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High Vis: ‘You can stay positive and change things on a small scale’

A year on from releasing their second album 'Blending', hardcore heroes High Vis ruminate on the need for small acts of defiance and their next record...

By Sophie Porter

High Vis (Picture: Press)

“It’s become like a real thing,” High Vis frontman Graham Sayle says with a laugh. It’s been a busy year for the band who, since the release of their second album ‘Blending’ last September, have toured America twice and made appearances at the likes of Mad Cool, Riot Fest, End of The Road and Reading and Leeds, to name a few. It feels even bigger for a band who released their debut album at the start of the pandemic when “no one gave a fuck”, and, by their own admittance, have never really had any higher career aspirations other than to make music and share it with their mates.

“People are just attracted to the kind of honesty involved in this stuff,” says Sayle as we chat about the heavier music scenes. “It’s just people doing the thing that they’ve always done without necessarily a goal to be anyone or get anywhere. And it definitely wasn’t [why we] started a band, you know?”. “If you’re not trying to make choices to try and gain something, it’s purely about creative practice,” adds bassist Rob Moss.

The band are unmistakably grounded in their sheer love of making music, unperturbed by the mounting interest in their efforts. It’s an ideal which can often get lost or forgotten within the wider industry of strict release campaigns and embargoes, but a fierce one brought forward from the band’s years spent cutting their teeth in the UK’s underground punk and hardcore scenes.

For the uninitiated, High Vis deal in the tightly wound energy and seething passion of hardcore, softened (albeit slightly) with a post-punk maturity and a dash of Britpop idealism. For Sayle in particular, ‘Blending’ has been a necessary vehicle for self-reflection, doing so with incisive and accessible lyrics which tread themes of deep-rooted anger, masculinity and mental health, and social inequalities. “A lot of the subject matter that I was talking about was just things that I was kind of reflecting on in therapy,” he says. This open display of introspection has resonated on a wide scale, both in and outside of the UK, attracting masses of people who utilise their intense live shows as a means of collective release.

Sitting backstage ahead of their set at Gothenburg’s Way Out West festival, we caught up with Graham and Rob to talk about their plans for a third album and the importance of staying creative and having fun.

It’s been such a huge year for you guys! The music and the message has clearly had a massive impact on people. Why do you think it’s resonated with people both within and outside of the UK in the way that it has?

Graham: I couldn’t tell you why. I think there’s definitely some Americans who like British stuff -. There’s quite a good history of music coming out of Britain. But yeah, I don’t know. I can’t really talk about why people like it, people have just attached to it and it’s fucking boss.

No one’s being anything or trying to be anything. I guess we’ve all come from different – especially in punk and stuff like that – avenues of that. Me and Rob have come from playing New York hardcore stuff, and then I met Ski a bit later on, and he came from a kind of different background and it wasn’t in the hardcore scene necessarily. We were all coming at it from different angles. So it’s not particularly like an organised, curated band. It’s not like we’ve been like ‘Oh fuck, let’s do a band that’s like a Goth band or a beat down band or an indie band’, it’s just happened weirdly organically and we’ve fucking never made any sense. Like, half the time people have been at odds with each other with like, with what we’re recording and writing and stuff. And then at some point, it kind of started to make a bit more sense, I think.

With the themes of the album in mind, it must have been a cathartic process to write and record?

Graham: Well, speaking for myself, I’ve always used the band as a way to deal with energy that I have and you know, especially just being angry or whatever, it’s just a fucking good outlet. Punk and hardcore has always been a really good outlet for just reckless abandon and throwing yourself into things. And I always liked hardcore shows because of how violent they were and I liked those situations as a weird, organised kind of level of unhinged violence, you know? I think we’ve just taken bits from all over the place really, and just ended up here.

Rob: Yeah, I think it’s a lot of cues from different things.There’s definite nods to like, Hüsker Dü on there and at the same time a lot of people have said it reminds them of Stone Roses in places. When the others showed me those songs, once I’d written those riffs, there was definitely a lot of nostalgia for me in hearing them, and then just instantly getting excited about trying to write bass parts for it. Anything that someone kind of brings to the table, really, we just sort of end up working on it and then if it works, it works.

