For North Highlands, There’s No Place Like Home



North Highlands have found their own way to combat the recession. The band has stayed occupied—not on Wall Street, but in the recording studio—to find success despite hard economic times. The Brooklyn-based indie-pop group all found each other during their time studying in the music-recording program at NYU (and in funny ways: lead singer and pianist, Brenda Malvini met bandmate Andy Kasperbauer because he was sitting on her couch). The band has found a home in one another and in their name, which is Malvini’s hometown, North Highlands, CA. Their name is a symbol of nostalgia, which is evidenced by the closed Air Force base that Malvini remembers from growing up.

The band, comprised of, vocalist and percussionist, Jasper Berg, Malvini, Kasperbauer, Daniel Stewart, who plays the mandolin, violin and guitar, and vocalist and guitarist, Mike Barron. Their debut album, Wild One, has been in the works since their formation two years ago, blending “pop-psych [and] post-rock” into their “hodgepodge” of music.

We caught up with Malvini on performing for the first time out of town, being hit by the recession, and the New York City longing that has surfaced in North Highlands’ songs.

ILANA KAPLAN: So, what have you been up to other than playing a bunch of shows?

BRENDA MALVINI: Getting ready for our album release. Just getting everything prepped and ready to go. We’re also planning to do a video for “Benefits” after we come back from our trip with Stars. Everyone’s running around trying to get our van ready to go and get our shirts printed, so it’s been kind of wild. It’s sort of controlled chaos.

KAPLAN: You’ve been covered by The Deli and some other publications. You guys have gotten a lot of buzz over the past two years. Do you think it’s been a long time coming for a big break?

MALVINI: I think it’s really good timing. I feel, with Wild One, we’re really proud of the work we did on it and really excited to share it. With all of the response we’re getting, it feels really appropriate, and it feels right. We’ve been a band for two years, but we’ve still been working on our sound in that time. I feel like we’re all really proud of the sound that we’ve accomplished at this point. It feels good.

KAPLAN: So, Wild One is your big debut?

MALVINI: We released an EP called Sugar Lips in the winter of 2009. That was basically a compilation, like hodgepodge, of all the songs we had ready to go. We didn’t get to work on them compositionally. We just wanted a piece of work to help us get some shows. So, it’s very, very eclectic. We basically had been working on Wild One since then.

KAPLAN: How would you describe Wild One musically? Any particular influences?

MALVINI: I would say each of us comes from a different background. Our main guitarist, Mike, he’s from Chicago, so he’s got that Chicago post-rock thing. He’s really into electronic music as well. Our drummer is originally from South Africa. Andy, our bass player, he’s into punk and a lot of different kinds of things. I’m kind of all over the board. I think my influences that I was listening to during the album… I was listening to Deerhoof a lot, the Dirty Projectors, and Talking Heads. I was listening to a lot of things that would make me feel good, happy, and would keep me going. I think our influences are all over the board. Mine are mainly movement. While we were recording the album, I rewrote a lot of lyrics on the bus on the way to Philly and in the recording studio, so being able to move was a big inspiration for me.

KAPLAN: Who are some bands that have been really cool for you to tour with?

MALVINI: Actually, Stars is the first one that we get to do an out-of-town date with. We did a show with Ra Ra Riot at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Those are kind of our exciting moments of playing with those more grown-up bands. We’re driving overnight after our Music Hall of Williamsburg show with them to go and play in North Carolina. So, that’s pretty exciting.

KAPLAN: How did you guys get your name?

MALVINI: We’re all from other places. The majority of us moved here for school. I met everyone in a music-recording program at NYU. My bass player, I met on my couch one morning, and he’s been my friend ever since. I’m from California. Daniel is from the East Bay. Jasper is from Seattle. Mike is from Chicago. Our bass player is from Iowa. They’re all over the board. North Highlands, when I was thinking about what to call ourselves, I was thinking of home and where it comes from and how much it means to me.  Being a west coaster, and living here, you’re constantly romanticizing being home and how easy it is to live there. The seasons are chill. Home. My parents are there. We’re all very much wrapped up in a sense of… our band is a family. Our friends are our family. When they’re over here, it’s always a community. North Highlands is an Air Force base suburb, way back when. I grew up next to my grandparents until I was nine. It’s basically really run-down now, since they closed the Air Force base.  It’s very much trapped in how it looks the same, but it’s a totally different place. It’s a very, very nostalgic name for me.

KAPLAN: What do you want listeners to get out of Wild One?

MALVINI: I guess a sense of feeling, like, the colors involved in each song, basically. There’s a lot of longing on the album. Being able to connect to that is really important to me. Having a really good time listening to it. Being able to walk while listening to it or dance while listening to it. There were a lot of dance parties that happened in our studio when we were making it, trying out the danceability of the songs. I want people to come to our shows, sing and feel comfortable letting go with the music.

KAPLAN: You said there’s a lot of longing on the album. What is that about?

MALVINI: For me personally, each song, like “Benefits,” for instance, is pretty much about working towards something my entire life. Like, always being told, you gotta go to school. You gotta work really hard. You gotta get that college degree. You gotta make something of yourself.  You work really, really hard. Then you graduate, and there’s basically nothing for you. It’s a big letdown, and it hurts. Everyone is trying to do what they can. We graduated in a recession. That’s when we became a band. We’ve been a band ever since. Because we were like, “This is what we’ve got. This is what we want to do.” It was kind of an excuse because we can’t find real jobs to really be musicians. It was kind of like, fuck it, we can’t make money any other way, so we’re gonna just make music. Our other songs, which to me, are kind of like living in New York for the past six years, trying to find love and being constantly let down and constantly looking for something. These are songs that are more voyeuristic in the way that I live, the way that I think, and being in my head all the time. Putting myself out there is a lot more difficult than living in my head.

KAPLAN: It’s definitely rough. We’re living during a time where there’s a longing for a lot of different things. Your album definitely conveys that. Would you ultimately want to do this as your career or have this be a segue into your original career path from your studies?

MALVINI: For now, I’m all about being with these guys. Two years ago I scooped them up. Before, we all had stable jobs. I work in a restaurant. One of us works in a studio. One of us runs their own printing shop. Mike works at a record label. Jasper is a bartender. We’re all very, very focused on music right now. It’s the perfect timing to do so. We all want this to be our lives for as long as we can do it. I definitely want to see more travel in our future. I want to use this as a vehicle to see Europe, Asia, and Australia, everywhere. We’re really proud of this debut album. I feel that writing-wise, I have a long way to go before I feel really, really excited about where I’m at. I definitely would do a solo project in the really, really distant future. For now, I’m really excited to work with these guys.