Rising Acts: The Highballers
In this sea of straight-laced politicos that is Washington D.C., there are those who row madly and melodically against the current. They aren’t afraid to turn up the volume and rock-country-style. They dare to let their suits shine and their guitars sparkle. Individually, they are four gentlemen and a lady (comprised of vocalist Victoria Patchen, guitarist Kendall Jackson and Sean Lally, drummer Drake Sorey, and bassist Michael Barrientos). Together, they are the Americana/alt-country band the Highballers.
Having just celebrated the release of their LP Soft Music and Hard Liquor with a sold-out IOTA crowd this past January, the Highballers will be taking the stage this Friday at Hard Rock Cafe. After that, it’s wheels up for a full tour in support of the new album and to build anticipation for the next LP which has already begun to take shape.
The entire band took some time to answer DMD’s questions about how they’d classify their sound, why the idea of “country” music is such a complicated one, and the secrets behind their fancy stage attire, among other things.
D.C. Music Download: How good (or bad) is life in the nation’s capital for an Americana/alt-country outfit like yourselves?
Sean Lally: It’s been improving. Mostly we just need to meet more audiences. We can usually win them over-the music speaks for itself. I’ve been in 50 bands, more or less. Some lasted a decade and toured the country. Some lasted only half a practice. This is the one I’m most proud of, on all fronts.
Michael Barrientos: D.C. actually has a bit of country roots with Emmylou Harris, one of our favorites, who has ties to the area. But it did take a while for people to catch on to us. They’d see “country” and automatically think we were going to come out with big hats and play line dance music. People are always surprised, sometimes even shocked, when they see us live. It’s always fun blowing some hipster’s mind with our rocked-up spin on a Waylon Jennings song or seeing people you’d least expect really get into it.
Kendall Jackson: People in this town do know their twang though. It’s sort of an underground alt-country haven. Think about it. A city filled with overachieving nerds with musical tastes ranging from classical to prog-rock, residing in a town that made the telecaster famous. It’s almost a rite of passage to embrace roots music when you move here, and if you’re from here you already know. Yep, D.C. is a telecaster town. The real problem, as with any town, is convincing people it’s worth their time to venture out at night to see live music.
DMD: In a perfect world (free of musical prejudice), would you call your music straight-up “country”?
MB: Our band has always been hard for people to classify. I remember a show early on where a woman from Nashville came up after our first set and said, “You guys aren’t country. You’re rock, you’re punk, you’re Americana, but you’re not country!” But she still liked us. We can’t really call ourselves country anymore because people associate it with the Top 40 stuff on the radio that I personally can’t bear to listen to. My dad was a truck driver and I grew up with stuff like Johnny Horton, Hank Williams, and Conway Twitty. My idea of country music comes from folks like Buck Owens and Gram Parsons. Have you ever listened to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos Live at Carnegie Hall Live album? It’s pretty badass.
SL: I see it as American music, in general. Country is a big tent. The music that is popular country today is not what we do; it bears more resemblance to pop music and in some cases pop-rock or lite metal. It hits you over the head more, whereas traditional country a la the ‘60s and ‘70s (which is closer to how I’d characterize us) requires more nuanced listening.
DMD: So how would you explain the backlash that the “country” label sometimes triggers? What is it about country music that inspires such heated, polarized passions?
Drake Sorey: Early country tended to be screechy and basic, newer country tends to be soft, mushy, and bland, and sounds like straight pop. I think if more people knew the history of early rockin’ country music, they would appreciate it.
KJ: For lovers of country music, it’s a deeply personal thing. The songs and melodies ease into the mind like sixty-year-old Kentucky bourbon. One identifies with the lyrics and the story becomes something of an old friend. When naysayers poke fun, calling country “hillbilly” or “backwoods,” there is a backlash, a you-don’t-know-me reaction, because fans of the music feel as though their opinions and morals are being attacked. Fortunately, we bridge the divide between hipster and hillbilly with our own brand of country music. We sing about characters with questionable (or zero) morals, and celebrate the alcohol-induced existence we would all likely be living, if not for jobs, family, and the law getting in the way.
DMD: What would you say to skeptics to convince them to give country music a chance?
DS: We’re just a rock ‘n roll band. Some of the greatest artists and music at the beginning of rock ‘n roll were country influenced.
SL: I’d say, see if you can dance to it. Listen to the words. See if anything about it appeals to you. That’s probably the same barometer I should be applying to hip hop or techno. Maybe I’d like that stuff more if I followed my own advice.
KJ: The genre is as diverse as any. Not every song is about your dog dying and how drunk your mother-in-law gets before church. (But those would be two good ones!) Call it what you want—roots, Americana, country, western—our band loves to tell a story with our music. Whether it’s with humor or drama, we love to stir the pot with our songs. Country music is made for the storyteller.
MB: People (me included) have been so dissuaded by corporate country. I’d urge them to check out folks like Dave Alvin, the Derailers, the Sadies, or older stuff like Willie Nelson in the early ‘70s and the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. From there, there’s a world of cool country for just about anyone.
DMD: True or false? (I’m quoting “Close to the Line” off of your new album here.) “Cause this East Coast, well it’s alright / But when I get the cash ya’ll, / I’m moving back down south.”
[All fingers point to Kendall.]
KJ: Hey, nobody said how far South. I may be referring to Virginia!