Can you tell us a little bit more about what the writing process looks like between you guys?

Graham: A lot of it is definitely driven by [drummer] Ski. A lot of stuff we just record in his bedroom in Hackney. He programs drums and we just come and fuck around with stuff. A lot of the time he’ll just write stuff and then people kind of work into it. I send lyrics to Ski and Martin and they turn them into songs a lot of the time. They’ll be like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s a chorus, that’s this.’ I’ll just send them, like ‘Ok, I wrote a song about this’ – I have loads of notes on my phone, I’m always writing – and then I’ll send it to them and then they just kind of fuck around.

Rob: With the demos as well, Ski’s pretty good at doing that. I’m useless at that kind of stuff … I hate computers. But yeah, it gives you the opportunity to walk around and listen to it. And then I think I like coming up with my contributions a little bit later down the line, trying to support the song. So I feel like for me it’s a bit easier once the song already exists to a degree.

Graham: We send Rob songs and Rob listens to them and doesn’t comment on them for ages and then writes a bassline.

Rob: Yeah, I like to meditate on them…

Graham: Gives us nothing and then comes out with a banging bassline.

He’s just keeping you all on your toes! What I’ve always really enjoyed about High Vis is that it retains that kind of frustration and anger of hardcore and punk music, but there’s something that feels a little more hopeful or celebratory in it. Has that been a conscious decision in terms of energy, or, given the bands you’ve been in before, maybe something that you’ve matured into?

Graham: Yeah, definitely. That record was written in lockdown pretty much – before lockdown and during it. And I think a lot of stuff happened in that time. I definitely started making a lot of changes in my life. Through going to therapy and trying to make changes in my life, positive ones, where I could kind of look at stuff a little bit more. So a lot of the songs aren’t necessarily positive, but they definitely sound more hopeful, I think, and that’s Martin’s contribution, those kind of Manchester, Johnny Marr-esque riffs. And then a lot of the subject matter that I was talking about were just things that I was kind of reflecting on in therapy, and just looking back, it’s like – I don’t want to sound self-involved or whatever – I was just looking back on growing up, especially my years in London and all that, and things that kind of got normalised, and I was like ‘Oh, actually this is quite mad’. But it ended up being quite hopeful and in fact felt – for a lack of a better word – cathartic or whatever.

You mentioned writing out your lyrics and having notes to send to the rest of the guys where they then make sense of and order them. That must be a cathartic part of the process?

Graham: Yeah, it’s a constant process as well. Especially even the writing for the next record. There’s been songs we’ve had going for a while and it’s stuff that’s happened in the past year that I was writing about at the time, and it’s written specifically about things that felt like pivotal moments in life. So I’m really excited about those songs because it feels like quite a true representation of a feeling. It feels kind of honest and exciting for me.

In an interview you did around the release of Blending, you said that you had a feeling that everything was going to kick off. A year on, have your feelings shifted at all?

Graham: I feel like… the fucking state of it, you know? Yeah, it has kicked off. People feel so hopeless, and there’s no trust. It doesn’t feel like there’s any political choice you can make that’s going to make any difference. We need to start where we are and make the change and fucking not have a Tory government anymore. But you know, there’s a distrust in political action. It’s quite hopeless. That’s quite sad, I think. It feels quite sad.

Let’s put a positive spin on that question – having spent a long time working through some of these themes through being in a band, do you have any nuggets of wisdom for other young and angry people that need an outlet?

Graham: When I’m talking about things seeming hopeless, that’s because we’re only looking at the big political picture, you know, whereas change actually happens from actual action, like community action, interpersonal relationships. If you focus on those things and do what you can do, everything else will happen. You can’t control the bigger things, necessarily. All you can do is act on an interpersonal, human level, and try to stay positive about it. If you zoom out too much and you start kind of fighting against other people who you should all collectively be on the same page with, and acting together rather than fighting against each other, saying ‘You’re not as actively involved in this’ or ‘you’re not as engaged politically in this’, that doesn’t do any good. You know, infighting fucks everyone. But yeah, you can change things on a small scale, I think.

I agree, I think it’s ok to recognise that, especially with the state that things are in, your world is allowed to be quite small and you can make those immediate changes within your sphere.

