Interview: Doug Haynes of HIGHS
The way one is perceived by other people can weigh heavily on the mind, and it’s a thought that has significantly influenced HIGHS’ debut record, Dazzle Camouflage. The Toronto-based alt-pop band consisting of Doug Haynes, Karrie Douglas, Joel Harrower, Paul Vroom, and Liam Cole has created a cohesive piece of work that thoroughly explores the theme of perception versus reality. With the help of renowned producer, Luke Smith (Depeche Mode, Foals), HIGHS has flawlessly crafted an album that speaks to the mind, heart, and feet by delivering plenty of danceable melodies contrasted with profound lyrical messages.
Swapping lead vocal responsibilities between Haynes, Douglas, and Harrower and often highlighting their exquisite three-part harmonies combined with their propelling distinctive guitars generates a polished, mature sound that will leave their loyal fan base fully satisfied while surely fostering it to flourish.
HIGHS’ singer and guitarist, Doug Haynes, digs deep in this conversation. He reveals the personal experiences inspiring the music, why his lyrics are jam-packed with metaphors, and why he’s always critically addressing himself in songs.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): Can you describe how the writing process for Dazzle Camouflage was more of a collaborative effort with the whole band than the self-titled EP?
Doug Haynes: A lot of the songs still started out as ideas that I conceptualized, but we put a lot of time into working through the songs together. So we talked a lot about the themes throughout them and what they meant to me, and tried to construct the music around it. I was on my computer doing these poorly recorded demos and poorly recorded vocals with the EP. I then brought it to the studio where we learned and recorded them. But with this album, we had a year leading up to recording it where we were all trying to make the songs as strong as possible using our own individual skill sets, so I think that’s how it was much more collaborative than the EP.
Songfacts: You recorded the album live off of the floor in four weeks and Luke Smith produced it. What did he bring to the project and what did you learn from working with him?
Doug: He’s interesting because he’s a producer but he’s also a skilled musician, so I would say he’s more musician than producer. He said that he was there essentially to help guide us to actualize the sound that we wanted rather than prescribe to us the sound that we should create.
The reason we did it live off of the floor is because a lot of the response that we get about the reason why we retain our fan base is because we play pretty good live shows. We make mistakes often, but generally we play well together. We have good energy. We enjoy playing the songs. There’s almost this spirit to the live show that we wanted to capture on the album.
It was a big goal for Luke, so we opted to try to do it live off of the floor. So nearly all of the instrumentals were recorded with everyone playing at the same time, and even some of the vocals, which seems a little crazy, we recorded with guitars in the background. We think it captured that live-but-in-the-studio kind of feel.
Another thing that we did with Luke was this thing called “the busker version.” We brought all the demos mostly complete to the studio so we weren’t writing in the studio, which some bands do. What we had do before we even thought about recording them was have our two acoustic guitars and three vocalists and play every single song just acoustically. If it didn’t feel like it resonated, if it didn’t feel like it had this life to it that we wanted, if it didn’t feel complete, then we knew that we had to work on it. We knew that it wasn’t ready to even go into recording yet. We discussed this in the studio and maybe some would argue with me, but if a song doesn’t resonate at its core with melody, lyrics, and basic guitars, you can do whatever you want to it, you can put a ton of effects on it, but it’s still just not a good song. We’re a lyrical band. We put a lot of weight into the lyrics and the song meanings. We wanted that to come across so we spent almost a frustrating amount of time on these busker versions.
Songfacts: Dazzle camouflage was a technique used during World War I and II to mislead the enemy. And there’s a lyrical theme throughout the album about things not being what they seem. Can you explain the fascination with that method and why you named the record after it?
Doug: We toured the UK awhile ago and went to the Tate Modern, which is a really cool art gallery. They were doing this piece on dazzle camouflage. We read into it and all of a sudden it just clicked.
Most of the songs on the album, you could draw this parallel even though they’re completely separate things. We like the idea that in World War I and World War II these ships had these crazy designs on them that were so flashy and so bold just to confuse the person on the other end and make it hard for them to distinguish where the important parts of the ships were so they couldn’t sink them. When you have these crazy ships all together, it’s this wall of confusion. The songs are a lot about putting forward something that is not realistic and that does not represent yourself in order to confuse or mislead or portray yourself as something you’re not.
Songfacts: And one song that specifically talks about perception is “Handsome Man.” How did that one come to be and what motivated you to write it?
Doug: It happened fast for me in terms of the instrumentals. It started out as a joke because the chord progression was different. You don’t hear it as much on the record, but when I wrote it, it was just on an electric guitar and the chord progression was kind of weird.