DMD: Any D.C. area groups that are representing for country music at the moment that you’d recommend?
MB: Arty Hill’s based out of Baltimore but has a D.C. presence. He’s great with more traditional honky-tonk. Sean K. Preston, also out of Baltimore, puts on an amazing show and is tireless. Karen Collins knocks me out with her Loretta Lynn voice. Jack Gregori, the Human Country Jukebox frontman, is hands down the best country singer in town. He has a big, powerful, charismatic voice that represents the type of country we like.
SL: I loved playing with Kid Goat at our release party. Also Jumpin’ Jupiter, Charlie Harrison and the WeatherVanes. Great people-great bands.
KJ: I’ll add Danny K., Andy Vaughan and the Driveline, and of course Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun.
DMD: Kendall and Sean started out playing music in the garage rock scene and Mike in a punk band. That’s an interesting shift. Would the Highballers have been a different band without those other-genre beginnings?
KJ: This is an important part of who we are. Country music as interpreted by surf punk and garage rockers. It gives us crossover street cred which I think comes across at our live shows. You’ll see all types of people at a Highballers’ concert. It continuously amazes us to meet the folks that venture out to see us. The fans of traditional country appreciate our dedication to the spirit of the genre, punk rockers appreciate our fearless approach, and the pop music divas love our fancy outfits.
SL: I’m a long-time music geek who truly loves all forms of rock and roll guitar. There’s an extent to which we can all learn a lot from the Ramones, though. Being versed in rock and roll, surf, and garage helps my country guitar playing. All require sensitivity to the song for it to work well.
DMD: The Highballers have sung with several female vocalists since forming. Your current leading lady, Victoria, is a sort of jack-of-all trades on the D.C. music scene having fronted a bunch of bands (for example, Lucky Day and the electro-pop group the District All-Stars) all while working as a session and an event singer. Is she the one?
SL: Victoria is THE one. Accept no substitutes. Just took a while to find her.
DS: She completely hit it off with our potty-mouth lead singer.
KJ: When we met her we knew we had to have her! She’s taken everything to a new level. From the way we run practice to the way we record, Victoria has added a level of professionalism that this bunch of drunks needed badly.
MB: Victoria was our missing puzzle piece. She has perfect pitch and really pulled the whole thing together, really brought out the best in Kendall as well. After she joined, we knew we had to make the record. She has tons of recording experience and was invaluable in the studio. More than anything, she has a quick, sharp wit and can hold her own with a somewhat crass group of guys.
DMD: Victoria, what drew you to the Highballers? How big of a leap was it from what you’d done previously? Were you a fan of the genre going in?
Victoria Patchen: I saw their ad on Craigslist and decided to check out one of their shows at the Rock and Roll Hotel. They really stood out from the usual bands—from their stellar musicianship and stage presence to their catchy tunes and shiny suits. These guys know how to entertain.
My first band was acoustic folk, which had some of the same vocal characteristics as country. (I used to draw a lot of comparisons to Jewel back then.) I find myself rediscovering some of those folk style elements, which I haven’t had the opportunity to explore much since turning to focus on pop. Before seeing the Craigslist ad, I had just started listening to Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, so I was excited about the opportunity to sing some great country tunes.
DMD: What’s one thing about you that surprised the other Highballers?
VP: That I’m a semi-closeted cat lady!
DMD: Being the only woman in a band with four guys—blessing or curse?
VP: I’ve been the only girl in pretty much every band I’ve ever been in, and in high school was the only girl in the drum section, so I’m pretty used to it. I’ve been told my sense of humor morphs into that of a 13-year-old boy whenever I’m around my bandmates.
DMD: Victoria mentioned the shiny suits. Custom made or just really good finds?
SL: Really good finds.
KJ: When it comes to clothing, we are thrifters with an eye for the deluxe. Our motto is, “If it meets the look, there’s a sewing machine waiting that can make it fit—perfectly.”
SL: Hopefully the custom clothes will come after the fame.
MB: Yeah, hopefully one day we can get custom-made Manuel suits or even good fakes. We’re all clothing whores. That’s another department that Victoria fit better than anybody; she’s an impeccable dresser and into flash and sparkles as much as the rest of us.
DMD: In addition to being well-dressed, you have a real knack for bringing to life the characters in your songs. Some of these, you’ve mentioned, are based on real people. (I suppose we can only speculate whether that gem of a song “A Cowgirl Who Understands” is based in reality.) Ever get in trouble for writing about someone you knew?
KJ: Let’s just say, every time I write a song about adultery, my wife especially wants to know the motivation behind it. Every time I write a drinking song, my mother wants to know why I am so familiar with drugs and booze. And every time I pen a tale about murder or suicide, my close friends schedule an intervention.
DMD: Your LP Soft Music and Hard Liquor was just released. How soon will you start thinking about the next record? Or will touring be the main focus for the foreseeable future?
MB: We’re already sharpening songs at shows to prepare for our next album that we’ll record later this spring. We’ll be touring as well, with a focus on Texas and the Southwest, as well as North Carolina, Philly, Pittsburgh, and New York. Maybe hit Cleveland again and a bunch of other places.
VP: Texas—I bet the guys could find some stellar new suits out there!
DMD: To close, how about a question that you wish you’d get asked in interviews, but never do?
SL: “What’s up with the sparkly guitars?” Why would I want anything other than a sparkly guitar? Sparkles always sound better.