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High and Mighty Low: An interview with the band

fingerI was asked today why music plays such a big role in my fiction writing, and I remembered an interview I did for Mixtape Methodology with the band High and Mighty Low while researching and writing my debut novel RADIO HEAD.  The band covered The Beatles’ iconic song Blackbird, and it got me thinking about how a single song can leave an indelible mark on our lives, just as a good book might. Please read on and share the song that’s your jam.

A Brief Examination of High and Mighty Low’s Blackbird
*as published in Mixtape Methodology

What’s your jam? Maybe you heard your latest fave last night at the club. Or is your best-loved song an old favorite? Many music fans create playlists or vinyl collections featuring songs marking a significant time, or a rite of passage. The beginning of a relationship. Or its end. A song played on repeat in the privacy of headphones or on your morning commute is, for that moment, yours alone. What you listen to forms a lens, calibrating your worldview. When one powerful song becomes “my jam,” it’s the manifestation of your own anthem.

Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler says Fake Plastic Trees, a song from Radiohead’s The Bends album, marked a musically significant point in her life. “The Bends came out in 1995, and I was 14 and just starting to learn the guitar.” Nadler wanted to sing Fake Plastic Trees; “It was the first time I really successfully played barre chords,” she said. “The Bends, along with [Nirvana’s] In Utero, and even [Hole’s] Live Through This, these were albums that soundtracked the teenage years for me.”

It’s kind of freakish to think about the ingredients that go into an original song. Assuming the band gets along and every member contributes his or her best material, a song comprises the amalgam of the group’s talent. It conveys an image and philosophy using lyrics, and an arrangement of notes to form a melody that carries its own story. A song sets a tone, and illustrates an atmosphere, combining instruments that both harmonize and counter. Arguably, a song is only an idea, rhetoric perhaps, until it is performed. Musicians and singers come to the mic with a personal aesthetic, an inborn message and style, and the restless desire to share their creation with an audience of listeners. The final production includes the input of accompanying musicians, producers, and audio engineers. And possibly Yoko Ono types.

But what about when a band chooses to cover another performer’s song, recording and releasing it alongside the group’s own original offerings? What’s the significance, a shoutout back to the original song-writer? Or perhaps it’s a revelation, a keepsake or a snapshot holding a truth about the performer covering it.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana once remarked, “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band. Or at least in a Pixies cover band.”

Like all music fans, musicians are drawn to songs that mattered to them, for whatever reason. Maybe their favorite marks a milestone. Maybe it gashed a deep wound leaving a lifelong scar, rendering that chosen song a souvenir that must be shared. A covered a song allows listeners to know a given performer on a deeper level than even his or her own creations might reveal. Call it trickle-down mastery, the artists who came before established and reinforced the foundation of modern music. A student’s mastery of an instrument or a vocal style is influenced by the teachers who lead the way, who held the light on the path. For professional performers, those teachers were often their favorite songs.

Los Angeles-based rock band High and Mighty Low is gaining a strong following with their debut album, Bones. The group is comprised of John DiBiase (guitar, vocals), Matt Boehm (guitar), Jeff Mallow (guitar), Scott Schneider (drums), and Rick Zaccaro (bass). Bones covers a broad field of guitar-heavy alternative rock, from the howling guitars featured in Taken to the blazing and energetic, The Tragedies We Hold, to a melodic nod to popular music with, Half The Time.

High and Mighty Low chose to release its debut album with a bonus track, a cover of The Beatles’ Blackbird. A song you’ve likely loved too at some point, Blackbird is listed among the top ten most covered songs, from a wide spectrum of performers in several music categories, from folk-infused Sarah McLachlan to an extraordinary arrangement by Alicia Keys, with only her piano as accompaniment. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl have often favored Blackbird at live shows.

Blackbird first appeared on The Beatles (also referred to as the White Album). Written and originally performed as a solo effort by Paul McCartney, Blackbird is credited nonetheless a Lennon-McCartney collaboration.

Blackbird is frankly a weird outtake from High and Mighty Low’s overall sound esthetic. Frontman John DiBiase offered some insight about why the band selected that particular song. Blackbird was recorded on June 11, 1968 (released November 25, 1968), decades before any member of the band was born. How does Blackbird speak for High and Mighty Low, building a bridge beyond the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements they’ve crafted for themselves?

“I love how stripped down that song is,” says DiBiase. “And the guitar playing is obviously fantastic by McCartney.” Stripping down seems to be a hot topic for the DiBiase and the band. The word “bones” happens to appear in a few tracks he wrote “Considering how stripped down some of the album is, I just felt Bones was an appropriate title,” DiBiase added.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, McCartney recorded Blackbird on his own. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were across the pond in California, and John Lennon was recording the song Revolution 9 in another studio. When they were school boys, Paul McCartney and George Harrison attempted to learn a Johann Sebastian Bach piece called Bourrée in E Minor, a song, like Nadler’s Fake Plastic Trees, which marked a significant period in their lives, and on the journey to learning their craft. It became, essentially, their jam. McCartney carried that musical souvenir into adulthood. He said that Blackbird’s fingerpicked guitar lines, written at his Scotland farm, were based on Bach’s Bourrée in E minor.

“Hearing him tap his foot is something,” says DiBiase, referring to the distinctive background sound many believed was merely a metronome. Audio engineer Geoff Emerick mic’d up Paul McCartney’s foot tapping, and added recordings of a singing male blackbird. McCartney told Emerick he wanted the song, “to sound as if he were singing it outdoors.” Emerick said, “Then let’s do it outdoors.” Blackbird was recorded outside Abbey Road Studios’ echo chamber.

The whole production flows in the vein of a busking folk singer in the decade of discontent. The lyrics portray McCartney’s response to US race relations in the 1960s. Sir Paul was in good company. Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez were also driving forces for grass roots change. But what is it about Blackbird that has endured, enough to inspire a bunch of L.A. dudes in their 20s to resurrect the old favorite?

“The song itself is both simple and complex at the same time,” explains DiBiase, “which is difficult to pull off. And the lyrics and melody are as good as it gets.”

Aside from its significant and long-standing message, John DiBiase says the song “is fun to play, on or off stage. I really do love it.” McCartney would have to agree. Paul McCartney felt compelled to perform it for fans camped outside his house. His inspiration? It was the first night his future wife Linda Eastman stayed overnight. Perhaps that’s what transforms a good song to a classic; it reminds you of a time you’ll never forget.

BLACKBIRD

Written by Paul McCartney, John Lennon
Copyright: Sony/ATV Tunes LLC

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Fun fact: “Blackbird” is one of the top ten most recorded covers of all time

Hear Paul McCartney’s Blackbird 

Because it’s nearly impossible to choose only one favorite, the author invites music fans and musicians alike to send their top ten all-time favorite songs to the RADIO HEAD book Fan Playlists page, here. Your top ten matters, share it with the world.

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Filed under For the love of writing, Freelance Writing