Meet THE GREAT HEIGHTS BAND - rad pop INTERVIEW
As a musician, have you ever rushed through a song or album and then afterwards thought; "Wow, why is this all wrong?."; then step back, breathe, read what I'm about to say, and take a lesson or 50 from Baltimore/DC Maryland's THE GREAT HEIGHTS BAND who prove that patience makes perfection when you want that right sound.
- "We make a habit of denying what we know we really want".
Neal Karkhanis (vocals/guitar)
Eric Taft (vocals/guitar)
Owen Brinser (bass)
Paul Martinez (drums)
With their newest sophomore album "rad-pop", to be released on April 20th via CI Records, THE GREAT HEIGHTS BAND took a big and bold step towards their songwriting bringing together a diverse blend of pop, punk, nerd, and indie rock while hinting up nods to retro 70's and 80's aesthetic while bringing it all together with purely, polished in your face rock music.
It's quite a feat to compete with given the band's crazy early history, where only in 2014 they were playing shows with the likes of Hellogoodbye & Fenix TX. "Weird Thoughts" was put out the same year, and CI Records, known for its success with The Pink Spiders, The Juliana Theory, & August Burns Red signed them that same year. 2015/16 saw tours with The Venetia Fair & Icarus the Owl they main support for Bayside and played the Milwaukee Summerfest, nabbing the "Emerging Artist of the Year" award. Then recording, releasing & touring their debut LP (Song in Eastern Standard Timing) SEIST.
The band began writing and recording rad-pop soon after the release of SEIST, singer/guitarist Eric Taft's Buzzlounge Studios in Beltsville, Maryland the same space that has been used by legendary producer Brian McTernan & Matt Squire to record the likes of: Panic! at the Disco, Taking Back Sunday, Boys Like Girls, All Time Low, & Thrice.
Buzzlounge Studios: Beltsville, MD
With full studio control and zero budget constraints, the guys were allowed to experiment, giving attention to details, and writing as many as 50 songs in the year period it took to track, re-write, and brand develop new sounds on "rad-pop."
The band just recently dropped a music video in support of "rad-pop called "BETTER THINGS" and is one of the BEST videos I have ever witnessed. It reminds me of the old infomercials where they're trying to sell you a product on everyday life, and in the commercial they can't do that simple task...too funny. These guys nail it...
I had a chance to talk with THE GREAT HEIGHTS BAND about their newest album "rad-pop", the meaning behind the name, their writing process, how to stay effective and not fall under procrastination spells when idle hands are all your own.
* TPPD: Where did the term “rad-pop” come from?
- Paul Martinez (drums): We never really tried to confine the music we write to one particular genre. We’ve been described as pop-punk, nerd-rock, alternative, amongst many other things. One day, a newspaper wrote a review of us describing us as a “rad, pop band”. That name stuck. If you listen to this record, you’ll be able to hear the spectrum of sounds.
* TPPD: Where did “The Great Heights Band” name come from? What were some other names thrown around in there?
- Neal Karkhanis (vocals/guitar): When I started writing music again, there was no band and I really didn’t have any idea that it would become what it is today. I had been in previous musical projects where the talent in the band was incredible, but the band would get really down on what we were trying to do. It really bummed me out about music altogether, which is why I stopped playing and writing for a few years. So when I started writing again, I wanted a name that was positive and had a “do the best you can” type of meaning. I called it “Great Heights” for that reason; we later changed it to The Great Heights Band. I also wanted it to be a name that was connected to something I love, and the song “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service might be one of the most perfectly written songs ever. When we signed with CI Records we thought deeply about a name change and threw out some options that I can’t even remember now, but we kept arriving back at The Great Heights Band because it just felt like us at that point.
* TPPD: I read that you guys demoed 40-50 tracks before sticking with 18 then finalizing with 11. Were the other 39 songs’ ideas glued together for the 11 on rad-pop.?
- Neal: Nah. The songs that didn’t make the record weren’t chopped up at all or cannibalized for other songs. Two songs are now exclusive bonuses tracks on the vinyl (“Eyes”) and on the CD, too (“Grow Up”). I actually really love a bunch of the demos and hope we can eventually get to recording them properly. Ultimately, the vibes of some of those songs didn’t fit the overall vibe of rad-pop., so if we record them it’ll be cool to put out a different kind of record.
