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EJ Hagen of Highspire

EJ Hagen and Alex White of Highspire
8 March 2012

Highspire is a terrific dream pop duo from Pennsylvania that more people need to hear. Comprised of the shy but engaging EJ Hagen and Alex White (who do double duty in The Morning After Girls (TMAG), the band has just released a collection of unreleased tracks and rarities called Sleight of Hand for the Down and Out – Rarities and Unreleased 1999-2011. Its two covers “Dagger” by Slowdive and “Close My Eyes” by Ride only scrape the surface of what this under appreciated group can produce. Their story started in 2003 with the lovely “Your Everything”, and finally came to fruition on 2010’s beautiful “Aquatic”. EJ was kind enough to humor me with my many questions via email over the past two weeks, and I discovered his love for Ride and zombie movies. So read on to get the goods on Highspire and EJ’s take on shoegaze, past and present.

Am I imagining the nod towards “Vapour Trail” on “Skies You Climb”? If not, you’ve done a lovely job melding in that influence.

EJ: I can see it, but it wasn’t our intention. In terms of feel at the start, I’ll admit it’s rather similar. Different chords, a similar downward progression outside of the 4th chord, and a very similar feel.

“Skies You Climb” is just the same 3 chords repeated for like 6:30 minutes. So it becomes rather drone-y, hypnotic. It wouldn’t work or be rather boring if it wasn’t for the overall arrangement giving the illusion of changes. There’s lots of layering in there, instruments coming in and going out. Alex’s vocal delivery and lyrical content fit the music like a glove, and are more part of the layering, more instrumental.

I know it might sound crazy, but I’ve heard from many people over the years that are huge Ride fans that they like “Skies You Climb” more than “Vapour Trail”. That’s pretty cool and I can’t say that is invalid if they like it. In a way, it’s like do you like your cell phone from 10 years before or the one you have now better? And in another way, it’s totally not like that at all lol! It’s just music. Good music.

Is Highspire just you and Alex playing all the instruments?

EJ: Yes, Alex and myself are the only members in Highspire. I play most of the instruments and Alex pretty much sings everything and plays some. Martin Sleeman of TMAG has chipped some vocals on a couple tracks, but that’s it.

Is TMAG your primary focus right now, or can we expect future material from Highspire? How about The Starcharts?

EJ: Alex and I have been members in TMAG since 2008. I play bass, and Alex is the keyboardist/percussionist. We tour in/as The Morning After Girls.

The Morning After Girls are a tour band so to say. It’s built to tour. It’s not a weekend warrior band where on the weekends or when everyone’s not working we play shows. Outside of special one offs or festivals, it’s tour or bust. And yeah, it’s my primary focus when it’s touring/promo/etc time. But that’s not all the time. So it’s not always my priority. It has carte blanche, we’ll say. I have a need to create and play music always.

As for Highspire, there isn’t much planned now. We just released Sleight of Hand for the Down and Out, which is a compilation of rarities and unreleased material from 1999-2011. We have a new track coming out this summer on a split 7” with the Starcharts debut single. Outside of that, there’s nothing planned at the moment.

The Starcharts is Martin of TMAG and I. We’ve had our debut album done since June, but things got hectic for a bit schedule wise and we’ve been sitting on it. We need to start shopping it as it’s really cool stuff. We’ve already begun a 2nd album and my friend John Loring of the Fleeting Joys will be a part of that one as well.

It’s fairly different, rather playful, pretty, and has a stronger emphasis on vocals than generally associated with the genre these days. Lots of reverse reverb on the guitars and such, but it also incorporates elements of Kraut rock, ethnic music, 60’s music, electronic, orchestral music… oh, and it’s Pennsylvania Dutch themed. We have a very beautiful video directed by Blake Monahan for our upcoming debut single Everybody

I’ve been mostly working on a band called The Seven Gates of Hell lately. I plan on having a release done and doing some shows this summer. I’ve been drafting in musicians from the city I live in, Lancaster PA. I refer to it as being psychedelic for lack of anything else better to use to describe it. It has elements of neo-psych, surf, shoegaze, odd discordances, and horror movie music.

