The day before Highly Suspect’s first ever show in Paris and one week after the French release of their second album, “The Boy Who Dies Wolf”, RockUrLife spoke with frontman Johnny Stevens. From this new album to taking a political stand, aliens and unexpected next-door neighbour, the singer opens up in spite of a blatant exhaustion due to a busy promo day.
We were really looking forward to welcome you by saying “Congratulations on the Grammy guys” but guess you just can’t beat David Bowie. Did you still have a good night at the Grammy Awards?
Johnny Stevens (vocals): Yeah, it was fantastic. It was a really, really good night, to be even in that category, with those artists. It was the best loss I’ll ever have.
Tomorrow is the first date of your first real headlining European tour. How does it feel to be on the eve of a brand new step of your career?
Johnny: It’s very exciting! I would have never imagined that we would make it this far, so we’re pumped!
You guys have been around for years in the USA but you’re kind of newcomers in France, so let’s go back to the roots of the band: how did you guys meet and how did you get together?
Johnny: Rich and Ryan are twin brothers, so they’ve known each other for quite a while and I went to high school with them. But we met after high school. We got a house together, we just started to jam and play music. The intention wasn’t to become some big band, we just wanted to have some fun on the weekends. And now we’re here! Fast forward. 8 years, it’s crazy!
Is it true that you found your band name thanks to an online band name generator?
Johnny: Yes, it’s true. At the time, and still, we smoke a ton of weed, so we wanted to use the word “high”. We turned it “high” and “highly”, that kind of came up and we were just like “oh whatever, fuck it”. I think it’s a dumb name, I hate it but…
Too late to change?
Johnny: Yeah, fuck it, it’s just a name.
When we hear your name, it’s often compared to Queens of the Stone Age, but what do you listen to?
Johnny: I love Queens Of The Stone Age, I truly do. They’re an amazing band and I don’t like very much rock, but Queens are great and there’s definitely some influence there. No artist wants to be compared over and over again to another artist, but if they’re gonna be, that’s not a bad one for me anyway. But I listen to a lot of things, I listen to blues, jazz, Brahms. I just like sound. I imagine you hear a lot of the influences creeping out as we grow.
Most bands spend years trying to get a Grammy nomination but you got that with your first studio album, “Mister Asylum”. Didn’t that put a lot of pressure on your shoulders when you started working on your second album ?
Johnny: No, it put a lot of encouragement. It was the opposite of pressure. I felt validation, I felt “wow, people are enjoying the art, so let’s make more!”. It was exciting. And then to get Grammy nominations two years in a row, it’s like “wow!”. (laughs) So it was no pressure, I’ve got nothing left to prove anymore. You can’t take that away, that happened.
You published “The Boy Who Died Wolf” only one year after the release of “Mister Asylum”. How did the writing and recording process go? Did you write while being on tour?
Johnny: I didn’t have the time to write on tour so basically, the day after I got off of tour, I flew to Los Angeles and spent 10 days locked in a studio with a piano and a guitar and wrote an album. It was very quick. But it wasn’t hard because I was excited to shut off my friends and shut off the world and just, get into my head. I didn’t know what it was that I needed to write about, until it came out. When it came out, I had all these songs that didn’t make the album, but we took what we thought was the best, wrote this album and put it together.
You released “Serotonia” months before the album. Why did you specifically choose this one?
Johnny: That song was written before we even started the album so it wasn’t even part of it. We weren’t even going to put it on the album, but I kinda like to have a pair of songs. Because this album goes fucking everywhere, all different directions. There’s a song called “Wolf”, that ends the album. There’s a similar sound texture in “Serotonia”, so I thought it would be a nice complement to add “Serotonia” to the album. We discussed it and everybody agreed. “Serotonia” was simply written as a single, just something that we did pretty much immediately after we finished the first album.
The songs on “Mister Asylum”, we have worked on them for years. They were old to us. It wasn’t as exciting when you play the same shit for years. We’ve been playing them in New York over and over and over again. It’s still brand new to most people. People here, probably people next year, are hearing that old stuff for the first time. But it was important for us to just keep creating so when we’re on stage, we actually have material that is new and exciting for us to play. That’s why we put the second album out so quickly. You asked earlier what I was excited about for this new chapter, it’s not only that we’re headlining the European tour, it’s also that we have a new set.
Your first album was pure “in your face” alternative rock, but this one is a bit more eclectic. Did having success with your first one gave you more confidence and freedom to explore different things with this one?
