A crowd of people at Sneaky Dee’s grew quickly in front of the stage in anticipation of a familiar sound.
Playing Canadian Music Week for the second straight year, Toronto-based group HIGHS took to the stage to play from their self-titled debut EP. For some bands, comparisons to others can be an anchor to sink by. When offered in their interview with the Toronto Observer to avoid mention in this article of Paul Simon or Vampire Weekend, the quintet (minus their bass player) instead embraced the opportunity.
“Without us being identified with other bands, people would not hear about us,” said drummer Kevin Ledlow. “By the same token, we don’t listen to other bands unless it’s said ‘They kinda sound like this’.”
If audience members who saw the second of three HIGHS shows during this year’s Toronto festival were surprised at what they heard, the band would happily welcome that as well.
“It’s so telling about the listener,” said keyboardist and singer Karrie Douglas. “(Some) come to our shows with a completely different perspective in terms of what they listen to. I’m a firm believer that your playlist is like a life history. Your roots, your family ties.”
The group’s roots lie not just in Toronto but in different parts of Southern Ontario also. The phrase ‘Toronto-band’ is practically an oxymoron with the transient nature of so many Hog Town’s citizens and guitarist Doug Haynes explained why this worked to the group’s advantage.
“I feel like we go beyond being a Toronto band,” he said. “We end up benefiting from knowing other bands in different areas.”
For a musical outfit whose name indicates perhaps an aversion to emotional lows, Haynes, Douglas, Ledlow, and guitarist Joel Harrower come off as a convincingly level-headed collection of artists. Haynes, not classically trained in singing, initially complained of vocal exhaustion on their first tour but with help from Douglas – who does have training – he found his footing. Preparation, he said, like the band’s reputation for pre-show jumping jacks, is paramount to a successful HIGHS show.
That and an involved crowd.
“You can’t help but respond to how the crowd is reacting and I think we’ve gotten to a point where if we make a small mistake during a set that it’s not the end of the world,” said Harrower. “A lot of (enjoying a good set) we’ve realized is, like the jumping jacks, in the preparation we do before the show. As long as we’re in the right head space and we’ve warmed up, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Looking towards the future, Douglas expressed the virtue of staying consistent.
“I think (our concern is) more about the attitude that we continually want to have,” she said.
Friday’s show displayed more the sense that the band strikes a balance between opposite ends of a spectrum. Intimate crooning followed by yelling at the sky; intricate guitar noodling accompanied by six-string thrashing; skittering drumming mixed with forceful pounding like a boxer aiming for the six inches behind his target.
Highlights ‘Summer Dress’ and ‘Cannibal Coast’ seemed to satisfy the Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend fans and for those who didn’t know what to expect, they were privy to a musical sprint that sustained the ideal amount of energy for a brief set bookended by other acts. In fact, the last notes were still reverberating in Sneaky Dee’s when the band was already packing up their equipment to race off the stage.
“We just kind of go where we go,” said Haynes. “Yes, we have these dreams for the band but if you have this checklist, you’re already cementing this path that you’re gonna take. Especially in music, in the arts, you need to be able to go with the flow and there’s no really telling what will happen. We’ve experienced opportunities that have come out of nowhere.”
In talking to HIGHS, there is a lot of “we” thrown about and it’s not hard to understand. The group has shared apartments, agreed on recommendations (like an appearance by Future Islands on David Letterman – a must-see), and all contribute thoughtfully to the interview.
They seem to know how to enjoy the good times when they’re at hand. Harrower acknowledges as much.
“I think we’ve been given opportunities that we didn’t expect. We feel fortunate.”