I’m really happy with how tracking has been going. The music is darker and stranger than anything I’ve ever done, but oddly upbeat at times. Part of it is basically bred off nightmares and plays out like a horror movie: suspense, fear, sleaze, death. And the other part relies heavily on social commentary of the current world around us. The problem is, it’ll be hard to differentiate between the two ‘cos well, that’s unfortunately how it is these days. And that’s the point with this project. I interpret or relate it to movies, like say one of George Romero’s horror movies crossed with something like Psychomania in music form more than anything.

Most bands that are tagged shoegaze do not wear the badge gladly. How do you feel about that? I know you favor more of the late 80’s and early 90’s shoegaze bands, but which modern groups do you enjoy in that vein?

EJ: I don’t mind the shoegaze / dream-pop tag. I’m not very partial to “nu-gaze”, but whatever. They’re all just tags, labels. Just a generic means of referencing in order for people to easily communicate or relate something to each other. I personally would say that if Highspire has to fall under a genre tag, the shoegaze / dream pop one would be by far the most fitting.

Placing a label on something artistic is really subjective in most cases. Entirely reliant on the reference points someone does or doesn’t have. Say I told someone that I like Surrealist art and they go out and buy me a print of dogs playing poker. If they are ignorant or non-informed to the general guidelines, history, and understanding of what is “considered” as Surrealist art, I could see how they would deem that as being Surrealism to them. And really, who is right and who is wrong then? In a way, it’s subjective.

I haven’t really heard many of the new crop of shoegaze bands to be honest. I used to be really good at it, but I impose a ban on myself from listening to newer stuff when I’m working on new material. I’ll only listen to stuff from the 70’s and before, and that’s about it. However, you can never really go wrong with Malory, Airiel, and the Fleeting Joys.

“Glacier” seems to be an obvious tribute to “Dreams Burn Down”, especially the opening percussion. It must be frustrating when reviewers accuse you of ripping off bands when it’s clear to me that you’re putting your heart on your sleeve.

EJ: Yeah, “Dreams Burn Down” is one of my favorite all time tunes. The opening drums to “Dreams Burn Down” are really iconic. “Glacier’s” aren’t, ha! They just start the song and they’re electronic, like all the drums on the album. I did try to write a song with a similar feel to “Dreams” because, well, I wanted to. The end or 2nd half of “Glacier” is beautiful. I would say it’s as beautiful as anything Ride ever did.

But I am very, very mindful of what is and is not a direct lift of something I’ve already heard before. These are the facts between the two: not the same chords or progressions, none of the same melodies vocally or music wise. “Glacier” never goes into some crazy jam bit, “Glacier” is 4 bpm slower. I mean they both have a thick distorted guitar and a similar pacing. So how is it a rip then? Because of a similar feel? Can you even steal a feeling?! It’s a bit ridiculous. I guess I must have accomplished what I set out to do well then, apparently too well lol!

I mean if having a similar feel is considered “ripping off”, then pretty much every single band or artist in history has essentially ripped someone off. It’s the same with chords and progressions. Pretty much every band ever has had at least one song with an E G A or G D A chord progression. So they’re all rip offs too, yeah? There are only 12 notes in music. And there are only so many pleasing chord progressions to the ears.

Do you and Alex share equal songwriting duties?

EJ: At Highspire’s start, Alex had basically written the initial 4 songs. When we started playing live, our sets were typically 50/50. Although most of mine we’re never properly recorded from this time for whatever reasons. Your Everything was 50/50 in songwriting as we were living together and writing together.

All the released material since Your Everything I’ve written and played it all, except for one track on Aquatic that Alex wrote. But I’d say that Alex and I do still share songwriting duties.

Do you have any favorite equipment or techniques to get that droning shoegaze sound?

EJ: No, not really. I like experimenting and trying different odd ideas I conjure up. Aquatic is filled with a lot of tricks, sonic deceptions really. Things a person’s ears may perceive as being made by one thing, but it isn’t. I’m fascinated on how people perceive things, particularly sound.

For example,the rhythm guitar on “Dead by Dawn” took me forever. I had to learn how to play the song and all the little anticipation of chord change strums backwards. Still didn’t completely nail it, but I got close enough. Then I flipped it, reversed the track so then it’s going forwards with the rest of the music, but sounds backwards. Because, well, it is. It’s up-stroking the whole time on a total down-stroke song. And all the trem bar “bombs” are ramping up.

