“There’s a lot of snobbery that comes with guitars. But I don’t think the average listener gives a fuck”: alt-rockers Higher Power
Guitarists Max Harper and Louis Hardy compare modern and vintage metal sounds, lament guitar snobbery, and give us their rig rundowns.
From left to right: Ethan Wilkinson, Alex Wizard, Jimmy Wizard, Louis Hardy, Max Harper
For such a young band, Higher Power have had their share of tour-related calamities. In April 2019, while in the midst of a five-week US tour, the hardcore act’s van was ransacked, which left guitarists Max Harper and Louis Hardy without instruments. In February 2020, while touring the US in promotion of their recently released sophomore album, four fifths of the band were struck by the coronavirus. Fortunately, aside from these incidents, there have been more ups than downs.
The Leeds-based band – who worship at the altar of 1990s alt-rock – began in late-2014, when brothers Jimmy and Alex Wizard, the band’s vocalist and drummer, recruited Louis to help flesh out and record a three-track demo. “It was just three of us at the start,” says Louis. “It was just meant to be a fun recording project. We were all in different bands at the time.”
The demo, a rough-and-ready slab of alt-infused crossover punk, was released on Max’s now-defunct label Neutral Words Records in February 2015. The trio was to be rounded out by bassist Ethan Wilkinson and Max were they to ever play live. It wouldn’t be long until they did. “When that demo came out, it got a lot of hype,” says Louis, “and then it was like, ‘I guess we’re a real band now?’”
The powers that be
Five years on from their recording debut, Higher Power have an EP and two full-length albums to their name. Their latest, 27 Miles Underwater, was released in January on Roadrunner Records. Produced by 1990s alt-rock architect Gil Norton, the album represents a maturation not only for the band but for Max and Louis as players, with them dialling back on the effects that drenched previous releases to present their serrated riffs, brawny blues-stomp breakdowns and swirling solos with increased precision. As ever, the guitarists wear their influences – a who’s who of little-known post-hardcore acts and Kerrang TV regulars – on their long-sleeves.
“I started learning on a Spanish guitar when I was about 10,” says Max. “It was awful. Later I got given a Hondo Les Paul copy. It was rescued from a skip and I was so grateful because it took away the pain of playing that Spanish guitar. It was the early-2000s when I was getting into guitar. John Frusciante and Tom Morello blew me away. They were the players that were on MTV, Kerrang, and Scuzz at the time.”
Getting turned onto the New York hardcore scene proved pivotal for Louis. Alongside Bad Brains’ Dr Know, Louis cites Peter Moses from Into Another and Vic DiCara from 108 as massive influences. “I like weird guitar players who make strange sounds,” he says. “I was really into Adam Jones from Tool too, for the textures he makes with his pedals.”
Old school sounds
Higher Power’s guitar is most commonly compared to that of Deftones, and it’s true that Louis and Max’s hammer-blow chugs recall those of Chino Moreno and Stephen Carpenter. But there’s more to the Leeds band than that. Alongside buzzsaw-led breakdowns reminiscent of 1980s New York hardcore and rapid-fire riffs that evoke 1980s thrash, you’ll hear the big, bright chimes of 1990s alt-rock and the aggro edge of early-2000s nu-metal, all overlaid with a pop-punk sheen surely picked up from those years spent watching Kerrang TV. With such a maelstrom of stylistic influences – chopped and changed on a track-by-track basis and at breakneck speed – the band eschew the modern-metal sounds of many of their peers.
Max plays a Charvel San Dimas Style 1 in Snow White. “It’s the stock 2018 model,” he says, “with juicy Seymour Duncans. It’s pretty gnarly. Before that I had the 2014 model, which was down to just a single pickup, a Seymour Duncan in the bridge. It had a single volume pot and no switches or anything. But it got stolen when our tour van was broken into in New York. We got a bunch of replacement gear and I saw this. My old one was all black and this is all white and I just had to have it. It was yin and yang. I just love the Charvel for its simplicity. It looks right with a Floyd Rose and sounds heavier than a normal Strat. I have the best of both.”
Louis backs up the Charvel’s high-gain chops with trademark SG snarl but has had some unusual instruments in the past. “When we started, I used to play a Parker PM20, which is unusual in a hardcore band,” he says. “My dad gave it to me because he’d forgotten my birthday – I’m so glad he forgot. I took that guitar to bits and put a kill switch in it, changed the pickups a couple of times, put some Railhammers in, put some Seymour Duncans in. I’ve still got it but I used it so much that I wanted something else.”
When it came time to upgrade to the Gibson, Louis bought new. “There’s a lot of snobbery that comes with guitars,” he says. “You know, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get your guitar from this year or that year’. I kind of bought into that for a while. But I don’t think the average listener gives a fuck. No-one’s going to hear the difference. I was trying all these old guitars and then I was like, ‘I don’t care’. So I bought a brand-new SG from 2019 and was so happy with it.”
