what you’ve done on your Ipod and whatever, a lot of the time it’s like something will immediately bug me and I can’t listen to it again until we fix it. When it does work out and it’s just great, and you have sort of a perspective on the track, that’s a really wonderful feeling.
And your playing Laneway in the New Year, have you got big plans for while you’re at back in Australia?
We’ve been looking forward to playing in Australia for so long, because we haven’t really played a proper show in Australia. We did a few shows when we first started at the Hopeton Hotel, which I think is now closed, which is sad, but we played there once and it was like a really weird show. But now we’ve become this thing and, we know what we’re doing a bit more, going back to play for our family and friends will be a pretty special thing, and new people and new faces. We’re really excited to be able to take Sean whose and American, our drummer, to Australia and show him our country. I think he’s gonna take a little holiday after the tour and check out Australia, and Oli hasn’t seen his mum in like, three years, so we’re gonna hang out after the tour and I’ll go and see my family and it will be a really special time. And I might get time to go out to my mates farm in the Hunter Valley…
Since you’re playing a festival when you’re back, do you prefer playing to larger audiences?
I definitely think playing to larger audiences is more rewarding. You can see the energy in the room and it’s always a better performance. And on a big stage the sound is always a bit nicer, we did a show in Central Park in the summer and that was the biggest show I’ve ever played, and I felt great up there really. But the intimate thing can be nice when it’s a smaller packed club room, because you can play the quieter songs and it can be kind of special. But the feeling of playing to more people is always pretty amazing. I’m not too shy to be on stage anymore, it used to terrify me.
Have you been to many music festivals yourself?
Sure! There aren’t as many of them over here, there more just great shows to go to. What would be my favourite festival… I don’t know. Maybe I’m not too experienced at festivals. But Laneway, I’m not just saying this though, I don’t know why I never made it to Laneway, the year I moved to New York there was an awesome line-up and I’ve always wanted to go. All of my friends used to go up to Splendour In The Grass and I’ve wanted to go a few times, but it’s a big day though it’s an intense time. But I’ve been to a few festivals…
So what’s next for you and Oli after your Laneway shows?
Well, I’ve actually just left my job, which is pretty intense, because we’re just gonna be so busy. But between the shows, January is mostly going to be the work we’re doing on the live set, a couple of new songs, and just elevating the whole thing. So it’s going to be pretty cool I think. So we’re working with our drummer Sean on that, and writing with Oli really. We’re going down to Austin for SXSW as well, and we can wait to do all that.
Words by Lauren Payne