High Spirits – Investigate the Other SideTuesday, 12th December 2023
Almost fifteen years running, Chicago-based act High Spirits continues to resonate to those who love classic hard rock/heavy metal done from a passionate, purity perspective. It’s all about catchiness from the hooks to the melodies, capturing a sound through the songwriting that’s highly addictive and infectious. Safe on the Other Side as the latest album keeps the engagement on high once again – probably featuring the strongest vocal takes to date next to killer main musical foundational moments that could make this the best album to date for Chris Black. We were able to catch up with Chris about the process behind the record, a look into what made You Are Here a bit of a struggle for him, pivotal moments in his career, motivators/mentors, how Mad With Power as a festival brought insight into the underground power metal movement, and what’s on the horizon for 2024.
Dead Rhetoric: Safe on the Other Side is the fifth full-length album for High Spirits. How did you see the development and recording process go for this set of material – were there any specific surprises, obstacles, or challenges to overcome this time around?
Chris Black: I wouldn’t say that there were challenges to overcome as much as there were opportunities to improve the process. That happened as a result of the recording periods, interspersed with some touring that we were doing. I had been working on the album and then paused that to work on the live set. We had to be in the right condition for the gigs. This would happen in March of this year – I was 75-80% done with the vocals on the album when I had to say I couldn’t work on this anymore, I had to spend my time prepping for these gigs. We were doing 75 minutes a gig on these shows – which is for us a lot. It was a step up in terms of how long we were on stage, I wanted to be serious about preparing for that and not only make sure my voice could do this for one night, but for the subsequent nights as well. The tour went well, I had no stamina problems – and when I came back to work on the album following that tour, I found that my voice was actually stronger as a result of the tour. Which led me to go back and retrack all the vocals for everything I had done.
It was a challenge in the sense of extending the time and the number of hours, weeks and months invested into this album – but it was also an opportunity like I said to make something even better out of it than it was. Which I add was helped by not having any deadline – whether a real one or an imaginary one I might impose on myself. I let the (album) take the time that it needs in order to really be the best it can be. That’s how things played out. It was a different way to work. Sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself that I don’t really need to. As I get older, maybe I get better about not beating myself up about that, and that was a good outcome.
Dead Rhetoric: What aspect of the writing or recording process do you find the easiest to accomplish with High Spirits at this point? Conversely, where do you see the greatest struggles in achieving or accomplishing what you want from your mind/body into the finalized product that we hear as listeners?
Black: The hardest aspect, that’s an easy one to answer, and that’s the rhythm guitars. Because I started as a drummer as a kid – actually I started as a piano player. I have this percussionist foundation, it’s to my musical training if you want to put it that way. Guitar has always been a difficult instrument for me to adapt to. Not only the physical aspect of it, those tiny little strings that are oh so close together – the amount of delicate pressure compared to playing drums, the pressure and force that you use to play a guitar is quite the opposite. That is always a challenge to me, to get the rhythm guitar tracks to a point where I don’t sound like I’m playing with karate chops or playing things with a buzzsaw. It takes a lot of time. And I can change my mind about things along the way. The song “Good Night”, the last song on the album, I recorded that in one key and thought, it should be in this other key. It means another evening of trying to get these good, accurate recordings on the rhythm guitar.
Drums were my first instrument as a kid. That’s a pretty easy phase of production. It’s also true because the drum parts themselves are fairly straightforward. We aren’t technical metal, or jazz fusion with all these technical time signature transitions. It’s musically quite straightforward. I’ve gotten pretty good at bass in my older years, too. Really everything but the rhythm guitars tends to go smoothly.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the cover art design process work with Scott Hoffman for the record? Did you have specific elements and color schemes in mind to convey what you wanted to achieve with this piece?
Black: The color scheme was all Scott. Scott was the one who created that image, the way it sits in the frame, and the color palate, that was all his doing. I can’t speak for him as to how many iterations he went through before he found that one. I know that he only showed me this one, and it was perfect. Prior to that, with the album title the original concept was to have a bridge, Safe on the Other Side, it’s self-evident, you can have a bridge from one side to the other. We were first looking for a bridge as the album cover, and the problem we were running into, there were two problems we ran into. One of the things was everything we would look at was more of a pastoral, watercolor like painting that would be on the front of a postcard or something. Or, we would find these more modern images of a bridge in an urban setting, lights and fog, but those tended to look too similar to Another Night with the city skyline, and we didn’t want to be repetitive in that regard.
It was pretty late in the game – we tried all these bridges, let’s try a maze. That was, if not the first, one of the first candidates that he showed me, and there was no turning back from that. We got it.