Louis is also the band’s resident tinkerer, though his DIY escapades aren’t always planned. “I fuck with every guitar I get,” he says. “The SG’s bridge pickup went microphonic within about two weeks of me buying it. Because I’m stupid and forgot to send off my warranty form, I couldn’t send it to Gibson to have them fix it. I had to learn how to fix microphonic pickups myself. So I took it apart, took the covers off and rewound it and everything. I managed to fix it though.”
The combination of the Charvel and the Gibson gives Higher Power an old-school sound unlike that of their contemporaries. “The Charvel is super-choppy and high-gain,” says Louis. “It’s like an 1980s-style metal guitar. But the SG has a sharp, nasal bite to it. Because we’re both using vintage-style guitars, the sound is more reminiscent of bands we reference from the 1980s and 1990s, rather than just another heavy band in 2020 with high-gain active pickups.”
“A lot of people use LTDs with EMG pickups now,” says Max. “The distortion and gain is so high but there’s a real clarity to it. It’s cool to have that sound, but it’s very modern. We have more of a vintage sound. I like to have to fuck with it. I like it to test me. I don’t want to be dependent on my sound. I like to have to think about the tone and dial it in depending on the venue.”
Pedals to the metal
The influence of Adam Jones’ otherworldly textures on Louis is clear, even if he’s hesitant to jump aboard the boutique-pedal bandwagon. “I don’t collect boutique pedals,” he says. “All my stuff’s been stolen once, and we’re driving around stamping on these things every night, so I’d rather have a durable pedal by Boss than some delicate hand-made unit.” He runs an Ibanez TS-9, alongside a Cry Baby Wah, and a Boss Waza Craft Chorus and Waza Craft Analogue Delay, as well as an ISP Decimator that he uses to cut his feedback. But his pedalboard also boasts a few secret weapons.
“I have this Hotone Soul Press expression pedal that controls the rate of the Waza Craft delay,” says Louis. “You know when people do weird noise sets and it’s like [makes indecipherable gurgling sounds]? I basically use it to create strange frequency sweeps. The Soul Press also goes into another nasty digital delay, the TC Electronic Prophet, so I’ll have a chorus signal going into a weird frequency sweep that then gets delayed again.”
Max has an MXR Noise Clamp, a Boss Chromatic Tuner and GE-7 EQ pedal, and a TS-9 that he uses to boost the signal of his Marshall JCM800 to make the band’s choruses stand out. He also has a rather special chorus pedal. “Unlike Louis, I’m a bit of a nerd about this stuff,” he says. “I have a mid-1980s Japanese Boss CE-3 Chorus. I got it years ago, for a space-rock band I used to play in.”
At the band’s live shows, across the stage from Max’s Marshall, you’ll find Louis’ modded Peavey 6505 Plus. “I took it to this amp tech named Jas Nakhwal at Astral Sonic Technology in Leeds,” he says. “He printed off this list of diagnostics, and said, ‘If you change this component and this component, it’ll give you a frequency boost of 5kHz,’ and all this stuff. Everything he did made it sound so crisp compared to how it was before.”
Louis estimates that he and Max used about 10 guitars when recording their latest album, including a Fender Telecaster, an old Charvel that Louis had “Frankensteined”, a Gibson Les Paul, and a Gibson acoustic. There was also a Fender Jaguar Baritone that Gil Norton kept urging the guitarists to try. They politely declined – but this was probably the only one of Gil’s suggestions that didn’t stick.
“We used to use a lot of chorus and I think that muddied things a bit,” says Max. “It didn’t give us the transparency we wanted. With the help of Gil and Clint Murphy, who helped us record, produce and engineer the record, we pulled back on some things.”
After the album’s favourable reception in January, Higher Power embarked on seven weeks of touring around the US and Europe. Meanwhile, the swirling storm of COVID-19 was growing in strength. The band weren’t able to outrun it, with everybody other than Max growing ill.
“We got coronavirus while we were in Seattle,” says Louis. “We were coughing up so much. We didn’t know what it was at that point. I spent four weeks on my hands and knees coughing and struggling to breathe. The worst sickness I’ve ever had.”
Nevertheless, the band powered on and finished their dates. About 10 days after they returned to the UK, the country was shut down. Locked down in their respective homes with little to do, the band members are all working on new material but isolation isn’t making it easy. “Generally, we write with all five of us in the room,” says Louis. “You can’t do that now. Everybody’s writing on their own but it’s not the same as writing together. We’ve planted a thousand seeds, and they’re growing but until they turn into plants, who knows?”
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