Artist Spotlight: High Vis – Our Culture
London punk five-piece High Vis formed in 2016, but its members – vocalist Graham Sayle, guitarists Martin Macnamara and Rob Hammeren, bassist Rob Moss, and drummer Edward ‘Ski’ Harper – have been playing in influential UK hardcore bands for years. In late 2019, the group released their debut LP, No Sense No Feeling, a fiery post-punk record that confronted nihilism, violence, and social disenfranchisement from an unflinchingly political, working-class perspective, but struggled to find much meaning beyond rageful catharsis. A different kind of emotional awareness permeates their sophomore album, Blending, out tomorrow; Sayle’s bracingly vulnerable lyrics are given more space against the grand, shimmering instrumentation, which draws more openly from genres like shoegaze and Britpop. At once poignant and anthemic, Blending suggests there’s no end to the battle between hope and desperation, but it can at least be fertile ground for clarity as much as fear. “We’re destitute and we’re demoralised/ Our suffering disguised as pride,” Sayle proclaims on highlight ‘0151’, but Blending makes no attempt to hide the bleakness behind the surface. Even in its most downcast and disarming moments, it’s the sound of a group lifting itself up.
We caught up with High Vis’ Graham Sayle for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the personal changes that led to their new album Blending, vulnerability, growing up in hardcore, and more.
The album comes out in a few days. How are you feeling?
I’m excited and scared, I think is the best way to put it. I’ve talked a lot about it, and I don’t really have a filter. I’ve kind of put everything out there. Obviously, that’s the correct way to act in a safe space. But I just clocked that it’s not a safe space, is it? [laughs] It’s a vicious world. So I’m a bit terrified, to be honest. I still feel comfortable that everything we’ve done is true to ourselves. It’s a real representation of the space we’re in as people and at a time. But I also feel really vulnerable, and I think a couple of us are feeling vulnerable. It’s very easy to exist in a microcosm where almost everyone is self-regulating, it’s self-policing. For its failings, punk and hardcore is quite a familiar space. You know, I had someone in my workplace come up to me and say, “Do you play in High Vis?” And I was like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “I know your band.” And I was in my head just thinking, “No you don’t. [laughs] You haven’t got a clue.”
Going back to when you formed High Vis in 2016, how do you look back on that time in your life now?
It’s taken a lot of shapes, the line-up’s changed a few times, but we’ve definitely grown with it. I don’t like to romanticize it too much, but the people that we were when we started are miles apart from the people we are now. The band’s definitely been a vehicle for change and support, and it’s been a constant in all our lives. Which is good, because I think we were a lot more volatile as people back then. Having a relationship with four other people, it’s hard work. It’s not an easy thing to stay together and keep making music and stay creative. I feel very different from that person. Obviously, how you feel about that changes all the time.
With the release of Blending coming up, are you tempted to compare the album to your debut?
There’s so much more space in the new record. When I hear the songs on it, it does all take me back to the moment of writing them, and there’s a lot captured in that. I don’t have any defence mechanisms really now, like, what you see is what is happening. I can’t hide anything on my face, I cry at fucking anything nowadays. [laughs] It’s insane. But the first album felt so tense – it was so tense. I was very angry and confused and just sort of inside myself, and that really shows on the record when I listen to it. Some of them, I can hear my voice breaking, I remember putting everything into it – this sort of screaming into nothingness, just feeling empty and feeling pretty hopeless. And it’s still better to be active and taking the risk to do something, even if it’s quite familiar and it’s just an expression of anger or confusion. It’s better to do something. I think the new record is trying to find some clarity in yourself and in how you feel, and really understanding where those feelings came from.
You’ve said that the lyrics are “less selfish” this time around. What did it take for you to shift your perspective and open up your songwriting in this way?
I started going to talking therapy, just exploring my past, trying to have open conversations with everyone around me about how I felt and how things made me feel. Taking the difficult steps of being honest and trying not to take the easy route for anything. I got diagnosed with ADHD, finally – people had thought that for a long time, I didn’t get diagnosed in school. My brother is disabled and had a nightmare in school, getting terrorized because people are awful. I’ve always had a lot more energy than people and I’ve always been really scattered, I struggle to stay on topic. When I got diagnosed with that, that taught me a lot about myself, so I forgave myself and I started to understand myself a bit better. I’d started being more medicated in a sense, and it slows things down for me to be able to work methodically and not have this erratic, fucking racing mind just drive me mental. [laughs] I also stopped drinking, which is a big thing. I basically tried to do everything to make sense of my life.
Did that change the role that music had for you, or was that a constant? How did it fit into your songwriting?