The song is basically about how you find somebody attractive, but the physical attributes are just one percent of who they actually are [as a person]. The song is actually about me – and not because I’m saying I’m handsome. I was just in a weird spot mentally. I was critically looking at myself and what I do to present myself as being something that I’m not necessarily.
We associate the idea of attractiveness almost purely with physical attributes now, but what makes somebody attractive is not what they look like, it’s the qualities that they possess. The first half of each verse is essentially me talking to this person, who is actually myself, about how people see this handsome man, but there’s all this other bullshit that you just don’t see.
Songfacts: You’re flawed.
Doug: I’m flawed! And have all these unattractive qualities. My Mom raised me to be a good person, and I think I am a good person because of her. But the first half is looking at how I am viewed and how I present myself, and how there’s this dissonance between the reality and perception.
The second part is how that works into other people. That’s the line, “Oh, your handsome man, take him to a party.”
Something I’m not proud of, when I was writing the song, I just got crazy frustrated about something. It’s such an unattractive, horrible thing that I hate I did, but I punched a hole right in a wall. It wasn’t even my wall.
Songfacts: That’s in the lyrics. [Punch a hole right through the wall, take a look and then it’s gone.]
Doug: It’s a direct line. The minute I did that, I felt like, Fuck. You’re such a loser. What are you doing? Don’t do that. That’s not cool. Be a real human being and express your emotions in a conscientious, respectful way.
So that’s an unattractive quality, but then I go out and present myself. I get all done up. I do my hair. I wear my nice clothes. I put on this facade of being this charming, attractive person, but then I go and do something ridiculous like punch a hole in a wall and the reality sets in. I wrote this song in a pinnacle of weird spots in the last couple of years.
The last half of the second verse are some of my favorite lyrics where it’s:
Oh, your handsome man is tangled up in teasing
Run your fingers down his neck
You can take what he has left
So you take the pieces of somebody that you want. It’s in relation to me and the situation I was in. I felt as though I was presenting myself as this [motions hand in front of his face], but the person wanted that “handsome man.” So all of the other bullshit, you sweep away. When the person takes all that stuff, you’re just left with the shit, and that’s how it ends.
Songfacts: You said that “I Do, Do You?” was a new way of writing for you because it was literally just describing something that happened. Can you elaborate on that thought and what particularly inspired that one?
Doug: It’s funny that we’re doing this interview because I feel like a lot of the songs I write are highly metaphorical. I don’t like being blatant. It’s just my writing style. So with a song on the record, I just wanted to be blatant. Almost provide this narrative of what actually happened on this day that maybe in 20 years I won’t even remember it happened. I probably will, though. I just wanted to try and write a song that was straight up that maybe a listener would be like, “I wonder if he’s meaning this by that?” But, really, it just means what it means. There are a couple of lines later on that are a little less straight to the point, but most of it is an actual description of what happened that day.
It was challenging to me. The day sticks out when I’m looking back on some stuff. When I was writing songs for the record and writing lyrics, I just wrote out everything that happened that day. I picked the points I felt resonated with me the most. It was challenging taking those and not convoluting them with all these metaphors and ways to make it not obvious what the song’s about, and constructing the song in this chronological order of what was going on and what happened.
It’s a love, heartbreak song. Not necessarily love – let’s go with infatuation. It’s just an ordinary day, but because you feel strongly about the person, it’s amplified. So for me it won’t be an ordinary day. It will never be an ordinary day for me. People around the world are having days like that all the time. I hope people do because it was a great day. But then once that great day is over, you think about it. You’re like, “Well, was it as great for you? Is it just all in my own head?” You start second guessing everything. Was it really that great? Now I feel shitty about it because that awesome day, I’m no longer doing that. It’s not a breakup thing. It’s like, do you feel this? When you look back on this day in 10 years, are you going to remember it the same way as I do, or is it going to be just a normal day you’ll forget about? So the whole notion of, “I do, do you?” I feel this way, but do you? You’re questioning whether somebody else does and for me, the minute I start questioning whether someone else is doing the same thing, it automatically effects how I feel. I start thinking and it gets stuck in my own head and it ruins things for me.
Songfacts: You’re overanalyzing it.
Doug: Yeah, I’m overly analytical. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Songfacts: In “Portugal,” you sing, “Summer dress still hanging in the corner of your closet breaking free.” Are you intentionally alluding to “Summer Dress” from your EP and is there a story connecting those two songs?
Doug: There isn’t really a story connecting those two aside from that I wrote them. “Portugal” in itself is not a reference to “Summer Dress.” It’s just that one line is looking critically at my romantic history. “Summer Dress” is about a concept and the concept applies to the song “Portugal.”