* TPPD: You had your own studio to track this album. Did you guys fall under a procrastinate spell at any period since you had an unlimited amount of time?
- Owen Brinser (bass): There was definitely a laissez faire method with the record. Pieces were put together and much later on in the process we’d pull pieces out, reconfigure them, and then realize how much better it’d be if we put this here instead of that. Having the luxury of taking our time with production definitely helped the album become what it is now!
- Neal: I think having our own studio was great, but definitely didn’t make us very efficient in making the record. Since Eric’s full time job is engineering and producing records, we had to work around his busy schedule to get in the studio to record. We all also had other stuff going on in our lives that prevented us from focusing on the record 100% all the time. During the middle of making the album our buddy Matt Squire moved back to the east coast and the house/studio we record at is actually owned by Matt. He works on really big records so the studio started getting booked even more than usual and we had to use B-rooms and other spaces to get stuff done.
But all in all this is truly a first world problem, especially for a pretty new band. It’s definitely worth the exchange of having an incredible space to record at our own pace while working around the studio’s schedule. It forced us to take our time with the record and gave us an opportunity to really think deeply about the sounds we were using as well as how we constructed the songs. We definitely would not have been able to do that if we were under a time crunch. I think the album came out great because of that.
* TPPD: Did you have an outside ear that wasn’t a band member that was like, “okay get your shit together.”
- Neal: Honestly, not really in terms of pushing us to finish, but definitely in terms of offering gut checks. Our label has always been really good to us in terms of not pushing us to write and record when we aren’t feeling it. We were beginning to hear from friends and fans that they wanted new music, but I definitely think rad-pop. is worth the wait. I think our first record was a strong debut, but rad-pop. is a tremendous step forward for us. Friends like Lee Hallet, who plays in a band called Party Like It’s…, and others really helped by offering an objective ear.
- Owen: Plenty! We had a few band members as well as the record label to bounce tracks off of. I think more importantly than that, we have a very critical mind with our drummer Paul. Neal or Eric would bring something forward and Paul was able to bounce it back knowing that we could do something better with it by spending more time grinding away at it.
- Neal: Haha yeah, Eric and I would work on something for hours and then Paul would walk in and within 15 minutes say that we could do better or that it didn’t work for whatever reason. It was definitely frustrating at times, but Paul and Owen both push Eric and I to do better and it makes the whole band better because of that.
* TPPD: Do you remember when you first started writing songs? How cringeworthy? What were they about?
- Neal: I do and they were awful. I was in a punk band in high school called The Flying Richards. Most of the songs were about certain intimate body parts and, in hindsight, it might be the worst thing I have ever done. Every now and then an old friend sends me a picture of an old TFR CD and I shudder with embarrassment.
- Owen: I was blessed in having friends and bandmates who took over writing songs before there was any documentation of my early struggles with music. I remember mindlessly throwing a verse together for a song a few hours before my first band’s first show. It was after that show that we realized we needed to step back and get an actual singer!
* TPPD: Do you still hold onto old lyrics and old demos from high school, etc.?
- Neal: I think most of mine are probably lost at this point. There was no Dropbox or Google Drive back then so they are probably on some hard drive that is justifiably in the trash can. I’ve started holding onto stuff over the last five or six years and it is really fun to go back and see what I came up with… some of it is pretty cool. In fact, “Monster”, which is off our first record, Songs in Eastern Standard Timing, was originally a demo I wrote for another band that never got finished. I know that “Flutter”, which is on rad-pop., is a song Eric originally wrote for his old band. Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough, but most of it is pretty bad and definitely something worth learning from.
* TPPD: I read that Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day writes a song everyday whether it’s shit or not, even if it’s about raking leaves. He’ll just lay down a verse, chorus, and a bridge, even acapella. What keeps you going? Do you push yourself to go, “okay today is song writing day”? Or is it an organic thing that you can’t force out?
