02 August 2010
Interview: EJ Hagen of Highspire.
When The Sun Hits was naturally thrilled to have EJ Hagen of Highspire (who's gorgeous new album, Aquatic, was also recently reviewed for the blog by Danny) be our very first interview. We were even more thrilled to receive such a brilliant and in depth interview back from EJ. From their now-classic LP, Your Everything, to their newest masterpiece, Aquatic, Highspire's output has not only been immaculate, but extremely important and influential to the shoegaze world, perhaps even moreso than they yet realize. In the interview, EJ discusses a wide range of topics, including his work with Highspire and The Morning After Girls (among others), gear preferences, influences, and even life philosophies.
1. Can you tell us what you've been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (recording, tour, etc?)
My studio doesn't have air conditioning so I haven't really been in it for a month, haha. We're probably going to reissue the first Highspire ep digitally plus some extras from that period soon. We lost the final mixes so there's no point to repress it to discs. So when it cools down a bit I’ll probably try to do a few things to make the wav’s sparkle a little more.
With the new album Aquatic, we wanted to do a more cohesive album than our first, Your Everything. Something less eclectic I suppose. And due to that we do have another album of good material that didn't totally fit into the idea of Aquatic. If I can find the time to do the tunes up right we could put it out. Although that would mean figuring out how to make enough money to live for 2-3 months to focus solely on that day in and day out. Like how Aquatic was made. Or maybe we’ll just do an EP. Haven’t really thought about it yet.
I've been slowly working on a project called the StarCharts for years really. Most of the songs are done, just need to finish the vocals. Musically it's much more influenced by My Bloody Valentine in particular, as many bands seem to be these days. Stuff that wouldn't really work as Highspire tunes that I’ve written over the years. Collectively the tunes are pretty fluid with each other sonically. Martin, one of the founders the Morning After Girls, is the singer for this and he's a more upfront sort of singer with strong harmonies. So it's more like Zombies-type singing than the more low-key singing usually associated with the MBV sound. I guess that’s what would set it apart some.
Since the start of the year I've done some mixing/recording/remixing for other things. A bunch of Morning After Girls demos, some mixing for a good band out of Minneapolis called Chatham Rise, some other things here and there that I don't know if I can drop just yet...
2. What sort of set up/gear do you use? What is the most important piece of gear for your "shoegaze" sound?
Recording I use an old Pro Tools unit, a Digi 001 with like only half the stock plugins working, lol. So I don’t really use many plugins. I have some decent pre-amps and a bunch of outboard gear that would have seen in studios in the 90’s. This setup I’ve been using for nearly 8 years now so I know my setup pretty well inside and out which I feel is important. I'm self taught at recording and mixing via just sheer experience over a decade+ of trial and error. Just doing it.
I don't know if Highspire has a most important piece of equipment. Everything is game I guess. I usually use a small arsenal of higher end guitars and amps. With Your Everything we only really used just 2 effects units for the guitars and that's pretty much it! A DL4 and some old Digitech processor. That's it besides a few different guitars and amps. We even went direct a lot with the guitars as well. We didn’t really know what we we’re doing back then home recording wise.
With Aquatic I went "overboard" which really was fairly simple compared to many bands setups. I just think it's better to keep things simple when you can. Although I do have a ton of pedals and usually swap in at least one new sound into every tune to keep things interesting for me.
I’ll have to say that Highspire songs rarely use delay. I mean you will hear delay here and there on some tunes but unless it's necessary I don't see the point. I'm not really a big delay fan. A lot of the “delay” one may hear on the record isn’t really actual delay. It’s usually odd pannings, echo, and recording techniques/edits that are perceived as delay to the ear.