It’s almost not even a closet. It’s the back of your head. The summer dress is a metaphor for still looking for something. You’re not quite there yet. You can try and prescribe things to people and relationships to make it seem like you’re there, but it’s always there in the back of your head. The feeling that you’re missing, it’s still there and you’re still trying to find it. “Summer dress still hanging in the corner of your closet” – it’s in the back corner tucked away. Maybe you never see it, but it’s still there. You’re going to see it one day, so you’re trying to reach it.
Songfacts: Why did you name the song “Portugal”?
Doug: I truly hope the person this song was written about never reads this interview. It’s a number of different things. The song was written about a person that was and still is important to me. She’s Portuguese.
But the song was never called “Portugal.” I do this stupid thing when I’m recording songs: I’ll call them weird little titles like “PBK” or “November Song 332.” When I try and reference them later on, I just have no idea what they are and “Portugal” was called something ridiculous.
The day we recorded it in the studio, we didn’t know what to call it. Our producer, Luke, was like, “What do you guys want to call this song?” Everyone looked at me, and I was like, “I don’t know.” And then legitimately Luke’s phone goes off. It was his birthday and his wife was like, “Surprise! I’m taking you to Portugal!” She had bought them tickets to fly to Portugal for the weekend. It was this “fuck it” moment for me where I was like, you know what, I don’t need to hide. It’s still kind of hidden, but if the right person listens to the song, it’ll be obvious to them, and that’s fine with me. So I was like, “I’m going to call it ‘Portugal.'” So it has a double meaning because the time in the studio with Luke was special and the song is about an interesting time in my life, so it was just fitting.
Songfacts: Do you ever find that you withhold a song because it’s too personal or you don’t want a specific person to be offended by it?
Doug: Yes and no. I tend not to be offensive. I’m never outwardly criticizing somebody. It’s always introspective. It’s always looking at the way I interact with somebody. Not so much [accusingly], “They did this! They did that!” It’s how I react. A lot of the songs are written about somebody else, but about me, which sounds crazy to say out loud. I’m not ever worried about offending somebody. When we released the record, the person messaged me being like, “I listened to it! It sounds great! Congratulations!” I was like, “I wonder if she knows?” She obviously does [know]. She’s intelligent. I know she knows so that’s a little weird for me.
But I try to write a song every single day. Ninety-nine percent of them are total garbage, but they’re not always for the band. It’s when I’m feeling down. I don’t tend to write when I’m happy. When I’m feeling down, it’s when I write my best songs.
Songfacts: Which is interesting because your music, lyrically, it has deep meaning to it, but it’s joyous. Like, “Oh, let’s dance!”
Doug: Yeah, and I love that about it! I like it has that juxtaposition. You listen to the songs at face value, it’s like, “Oh, this is fun! This is cool!” But if you look a little deeper, it’s like, “I’m dancing to this song that is kind of sad! Oh, this is weird!” I like that.
I tend to write when I’m feeling down, but a lot of the time I’ll just write acoustic folk songs that no one ever hears. I don’t think anybody would ever get offended. Maybe some people would get their feelings hurt a little bit, but never in a spiteful way. The feelings hurt are never romantic based. For me, in terms of romance, why would I write a song that would be hurtful to somebody that I once cared about and obviously value something about them? Why would I put them down in a song? I’m just not going to do it. If I’m mad, upset, or sad, it’s because I care about the person so it would not be doing them or me justice to then write a hurtful song about them, which is why I write mostly songs about other people that are actually about me.
But I have some songs that are looking back on non-romantic people in my life and critically looking at those relationships, but no one will ever hear them.
Songfacts: Can you describe how “Gabriel (blind boy)” came to be and what moved you to write it? I didn’t know if you were talking about the angel, Gabriel.
Doug: I’m not institutionally religious, but I would say that I’m spiritual, though I don’t know what that means. I am spiritual in the sense that I believe in good. I believe in interconnectedness. I believe in decency. Whether you attribute them to a God or some deity – good for you if that’s what you do – but I believe that stuff has the power to do great things regardless if there’s an afterlife or not. It makes its way into a lot of the songs I write – there’s an element of spirituality to it.
“Gabriel” is another song that’s actually a bit different in terms of the writing process and what it’s about for me. I was sitting at my friend’s house – I think it was Joel’s, the other guitarist in the band.