- Neal: I remember when we signed with CI Records, Jeremy Weiss told me that I needed to be prolific with songwriting as John Lennon. Like Billie Joe, Lennon wrote thousands of songs. That really stuck with me so I try to write as often as I can. I’ve probably written a few hundred or so songs at this point in my life, which sounds like a lot, but many don’t get completely finished or demoed out. It gets hard with all the other stuff we gotta do in life, but when I sit down and write it feels like everything makes sense. Sometimes it leads to a cool song and a lot of times I give up because there is nothing there. The best time to write for me is when I am feeling something really passionately. It just flows like a river in those moments. My family knows that I write stupid jingles everyday about almost anything, but that’s more of a weird thing I do rather than a songwriting thing.
* TPPD: I’m a huge sucker for synth, 80s hair metal & that “overused” 8-bit sawtooth sound that was everywhere in the 70s & 80s. In this new album were keyboards and retro sounds a “must have factor” in these songs?
- Neal: For sure - me too! I love 90s alternative and early 2000s pop. As a teenager, Weezer’s Pinkerton and Blue and bands like Reggie and the Full Effect, Motion City Soundtrack, The Hippos, and Zolof and the Rock and Roll Destroyer really stuck out to me with that synthy pop sound. There was a band called The Reunion Show that was really cool, too. Paul really loves a band called The Rentals. I got really into that sound as a kid and then I discovered The Cure, The Cars, and other older bands that also use a lot of synth sounds. I also really got into hair metal like Iron Maiden in high school and just love how over-the-top absurd it is. I know Owen loves really obscure stuff like viking metal, so it’s fun to bring in some of that style to this kind of music.
I think when we came out with “Portland” and some other songs off SIEST that sound really stuck out for us in a good way, and I definitely think it will continue to be a part of our band… maybe not for every song, but for the right fit.
* TPPD: Love the video for “Better Things”. Reminds me of the over exaggerated infomercials where people just can’t figure out “How-To-Life”. Was this the inspiration for the video? If not what was?
- Owen: Yeah the concept got floated on a conference call when someone mentioned it as an off the wall idea and we all immediately clung to it. We definitely pushed to be as deep into the cheesy infomercial side as possible.
- Neal: Thank you! You nailed it. We think those infomercials are really funny and we wanted to spin the idea that rad-pop. could be a energy drink that gives you superpowers… so it’s sort of like Red Bull meets terrible infomercials.
* TPPD: Whereas a lot of other bands nab onto the “heartbreak” and “getting wasted with friends” kind of writing, you guys wrote about environmentalism and politics on this record as well as social media hypocrisies. What inspired to you to break free of the cliche common-ness of writing and will we see this in future records?
- Neal: Thanks for noticing that! Honestly, I feel like what we are doing to our planet and what has been happening politically is heartbreaking in itself. I think as songwriters we have a duty to talk about stuff that really matters to us and, for me personally, I can’t think of many things that matter more. There will probably be more songs like that on future records depending on what’s going on in the world, but I think we need to be careful about striking a balance with still being our happy-go-lucky selves and not forcing this band into being a serious political band. I like it when bands like Third Eye Blind are able to write songs about the more simple nuances of life like love and partying with friends, but they are also able to talk about much bigger issues. I think that’s where we are now and I’d like to stay on that path.
* TPPD: You guys are heading out on tour this April with my good buddies Eternal Boy. Any “must haves” you bring on tour with you?
- Neal: First off, we are super excited to play these shows with Eternal Boy. I’ve been a big fan of theirs since The Space Pimps days and ever since we got started those guys have been super cool and welcoming to us. As far as must haves… definitely Owen’s famous chicken salad. It feeds us for days for less than $10. And it makes him really happy when we eat it. For me personally, a good pair of headphones so I can zone out and a good book. Also, can’t ever forget my electric toothbrush.
* TPPD: Best tip you’ve learned through the years of touring?
- Owen: Chicken salad is a tour essential.
1.) Don’t overpack. You can get almost anything everywhere. It’s best to pack light and not worry about “stuff.”
2.) Enjoy the moment and have fun with it. We are really lucky to get to play rock and roll shows with our best buds and see the world while we do it.
3.) Find time to eat well and take care of your body. Touring can be really stressful mentally and physically, and it’s important to pace yourself and stay healthy, especially as a singer.
See THE GREAT HEIGHTS BAND on tour this spring, & look out for their new album "rad-pop" out everywhere on April, 20th 2018 via CI Records.
In the meantime listen to them now through any of the links below:
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