What else… I think we do have a "Highspire sound", which would be an effect I came up with via circuit bending a processor. That real big, dense, droney guitar sound that we've used on Until the Lights Go Down, Slowbeat, and recently Standing on an Empire, as well as in various parts of other tunes. I've never heard anyone who's replicated that sound exactly as it's dense, smooth and can turn on a dime on changes. I've heard people get sort of close to it with tons of distortion, some reverb and delay. But using delay just makes it impossible to turn on changes like that and be that smooth and retain that amount of denseness. Delay has trails and this effect doesn't so it's unique I guess. Even I don’t exactly know what it is that’s going into the makeup of this sound.
I’d say in general the most important gear I use is a tuner and equalization. That’s basically the foundation and the roof to everything. All the other stuff is just the paint and cool furniture.
For the making of Aquatic I’d say the most important “gear” used was my library of individual drum hit samples. There aren’t any “real” drums, hardware, etc used on the album, except for some drumsticks that fall to the ground at the end of “What Lies Before”.
3. What shoegaze bands/artists have most influenced your work?
Alex and my musical influences only meet half the time. But that half we share is the “important” half so to say. Mostly the same early 90’s stuff we both grew up listening to: Stone Roses, Ride, Spacemen 3, Primal Scream, early Verve, Slowdive, Charlatans, Suede, MBV, Blur, Stereolab, Massive Attack, etc. The areas we don’t share as much still influence us individually and musically, as they should. Like Alex would probably cite the Rolling Stones, T-Rex, and Pink Floyd as big musical influences and I’d say like Stravinsky, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang influenced me more musically than those bands. I suppose that’s why we come across as a little eclectic at time.
I’ll give you a long story of where I’m coming from influence wise, or actually how I came to getting into Shoegaze music to begin with.
Growing up where I did (Lancaster PA, still live here) in the late 80’s and early 90’s was like any place else outside the bigger cities in the US. You pretty much just had like Punk, Industrial, Hardcore, Metal, College or Alternative, Pop, Rap, the Hippie bands, and pretty by-the-numbers Rock bands. You also had to what was considered a “lesser” degree, the “UK bands”, which sometimes would be slotted in under the “College” or “Imports” banners. Back then one independent store around here did have a “UK Bands” section on the shelves. And it was kinda considered “girls” music to most people here at the time. If you were a guy looking through the UK section, you’d sometimes get weird looks. Unless you pretended to be looking at the Sex Pistols or whatever. Which usually was always slotted in the Punk section so you we’re usually shit out of luck trying to play anything off, lol.
I’m gonna back things up a little further here. So I went to public schools in the city. And the big music was rap growing up in the 80’s at those schools. We had an asphalt playground and at recess we’d take cardboard out and try to breakdance and rap, lol. We’d work on our footwork and flairs to Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Michael Jackson. I remember when Beastie Boys came out with Licensed to Ill and that was really big at my school as most the kids at that school were white so most of us thought it was cool that there were white guys who got big from rapping. Then DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince broke and that was huge too cos they were from Philadelphia which wasn’t too far away.
Then Junior High was much more ethnically diverse, and then in High School white people were a minority to Hispanics. So rap was always the biggest music in the schools I went to and you had to know your stuff. It wasn’t really until late Junior High into High School that some kids diversified into liking different types of rock musics. Nirvana’s Nevermind was the main album to kick that off it seemed, but the skater kids at school caught on with Dinosaur Jr and Fugazi before that. I caught on a little earlier as well, toward the tail end of the 80’s.
So you know, at least in my case you’d always have a bunch of friends in your neighborhood and go over to their houses on occasion after running around all day to get some water and snacks or whatever. And many of them had like a hot older sister already in high school that was listening to U2, the Cure, the Smiths, Psychedelic Furs, JAMC, etc up in their room while you’re in eating some snacks. And when that happened I’d almost always be like “what’s that music?” and listen. You know, I had no clue. The only rock bands I really knew about were all the hair metal bands of the time on MTV and I wasn’t into any of that.
