The Brooklyn duo and BTW High Places don’t need too much of an introduction in these parts. Personally, I find myself listening to to their scattered, recently collected tracks quite a bit without getting tired of the dreamy, oddly tropical percussiveness. In fact, the songs keep getting better. At one point in the following interview Rob describes their sound at a particular show as possessing a Flying Saucer Attack quality. There’s definitely that — kinda like Beat Happening channeling a FSA steel-drum band, but with better, airier singing (no offense, Heather and Calvin).
Mary babysits an eight year old in Manhattan and until recently Rob was teaching Printmaking at Pratt Institute. Though he left that gig, he currently does freelance graphic design work. In the following discussion, we talk about those jobs, but also High Places’ cats, Mary’s zinemaking, and the sort of smells that well up in the touring van of two vegans. When you’re finished with all of that, take a listen to “Golden,” a track that Mary says “will appear in some incarnation on the full-length we are currently working on.”
STEREOGUM: How did you get the babysitting job? Is it something posted about via Craigslist or did a friend/relative approach you?
MARY PEARSON: I got the job in September 2006 from a Craigslist ad. I pick up an eight year old girl from school in Manhattan and then I watch her for a few hours until her parents get home from work in the evening.
STEREOGUM: How many days a week is it? And what sorts of hours usually?
MP: I sit four days a week, sometimes just three. Monday through Thursday usually. Roughly 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. so somewhere between 15 and 20 hours per week.
STEREOGUM: When you go on tour are they cool with finding a replacement sitter?
MP: I always have three-day weekends, which is really conducive to playing shows. The parents are super supportive of High Places and they are very flexible with my schedule. Sometimes they find a replacement sitter when I’m gone or they’ll leave work early, or one of my friends will cover for me.
STEREOGUM: Do you have past experience as a babysitter or is this a first time thing?
MP: I’ve babysat here and there, but never before as a regular job. I watched my bassoon professor’s son in college. I also worked for a couple years in college as a resident aide to the elderly at an assisted living centre, so I guess I’m a seasoned caregiver. I flew out to Arizona for a week in November to watch my three-year-old niece Brooklyn and my one-year-old nephew Kale.
STEREOGUM: So you’ve always gravitated toward this sort of work?
MP: I’ve always had music-related jobs, except for working as a resident aide and babysitting. I’ve found caregiving jobs to be really rewarding emotionally and I guess you could say spiritually. Both with playing music and caring for children or the elderly, there is this human connection and honesty that is absent from so many 9 to 5, punching-the-clock style jobs. At the end of the day, you feel like some really necessary work was done.
STEREOGUM: Does your day involve inventing a lot of games? Or is she more into television/video games? Am guessing you must have some sorta inside scoop to contemporary children’s television and toys. Anything of note?
MP: The girl I watch is really into fashion. She’s started a monthly fashion magazine, and I helped her set up a blog for it. We play lots of Clue, take trips to this Japanese riceball cafe in Midtown we both love, hang out at the library, and we sing a lot. I taught her how to knit last summer, and we’ve done some sewing projects. She’s really into this virtual paper doll celebrity website called stardoll.com, and a virtual pet website (you gain membership by purchasing a stuffed animal) webkinz.com. We also play lots of Playstation 2 American Idol karaoke. She’s obsessed with reality shows like Top Chef, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model. I’ve gotten pretty into Top Chef because of her, and I’m always seeing the chefs and judges around NYC.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like you’ve really bonded. Will you be bummed if touring gets to be too much and you have to quit the job? I’m guessing the answer’s yes, but…
MP: I will definitely be bummed when I have to quit babysitting her regularly. At this point, it doesn’t feel like a job; we are more like family. It honestly feels a little weird to be paid sometimes because I just feel like a big sister or young aunt or something.
STEREOGUM: What have been some other past jobs?
MP: I taught private bassoon lessons in high school and college. My students ranged from 6th grade through freshmen in college. I also subbed with a lot of local orchestras while I was in college in Michigan, and I taught at a chamber music camp for middle schoolers.
STEREOGUM: Where’d you study bassoon? And how’d you decide on the instrument?
MP: I started playing bassoon in sixth grade. Luckily, my fingers were long enough! I was kind of a shrimp and my case was so heavy! My mom had played bassoon for a little while, and she encouraged me in my interest in the instrument from an early age. I have a vague memory of hearing Peter And The Wolf on NPR and asking her what instrument played Grandfather. Band directors and orchestra conductors are usually pretty excited to have students wanting to play the bassoon. I really wanted to be unique at that age, and there was no way I was going to play flute like my sisters had. I’ve always had a little bit of a youngest sibling chip-on-my-shoulder about wanting to stand out (I’m the youngest of four).
STEREOGUM: Is teaching music at a school something you’d want to go back to?
MP: My mom is an elementary music teacher and my grandfather was a choral music professor, so there’s definitely some of that in my blood. But I’ve always preferred the one-on-one interaction of private lessons. I haven’t ruled out going back to music school, though. I could see myself teaching music history at the university level someday in the distant, distant future.
