Following »Another Night« (2011), »You Are Here« (2014), »Motivator« (2016) and »Hard To Stop« (2020) Chicago’s finest, the mighty High Spirits, are about to unleash their long awaited fifth studio album entitled »Safe On The Other Side« onto the expectant public.
There is probably not a more fitting record to mark the 20th anniversary of High Roller Records. »Safe On The Other Side« bears the catalogue number HRR1000. Chris “The Professor” Black, multi-instrumentalist, singer and founder of High Spirits, feels extremely honoured by this: “Hell, yes, I do! I am proud that the relationship has lasted so long and that the company has meanwhile been so successful. It is a great personal achievement that High Spirits can be on a record label alongside so many cult and classic albums, and one whose name is synonymous with the absolute best in product quality.”
High Spirits themselves originally started out in 2009, a long time ago. What were the highlights and the low points in their enduring career? “The highlight for me is to be welcomed and accepted by so many different types of fans,” finds Chris Black. “On our most recent tours we discovered that our audience is more diverse than ever, talking about the mix of ages, sexes, races, and styles. I always feel our music incorporates a wide spectrum of influences, and I want the lyrics to speak to everyone, so it is satisfying indeed, to see this reflected and confirmed by the audience. There may have been some lowlights along the way but I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten them... Oh, now I remember one: I sang ‘Full Power’ quite poorly at Party-San Open Air in 2022. I do apologize. But maybe enough time has passed that I can admit that the worst period for me was recording »You Are Here«. I nearly collapsed under the pressure of following-up the debut album. I was close to giving up, yes, and maybe I should have. There were a lot of reasons that session was so difficult, but in one word, it was pressure. Some types and amounts of pressure can be helpful, but this was the dark and destructive kind. Many people loved that album, and that was some comfort, but I did not love it, and I basically betrayed myself by releasing it anyway. The good news is that I wrote the first four songs for »Motivator« a few months later, and that was exhilarating, because I knew that my recovery was not only possible – it was already complete.”
A lot of people actually preferred »Motivator« to the follow-up »Hard To Stop«. What would be the explanation for that and was it the common opinion of press and fans alike? “I don’t know,” reflects “The Professor”, “but I do think »Motivator« was underrated at the time of its release. And »Hard To Stop« came out during the pandemic, with no ability to do any touring, so everything can be difficult to measure. But it’s only normal for different listeners to have different favorites, and the only time it might concern me a little is when we’re choosing songs for the live show. »Motivator« is special to me because it’s the only album of approximately 30 that I’ve made which manifested exactly as it had appeared in my imagination. We always start with a goal, the so-called ‘perfect idea’, but then it becomes changed, refined, perhaps compromised or perhaps improved, by the process of bringing it into reality. »Motivator« is the one exception. That’s a special little album that came out exactly the way I had envisioned it. So this was very satisfying, especially considering the »You Are Here« trauma. I could have stopped after »Motivator«, and I almost did, but it’s hard! And that’s ok.”
The new High Spirits album is called »Safe On The Other Side«. Now, as usual, the title and the cover leave a lot of room for interpretation. There is a labyrinth on the cover, and “the other side” is often associated with life after death (or whatever may follow) … It’s probably down to the listeners to make up their own minds and find their own meaning of what the title is supposed to mean? “Yes, of course,” confirms Chris Black. “Everything is always open to interpretation by the audience, and we can be more or less generous with that space, depending on the language we use for our titles and lyrics. You’re exactly right that I also want our imagery to be relatively uncomplicated for a similar reason, and that is that different listeners will connect in different ways and through different experiences. I can tell you that my personal connection to the title is actually quite literal. Returning to a condition where I was able to make this album was very hard and took lots of patience. Then the actual making of the album was another long, complicated, and sometimes difficult process as well. Throughout that process I had many ideas for album titles which were, let’s say, close but not quite right. I also meanwhile had a song called ‘Safe On The Other Side“’ which did not make it through the early stages of production. Just as the mixing started, I had decided on »Heartlands« for the album title, which felt pretty good, yeah. Meanwhile the phrase ‘safe on the other side’ had appeared in the lyrics of ‘Good Night’, and one day I realized suddenly that this was a much more authentic expression for how I feel about the album and all of the work it represents. And luckily it was not too late to change.”