Johnny: Yes, for sure, but it was also like… Just life changed. The ridiculous angst of living in New York City for x many years before releasing our first album, all those songs were written at a certain time when everything was super heavy. And then, life started to get a little bit more complex. Being able to travel, to be around different musicians, and different experiences, in different countries, this all kind of helped us to have a more eclectic feel on the second album. I never want to put out the same thing. A lot of people hear “Lydia”, this song that did well in the US, for the first time, and probably think “cool! This is the sound I’m going to expect from this band on every song!”. Because this is what a lot of bands do. They have that formula, they’re like “well, that worked, so let me just do this over and over and over again”, and to me, that’s not fun, that’s not art. I don’t even like rock that much to be honest, like a lot of the new stuff. I like artists like Phantogram and Grimes, I like a lot of different shit, so to be able to have the freedom is cool. But I knew we would lose some fans in the process and we definitely have, there’s definitely a bunch of people that are like “fuck this album”. That’s OK! Because they can have the old album. In the same regard, there’s been many new fans that have come in because they heard songs of this album and maybe, they never would have liked the first album. Again, it sounds selfish, but we’re not making music for anyone but us.
As you said before, living in New York had a strong impact on your music. You started making music in Massachusetts, then you moved to Brooklyn, and you went to Bogota to record “The Boy Who Died Wolf”. How did going to Colombia helped you to get inspired?
Johnny: It wasn’t so much the inspiration that we needed from Colombia. It was the peace, it was being away. If we had done this album in New York, it’s so easy to be like “it’s fucking five o’clock, I’m gonna go get a drink with my friend, I’m frustrated in the studio” and kinda get lost. We were in a place where we don’t know anybody, we don’t speak the language, other people’s conversations aren’t getting into my head. I would walk down the street, hear people talking and I had no fucking idea what they’re saying. So I’m still focused on what it is I’m here to do. We didn’t go down there to try and make an album where we’re trying to like, add fucking congas or some other shit. It just happened to be a place that our producer knows well, he knows the studio, he knows who to contact here to help us get things done. It was the place where we could be away from all that we knew and that’s why we choose to do that.
For the third time, you worked with Joel Hamilton. Why does it work so well with him?
Johnny: When you’re making art, when you’re sharing the creation of art with somebody else, I think it’s really important that you trust and like them. Joe as such a fine ear. He doesn’t write the songs, but when we’re writing the songs, maybe they’ll be a snare hit that doesn’t sound right and he’ll be like “why don’t we bring in this different snare drum, that I have had sitting in my studio for 6 years. It’s never been used, but I think it might sound good here” and we’ll listen to it and be like “that changes the entire tone of the song, what a great idea” little things like that. These suggestions, things we wouldn’t normally think of, are brilliant. We trust him, we like him, he’s funny and it works. I believe that we worked with plenty of other people and not just Joe, but it’s just easy to work with him.
We feel like we have to ask you about it because they’re like, our national pride. You worked with Joe Duplantier from Gojira too right? How did that happen?
Johnny: I had been living in Brooklyn for a few months and my landlord, who knew that we did music, was like “hey there’s this guy that just moved into the building, he’s in a rock band, he’s from France, you should meet him” and I looked it up and it was Joe from Gojira and I was like “holy shit!”. (laughs) I saw him a few days later at a café, near the apartment building that we both live in and I just said “hello, how are you doing, I’m Johnny, I’m in a band and I’ve got questions.” He was all ears and from there, just because we’re neighbors, I’ll see him every single day and we became great friends. We share a lot of similar views on life, on love, on music, on all these things, we really connect and now it’s to the point where we would spend holidays with them. We enjoy them on a friend level.
I think we worked with him because he was going through a phase where he wanted to get away from his own art for a second and do something different to help him get out of his own head. When you’re an artist, it’s important to get out and explore things. Like right now, I’m working with this girl in Los Angeles who’s a hip hop artist and I’m helping her out, and that helps me to get away from what the fuck it is I do. He was a really great ambassador because I had never met anyone authentically French before I met Joe and there’s this love/hate between France and America, it truly is and I heard that French people would hate me. He was quite the opposite, super welcoming and accepting, just a sweet, beautiful person, so you guys couldn’t have a better ambassador! (laughs)
Two songs really stand out in the album : “Chicago”, which is a ballad on piano, and “F.W.Y.T.”. What inspired these two songs?
