Baltimore indie rock band The Great Heights Band are wowing critics with their sophomore album rad-pop., which was released on April 20th. Formed in the spring of 2014 by singer/guitarist Neal Karkhanis and drummer Paul Martinez, TGHB quickly made a name for themselves in the Baltimore music scene, opening for bands such as Hellogoodbye, Vacationer, Bayside and New Politics. Although typically known for a roster of punk and Hardcore bands like August Burns Red and The Juliana Theory, independent PA label CI Records saw something special in TGHB and signed them in 2015, subsequently releasing their debut album Songs In Eastern Standard Timing (SEIST). Over the past three years, the band has continued to grow and evolve as musicians, allowing the bands and musicians they are influenced by to help drive their music in new and exciting directions. With the new album being self-produced and recorded at singer/guitarist Eric Taft’s Buzzlounge Recording Studio in Maryland, the band was able to take their time with the recording and ensure they produced the sounds they wanted to capture. Having just come off of an Northeast tour with Eternal Boy, the band will be doing their first tour of the West Coast this Summer with Eye The Realist. Our staff writer, Emily May, recently chatted via email with Karkhanis in which he discussed the recording of the new album, becoming more focused on making music that excites the band, radpop.‘s artwork, creating their music videos and finally touring the West Coast. Taft talks a bit, as well, about co-producing the latest Underoath record. You can stay up-to-date with the band and upcoming tour dates on their website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Bandcamp. You can stream their music on Soundcloud here and can stream rad-pop. on Spotify here.
EM: Your sophomore album, rad-pop., was released last week. I read that with regards to the songwriting for the new album, that the songs were demoed and pieced together by band members who were spread out amongst different time zones for long stretches of time. What kinds of challenges did that present and, out of nearly 50 demos, what was your process for deciding what songs to record and what songs to pass on?
Neal: That’s a great question. It was definitely a major benefit to making this record ourselves at Eric’s studio. We had access to a state-of-the-art recording studio where major albums are made and a person in the band that knows how to run the spaceship. It gave us a chance to really take our time with this album rather than having to crunch it into a couple of weeks like most records these days and it also was an awesome opportunity for other members of the band to learn a bit about recording and engineering, which only makes us a stronger unit for the future. Having this access really allowed us to make sure we captured the exact sounds we wanted even if it took several tries to get there. The downside was that it really dragged out the process of creating the album between the studio’s schedule and our own schedules.
I think as we made this album there were peaks and valleys of excitement and energy combined with impatience and burn out. Eric did a lot of work on this album, overseeing the entire production process and I started writing songs for this album almost immediately after we released our first record. So for me, personally, I feel like I have been working on this album for over three years and Eric worked on it for almost two. Paul and Owen were definitely involved a ton, too, especially when it came to revisiting and revising problem spots, but there were days where it would just be Eric and me in the studio for 15 hours straight trying to work through issues in a room with no windows.
Near the end of it, Eric was just done with making the record and I think we all came together to help him get it over the finish line. The emotional toll it took on us sort of helped weed out the songs that didn’t make the record. By the time we got to the end there were five or six songs that were left that we just didn’t have the energy to record. I think they are really cool songs, and I hope we get to them, but there’s a point in which the sponge is totally drained of any water and it was just a good time to say we were happy with what we created.
We naturally recorded the songs we were most excited to record on the front end of the album and the songs that didn’t make it just were not the ones we were most excited to make. In terms of process, we really benefit from technology in the 21st century. We were able to make our workflow work for our lives with a lot of tracking and production done in different places. Owen tracked a lot of his bass at home, I was able to create beats and different sounds in my home studio, and a lot of the workflow in terms of songwriting was done by emailing demos back and forth to each other when we were in different places. It was definitely a weird process of making an album that I have never experienced before.
EM: You are currently on a short east coast tour with Eternal Boy. What are some highlights from the tour and what has been the fan response to hearing the new songs live?
Neal: The guys in Eternal Boy are some of the nicest and most genuine people I have met through music. They have such a great attitude and welcoming spirit that there was never really any awkward phase during the tour. See what I did there? Their album is called “Awkward Phase”… I’m so funny. Anyways, it was just easy to vibe and chill with those guys and I really look up to Rishi in terms of all the stuff he does in the music industry. So aside from the shows, it was a great opportunity to learn a lot from someone that knows what they are doing. I feel like we picked each other’s brains daily on different topics, and it was just a cool way to spend our time.
