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New Artist Focus: High Strange

For all of us, the year 2020 was a downer for a plethora of reasons, but it feels like it was our music scenes that were the most directly affected. With large gatherings deemed unsafe and mostly prohibited, we lost out on lots of great shows, tours and fests.

But that doesn’t mean it stopped people from finding ways to flex their creative muscles during the wait. When three New Yorkers, who all of which used to make a steady living in stage production, found themselves with some extra time on their hands, they decided to craft a blend of metal, thrash, and doom to form High Strange. But it wasn’t until they tapped into an old friend and noise musician they found their unique sound.

I recently sat down with two members of High Strange to discuss the project and their upcoming record, Woe Upon Man. Also, check out the exclusive stream of their track “Descend and You May See" below!

Can you start off by introducing yourselves and what you guys do in this project? 

Jay Newman: I'm Jay Newman and I play bass guitar and I guess, the noise.

Conor Hickey: I'm Conor Hickey and I play guitar.

Give me a little history about how you met in the Long Island metal scene, and what it took for you guys to find yourself collaborating together.

Conor Hickey: I knew who Jay was, and I think Jay knew who I was, for a while through mutual friends, like our buddy Lee Altomare (of The Communion, RIP). I knew Jay's band, Unearthly Trance, for a while—I was a fan. I knew we had similar interests, and mutual friends, but then we started working together and got closer. He hooked me up with a job when I needed one and through the course of the pandemic, I think we got a lot tighter.

Jay Newman: Definitely. I think we all wanted to try to do something different from what we were doing with our previous bands, so it happened pretty naturally. 

How did you guys get Joe Branciforte in the mix? Because Joe's also a seasoned vet, playing in bands like All Out War and Darkside NYC. What brought him in there on drums?

Jay Newman: Well, we worked with Joe, and I've known him for a long time. I'd recorded Joe with his band, The Communion. I got to see how good of a drummer Joe was, and you know, we got friendly. 

Conor Hickey: We all keep a pretty tight circle whether it comes to friends and music, and it's that Venn diagram is almost the same.

Jay Newman: I've never really played in a band with anyone that I haven't considered a good friend. I've known these guys for like ten years before we were playing in a band together. 

Did you guys have a definitive idea - like a list of influences—before you actually began playing? Which came first, like the guitar or the sampler?

Jay Newman: I don't know exactly what the musical influence was, but we're kind of pulling from a lot of different things. And we're still kind of navigating it too. So…  I had one thing - I didn't want to play in the same tuning, so that was a thing. I've been playing in B for like 20 years! [laughs] I was almost like “any style of hard metal,” because I like everything, and I think these guys do too. But, for me, playing in a doom band for so long, I was definitely feeling the speed kind of stuff. 

I love that tuning pulled you in.

Jay Newman: I was like “if it's in B I'm just not into it!”

Conor Hickey: Joe and I talked about Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death and things like that. I’d sent a couple of ideas to Jay and when we all got in the same room it happened pretty organically.

Jay Newman: It's definitely a mash up. I feel like we're all into a lot of different music, punk, hardcore, metal. We were talking about Autopsy today... just the classic '90s death metal. Then kind of trying to incorporate something to make it kind of unique with the noise elements. And to mention, [our singer] Jonathan Canady too... he comes from a real noise background so he kind of brings his own kind of ideas too.

Conor Hickey: Jonathan sent over a bunch of stuff to use, sort of at will, that wound up getting incorporated into it pretty naturally. I think one of the reasons we all get along, is we all like really straightforward shit. Whether it's Megadeth, but also like fucking out there shit like Portal. So I think whatever the impetus was, be it a lot of those bands that we threw around in the beginning, it was like “well, that's cool, but we'll just throw that out the window and let this sort of percolate.”

Well, speaking of Jonathan, that kind of leads me into my next question. Would this band exist if it wasn't for COVID-19? Because you wouldn't necessarily reach out to someone who lives on the opposite coast to be a singer of your New York based band...

Jay Newman: Oh yeah, it would have. With Unearthly Trance and Jonathan, we've collaborated a few times before. We did a split with Primitive Man and he contributed to that. We've just been friends for a while. We covered one of his songs live and he came up and did vocals. And then Unearthly Trance kind of went on a hiatus but we stayed in touch.

We always wanted to make music together, and he always wanted to do a band where he was the front man singing. I think it would have happened without Covid, but it definitely brought it on. He did this band Deathpile, which is a pretty well respected power electronics act. It's pretty, pretty brutal. It’s like “serial killer” power electronics, like Whitehouse kind of craziness. But the vocals are kind of the same approach.

Are you guys able to comment on the aspect of Woe Upon Man being a concept album, and where you culled all that stuff from?