“I recorded the album entirely in my home studio here in Chicago,” explains Chris about how he approached the recordings of »Safe On The Other Side«. “The drums and vocals for »Another Night« were recorded in a professional studio, and then just the drums for »You Are Here«. But since then I have worked alone in my attic studio, which has come to be known as the ‘Gates Of Heaven And Hell’, although we don’t usually credit it at all. I believe I started recording what became »Safe On The Other Side« in July of 2022. It was a long and difficult process, but without the pressure of deadlines or other expectations, so when I needed a break, I took a break. Imagine that. Some songs went through a lot of revisions, and rhythm guitars are especially difficult for me, so for example ‘Good Night’ was originally in F#, then I thought maybe it would sound better in B, before finally deciding it should be in Db. So all these re-recordings can be very time-consuming for someone with limited guitar skills. I should have tried Db to start with, of course, since so many of our ‘hits’ reside there... By February of 2023, the major work was done, including most of the vocals, but I had to take a break for our European tour in March. When I came back, I resumed working on the remaining vocals. I quickly discovered that my voice had gained a lot of strength as a result of my conditioning for the tour, and was perhaps even stronger from the tour itself. Basically, it was the best voice I have ever had, which was great! Except, yes, now I wanted to re-sing everything on the album. More time, more work, but very worthwhile. I guess it was finally late April when I bundled up all of the tracks and sent them to Dan Swanö for the mixing. Dan is of course Swedish but he and his Unisound studio are nowadays residing in Germany. I count myself as the producer as always, but Dan plays a large role in the way the album sounds. He is very open to my direction of course, and he also has excellent instincts for what techniques will benefit the music. I should also say that he imparts a lot of enthusiasm during a stage when I am maybe a bit frayed from working on the album for so many months. Dan is endlessly positive. That is an aspect of his professionalism but it is also totally genuine and always seems to come across in those moments of insecurity that I need it most. So his presence was something I valued a lot with this album, even more than I had with »Hard To Stop«.”
“I just wrote the songs I was in the mood to write,” answers the High Spirits main man when asked if there was a certain master plan behind »Safe On The Other Side«, “and as usual, this included building on some fragments which have been in my pockets for a long time. For example the ‘One Day Closer’ refrain was on a demo reel from 2015. ‘There Will Be Magic Tonight’ was written for »Hard To Stop« but did not reach a finished stage at that time. But the majority of the album was written around May of 2022. I tried to keep my mind open, simply to follow my inspiration, and trust that the process would result in songs that were suitable for High Spirits. This was very much the same approach as »Another Night«, where I felt at times that I was working on self-standing singles rather than an album. It was the recording process which essentially herded those songs into one container and bonded them together as an album.”
In some places »Safe On The Other Side« comes across like an “experimental” album for High Spirits, with the band trying out new styles (and sounds). Would this be a fair thing to say? Sometimes it’s easy for the listener to get a wrong impression... “The song order was especially tricky this time,” analyzes “The Professor”, “and I’m not sure I got it right, but I will say that side A is maybe the more typical and familiar High Spirits rotation, and side B gets a little more exotic. I wouldn’t say ‘experimental’ necessarily, because High Spirits is itself a giant experiment, but there’s an element of risk to some of those songs. ‘Memories’ is downright playing with fire, right? But I need that, like the body needs exercise. You can’t stop moving. I took a huge risk in creating High Spirits in the first place, and look what happened. So you can expect me to always be taking further incremental risks in its name.”
Would it be correct to say that most of the songs on »Safe On The Other Side« deal with relationships? “You mean like romantic relationships?,” wonders Chris Black. “No. By my count only four songs are in this realm. But if we expand the definition to include friendships, and then expand it again to include the relationship between the band and our audience, or perhaps even the relationship of self to inner-self then sure, everything and more! But what else is life? I received a nice compliment recently which was actually in the form of a question: ‘How does someone who has been happily married for 20 years write such authentic songs about heartbreak?’ I don’t have a good answer, but maybe it’s because I am a good listener.”
What a perfect way to close this little conversation about High Spirits’ fifth studio opus »Safe On The Other Side«.