The shows themselves were amazing. I think it was our best tour to date and this was probably our seventh or eighth time touring the north east. It’s been really cool to see how rad-pop. is resonating with people. There were several shows where people would come up to me and just say that we were doing something new and refreshing and that it was helping them love music again. A ton of people already knew the words and were singing and dancing along. We sold out our hometown in Baltimore, were at near capacity in DC, and had solid shows all over including getting to headline the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, which has always been a personal goal of mine. It was just super cool to see people starting to get into our band, and I can’t say enough how much we appreciate it. Even though people tend to focus on how many Facebook likes or plays on Spotify you have, nothing can replace a packed show full of energy and it was just super rad to be able to do that every night on this run.
EM: The new album was produced by Eric at his studio in Maryland, Buzzlounge Recording Studios. What was it like for the band to have complete creative control over the recording of the album? What was the recording process like?
Neal: It was awesome to be able to completely do our own thing on this record. We entered this process with the theme of “go weird” because a friend of ours had told us at a show that he loved Songs in Eastern Standard Timing, but that he thought we could go weirder. So we did just that. Eric does a great job of keeping us centered and making sure songs make sense and I kind of push the envelope in terms of what stuff sounds like so I think, combined, we were able to write some cool songs. Paul just knows exactly what a song needs to take it to the next level and Owen adds all these subtle elements that people may not notice until the third or fourth listen. It was just fun to be able to not worry about time or a budget and make a record with friends.
EM: Eric, you co-produced the latest Underoath album! What was that experience like for you? Do you find yourself staying busy producing albums for other bands and how do you balance your schedule to meet the needs of the studio with the needs of the band?
Eric: Working on Erase Me was such an awesome time! Those guys are such insanely talented musicians and the best people and it was a total pleasure to be a part of. My two primary “jobs” are playing in bands and working at the studio, so I typically find myself in the studio most days, either working with my own clients or engineering and producing alongside Matt Squire. The balance between maintaining that schedule and meeting the needs of the band is a tough one. We usually rehearse in off hours, either doing rehearsals at 9am before I start a session or late at night when I’ve just wrapped a session. It definitely gets exhausting, but it’s worth the sacrifice to make it all work.
EM: Neal, you have always been the primary songwriter for the band but co-wrote the new album with Eric. What do you think he brought to the songwriting process and how do you feel that you complimented each other’s styles?
Neal: Eric is really smart at making songs work. He would always push me to make sure a part sung well or was grounded in basic pop sensibilities. He really is a producer and I think it helped my songwriting a lot. I tend to be a little crazier in my approach so I think I sort of pushed him a bit to think outside the box and try different things that most bands may not do. We found a nice balance – Eric’s touch makes sure that the average listeners dig what we are doing, but the people that want something a little different also get their fix. The blend works well so I’m excited to see what else we come up with.
EM: I read in a recent interview that the songs on the new album were focused more on things that excited you as a band rather than just focusing on what you thought would make a hit song. What created that turning point for you with regards to your approach to songwriting/music?
Neal: Yeah, I think after making our first record we had some pressure on us to recreate the magic of songs like “Portland” and “Coming Around” offSIEST, but I had written those songs like four years ago so it was hard to just make other versions of those songs. I also honestly didn’t want to write another “Portland”. When I wrote that song, it was very much “hey lemme write a silly pop song for fun,” and it kind of took on a life of its own. Because it was such a silly song even in its approach, I don’t think it has ever personally resonated with me and I think that feeling, despite the song’s success, really pushed me to think differently as a songwriter. I realized whatever we write we will have to play about 10,000 times so it might as well be something that gets me super excited.
The new record is much more influenced by records that are really important to each of us. Those records for me are In Rainbows by Radiohead, Plansby Death Cab for Cutie, as well as some older punk bands like Box Car Racer, Rancid, NOFX, and others. I also really got more into hip-hop over the last few years like older Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, the new Kendrick Lamar record, and Childish Gambino so I wanted to start blending punk with hip-hop while still being TGHB. I think we are getting closer to that new mix and vibe, and that is exciting. Eric’s songs like “Flutter”, “Start”, and others are really cool too because they are just really well written pop songs. Big time influences for those songs were The Cure and Ben Folds. I think all those influences mashed up is super rad – hence rad-pop..
EM: In what ways do you feel like this album differs from your previous album and EP? How do you feel that you have grown and changed as musicians over the years?
Neal: I think that fundamentally and objectively these songs are just better than the ones we have written before. The production value on rad-pop. is far superior to SIEST
and the “Weird Thoughts” EP. We used a lot of really different sounds on this record and experimented in ways that we have never before. We also made this entire record together. SIEST was more of a record of random songs that were written and recorded almost just to put a record out. rad-pop. was recorded as an actual band and I think that really comes through. Everyone in the band has their own way of looking at music and it really helped us make the best record we could.