Dead Rhetoric: You mention in another recent High Spirits interview I read online how you felt immense pressure to follow up the debut album, which resulted in your eyes with the less than satisfying You Are Here. What circumstances took place that you felt that extra level of pressure, and looking back what would have done differently to ensure a better outcome?
Black: What I would have done differently is not rush it. I would keep writing, get a bigger container of songs to choose from and to pull the strongest contenders out of them. In a word, what that album was lacking was time. Give it the time that it needed to form. There’s an old cliché among musicians that you have your whole life to write your first album, but you don’t have the same time to write your second album. It’s a very different game, and the response to that first album weighed into that second album process. In the case of High Spirits, if I’m being totally honest, when we were making Another Night, I expected the reaction to be that the demos were better. That High Spirits was going to be a demos were better band. It’s another cliché for an audience to react that way, but that was kind of what I was anticipating. That was not what happened – quite the opposite, actually. Another Night over the course of about a year, it totally exploded. The amount of media support, fan support, festival opportunities that it built up around that were totally overwhelming.
Totally unexpected. Right away I was in this uncharted territory. There’s no playbook, there’s no script to follow in this profession if you want to say, or any kind of artistic pursuit. I did what I thought was for the best. Set a deadline for You Are Here, took a big advance, bought some recording gear that I thought I was going to be able to use right out of the box, which wasn’t the case. Basically, I learned a lot of things the hard way with that album. On the plus side, it did give us what are some of our most popular songs. “When the Lights Go Down”, we still play every single night – we often open the show with that song, it’s one of our strongest songs in terms of fan response. Obviously, the song “High Spirits” from that album also. It wasn’t a loss; I can see it that way especially in hindsight. It was an incremental step from Another Night, at the time it wasn’t the step I had wished for or had been attempting.
Dead Rhetoric: What makes each High Spirits experience in a live setting – be it a small club show all the way up to large festival gatherings – such an intense, memorable outing not just for the band but for the fans in attendance?
Black: I think, I wish, and I hope that it’s the songs, that it’s the music and the lyrics, and the way that the audience and the band connect using those songs. We have a lot of songs that are inviting for the audience to sing along and participate with, to catch onto. That’s the idea – you want to grab people’s attention and hold it for that three or four or five minutes, whatever that is. The songs are written in a way that we can perform them in a way that emphasizes that – that draws people in. You can do that with a crowd of 200, you can do that with a crowd of 2,000 if the songs have that power.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about the resurgence of multiple physical formats to support each release – even if it’s on a limited basis – in the form of vinyl, tape, and CD? Do you feel the tangible differences when it comes to listening/absorbing music in these formats versus streaming or taking in music in digital formats?
Black: Personally, I think if there is a tangible difference it comes with the environment. We can’t listen to LP’s in the car. We can’t go jogging with our discman anymore. The difference is situational. The sound of the playback doesn’t have much difference to me. I don’t have the kind of ear that’s conditioned to those kinds of variations. I can tell when I am hearing a crappy streaming MP3 or something like that. As far as the hi-fi playback goes, it’s more or less the same.
To the first part of your question, I think it’s great. Musicians want to be heard, right? My attitude has been, and always has been, it should be accessible and on as many formats as possible. Whatever format a particular listener prefers, why would you not want to provide that? From a limited cassette to the Spotify version. I think accessibility is the most important thing in that regard.
Dead Rhetoric: Now that you are in your mid-40’s, when looking back at your musical career – if you had the opportunity to revise any aspect of what you did in your twenties and thirties, what would you have spent more time working on, or do you accept everything that you were able to do as is without regret?
Black: That’s a hard question. Let me take a moment. I should have transitioned from recording on tape to recording on hard disc sooner than I did. That when I made that transition, that affected my process in a way that could have been beneficial earlier. As far as being able to play something into the computer, being able to hear it in so many different forms, experiment and test different song structures. There’s really a huge advantage to be gained of that. And also, there are numerous other advantages to recording that way. You are not paying for studio time while you experiment in this way.
Otherwise, there were definitely times when I was not practicing enough. I would have invested more time in actual practicing of an instrument, of a song, with a group. I may not have made the most of that available time. There was a lot of alcohol being consumed during my twenties that certainly increased the fun but didn’t increase the productivity. Certainly not the quality of my work. I can think of a couple of recording sessions where things were definitely slowed down by my alcohol consumption. It could be an obstacle, and get in the way of being productive, and giving my best when it was time to do so. I can look back and see that was something I should have let go a lot sooner.
Dead Rhetoric: Were you surprised by the passing of Tim Aymar – and what do you think of your overall work with Pharaoh, now that it’s probably put to bed as I remember Matt Johnsen stating if one of you passed, the band would be over?