I was watching this video or commercial about this southern American preacher. He was travelling to impoverished communities in Mexico and Southern and Central America curing people of blindness with God’s touch and making people walk. There was this kid named Gabriel where he touched him on the forehead and said some religious rhetoric. All of a sudden, he could see. It’s crazy to think for me that there’s a lot of money to be made in that televangelical stuff. It’s capitalizing on people’s insecurities. It’s capitalizing on people’s potential disabilities and then also saying, “If you have these aliments then there’s something not right about you. You need to be fixed.” I mean, as a fully able-bodied man who’s privileged in every sense of the word, maybe one feels as though they need to, but I’m not going to prescribe to you that you need to be fixed.
So I watched that and wrote a song about how that relates to me and my view on spirituality. It’s essentially looking at how I view my personal spirituality and then how that reflects and differs from televangelism.
So that’s my belief in spirituality versus institutionalized religion, which can then get convoluted. But I’m not going to be critical of other people’s beliefs because their belief system is their own business, not mine, as long as it’s not affecting other people in a negative way.
Songfacts: So I wasn’t way off then.
Doug: Yeah, totally not. I dropped a lot of religious references in there even though I don’t really know them, but I know the main ones, and they’re sneakily in there.
Songfacts: Near the end of “Careful,” you actually sing part of “Interlude.” Is there a correlation between those two songs and what are the tales occurring in them?
Doug: “Interlude” was originally part of “Careful.” We just cut it because we didn’t want somebody to have to listen to the interlude every time they wanted to listen to “Careful.” Sometimes you’re not in the mood for slow three-part harmonies. So we did that on the record, but it was deliberate to bring it back full circle. You start off the song talking about what the song’s about and when you get to the end, you haven’t really gotten anywhere. The end is not like [sings happily], “I’m feeling good! I’m feeling great! Oh my gosh, life’s so good!” It’s the same stuff. I’ve just sang this whole song and gone through all this stuff and still, “it’s you, it’s you, it’s always been you, and it’s cruel because it’s always been you.” You’re setting the bar at the beginning being like, Here’s the deal. It’s always been this person. It always will be this person. You sing the song and at the end after you’ve purged all this stuff. It’s like, Well, it’s still this person and it will always still be this person. So it was deliberate.
It’s about a relationship where you feel like you’re fighting for it, but it’s never really good enough. When you’re in a relationship and you’re invested in it, you imagine how life could be. You create this fantasy. I think that’s perfectly healthy because it’s good to want to invest in somebody as long as they’re healthy fantasies. It gets to a point where all of a sudden you find that you’re fighting for that fantasy. You’re fighting to keep that fantasy alive and not so much the reality. By the end, it’s almost like you have to breakup with the fantasy.
Songfacts: And that’s almost harder.
Doug: That’s almost harder, so that’s what the song’s essentially about.
The fact is that whenever I’m seriously invested in somebody, I care about them. The songs I write are about people I genuinely care about so they do matter to me even if the endings were bad. I still genuinely care. If they needed anything from me and called me, I’d be like, “No problem. Yeah, you need help with something? For sure.”
Songfacts: Can you recall what sparked you to write “So Sad, Never Mad”?
Doug: “So Sad, Never Mad” is a tricky one because I collaborated with Joel. He did a lot of the writing for that one. It’s funny because I started writing it and then I got writer’s block because I moved onto a different song that I was more excited about. I handed it off to Joel and he ran with it and did a great job writing it.
The first couple of lines in the song are me. I wrote the first couple of lines of each verse and then he wrote pretty much the rest of the lyrics. The first line is [nervously laughs]:
Oh, what a tango
Sleeping in the back seat of your mother’s car
I’m sure you can put two and two together.
Songfacts: [Laughs] “Acting Strange” stands out on the album with Karrie singing the lead vocals. Can you talk about the process of creating that one?
Doug: I had the instrumentals done and the chorus written when I took it to the band. I have this issue where if I don’t write it all on the spot, I have a hard time going back because I’ve moved on to a different song or my headspace is different. So I had writer’s block with the verses. It started off with this Michael Jackson melody and no real words.
We were in the studio and laid down all the instrumentals without vocals. Luke was like, “Okay, well, where are the words?” I was like, “Well, I don’t really have any.” He was like, “Okay, well, we need them.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I know!”
We spent an entire studio day where I told everybody my vision for it and what I was trying to get at with the chorus. Joel and I then sat down and wrote the lyrics together. It was fun because I usually write completely in isolation. We sat in the control room just the two of us talking about how I wanted the song to potentially resonate with people. He actually wrote a lot of the best lyrics in it.