It definitely made me more open to taking chances. Historically, I’ve had an idea about something and I will pursue that idea, and I think it was quite ego-driven. It didn’t necessarily give space for other people to put ideas forward. And then it kind of softened my approach to stuff. That’s where the kind of “blending” thing comes from, in the sense of, I stopped having such solid dividing boundaries between subsections of my hobbies or tastes, and start pulling from a lot of different places. Being like, I can talk about this side of my life and this, whereas in the past, you just try and fit into the mould and blend in, like if you’re into punk you’re a certain way. I just tried to stop thinking like that.
A lot of people reduce hardcore to this cathartic release of anger. What other potentials do you see in it, that maybe you didn’t recognize growing up in the scene?
When I found it, I was like, “Oh yeah, this is me. This is the energy, this is what I feel.” It gave me a space to be someone, essentially. I felt felt seen and felt a part of something. And it had good role models is one thing as well – hardcore has a lot positive action. And the approach of people putting records out for their friends – I made some amazing friends, some my best mates, and worldwide. You’d meet someone, and you knew you’d have something in common with them because you both felt this the same thing towards, you know, feeling mental and wanting to dive on people’s heads. [laughs] You do perpetuate a cycle where you release energy, but I never quite got to find out where all that anger came from. But maybe if everyone started talking about their feelings, there wouldn’t be any hardcore bands. Yeah, hardcore’s the best. Even when I listen to records I loved as a kid now, I still feel the same thing. I still feel my blood boil and want to kill everyone. [laughs] That’s kind of cool.
There’s still that emotional connection, even if –
Even if I know, you know what, I shouldn’t go out and… [laughter]
It’s a useful feeling.
I wanted to talk about the idea of “competitive morality” that you sing about on ‘Morality Tests’. It sounds to me like it comes less from a place of resentment towards others or society than a genuine sense of self-acceptance around shame.
Yeah, absolutely. I really love that song. I’m trying to make sense of – we’re all flawed humans, you know. No one’s right. A lot of people are more right than others, but we all fuck up, and we all need to try and understand why we fuck up rather than trying to cut other people down or step on people. What happens when people fuck up? Do people just get written off and that’s it? And I’m not trying to – everyone needs to be called out for any bad behaviour.
I’m trying to make sense of this stuff myself as well. Because in my life, I was thinking about – you know, my friend was killed when I was young, by these kids, and trying to understand that kind of thing and not being… In the past, I was a reactionary person. I’d kick off at situations and things that I saw to be morally wrong. I’ve really fought with this stuff. And especially with my brother, he’s disabled and he’s vulnerable, people taking advantage of him – I was extremely protective and I wanted to just punch sense into everyone, you know. And I’m trying to find out what’s the right thing to do. What is the right way to react to this stuff? As a society, as a human, what’s the best way to deal with this kind of thing? It’s not necessarily about forgiveness or something straight away. Holding on to the hate and all that, it’s like the old hot coal burning yourself analogy. I still have a lot of things that I hold on to, and I want to let go.
Vulnerability is something that’s talked a lot about in the music world, but it’s easier to preach about than put into practice. As a band, how do you go about creating that space of authenticity? How did the openness you found in yourself feed into your ethos as a group?
We’re super open with each other now and having conversations about how we feel about stuff. Everyone has an equal voice. A lot of bands, there’ll be one person or two people who write stuff and then people play, and they’ll be, “We’re the songwriters, and you guys play.” I think it’s a lot more open, because some periods, Rob Hammeren and Ski would write most of it, and on Blending, Ski and Martin, when Martin joined, he was writing a lot more. But everyone has an input. No one’s like, “No, that’s not gonna work.” You kind of have check your ego a bit and be open to everything. That’s the thing, it’s kind of an ego thing. We’re a proper band of mates who sometimes might find each other difficult. [laughs] But we’re stuck with each other. We can’t be like, “Fuck it, we’ll get another guitarist.” We’ve all been through so much together. You can’t pick your mates, can ya, as they say.
What inspires you the most about your bandmates?
I mean, Ski, the drummer, he’s one the most important people in my life. He’s really done so much for me. He’s the person who’s given me a space to do this stuff and feel, and like, be better. I’ve gone from being in quite a bad way and not really seeing the future in anything to – see, I get emotional. [laughs] It’s mad. But everyone – you know, Rob Moss was in the first band I was ever with with me. I love playing in a band with him, he’s amazing. Rob Hammeren has brought himself back from really the pits of depression, which is super inspiring to see. And Martin is just the most straight, easy constant in my life. It’s amazing. As people, they’re fucking nutters, but I love them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.