So when we’d go to hang out in someones room or if I had to go to the bathroom I’d often pass these sister’s rooms and the door might be open and I’d see that it’s plastered with posters of bands. Well I use to remember the names of the bands on the posters cos I figured that was the music they were playing. I was a bit too shy back then to talk to girls, especially older girls.
Fortunately I was lucky enough to live close enough to three independent music shops back then. A place called XYZed, a more punk store called the Web of Sound, and another place called the BBC. So I’d go down to those places and hang around, listen to stuff they’d be playing in store, flipping through the cds and tapes. If the plastic was already off, they’d let you pull discs and tapes and they’d put them on the store system for you (pre-discman stations) to listen to a song or two. Though they’d inevitably get annoyed if you’d ask too many times. So you had to choose wisely.
So I’d pull the discs of the band names I’d seen on posters in friends sister’s rooms and eventually figured out what band names went with what music over time. Which if I liked something I would ask whoever was working that I like this band what other bands you think I might like? Then from that I was able to figure out which magazines were the ones I wanted to read to find out more about these bands. You had to like really research back then, lol.
I found that the BBC store had a really good UK section of music (obviously). I’d take chances and buy albums based off either one song I heard on those free compilation tapes the stores would have sitting out back then or hearing it in-store or based off articles/reviews in the magazines I paged through. Sometimes it’d just be off a show flyer. If there was a band playing a show that you already liked, you’d check them out to. That’s how I found out about MBV.
I got pretty into Dinosaur Jr with the Green Mind album (Dino Jr was a “cool band” to listen to back then) and I saw a flyer for a City Gardens show they were playing with a band called My Bloody Valentine. There was a used copy of Tremolo at the store so I bought it just off the fact that they were playing with Dino Jr. It was a “single” and used so it was only like $3. I remember when I listened to it I didn’t know if I liked it or not, lol. I mean I liked it, I just didn’t really understand it at the time. They were a lot different than anything I’d ever heard at that time. It took a lot of listens for me to really start appreciating it and them.
Some kids from high school who had a car were gonna go to the show and I remember begging my mom if I could go with them cos it was a Friday I think and she was like “no. you’re not going to Trenton for a show.” lol. I think Ride played there that year too with the Pale Saints and I got the same answer “no.” lol. I was only allowed to go to the club, the Chameleon Club in town and firehall shows until I was able to drive.
The only shoegaze band from England that I saw at the club back then was Catherine Wheel, which was really cool. But the Ocean Blue and the Innocence Mission are from around here and I’d see them often with other dream pop type bands, which I can’t seem to remember the names. Also the Lilys recorded In the Presence of Nothing in town, but I don’t remember ever seeing them live back then. I still remember the day that I went into BBC and the one guy working there, can’t remember his name but he kinda looked like Kurt Loder was like “Hey, you like My Bloody Valentine right? This band the Lilys recorded this album in Lancaster and they’re like the American version of them.” That kinda blew my mind. Picked that up right then. I guess you could say Lancaster has a pretty good history for shoegaze & dreampop music for the US. And I guess you can add half of Your Everything and all of Aquatic to being recorded in Lancaster.
Anyway, back to the story. So I’d buy stuff off reviews, or off hearing one song. And like half the time I’d come home, pop it on, listen, listen to it again, and realize I didn’t like it. That always sucked! It was trial and error back then. So when I’d get my next allowance or money from the store I’d work weekends at I’d go back and trade those in for like 1/5 of the price store credit and try my luck again with something else. Man, it’s so easy today! Everyone expects to hear the whole album before maybe buying it now. I lost lots of money figuring this stuff out back then, lol.
But through all that trial and error I found most the bands that have influenced me the most musically to this day, pretty early on: Stone Roses, JAMC, Spacemen 3, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, the Charlatans, etc. The first Verve EP was actually what finally made me decide that I wanted to learn how to play music. Simon Jones’ bass grooves on that we’re killer. Plus like anyone who wanted to play bass, it seemed like the easiest instrument to learn cos it only had 4 strings. So I got a used bass not long after hearing that and started learning music.