Jay Newman: The original idea of High Strange—I think Conor and I had a different direction we wanted to go in… we wanted to go a little sci-fi, out-there ideas. But then he had this concept idea he just kind of approached us with it. It wasn't something we talked about beforehand, but we gave him free rein to do it. I think the concept worked and made sense. He wanted to make a cohesive piece where the whole thing wasn't just like random songs. That it was all gelled together. 

And that concept is August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Do you guys think it would be necessary for a person to have a background with A Dream Play to have a better listening experience?

Jay Newman: I don't think they need it. I don't. I was new to it, too! The music was written before the concept came. Moving forward, having it all happening at once would work differently, but that's just the way we did it obviously with him being so far away. I think the concept worked and made sense.

Conor Hickey: It did work. I didn't think it would end up being like this sort of concept, conceptual, cohesive thing.

Do you think other releases will be concept albums in the future?

Jay Newman: I don't know if it has to be. It could be. Not everything has to be this concept album kind of thing, I think that's just how it worked out for this one. 

So you guys have this record full of different turns and directions, right? Some of it is real just straight metal, and then you have these beats that are really like primal, jungle things. But then you're hit with almost a cavernous cacophony of sound, and it's like there's some preacher screaming at you, like you're in some sort... like A Clockwork Orange or some shit, you know?

Conor Hickey: Best review I've heard yet!

So how did all these things come together? Was it “oh, we wrote this doomy part—would it be cool if we laced in something completely right turn?” What sort of brought the concepts? Was it the songs, or the noise?

Conor Hickey: Just the way that the three of us were in a room together with a bass, a guitar, and drums the sort of structural, more traditional elements came together first. And then because we all have pretty open minds towards music, heavy music in general, it was like “well, how can we flesh this out so it maybe impacts a little more?” That kind of reactionary feeling, I mean, that's what Jonathan's music is.

If you listen to G.R.the Deathpile record, it's like... uncomfortable to listen to it by design. I think taking a lot of those elements and incorporating them into the mood that we were already starting with worked. I was talking to someone about it, they're like “oh, I like the filler songs” or “I like the interludes.” They're not interludes, you know? They're proper songs and I think your reaction speaks to that.

Jay Newman: As Jonathan was writing the lyrics, he was like “well, I have this idea where, in order for me to put the whole piece together, I'd like to have this other track somehow.” So we kind of made it, not as an afterthought, but we created this other piece that was more experimental, and that we all put stuff on it, in order to tell his story.

During Covid I made this noise box thing called the “Apprehension Engine,” you can check it out on YouTube or whatever. I kind of based that around the idea of this like... I don't want to insult the Hurdy Gurdy, but it's like a crude Hurdy Gurdy with like cello strings on a wheel. I wanted this intense, weird ambience, or atmosphere… whatever you want to call it. As time goes on now, we’re all thinking of different things and how to make more experimental elements. 

Conor Hickey: I really have an aversion to that sort of like cork-sniffing gearhead kind of shit, you know what I mean? I think Jay and I are a little more punk rock when it comes to it. Also, both of us are fortunate enough because of our jobs that we’ve had access to a lot of cool things.

For one of the noise elements I was able to set up an old Leslie and old organ speaker and just record a guitar track on that. But the only reason I was able to do that is because I worked at a place that had it. Otherwise we would have done something else. You know what I mean?

Jay Newman: I think with heavy music, and stuff that's real primitive and kind of ugly, you don't need you don't need all the fancy stuff. 

So this is going to be out on Chrome Peeler as a cassette and LP. But the question that I guess everyone's asking any band now is “when the time is right, and when it's more natural and normal, will all four of you try to get together to actually play some shows as the band that you’ve become virtually?”

Conor Hickey: I think High Strange would like to play a show. What's funny is that Jay and I had this conversation at the end of last summer when we first started playing. I was like “yeah, I'm going to just fucking make music” you know, because I think we all were losing our fucking minds. But I definitely, through the course of making the record, and then with the finished product, I definitely was like “I want to play this shit live.”

Once it all coalesced and I was really proud of it, and really more than that, enjoyed the time with Jay and Joe (at a time when like, yo shit was fucked for everyone!) I was like “I want to play these songs.” 

What can we expect from you guys going forward? Is there anything else in the works?

Conor Hickey: We got a batch of new songs we've been writing. We're just going to keep getting at it in the same way, you know? It still is fun. The songs are still great, as far as I'm concerned, the newer shit we're coming up with...

Jay Newman: It's a band of friends. That's important to me. When things stop being fun, then it's not a band anymore. But we do have great ideas already coming, so I'd like to just record more. Do a full album. So I think that would be the next step for us. Just staying creative and having fun.

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Woe Upon Man will be out July 16th via Chrome Peeler Records at this link.

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Tagged: high strange, new artist focus

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