Johnny: “Chicago” was written about my ex-girlfriend who I’m now back with. She’s from Chicago and I met her there and it kinda take you through this wild year that we had, that journey that we had through different parts of the United States. It was hard to write that song. When I wrote it, we had just really freshly walked away from each other and it came out pretty naturally. We tried to make it to a full band song because the reason that song stands out is because it’s just me and a piano. It didn’t sound right with drums, it didn’t sound right with bass. It didn’t have the same raw feeling so we decided to live it alone. So what you hear on the album is just one take, one microphone in a room. It’s as basic, as rudimentary as music can get. It was scary to do that because it exposes the flaws in my voice, I can hear errors, but there’s an honesty in that and that song is really great.
“F.W.Y.T.” is kind of an extension of what I was talking about earlier. I have such a great affinity for other music, electronic music, hip hop music. Obviously, I don’t want to be some rap/rock band. People have tried that in the past and failed, but I think if we can tastefully incorporate some styles, it kinda show that we’re thinking about more than (ed. imitating a metalhead) what we call butt rock. It’s cool and it helps that people know that maybe we’re not as stereotypical, not just seeking to be this fucking rock phenomenon thing, cause we’re not. Because I don’t want to be a musician. I want to be an artist. That song is a lot of fun. It was never intended to be a song. It was just this riff and this idea that we had and we liked it so much that we put it on the album
You guys don’t settle for only making amazing songs, you also make pretty great and cinematic music videos. You just released a sci-fi video for “My Name Is Human”, what is it about?
Johnny: So many people think that this song, “My Name Is Human” is about being human and for me it’s like my “name” is human, right? That’s what we call ourselves, but I truly don’t think that we’re all human. I can’t explain to you why for thousands and thousands of years, information travelled at one speed, the human speed. If you want to send a letter from say, Boston to Japan, you would have to pen the letter by hand, seal it up, put the wax on it, put it on a train. The train is going to take a few weeks to get across America, it’s going to stop in Colorado, it’s gonna get off, the guy is going to grab it, carry it on horse the rest of the way over to San Francisco. That’s going to take another few weeks and that’s if he hasn’t been shot in the head with an arrow. He’s going to get to San Francisco, they’re going to pack a boat, the cabin boys are going to pack the goods, the letters going to cross the Pacific Ocean, that’s gonna take another couple months if they even make it. The chances of that letter ever getting to Japan are very very slim and it would take months, if not years for that to happen. And then, the recipient is going to pick up that letter, he’s gonna take some time to think about what he wants to do to respond, write it down, and then the process repeats.
Somehow, in the last couple hundred years, that all changed crazily. I just feel like the androids, the aliens and shit, they’re not coming, they’re here. There’s this whole perception that maybe aliens are green men that hang out in spaceships and they’re going to come down and invade. But what if it was one molecule, you know how nanotechnology works, the tiniest little things can change everything. I feel that it would be naïve to think that maybe, something didn’t enter our atmosphere and get into our bloodstream and changed things. I can’t explain it, I’m not saying that this is what this is but it’s definitely something that I think about a lot. It’s a fun concept to explore. At the same time, we’re living in a time right now where humanity is in a ridiculous state. The video is like an artistic take on the idea that maybe we’re not human. I’m talking to a cyborg, and it’s assumed that I’m a human for the whole video. But at the very end, my throat lights up and that’s when you know that maybe, I’m also not a human.
Most of the time, your lyrics are really personal and transparent. Isn’t it a little bit scary to spill your guts every night on stage and on songs that are heard by thousands of people?
Johnny: It is scary, but it’s also not because I know that it’s helping other people. It’s very cathartic for me, it’s very helpful to release shit that means something to me. It would be selfish, I think to hold it in, when I know that it can help other people that are going through similar experiences. It’s very important that I write about shit that I know. I don’t know how to make up stories. I don’t want to lie about something I’m not actually experiencing because I think that’s the difference between real and trying to make a dollar. But yeah, it’s hard to do it, but it become easier when you look out in the audience and you see that it’s affecting people. I get letters and shit like that and I know I’m helping so it make it a little easier.
So most of your lyrics are about personal stories, but with “Viper Strike”, you get more political because it’s like an anti-racism and homophobia anthem. What made you want to address this kind of issues?