Graham: and that changes things further up the line. With things like the internet, looking at everything, always, it’s really easy to just feel fucking helpless.

I think during lockdown we saw really good examples of community action in how local businesses or such like were offering relief where it wasn’t being provided from above, whether that was free packed lunches or whatever else. It made a huge difference to a lot of people.

Graham: Yeah, yeah. And those things fill people with hope as well, you know, when you see actual kindness from others just kind of give you a boost.

So, you’re writing a new album! Can you tell us about it?

Graham: We haven’t got much to say, really. We’re always writing and always doing stuff in the background. I think we’re trying to record early next year. It’s fucking hard to do everything because of work. I work in a school, so basically all summer I’ve been touring and it’s just hard fitting anything in. But we’re going to try and record in February next year. I’m well excited about it. I think it’s really good so far.

Will there be a new direction for this record?

Graham: It’s the same thing that I’ve been doing, really. It’s just things that I’ve just been writing about in my life, basically. Musically, I think it’s exciting. There’s a lot of little bits that Ski’s been pushing, like there’s some programmed drum stuff. It’s in a similar vein, there’s nothing drastically changing but yeah, I’m excited about it.

I think excitement about recording is such a lovely feeling to have and it’s great to hear. I’ve spoken to a bunch of people who don’t approach it with that kind of energy and almost feel kind of wary about the idea of being back in the studio.

Graham: That’s the thing. We’ve had some meetings with people and somebody said like ‘oh, there’s a lot of pressure for the next record’ and I was like ‘Is there fuck?’ Like, ‘we don’t have to do this. None of us. We can just fuck it off. We’re not doing it for anyone.’ I hope people like it, you’re kind of putting yourself out there in the writing and stuff, but it’s got to stay fun, hasn’t it? We’re not trying to get anywhere.

I feel like that’s something you see quite a lot more now, like there’s a lot of artists rejecting that kind of pressure, or rather are taking back that creative control and I think it’s important in all genres. 

Graham: Yeah. If it stops being creative and you’re just kind of making a thing because you have to then, that’s work, isn’t it? I don’t want to work!

Rob: I think at least for me and maybe for a lot of other people as well, it’s the act of playing and being loud and writing stuff that’s the fun bit. Whether you play in front of 50 people or 500 people, I feel like it’s kind of the same. The amount of fun that you’re having doesn’t grow  exponentially with the size of the venue that you’re playing. So when you think about it in those terms, the most important thing is that you feel creative and you’re having fun doing it.

Graham: Yeah I like that. That’s the thing, I’m not like ‘Oh, this is a better gig, right?’ Like, playing to 50 people in the back of some fucking sketchy pub in…

Rob: Boise, Idaho!

Graham: In Boise, Idaho. Exactly. I still want to do those shows. They’re just as important to us as playing to loads of people in Oslo or whatever it is. It’s important to just keep doing the things you’ve been doing and do it for the reasons that you enjoy doing it. If you’re being creative, honestly, and people are connecting with it, then that’s obviously… that’s cool, isn’t it? That’s what I’m inspired by – seeing people just doing their thing, and it’s not just because they have to do it.

When you’re playing at festivals like these, how does that experience differ to, say, the back room of pubs, or dive bars, or, I suppose, ‘traditional’ punk and hardcore spaces? Do you approach it any differently?

Rob: I think we treat it the same way, really.

Graham: I don’t ever want to be, and we won’t ever, but one of them bands like having a prescriptive set where in between we’re like ‘Oh, here’s the moment you have banter.’ It’s fucking weird, isn’t it?

Rob: Yeah. I guess, like, we never just expect anything. We never really have expectations of anything. Like yesterday [at Øya Festival in Oslo] we just turned up and just hung out with all the stage crew, they were giving us coffee, and it was just fun to hang out with those guys. And then afterwards we were walking around seeing what else we can see and if anyone stops us we chat to them, which is just the same as any other show, really.

Graham: That was the mad thing, a lot of people watched us and, you know, I guess we do have expectations and they’re fucking low! So when people say, ‘hello’, I’m just like, ‘oh shit, you watched us? Did you like it? Sick! Where have you come from?’ Asking everyone mad questions because I was fascinated by why people here were sitting there watching us. Mad.