Or like “Satellite”, it’s actually almost all pianos and a sitar. There’s 2 guitars in there, a clean guitar playing the chords blended down in with the distorted pianos for some definition, and a leady one that comes in halfway through. It would have been much easier to do it with guitars. But that wasn’t the point.

Stuff like this is how I entertain myself. That’s the only reason I make music, out of the necessity to create and be creative, and for my own entertainment.

“Portsmouth” is such a departure from the other material on Your Everything. I’m not sure I’d know how to categorize it, but I like it nonetheless. Might we see more straightforward pieces in the future?

EJ: Some people wouldn’t call that straight forward. I don’t know, we just like a variety of music. We didn’t have a game plan when we started Highspire other than making music we wanted to hear. Trip-hop is something we like, so we did some tunes with that sort of feel. We don’t put out anything we don’t like ourselves. If other people like it, then cool. If other people don’t, it doesn’t matter to us. Press the skip button.

“Glass In My Mouth” sounds like something The Girls might do. It has that pumping bass line leading you straight into a sonic haze, yet the vocals punch straight through on the bridge. Was that ever earmarked for a single, because it sounds like it could be?

EJ: I don’t believe Highspire has ever earmarked anything as a single. We just don’t operate like a normal band. We don’t really care about being popular or anything. It’s just what we like doing. If we did, we’d play live or release more material!

Actually, you are definitely not the first to say that about “Glass”. That’s cool. I think we released that before TMAG was even formed. Maybe even before Sacha and Martin were born, ha!

Collin from Chatham Rise had some very nice things to say about TMAG, and you in particular. I understand you did some mixing for them. Will that work continue down the road and lead to new projects?_

EJ: Nice, I’ve known Collin for a pretty long time now. Yeah, I played a few instruments and mixed a track for them a little while back. It came out pretty cool. it was fun. I don’t usually do too much music work outside of my own bands and projects. I constantly feel way behind schedule on my stuff as it is.

“No Day Like Today” is also a bit different. It registers with me as some very cool psychedelia with understated percussion. How did you get that ringing sound that’s almost like bells?

EJ: The only thing I can think of that sounds like a bell would be the sound of a custom Rickenbacker 370 I once had. It was stolen from me in 2002, out of my apartment in Philadelphia. Serial number 00 01861. I’m still looking for it. Came up on eBay once, I set up a fake eBay account and won it. Found out where it was and I was gonna go down and beat the cheeky bastard, but the ex-detective I contacted said I’d just go to jail doing that. Said I had to do it legally and go through the Philadelphia Police. Of course they didn’t do shit, and now it’s lost again. Should have just gone down and wrecked house. I love that fucking guitar.

I see that you got to see *Catherine Wheel*as a youth, and I am so envious. They are one of my top ten favorite bands lol. They really weren’t much like other shoegaze bands in that they had a much harder edge on their earlier albums.

EJ: I’m a big fan of Ferment. I think the album is recorded really well. Some really awesome tunes on it. I saw Catherine Wheel twice. They did reasonably well here in the States somehow. They get lumped in with the shoegazers. I associate them in off Ferment, as I think history has too.

If you take it as that, I’d have to say they were the biggest shoegaze band in terms of popularity in the US. Nobody really knew Ride , Slowdive, or Chapterhouse. People only knew of My Bloody Valentine here mostly due to touring with Dinosaur Jr who became like a trendy skate punk band here. Lush had a little success here due to their Lollapalooza stint.

Catherine Wheel did all right here from what I remember. Maybe due more to their post-Ferment stuff. I’d have to say of the first wave of shoegaze bands, they had the most success here.

Does “It Disappears” use dolphin song at the beginning, or did you simulate that? I find the story behind that song so moving. Can you tell us a bit about that?

EJ: Yeah, I think there’s a porpoise call, but I’m not positive that it actually is one. Sounds like it to me. I recently found out that I got my underwater sounds mixed up with my outer space sounds, and didn’t label them. It might actually be some SETI recording of a quasar or something. It’s pretty crazy how similar some sounds recorded from space sound like sounds recorded underwater.

