The music of High Highs suggests a slow sunset or perhaps the gentle hypnotic sway of trees in a crisp autumnal breeze. Watery synth ebbs and flows like the tides while reverberating guitar lines cut delicate foam-trail melodies. Fluttering above the textured drift are the falsetto harmonies of lead singer/guitarist Jack Milas and keyboardist Oli Chang.
The two Australians met by chance in Sydney at a studio where Chang was working. He had the same response many do to Milas’ angelic voice — wide-eyed wonder. “I actually heard his voice from around the corner,” Chang says. “He was just humming a tune or something. It was just so beautiful, and I said, ‘Oh, wow, you sound really great. Let’s do something,’ and he showed me some songs he was working on.”
The two hit it off immediately. Milas brought his airy tenor and affection for lilting folk music, while Chang offered an abiding love for dreamy electro/indie pop like that of Galaxie 500, Stereolab, and Air. Together the two arrived at a sound reminiscent of Beach House if only that band had opened the blinds and got out of bed once in a while.
Though Milas and Chang enjoyed working together, life intervened and Milas moved to New York. Six months later Chang had an opportunity to head to the Big Apple for work. Once there, the two got back to writing together.
“We were like, ‘Well, we’re both here now. We might as well keep this thing growing,'” Chang says. But each one had a job and his own social life, so while they released a four-song self-titled EP in 2011, it took two years to finish their full-length debut, Open Season. “We had a lot of other commitments and squeezed it out in the gaps that we had.”
Last year, they finally quit their jobs and went all in. In January, the guys in High Highs released their debut LP.
They’ve also moved into the world of arena rock, thanks in part to their friendship with Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baiom. Chang and Milas have opened for the popular act and in return they’ve gotten to play some very big rooms. Needless to say, those performances made a big impression on the Australian duo. “The Vampire Weekend tours really changed the way we write and produce our songs,” he says. “When there’s such a big space and you’re singing to 10,000 people, you want to make the sound almost simpler but also more anthemic and sort of stronger.”
That revelation is already having an impact. Chang reports that they’re “deep into recording” their second release, although he doesn’t know if it’ll be an EP or a full-length record.
“Some of the textures are going to be more sophisticated. There are string and woodwind arrangements, so we’re taking it up a notch texturally in terms of instrumentation, but also rhythmically, it’s different,” says Chang. “A lot of [Open Season’s] songs were conceived with long placid chords over a straight beat, whereas there might be more of a backbeat/broken-beat element in the newer stuff.”
He adds, “And the melodies are going to be more anthemic and epic.”
What’s not changing is the beatific sweep of the music.”We like to write into the sound of a big open space,” he says. “We like our music to be good in a big reverb-y kind of way, and in order for that to happen, the melodies’ notes should be long, the chords should bleed into one another and be less angular. It’s important for us to maintain that dreamlike, open expansiveness, that spaciousness.”
Chang also notes that the band’s writing style has evolved. Before it was a matter of someone bringing in an idea and the other lending a hand. With these new tracks, it’s proving to be a true collaboration for the first time.
“It’s such an interesting process because you’re figuring this out in real time,” he says. “It’s really an expression of two people in a room, and I think there’s maybe more immediacy in the writing style. It’s less like writing in a vacuum and more like writing in an open space.”
They’re preparing to release a new single in the coming weeks, as a preview of sorts for their next collection. Chang says it’s a track they’ve been playing in the live set for a while, but he’s coy about revealing any more. He does note that the song is unique in that it features Milas singing in his lower register rather than his more typical falsetto.
“His low voice is so textured and equally beautiful in another way,” Chang says. “He’s really gotten a lot more confidence and strength in that area of his voice.”
The High Highs are currently in conversations with several labels about releasing the next album and are confident that they’ll have something together by the second quarter of next year.