Black: Yes, the band is over. We can say that for sure, as hard as it is to say. When we heard that Tim had passed away, the gut feeling was definitely there that meant the end of the band. It was a conversation we had a little more recently between the other three of us, there is nothing left to be done. That’s the view we had to take; we fulfilled our potential as a band. We recorded five kick ass albums that we are very proud of. We were a band that for over twenty years never changed our lineup, or our methods, for better or worse. We took things in our own unique and stubborn way. There were definitely areas where our methods could have been improved, but at the same time it made us who we were. It’s very hard to look back and say we would have done anything differently. We are proud of this, and we will remain so.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you think your drive and ambition to accomplish so much musically in a variety of music styles comes from? Are there specific mentors, musician-wise or otherwise, that you look to for that extra energy boost or push to help you get to that proverbial finish line for these releases?
Black: That’s a good question. I think it changes over time. I’ve had different… you used the word mentors; I would say motivators. Different motivators at different times, and also other songwriters or practitioners who I looked up to. In the beginning, Jamie Walters is one of Midnight. He’s always been this kind of, a cooler older brother type figure in some ways. Doing whatever he wants to do, writing hundreds and hundreds of kick ass rock and roll songs over the course of his life. Adam Neal of the Hookers, Savage Master, has also been a cooler older brother figure to me. I have an actual cooler older brother who is an inspirational figure. As kids, he was interested in film, amateur film making, and special effects things. When he was a teenager, I was still little, but it was awesome that you could have a hobby that was creative, artistic and cool. If we want to trace it all the way back, that may be the origin point for me. I want to create stuff, make things.
Dead Rhetoric: What is a pivotal or critical moment that helped shape your musical career?
Black: That’s a hard one, because there have been a few. I think in 1997 when we made the first Dawnbringer album. The fact of having written an album entirely by myself, and then recorded it in my friend’s spare bedroom on this eight-track over a period of several weeks. Using all kinds of weird methods, friends coming in and out playing various other instruments and supporting roles, to have that album for all its flaws and charms to come together at that time when we were still teenagers – gave me exhilaration almost. To set out to create something with my own bare hands and with the help of friends, that may be the precedent for a lot of what came after that.
It sounds dumb, when I started recording on the computer. That coincided with making the High Spirits demos. That’s very much interwoven. I’d been poking around on the computer in the years leading up to that, but in early 2009 I started writing the first High Spirits songs. I started creating stuff in the digital workspace – that was the second time in my life I was completely fixated on the process as it was ongoing. I was high on the results. I was obsessed, locked up in the laboratory with a guitar on my lap, a microphone, and seeing where my ideas would lead. And here we are.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you look at the evolution of the metal genre, now that it’s eclipsed the fifty-year mark in terms of existence and longevity?
Black: It’s hard to say. This is one of those genres that encompasses so much. Maybe I could answer if I said that we played at a festival earlier this year in Madison, Wisconsin called Mad With Power. What I remember when we saw the poster for the festival, I remember thinking of hearing maybe two or three of these other bands, out of twelve to fifteen. I know this is a really big venue, so fingers crossed, we’ll see how this is. And it was packed, completely packed, everyone seemed to know all these bands… except for us! (laughs). We were the weird greasy garage metal band on this lineup with these very polished, very proficient power metal bands. A lot of them had the costumes with the capes, elf ears, and it was a corridor of metal, of power metal, that we didn’t know existed. It shot off other wings of the genre that we have. Whether I’m not looking in the right places, or I’m in an older crowd, we were completely unaware, and it was cool. It made us feel old, but in a good way. It’s satisfying to see that the genre has grown and been handed down to new generations. It was cool to play for a crowd who kind of didn’t know High Spirits too, and draw them in.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for anything related to High Spirits or Chris Black-related output over the next year or so?
Black: It’s a mix. This year has been good for me, getting back to feeling more like myself in terms of the level of productivity. My desire to be out there, and to be in here doing music – I had a period of a couple of years that were very low, let’s say. It’s not super fun to talk about, but I had very depressed creativity. It didn’t come gushing back all at once, slowly it’s been restored. This year 2023 has been good for that. Looking ahead, we will do some shows with Dawnbringer at the beginning of next year. We will do a show with the Professor Black band where we will do an all Superchrist set list, which is something we haven’t done in a long time. We have a hometown High Spirits show. We have an open schedule; we want to get some interesting offers to think about for 2024. It’s true that this year we went to Europe three times, played a total of 20 gigs versus one in America. I think in the relatively near term we need to spend time with some American fans. For instance, New England and New York City. These are some priorities upcoming, to be back to our usual spots.