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Ambient Punks: High Places, September 21 at Huckleberry’s PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 17 September 2008 02:22

Rob Barber and Mary Pearson When Rob Barber and Mary Pearson met in December 2005, they quickly struck up a friendship.

"We both thought of ourselves as pretty punk with what we were doing with our solo projects," Pearson said last week.

"Punk" in this case refers to a way of doing things rather than the three-chord style of rock music, as Pearson was pursuing a degree in bassoon performance.

Barber clarified, somewhat obviously, that they were punk "in spirit, not so much in sound. ... More like DIY."

High Places, their Brooklyn-based band, is also punk in spirit, even though it's ambient, ethereal electronic music with an organic, human texture. The duo will perform at Huckleberry's on Sunday - two days before the release of its self-titled full-length debut.

Outside of the mastering, the album was recorded almost exclusively on a computer - and we're not talking about with sophisticated software such as Pro Tools.

"We record in a really archaic way, using pretty low-tech means," Barber said, "and we've just steadily gotten a little bit better at doing it.

"I bought a recording program about 10 years ago that came on two floppy disks. It's really simple. All it does is just cut and paste. It doesn't even EQ [equalize] or anything for you. Basically, we just use the little mic over the monitor on a computer. ... I'd say 95 percent of stuff goes on the computer that way."

Rob Barber and Mary Pearson "We used to use proper mics," Pearson added, "but we realized that we really like getting other sounds. ... We like to get the room sound, and maybe a little outdoor noise in there. That's a big part of our aesthetic."

"That little mic grabs everything in the room," Barber said. "It actually seeks sound if doesn't have any direct sound in front of it."

The software program is powerful, they said, but it can't do anything in real time. "There are no shortcuts for you," Pearson said. "It's like building a Web site with HTML, when everyone else is using Flash. So it's a little stubborn of us, maybe."

This recording process helps to warm up the music in a genre that Pearson admits has a reputation as "kind of sterile ... a very clean, dry, almost robotic sound."

While High Places - which inspired the eMusic Selects feature of spotlighting unheralded and unsigned bands - does sound heavily processed, there's nothing robotic about it. The sounds are frequently exotic, such as the Asian flavor of "The Storm" and the African rhythms of "Gold Coin" and the birds of "Papaya Year." Pearson's voice is sweetly, un-self-consciously casual, like the careless singsong of a skipping child, and it serves less as a focus than an accompaniment.

The band's songs are composed largely after the initial recording of jams. "We don't really know what we're going to end with before we start making the song," Barber said.

The track that became "From Stardust to Sentience" started with a harsh beat, and "we expected the song to be a little bit aggressive-sounding in the beginning," Barber said. "And it ended up being the most mellow ... song on the album."

The tracks move with a sense of purpose and rarely overstay their welcomes. Probably because of the labor-intensive tools they use, everything in High Places' music sounds deliberate and has a purpose.

As gentle as the band is on record, the pair promises something different when they play Huckleberry's.

"It's almost like we're two different bands," Pearson said.

So what does it sound like?

Barber: "Um ... ."

Pearson: "Loud."

Mary Pearson and Rob Barber "It tends to move people a little more," Barber added, while Pearson said the band aims to "create this complete environment. ... Really well-mixed and present and full."

That sometimes presents problems.

"We have the occasional tug of war when we're playing a show, where she'll turn me down, and I'll turn myself back up, and she'll turn me down ... ," Barber said. "She has a little bit more flexibility, because I'm hitting things when I'm playing. She can turn me down, and I can't change anything until there's a break in the song. It's a game we play to keep each other on our toes."

"We fight like siblings a lot," Pearson said.

"We don't fight," Barber said.


High Places will perform on Sunday, September 21, at Huckleberry's, 223 18th Street in Rock Island. The show, which is presented by, starts at 7 p.m. and also features Speck Mountain.


For more information on the band, visit or

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