I’m not the strongest singer in the band – I just sing the songs because I write them. Karrie’s got a beautiful voice. Joel has a beautiful voice. So it’s nice to showcase other people’s voices on the album. We were talking about it when we were writing it. I was like, “Joel, why don’t you sing this one?” and he was like, “Okay, I can try.” We did the busker version. We were like, “Sounds good, but it’s missing something.” So I was like, “Why don’t we try Karrie singing it?”
We got this Fleetwood Mac vibe when she sang it, so we were all like, “Okay! Okay! Okay, cool!” We then worked with her to create the sound and style of singing that we wanted. I’m happy with how it turned out.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the idea for the last song, “Gold Teeth”?
Doug: “Gold Teeth” is another one about perception. It’s looking again at myself and a romantic situation. It’s a romantic song, meaning it’s based on romance or a failed one. It’s hard to describe because it’s a metaphorical song.
It’s the idea that if you have shitty teeth, you cap them. You put these shiny cool fake teeth in your mouth, but they’re really there because you have a fucked up tooth that you have to get pulled. You have something shitty, so you put something flashy in there. I’m not hating on people with gold teeth, but it’s just replacing something that was bad with something that attracts attention. If I was smiling with a gold tooth in my mouth, you’d see the gold tooth.
Some of the lyrics are self-explanatory. Like:
You say if you give in, you’re never gonna get it right
You’re cool when you say it calms you down in time
It’s telling yourself, “Oh, I’m good. I’m level headed. I got this! I’m feeling great.” It’s like, no, you have this shitty spot. You’re covering it up with gold teeth. You’re not cool. You’re kind of being a dick [laughs].
There’s the bridge that I now call the middle eight because working with a British producer, he only calls it the middle eight. He doesn’t call it a bridge. The middle eight in it which is the [sings]:
Oh, won’t you leave it at bay
You gotta know what I know
Until you’re lost in this place
That part is all about how people can empathize with you but they can’t really know exactly what you’re feeling. I can never feel what you’re feeling right now. You can never feel what I’m feeling right now. So it’s about that and how you’re alone in it. It’s great to have a community of people – your family, best friends, or partner – to talk through that stuff, but doing that is just to make yourself feel better, which is totally viable and valuable and great and should be done. But what I feel is what I feel and I can’t put that on somebody else.
So the song’s basically about what half of the other songs are about – presenting yourself as something you’re not to cover up what you actually are, so presenting yourself as a gold tooth. You fill up this vacancy in your life with something that’s flashy. Something that will draw attention away from what you’re actually feeling, what you’re actually thinking, what you’re actually doing, and who you are actually.
Songfacts: What do you remember about writing “Summer Dress” now?
Doug: I was driving in Whitby [Ontario] on Victoria Street passing the Brick and what used to be a Rona going up towards Thickson because I used to live on Thickson Road with my family. I was turning the corner, and I remember thinking, “Ah, I might get a ticket if someone sees me doing this,” but I had this melody and words in my head. It’s one of those songs where it all just came to me. It sounds silly to say that because songs never just fully come to you, but it just did. I took my phone out and started singing the melody and the lyrics to the song into this voice memo. I had been working on these instrumental parts earlier and it all just clicked.
It was too easy. I’m not trying to brag, but for some reason the stars aligned for that song and everything just worked. It made me feel really good as a songwriter. Sometimes it can be tough because you feel like you have a good song, but when you listen to it the next day, it’s like, “This is complete trash.”
Songfacts: What inspired “Summer Dress”?
Doug: I was travelling a bit. When I came home, I was re-examining my relationships with people, partners, family, my surroundings, and just everything. I was looking at it critically from a new perspective. The whole, “Just like a thread, you go up, up, up out with the wind,” you leave and you’re just swept away, but then you return to your life and reality and realize that it’s something you need to get free of. I’ve lived a wonderful life so far. I’m fortunate to have the family and the friends that I have, and to be afforded the opportunities I’ve been afforded, so I’m not complaining in any way.
“Summer Dress” starts out talking about this person who feels the way that I feel and then it switches into that person’s perspective. It’s looking at somebody else who’s trying to break free from all this stuff in their life that they don’t want to be a part of and they just want to shake free of it.
I don’t wear many of them, but when I picture a summer dress in my head, I picture this joyous summer-y scene. But in the song “Summer Dress,” and maybe this will change people’s perspective of it if they read into this, it’s almost something that’s constricting. It’s positive through most of the song, but then it gets to be constricting. Your whole life can’t be a summer dress. It’s unhealthy. So it’s a metaphorical summer dress and sometimes you just have to break free of it.
And that’s the whole thing with “Portugal” – it’s this thing in the back of your head. You’re always looking for it and maybe you just need to shake free of it because maybe that’s the thing that’s messing you up.