STEREOGUM: Rob mentioned your zines to me. Can you tell me about them? Where can people get them?
MP: I’ve made zines for several years now. I typically make a zine, give away all the copies and it’s gone for good. I currently have some copies left of a drawing zine I made. It’s full of drawings of birds I saw in Michigan around the holidays, and these blind drawings I did of family and friends and my hands. I usually have a zine at the High Places merch table, and Cake Shop in Manhattan often carries copies too. Sometimes I put digital versions up on the Internet.
STEREOGUM: Do you make any with the girl you babysit? Or is she more into the collaborative blog?
MP: She makes a really involved magazine called Passionista. It’s all about fashion and healthy lifestyles and movies. It’s pretty amazing. We haven’t collaborated on a zine yet, though. The blog accompanies the magazine.
STEREOGUM: You were doing printmaking at Pratt full-time until recently. Are you part-time now? Did you shift the hours to make room for touring?
ROB BARBER: I was splitting my duties there actually. I wasn’t full time faculty status, I was considered visiting. One issue they have over there is compared to most schools, they have a severe lack of full time faculty. It’s extremely difficult to get full time status. I also had a staff position coordinating, developing, and managing a digital print and imaging facility. I actually left that position a year ago. I continued teaching for a semester, but in the Fall I could not teach because I would have missed like a third of the semester because of touring. When I was asked to come back in the Spring, I had to let the position go because of the same touring time conflict. Honestly, I was really not into teaching/working there, so leaving was actually a huge relief.
STEREOGUM: What was the atmosphere of the print studio? What were your duties
RB: Well, Pratt is interesting in a way. There are core groups of kids that are very community minded and work very hard and influence and encourage each other. I didn’t really see this at the schools I went to. The shop itself is pretty Mad Max in appearance, but has really good and dedicated staff, and if you are resourceful, you can make a lot of good work there. I was teaching more experimental techniques focusing around lithography and etching. I taught undergraduate and graduate, but usually more graduate students, and the classes capped at 12.
STEREOGUM: What’s your background in printmaking? I read that you want to SVA.
Was printmaking your focus?
RB: I went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for undergrad printmaking/book arts. I learned a ton, but I felt as though I was self taught in a way, sneaking around the studios at 4 am, figuring out how stuff worked. I was a rather odd kid back then. I went to SVA directly after finishing undergrad, but I actually felt it wasn’t worth the money, and I split without finishing. No regrets. It is honestly rather odd that I was teaching in retrospect, being that I was a pretty out-there student. I really just did what I wanted, and absorbed what I wanted. For better or for worse.
STEREOGUM: Are you doing any visual art outside job-related stuff? You do design for the band, right?
RB: Actually both of us make visual art. Mary draws a ton and makes a lot of zines, sometimes giving them out with purchases of our records at shows. She is also way more photo savvy than I. I traditionally did mostly prints, but lately have been getting daunted with the prep work involved. So I have been trying to reestablish my childhood’s obsessive take on drawing, trying to be more immediate and less about process. I have been messing around with video lately too, but mostly band related, such as a video on a DVD compilation on PPM Records, and video that went with our performance we did at the Kitchen back in November. Mary has also done some rad in-camera edited video that we used at earlier shows. I like turning the packaging of recordings into prints, which I have done with previous bands. The demo CD-R was just a drawing printed on a color laser printer. It was done really fast because we were only a band for about a month before we left for our first tour. Our first 7″ was a collaboration, where Mary drew a contour drawing of the cats, and I then filled it in and surrounded them with my embellishments. Then I turned the drawing into a zinc etching plate and we took turns printing them, because while 300 is a low run for a record, it is a huge amount of printing in that particular medium. It took forever. The 2nd record was a photo disc with photos by David Horvitz. He also did Polaroids for the cover of the upcoming split with Xiu Xiu. I did the drawing for the split wedding 7″, but it was printed by Roy who is in the band Mahogany at his letterpress shop.
STEREOGUM: Do you have links to any of the videos you guys made?
RB: Well, Mary’s stuff was literally edited with the camera and then played off the camera. And my video was just used live, but I just searched on YouTube and there is some rather abstract video from the Kitchen by somebody we don’t know. Audio-wise we sound like Flying Saucer Attack though. Here is some linkage: here and here.
STEREOGUM: You guys played an Assume Vivid Astro Focus installation. So there’s a connection to the art world.
RB: We do like working in an artworld context, and aside from the John Connelly/Assume Vivid Astro Focus installation, we have done other stuff at places like the Kitchen, and a P.S.1/MOMA sponsored Miami Basel performance. We have also played at a lot of galleries. Unfortunately, just today, we had to turn down a performance at the New Museum because I’ll be out of town. Bummer … but I am happy to have a vacation and see my homie.