I ended up playing in early emo-type band as my first band because that was the thing around here if you want to play in a band and play shows. This is back when emo music didn’t suck, lol. I used to listened to a lot of that stuff too; Indian Summer, Hoover, Clikatat Ikatowi, Spirit Assembly (which was a great emo band from here), Car vs. Driver, Braid, Cap N Jazz, Frail, Christie Front Drive, Anasarca, Elements of Need (one of Eric Wareheim’s bands of the Tim & Eric show), etc. Me and my friend Shane put shows on for all those bands listed here and many more under the banner of the Amish Electric Company, except Cap N Jazz who’s van broke down or something some states away.
Anyway, it was fun to do at the time but ultimately I haven’t really retained any influence from that music. Though Hoover did have dope basslines. I guess it taught me how to play in front of crowds I suppose. How to deal with ego’s of musicians, lol. I taught myself how to play guitar around the end of me putting these shows on, then banged around in a band a bit on guitar and as the singer (wasn’t a very good singer). A little after the end of that band I ended up meeting Alex in University in 1996. He was like the first person I met who liked all the same UK bands I did and who could play and sing. Plus he kinda looked like a less simian version of Ian Brown which I thought was cool. So yeah, that was when I was finally able capable enough at playing and had someone to work with to try my hand at UK influenced music.
To this day my core musical influences haven’t really changed at all. Part of it is probably the years of time and money I invested, all the miles I walked or rode a bike to the record stores and even the shit I had to put up with from other kids cos they thought the music I listened to was “weird”, thus I was weird. But ultimately it’s about the music and I still think the late 80’s early 90’s era of English music was the best, most pure, the most inspiring and sonically the most “look what’s potentially creatively possible” era of rock music.
And Aquatic is a basically a nod, a throwback album to that period. We specifically wanted to make an album that sounded like it could have been made in like 1992 while doing some things that were impossible to do back then recording wise.
I’m all for pushing music forward. But sometimes when you push too far it becomes something else entirely. I like the “purity” of that time period musically. So I look at Aquatic as more say, preservation. Like the preservation of land (or sea) than the development of. And I think that’s a good thing. And that was part of the overall album message actually: preservation.
The album art, specifically the cover for example, it’s a big plastic dolphin on top of a building “jumping” out in a blue sky. Not aquatic at all. And if we don’t take care and preserve our oceans, water bodies and life that lives in them, some day humans may only know what a dolphin looks like from pictures, video and models. They’ll be gone.
Before and while I was working on Aquatic I watched a few docos and shows on how fishing industries are killing off sea life that need to be preserved and how humanity is destroying the oceans. The Cove in particular really got to me. I wanted to address the issue some in my way. Then I was looking through some of my friend Blake’s photos from a boardwalk at the shore and some ideas starting forming.
Like most specifically “It Disappears” is social commentary to this, the killing of dolphins. I have these dolphin-like sounds in there, the music is supposed to be like a dense, underwater sea shanty in a way… Like musically I tried to envision a dolphin that’s found himself stuck in a maze of nets and is trying to frantically find a way out, gets stuck and unstuck a couple times and ultimately dies struggling in the nets (final chorus). But being a pure form, a pure being, it’s “spirit” moves to a better place where it can swim and never worry about such things again (outro). I mean maybe that sounds silly, but that’s just how I think and most the time write music.
I don’t really write many of the lyrics or melodies as that’s usually Alex’s bag and I let him go to it and do his thing. So lyrically it’s about something else. I write most my songs, record and finish them musically without an idea of how or what to sing over them before sending them to Alex to figure out. And sometimes he incorporates something of the song title into the lyrics but usually under his own ideas. But musically that’s the story to that one.
