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Size 85 High Tops’ “Someplace Else Maybe,” off of their forthcoming album, Rev It Up? / Premiere

Portland's Size 85 High Tops’ forthcoming album, Rev It Up (In Music We Trust Records), fuses power pop, prog, acid-folk, and country

We are told:

Portland’s Size 85 High Tops’ forthcoming album, Rev It Up (In Music We Trust Records), fuses power pop, prog, acid-folk, and country to deliver a dark and lovely psych-rock cornucopia over their sprawling thirteen-track sophomore release, which will be available digitally and on double vinyl this spring.

Led by vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Jesse Keyes, the band also includes co-producer and drummer Scott Van Schoick, bassist John Wolcott, and lead guitarists Joel Bocek and Al Toribio.  Keyes’s teenage daughter Myra contributes occasional lead and backing vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Kyleen King helps round out the band both live and on the record.

“We’re, uh, kinda like an Island of Misfit Toys band,” Keyes says.  “People float over and float away but we have our core group of castaways.”

The band’s colorful debut, Size 85 High Tops Get Loose, was self-released in late 2015 and the writing process for it, according to Keyes, never really let up.  He describes the difference between the albums: “There was no break, but the music began to move in the direction of the strength of our players.  The last album was written song by song.  With Rev all the music came out in a rush and I went back and lyricized everything around a veiled concept.”  He continues, “With Loose we brought in just a handful of tunes only very roughly rehearsed and no clear idea of what we wanted, or who'd even be available.  That first album was all done on the fly.  This time we cooked up most of our rhythm sections and went in very focused.  Getting John on bass was key.  And Steve (Drizos, engineer).  We all locked in.  Rev is much tighter overall thematically, and I just think Scotty and I, as producers – we learned a lot making that first record and there were things we wanted to improve on and do differently.”

The new record tends even more toward the complex, with the band shapeshifting again and again to fit each unique piece.  The songs strike out their course “in the way of a travelogue,” as Keyes calls it, weaving folk melodies, spirituals, and classical touchstones (Ives and Copland are among two American composers subtly quoted) into the band’s proggy strains of rock and psychedelia to make an assimilated, if flexible, whole.  The band’s hallmarks – occasional horn swells, strings, interwoven guitars and lush contrapuntal harmonies – are there, but the music is more experimental and free-form, the structuring more diverse.  Keyes balks at the idea of there being any overt messages: “Nah.  I hate messages.  Messages are for pigeons, or bottles.  But love and death, beauty in suffering, those old themes hang around.  There are movements…life toward death, love and heartbreak, west to east, rhythm to melody, growth and deterioration, future's past.  I do think the album reaches what amounts to a conclusion: that we're just a speck, and a sad one at that.  It’s all agonized over probably way too much lyrically to preserve an air of ambiguity which is essential.  In the end a listener brings his or her own unique sensibility to music, so it's up to them anyway to interpret it freely.”

As with the first High Tops record, the list of contributors is long.  Keyes describes the band as something of a collective: “I like working with different artists and writing for other voices, female singers especially, younger musicians, letting people read the music their own way and maybe having a stake in the writing process.  That’s more or less the direction we’re moving in.  The girls in our band will probably give us all our pink slips one day.  Thanks boys, but we’ve got it from here. And I’ll be cool with that.”   

Keyes admits he’s unsure how or where the album fits into today’s rapidly changing musical landscape.  “You can’t tell how a record fits in until you let it smolder down in the ashtray of pop culture for thirty-odd years.  A lot of my favorite records are old obscure relics I dig up myself and so I guess those are the kind of records I try to make, unconsciously – stuff that might be discovered in a bin in fifty years with a dollar sticker on it.  It’s exciting to make music right now because nobody gives a shit.  Everybody is struggling for footing on the same constantly shifting but relatively even playing field and there’s an incredible oversaturation.  So you just make the music you like with no expectations beyond the aims of the artist or band for that song, or that collection of songs.  Music is like water.  It follows a path of least resistance and finds its way eventually to whoever, wherever, however, whenever.  Package it any way you like, but people need it, and they’ll get it.  We really try to stay isolated and tethered to our own aesthetic which has been evolving and hopefully is headed to a good place.  We’re certainly an outlier.  Way, way out.  We’re an anachronism.  We’re nobody.”

When asked what he’d compare the record, or even the band, to, he’s hesitant, going as far to say, “That's for others to do.  We have a lot of influences, but we're our own mutant species.”

Discussing the title of the record, Keyes mentions its open-ended meaning.  “The title has different implications: obviously it means to hit the accelerator, increase the energy level.  I liked the idea of a big pair of basketball shoes stretching out on our first album, warming up, and getting into the game, like in a Sesame Street skit or a cartoon.  Remember Basketball Jones?  This album is the second of three and they're all of a piece.  The word ‘rev’ is similar to ‘red,’ which is the album's major color.  But ‘rev’ could be short for revolution, revelation, revival, revamp, revelry, reverberate, reverie, revenge, reverse, revere, revolt.  I love all those words.  Album titles are like band names – meaningless in the grand scheme.”

While Keyes is happy where the group is at creatively, he also doesn’t shy away from the fact that the band is more of a studio project than a live one.  The High Tops are headed back into The Panther (Drizos’s studio) later in the year to begin work on a massive 36-song venture to cap their trilogy.

“We've only played one show so far with these new songs, so who knows where they'll end up,” he says, when asked if Rev captures the live sound of the band.  “When you play out as infrequently as us, the songs live are always works-in-progress.”

“There are some that are very tricky to pull off in a live setting,” he continues. “So we need more players for those.  Others can be dressed down and distilled to basic elements.  We have a set for smaller rooms and we can work up a set for a bigger stage.  We've only ever played thirteen shows, so there are songs from the first record that are just now really coming together.  We probably need to play more gigs, but we're the kind of band that holes up in the studio for two years and then we put an album out, play a show, and go right back into the hole.  We're like groundhogs wary of the sun, or our own shadows, or crowds or something.  Back to the island we always go.”

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