Whatever it actually is, it’s supposed to be a dolphin sound. Then I messed around trying to make a guitar sound like it was another porpoise calling back and making underwater type sounds.

I watched the documentary The Cove right around when I started tracking Aquatic and I was really moved by it. It was probably the biggest reason and influence to why Aquatic got made and how it sounds actually.

The album cover, having a plastic dolphin on top of some boardwalk building smiling and “swimming” in a blue sky and calling the album Aquatic, it’s totally “anti-aquatic”, isn’t it? I don’t know, do people actually even care about artists messages anymore? Do bands even really care about using their album covers to convey messages anymore? No one’s ever mentioned it, the meaning, or their ideas behind the meaning. Thinking about it now, I’m a bit saddened by that.

From the title of the album, the cover art and artwork, the waves starting the album, the underwater sounds, the sound and vibe of the music, song titles, the overall theme… a lot of it was directly influenced by dolphins and porpoises and the hunting and killing of them. It’ll be a shame if future generations will only be able to “see” a dolphin as some taxidermy display in a museum or as some fake plastic statue somewhere.

What are you favorite zombie movies?

EJ: I don’t know if I have a clear cut favorite as there’s these little things in zombie movies; zombie firsts, kill scenes, camp/ humor, that I sorta geek on. It’ll have to be a push between Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.

Dawn of the Dead is an obvious one. LSCL just has this charm to it that I like. It’s a Spanish production that is supposed to take place in like the Lake District area of England shot almost entirely in Italy, but with mostly Italian and Spanish actors. The main dude is played by Ray Lovelock wearing awesome fine Italian made leathers and clothes. Definitely the most stylish guy I’ve ever seen in any zombie flick. Then you got The Ultrasonic Machine; the pacing is a bit slow, but it’s a good flick.

There are a lot of zombie movies I like for various reasons. Shaun of the Dead never gets stale and sets the bar with comedy. Zombi 2 sets a new bar in gore and the zombie attacking a real shark underwater, Nightmare City for the first fast moving zombies, and Dead Alive if you want the greatest blend of humor-story-gore-outrageousness.

“Joke’s On You” reminds me of Daniel Land and the Modern Painters? Have you had a chance to hear them? They are a great band, and Daniel is the best. I just love that shimmering guitar and the way the vocals run through like a choir.

EJ: I think I’ve seen their name on “When the Sun Hits” or another shoegaze blog, but I’ve never heard their music.

I never thought about it until recently, but I heard that one Pixies tune that if you’re gonna hear the Pixies in a pub, 99% of the time it’s that one. Anyway, in a weird way it reminds me of “Joke’s on You”. I think it’s because of that repeating vocal/choir bit.

Do you live what you sing with your music?

EJ: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m more the music guy. I learned how to play every instrument I could get my hands on so I don’t have to sing, ha! Alex has always sung and written the lyrics for almost all our output outside of a few things I’ve chipped in. In the Starcharts, Martin has written all the lyrics. The Seven Gates of Hell lyrics are basically entirely fiction with social commentary mixed in.

I would say that I live what I play and create musically. I quit painting many years ago to focus on music. I was pretty good at both, but had to choose one so not to divide my time and resources. And shoegaze / effect-based music was a natural fit for me due to the experimentation and lush beauty involved. It’s like painting for your ears.

Has the Internet helped your band in any way?

Yeah, the Internet’s helped us out, I guess. I mean, we only did one tour as Highspire, and it was around the North East US and Canada. We stopped playing shows in 2004. We never had a charting song or album. And surprisingly, we have a lot of fans all over the world. I’ll go to a site like LastFM, and it says we’ve had 22K+ registered listeners, and 200K+ plays on just their site and I’m like what? I don’t even know very many people who use that site. We probably only ever played to a few thousand people over the course of Highspire playing live. So yeah, I blame the Internet.

Looking forward and outside of TMAG, do you have any thoughts on where Highspire might go with its music?

EJ: Not many thoughts, no. We just released a rarities and unreleased album of material called Sleight of Hand for the Down and Out. We have a new track that’ll be coming out on a split 7” with the Starcharts debut single sometime in the next few months. It’s a departure from the material on Aquatic. Outside of that, who knows?


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