ROUTINE INSPECTION: "Crinkling bags, playing bassoon — we don't want this becoming the Blue Man Group."
After more than 10 years of New York City — the rent, the intensity, the heat, the cold, and the inability to "pry" friends from their apartments — Rob Barber has had enough. He's already half-moved to Los Angeles, along with the other half of High Places, vocalist Mary Pearson. He's shouting out to her across a café, and I can almost hear the sunlight through the phone. Still fresh from the chilly East, Barber can sense that I can sense this.
"We're in shorts right now," he notes with an audible grin.
Things didn't end badly for High Places in NYC, far from it. After meeting Barber at a Japanther show in New York and collaborating over the tubes for a while, Pearson moved there from Michigan a few years ago to join him (cold-dissing grad school, to the chagrin of her loved ones). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship — and a record deal, and relentless touring, and shows from basements to museums (like the one this Sunday at the ICA). New York paid off and the Places are nothing but thankful — but in LA, Barber points out, "Here you can see a hill and walk to the top of it."
High Places, get it? Clarity is key to Barber and Pearson; you can hear it in their music. The homonymous full-length they released last year on Thrill Jockey is a study in precision-clambering pop pastiche. We're all, by now, cognizant of the increasing American appetite for "world" flavors in our indie fare — an appetite that's been whetted by everyone from homage engineers like Vampire Weekend to musicologist types like the Sublime Frequencies label — but High Places take a bit of a broader view. Unsatisfied with the standard rock palette of guitar, bass, and drums but perfectly satisfied with the portable potability of pop, Barber and Pearson have concocted an approach to electronica that indulges in skittering microclips and scattershot sonics but retains its physicality. Layer upon layer of bells, rattles, clanging pots, and bowls and banjo strings carry Pearson's wispy vocals, which follow and swirl atop the tracks like a leaf down a stream. It's very pretty.
"We don't want this to become a shtick," she cautions about their forwardly organic approach — though it's clear throughout our chat that she loves nature a lot more actively than you probably do.
"Crinkling bags, playing bassoon," Barber interjects, "we don't want this becoming the Blue Man Group."
"We want to perform the music, but also be present," Pearson adds.
It's a way of reiterating what Barber said when he noted the importance of post-gig sweat: "I hit stuff, I move around, I get nervous, I sweat a ton. If I were just pushing buttons, it'd be hard to get behind. Hard to get any ooomph." This quest for actuality in their music might explain why the forthcoming material sounds a bit more jammy. It is. They jammed. A lot. As Barber puts it, "We started playing with coolness instead of warmth."
It's a fitting move for cold-climate musicians now discovering their inner West Coasters. A forthcoming split 12-inch with tourmates Soft Circle finds them tripling their average song length into a deep, dark 12-minute odyssey, which they'll no doubt dip into on Sunday — barring any of the unforeseeable pitfalls that besiege electronic music no matter how well-intentioned . . . like that time someone spilled water all over the mixing board and scared Pearson half to death. She still finds a way to make it sound pleasant: "There were fireworks going off the whole time."
HIGH PLACES + SOFT CIRCLE | ICA, 100 Northern Ave, Boston | February 8 at 7:30 pm | $15 | 617.478.3103 or www.icaboston.org