We actually just played the hometown album release party and, like most hometown shows, a ton of friends and family came out. My sister’s boyfriend said probably the most insightful thing to me that night that has stuck with me – he said that my sister said that we had been working towards this record for two to three years, but that he replied that we have in fact been working towards this over 15 years.
I’ve been playing music since I was a kid and I’ve known Owen and Paul for about 15 years each. Everything we’ve done musically has led us to this record so to look back and think about the hundreds of songs that have been written, countless shows played, and cities traveled to as well as all the ups and downs in between, it’s really a true statement that literally everything else has led us to this point.
EM: What led you guys to sign with CI Records? How has the experience of being signed to a label been for the band?
Neal: We signed with CI after Jeremy Weiss saw our music video for “Portland”. He called me up and said he was really excited about it and what this band could become. We were barely a band at the time so it was really exciting to get that feedback from a guy that has helped take bands like August Burns Red, The Pink Spiders, and Carousel Kings to the next level. It really helped us a lot when we were getting started in terms of getting some street cred and cool offers that we wouldn’t have received if we were an unsigned band.
We’ve certainly learned a lot about the process and about what it takes to be successful in the modern music industry. Being on a small indie label, we still basically do 99% of things ourselves. It’s built a DIY attitude within our band where we know what we can do not just ourselves, but for ourselves. We’ve learned a lot about the music business and now can enter conversations in a much more informed way than we could a few years ago. I think as we have made and released our second full length album, we have a good sense of what we need to do to continue to move forward and are looking ahead to what will be next – whether it is with CI, another indie label, a major label, or continuing our own way on our own terms.
EM: Who designed the artwork for the album cover? What was the inspiration behind it?
Neal: Our good friend Kate Campagna designed the artwork – she is an incredible artist from Washington, DC. Her art is very out-of-the-box. I love how her brain works. She has actually been super tight friends with Paul for what seems like forever. He asked her to listen to the record and come up with something weird and that’s exactly what she did. When we saw it, there was no debate. We knew this was the art for the record.
After that, the band designed the logo and the 60’s esq radical experience stuff for the bottom of the cover. We really took our time with that part since none of us are graphic designers and we wanted it to be just right. Our good buddy, Andrew Zell, did the layout for the rest of the record and our friend Eric Urbach really helped make sure everything was just right for the physical release. So just like the record itself, it was a team effort with a lot of different and creative people involved.
EM: You guys have made a lot of great music videos! What is your process behind making a music video, with regards to choosing a song, ideas for the video, and choosing a director?
Neal: Thank you! Making a music video can feel like a really daunting task and what we have done well is we have learned how to work as a team. Usually one of us has some crazy idea and the rest of us figure out how to make it happen. Our newest video for “Quicksand” was the first video we made with a director (Bradley Atom) and producer (Hannah Nawa) that really took control of our idea and brought it to life. For our videos for “Straight to Hell” and “Better Things”, we took more control of the creative direction of the video itself, self-producing them with the help of our good friend, Ian Bell. For our older videos for “Portland” and “Coming Around” the talented duo of Everett Glovier and Zach Meyers handled the direction of the concepts.
We usually just pick the songs that we think are the best ones on the record and the ones that a story could be told through video. We’ve had ideas for songs that we haven’t been able to make yet because, to an extent, a music video is just promotional and it can be cost prohibitive. But I think we are finding new ways to create content that doesn’t break the bank. We choose people to work with based on work they have done before, how they vibe with us when we talk, and how open they are to doing something different. Usually when someone brings up price before creative, we typically decide not to work with those people. If people are stoked about the creative process, we are more than happy to pay them what they are worth.
EM: You will be doing your first West Coast tour with Eye The Realist this summer. What are you looking forward to the most about touring the west coast? Besides the tour, what’s next for the band?
Neal: I am most looking forward to the burritos. Seriously. I haven’t had a great burrito since I lived in San Francisco. I miss it desperately. Beyond that, playing music is always the best part. Luckily we are all best buds so we usually get along and have fun with each other between shows, but we are all out there doing this because we love making and performing music. It’s also nice to just spend an extended amount of time together to bond and plot our next adventure.
I’m also really interested to see how people on the west coast react to rad-pop. The personalities of east and west coasters are so different and I think deep down, this record is a west coast record made by east coast guys. Should definitely be interesting.
We have been talking about making another EP later this year, but we haven’t finalized anything yet. I am sure there are more tours coming and more music to be made! That’s basically what we do as a band – make music and get in our cars and drive around to play it everywhere!
You can check out the music video for “Quicksand” off rad-pop. below: