High Places

Photography by Colin Patrick Smith

High Places is the duo of Mary Pearson, a classically trained bassoon player, and Rob Barber, a guitarist, visual artist and producer. Pearson and Barber were introduced by a mutual friend when Pearson came to New York City to audition for her graduate program. After a lengthy conversation about musical ideas, Pearson decided to move to New York (though she had been attending Western Michigan University) so that they could form a band.

Pearson and Barber have vast ideas about the directions of 21st century pop, and this is reflected in their music. Their sound is colored by ‘60s German prog rock, dub reggae, hip hop, indie rock, folk music and the classic disco of the ‘70s. On their latest Thrill Jockey album, Original Colors, they blend these myriad sounds with waves of percussion, played on everything from claves to thrift store mixing bowls. Pearson’s voice is a standout, as her otherworldly vocals help propel the album’s club beats into the psychedelic stratosphere.

The duo recently moved to LA, drawn by the warmer climate and creative freedom of the West Coast. Mary Pearson spoke to SOMA from their new home on a sunny Saturday morning.

Since it’s the Fashion Issue, let’s talk about clothes. Your stage outfits have taken a radical departure lately. Are you becoming a fashionista?
Alexandra Cassaniti, a friend of mine, has been designing my stage clothes. She uses fabrics like cheesecloth and flax to create outfits with an ephemeral quality. The cheesecloth slowly falls apart, so the look is ever-changing. I have friends who work in the fashion world and I’ve been exposed to different styles while we’re on tour. I read a lot of fashion blogs. I even started my own fashion blog (HypeLaces.blogspot.com). I also love men’s fashion when it’s reinterpreted for women. Men have impeccable tailoring. We don’t get pockets or belt loops that make clothes functional. I like the crisp lines and textures of people like Alexander Wang and Marni – girly stuff with interesting shapes and colors.

And onto the music – you and Rob produce and record all the music on your albums without any outside help. What’s the process like?
This album took four months to record. In our house, we both have our own studio, basically a room with a computer and instruments. Nothing flashy. We can experiment and make noise without disturbing our neighbors. I play bassoon, guitar, percussion, and sing. Rob plays bass, guitar, and percussion. I use Pro Tools and he uses Logic and we bring each other ideas and pieces of music and put them together to make songs. It’s very spontaneous. We never know where we’re going when we start. Every song takes its own form. They’re built up from samples we’ve made playing rhythms and melodies on various instruments, including household objects like mixing bowls. If we get an idea, we grab something in the room and make a rhythm with it.

Your vocals are sometimes hard to decipher in the mix. You treat them as if they’re just another instrument in the overall sound.
High Places is a 50/50 collaboration. The fact that I sing doesn’t make me more important to what’s going on. I’m not a charismatic front person, so we don’t put [the vocals] out front. It’s not about the lyrics or the vocals; the main event is the music.

– J. Poet