4. Tell us a little about what you are currently into (bands, books, films, etc)?
I’ve kept very current over the past 15 years on shoegaze and dream pop bands around the world. I listen to at least a tune or two of a new band of the genre I’ve never heard of nearly daily. And I listen to at least a few tracks of new material of bands I already know. There are tons of great bands in the genre now. It’s really great to see.
I’ve got tons of time for the bands that have been continuously putting out good material for a decade plus which helped pave the way for the genre to get out of the 90’s into what it has become today: Malory, Airiel, APTBS & Ceremony & Skywave, Jake’s bands Alcian Blue & Screen Vinyl Image, Resplandor, Air Formation, Ulrich Schanuss, so many. I’ve toured, played gigs, hung out with all these particular bands at various points over the past decade and they’re all the real deal and have an equal passion for the music and the growth of the scene as I do. And they deserve the respect and support for keeping what they do going.
Newer bands, man, there’s lots of them now. My term of newer may be a little older as I like to hear how things are developing over some time before making any decisions. Tears Run Rings (their new tunes are dope), 93 Million Miles, Ringo Deathstarr, LSD, Fleeting Joys, Butterfly Explosion, the Sleepover Disaster, tons of bands… An old friend of mine Jay sings in a band out of Brooklyn called Soren Well and they’re really cool. They played with TMAG a few months ago and they got it down live. They’re fairly MBV style mixed with some Kitchens of Distinction with Richard Ashcroft-esque vocals. Cool people, cool music.
Films: I tend to watch a lot of zombie/mass infection type movies. And I watch a lot of odd movies in general. Weird surrealist stuff a la Jodorowsky, weird fantasy/psychedelic kung fu, Weng Weng films, old educational archives, a lot of “it’s so bad it’s good” type stuff. I tend to not want to have to think too much when I watch films as the reason I’m usually watching movies is to stop thinking about things.
I watch a shit ton of futbol (soccer). I watched every World Cup match recently. Woke up every day at 7-7:30 am and watched more than ¾’s of them out in pubs. I’m a big USA National team, EPL and now MLS (Philadelphia Union) fan. TV: Lots of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Family Guy, Pawn Stars, Kitchen Nightmares, Breaking Bad, Discovery & History Channels, any shows on Bigfoot and Ancient Aliens, all that sort of stuff. Was/am a big Lost fan.
Books, I don’t really read anymore. I usually just read stuff on the computer, news sites and internet markup languages. My girlfriend is an editor and a proofreader so she’s constantly reading. I listen about what she’s been working on a lot.
Though over the past 6 months or so I tend to wake up at like 3-4 am and can’t get back to sleep so I started to read a lot of articles on the Theory of Everything in bed on my iphone. Particularly articles related to Lisi’s theory of TOE. At first it was to read something just interesting enough but boring enough to put me back to sleep, lol. But I started getting a better understanding of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, the unified string theory, etc that it actually became really interesting as I started to sort of understand it and form an opinion.
As it stands, I agree with Lisi’s theory, though obviously I’m no physicist. Purely amateur to all that. But most his detractors seem to be very bitter with no better proof or footing to stand on. They just seem to be pretty negative people, naysayers, who just don’t like the fact that this guy came up with a really new and progressive idea that they didn’t. It’s just too easy to poo-poo something rather than actually come up with a better idea. They must all be writers at Pitchfork.
I’m just waiting for when scientists will be able to build/modify a particle smasher facility capable of being able find the superparticles necessary to confirm or negate Lisi’s theory. Until then I think his theory makes the most sense.
5. Can we expect to see Highspire/MAG's on the road in the near future?
The Morning After Girls I really hope so. There have been some snags, mainly visa issues but we’re trying to navigate through them. To us (Alex and I) TMAG is our main priority musically. We really love TMAG.
You know we get a lot of “Highspire should be your main band” from some people, which is awesome. But we have our reasons and hopefully people respect that. Alex and I have always been the main members of Highspire, written 99.9% of everything between the two of us. So in a way it always has been and will be our “main” band simply for the fact that the two of us are Highspire. It seems pretty easy.