Johnny: As a white man from America, I’ve got it pretty good. I have so many friends that don’t have the same opportunities because they’re of a minority or a different gender affiliation or no gender affiliation. There’s such an unrest right now and things are getting worse and worse. Everybody thinks it’s a song about Trump. I didn’t write the song about Trump. We leaked it before the album came out on the day he got elected because it made sense, because right now in America and in other parts of the world, shit’s getting really lame. You guys are dealing with it and I say to you good luck, with Marine Le Pen, good luck.
Thanks, we’ll need it.
Johnny: I know a lot of people say in France “we’ll be good it will never happen” but I remember being out in London shortly after Brexit and talking to people and they were like “you know, good luck” and I was like “we’ll never gonna let that asshole in the office, it’s never gonna happen” and then, it did. And I’m just blown away by it, I’m baffled. Since he’s been in Office, it’s like OK now in America to be racist. There’s such an increase of hatred. I’m not a political artist. I’m just a fucking citizen of the world and that’s important I think, if you have a platform, to use it and fight for what you believe in. We’re not Rage Against The Machine, we don’t want to be Rage Against The Machine, we’re not a band that makes music because of politics. We are a band that is dealing with some political shit right now and it’s very relevant and we needed to get our views, and I say ours because they’re not just mine, off of our chests and out there and hopefully help. I think of the ten-year-old boy who lives in Missouri, whose whole family might be telling him that gay and black people are bad. And maybe he doesn’t have anybody else and he thinks “I’ve got this friend in school and I really like him and he’s black, why should I hate him?”. Maybe if he sees that somebody that he looks up to, maybe his favorite band says “you know what? That’s not right.” then maybe he’ll have the strength to form his own opinions.
When you put “Viper Strike” out, when you Johnny, wore an “IMPEACH” jacket at the Grammys, there was a huge backlash on social media, with people saying “OMG I can’t believe it, they’re liberal retards, I’m never buying your music ever again”, or “stay in your lane and stop talking about politics”. How do you deal with that kind of reactions?
Johnny: I don’t give a fuck. I really don’t. It’s bound to happen if you take a stand. People are saying I’m alienating the fanbase, but I feel that my country alienated me. If somebody feels the need to fight against what I’m saying, bring it, that’s their freedom. That’s what I’m actually fighting for! I’m fighting for your right to disagree with me! It’s fine. A lot of people are like “you’re gonna lose revenue, you’re gonna lose money” but I’m not in this for that. It’s bigger than being an artist, being in a band. This is reality and it’s not cool. And you know, if I lose a few fans along the way, then that’s what it is. They never were listening in the first place, because it’s not anything new.
Most of your lyrics are about dark subjects, and your music is pretty incisive, but at the same time, your gigs are pretty festive, you have this strong relationship with your fans with the whole MCID thing going on. How does this work?
Johnny: The contrast is in the fact that art and humans are different. I sing about the things that have hurt in the past. That’s cathartic, it’s good and it’s great to get that out, but it doesn’t mean that I’m constantly an angry or upset or brooding person. And I think that when these other people come to our show, they identify with the darkness and it all come out. We’re in a room together and it’s a big release, it feels good. We’ve all been through the same shit and now we’re just like “yeah, we’re fucking here together, let’s have a beer” and celebrate through the music. We’re all here because we want to get away from the mundane or whatever it is that’s bugging us, so we’re not gonna get in a room and fucking mope! No, we’re gonna have a party, we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna turn it up a little bit and have fun!
Tomorrow is your first show ever in Paris. What can we expect?
Johnny: We haven’t played a real full show in a couple months, not since November, so it will be nice and rusty. I think we will make a lot of mistakes and it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s gonna be raw, we’re gonna play a song that we never played live in front of people before and debuting it here in Paris. It’s just a song from the record, it’s been heard but we never played it live so it’s kinda nerve-wracking, but it will be fun. We’re gonna kick off the year in Paris! Who would have thought I’ll ever say that like “yeah, let’s kick off the year in Paris”. (laughs) It’s fucking cool so we’re just gonna have a fun time. It’s sold out so I think that it would be good!
Parisian crowds are known for being pretty great and enthusiastic, so I hope you guys enjoy!
Last question: our website is called “RockUrLife”, so what rocks your life?
Johnny: Good people, good food, good music, these things rock my life. Good art, fashion, animals. I have a new puppy. His name is John Lennon.
Oh really? Did you bring him here?
Johnny: No, I couldn’t.
Alright, too bad! Thanks for having us and enjoy the show tomorrow!