STEREOGUM: What was the Basil performance like? Do you plan to do full-on gallery shows — like Brian Chippendale or Devendra or CocoRosie or other folks primarily known as musicians who make that crossover?
RB: The Miami thing actually was pretty cool. There were other shows I saw there with some big sponsors and the open bar and all that type of stuff, and they basically felt like big open bars with a band playing. Ours felt more like a show. We played outside (yes!) at a artist created mini golf course, that was set up like a sculpture garden. It was pretty neat! The police and neighbors in surrounding condos were not stoked though.
We would love to do a full-on show, with our visual art and music and other stuff we make. We have talked a bunch about doing an installation, but lately we really haven’t had time to put something like that together yet though. Our touring and playing and recording schedule is keeping us from doing it. I think we would need like a good month (at least) to pull it off in a way we would be happy with it.
STEREOGUM: What kind of graphic design work are you picking up? Do you work as
part of a company or take on clients on your own? Is this something you can do on the road or do you do it between tours, etc?
RB: To be honest, as a designer, I am a total hack. Meaning that I never studied it formally. I just sort of infiltrated it and faked it and picked it up as I went along. I work independently, mostly getting more mindless types of work farmed out to me from a couple of reliable sources. The stuff I get isn’t very glamorous. It is actually much less interesting to me than when I did drywall and roofing as a student. It basically just supplements the band. I could definitely do it on tour, but I can’t afford a laptop right now, so I have to schedule it a bit.
STEREOGUM: Can you maybe discuss some recent jobs you’ve taken on? Just to give folks an idea.
RB: Well the job I’m working on right now is basically what I always usually end up doing. It is all very text-based. I basically make large bodies of text flow through an article, around photos and quotes etc., also how the type fits together from line to line. Basically, I make it readable. The reader is opening up to a page and seeing this vast sea of text. I am supposed to make the reader want to read through it by not making it look difficult. It feels like I’m playing Tetris, and I know most people love that game, but I find it stressful.
STEREOGUM: This isn’t related to jobs, but …. You’re really into cats. Is that right? I’ve seen you posing with them at your blog [note: see below photo]. And your cat broke her leg …. I read that story somewhere. Tell me more. I imagine the vet bills were expensive, so this does relate to work in a way. Also, according to the wallpaper at your MySpace, your cat can also ride a skateboard. Impressive.
RB: We both love cats. Little old men and women too! We have two cats living at our house, a brother and sister named Granola and Cosmonaut. We are crazy cat people. Unfortunately, last summer, Cosmonaut got her leg caught in a flat file drawer, and then fell, and … well … ouch!! It initially was only a few hundred bucks, but she being the escape artist she is kept wiggling out of the cast. That drove it up to almost a grand. She is totally worth it though. I honestly think I wouldn’t have even spent that much on my own leg. I would’ve just got some thrift store crutches. Actually, I am personally a seasoned pro at breaking legs. Five times! Granola is a very radical skater. Cosmonaut is actually super obsessed with water, too (like flushing toilets in particular), so I am thinking of taking her surfing with me. She doesn’t fit into most children’s sized wet suits yet, but you totally should see her in a swimsuit! Total hottie!
STEREOGUM: Have you ever considered taking the cats with you on tour?
RB: Yes. But seriously, only in a romanticized way. They have gotten better at riding in the van, like on short trips to Philadelphia for the holidays, but they still have a long way to go. It definitely stresses them out. I do wonder if they were in the van for a long period of time, would they just accept it as their normal living situation and be OK with it? A cat that I used to live with loved riding in the van. He would post up on the dashboard and be so amped. But there are some other logistical reasons why this would be tough. Two vegans riding around in a metal box can get somewhat farty (we actually start having the same exact farts by a few days into a tour, Mary’s are mega loud, and mine our total SBD style, and that is the only way of telling who “dealt” it). Adding a two cat litter box to that equation seems like a gnarly idea. And also forget about touring in the summer or winter. We couldn’t leave them in the van. I think that Joe Preston (Thrones, et al) has done it successfully.
STEROGUM: A tech question: Did you wire together the electronics/drum machines/etc that you use? They sorta remind me of Zack from Kill Me Tomorrow’s set up.
RB: All the daisy chaining of stuff is basically just going into our mixer. I use a drum pad that is a sampler too, so I can put my own sounds in it, as opposed to being stuck with the same old sounds. And I have a bunch of contact mics (which I did build myself) that are duct-taped to small percussion instruments. I run most of the stuff through some effects like a pitchshifter and delay. I also have a weird cheap-o vocal processor that adds up to 5 part harmony to what ever goes through it. I do minimal vocals through that and also put other instruments through it sometimes. I’m trying to ween off of effects and use more of our organic sounds we collect, and just layer them more to achieve what we want. Personally I have a tough time with “gear,” like I don’t want it to seem central to our sound, so I’m more into the Wizard Of Oz approach, which was just a normal dude behind a curtain.
High Places – “Golden” (MP3)
Here’s “Shared Islands” again, because it’s so good.
Plus, a live version.