Back in the early 2000s, Highspire wasn’t an easy band to be a part of. We always seemed to end up with people in the band who either didn’t believe in our vision of the band, tried to change it, quit on us, tried to take way too much credit than what they actually contributed, didn’t really care, people would weren’t actually very good musicians, etc. There was always someone trying to throw a monkey wrench into the gears. Which fucked with us, and messed up Highspire’s momentum as a full band. After having a bunch of completely different lineups fall apart we just got fed up to the point where we shut down playing as a live band mid-2003. It just wasn’t worth all the hassle we were having to put up with. And I guess this is the reason why we just record as a duo now (props to Ron Snyder for his awesome work on Your Everything, which couldn’t have been realized without him.) What’s the point of having people in the band who aren’t trying to compliment what we’re doing and trying to steer it the wrong way when we can just do all the parts ourselves in a complementary fashion and without the drama better?
Where as in TMAG, we know our roles in that band since we’ve seen so many people who didn’t know theirs in Highspire and other bands we’ve been in over the years. And we don’t have a problem with that. Call it basic maturity, lack of ego or whatever, Alex and I know fairly well what needs to happen for the chemistry within a band to be right so to actually make progress and we found awesome people to share that with within TMAG. And it’s a lot of fun being in that sort of situation. We’re all brothers in arms. We all get along. We’re a family which we never really were able to have that in Highspire unfortunately.
Now would we like to tour Highspire? Of course we would! Why not? We’d love to play to and meet all the people who like Highspire. That would be awesome. Is it that easy? Of course not.
The main problem of course is we don’t actually have a band, lol. Whether people realize it or not, we’re actually an electronic band, to a point. The drums, they’re electronic. The majority of released Highspire tunes are electronic drums. So then it becomes a problem of do we just roll up as a duo and have a bunch of sequenced stuff at gigs and maybe let people down or break the mystique or… do people want to see that without knowing that? I honestly don’t know. I still don’t know if that’s a good or bad idea.
The other idea is to tour with another band and have most likely the bassist and drummer and maybe a guitarist of the other band playing with us. Which I actually like this idea. But it’s not that easy to find that. At least under the best scenarios.
But in terms of combining equipment, setup and breakdown time (by not having to between bands), van, gas and occasional hotel room costs compared to what the clubs may pay both bands, all that could make perfect sense and be very feasible. It would make it much easier on both bands budgets. Highspire could tour under that sort of idea. It’s just finding the right band who’d be down with it. Which I have mentioned this idea to a couple of bands and have a few more in mind that I haven’t mentioned it to yet. But I have no reason to believe something like that wouldn’t work. And it’d be a lot of fun. Anyone who knows us knows it’s usually pretty entertaining when we’re together.
6. What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?
I believe in personal form of karma. And under the basic karmic cause and effect of that, I believe in doing whatever you believe in if it makes you happy or feel that you’re being productive towards achieving your goals no matter what anyone might say. At the same time I feel that remaining grounded, well informed, and objectively realistic are important measures to gauge and set beforehand. At least I do so not to let the “plagues” in.
The plagues: bitterness, jealousy, fear, anger, etc are all necessary traits of being human and being able to relate to others to a certain degree. But they can be controlled. It is unfortunate that they are major overriding traits in too many people’s make up, especially within the context of communication and mind frame. If you submit to those they’ll become a disease that’ll eat at you and eventually consume you. Those 4 in particular can spread like a plague if you let them and will take you down to the same level as those who have already lost hope and only find pleasure in tearing things down. You basically become a zombie then. Nothing to positively contribute to, just spreading the disease and destroying whatever is in your path. It’s classic George Romero zombie movie social commentary.
So keep a smile on your dial, avoid plagues, and keep on punching. Even if you fail at what you set out to do at least go out fighting and happy.