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From the opening track of The Griswolds breakthrough second album High Times For Low Lives there are bad decisions, dubious choices and - right there in "Role Models" - electro-funk keyboard stabs that punch through the heart of a beat-laden RnB jam. There are drugs, models and sparkling, innovative pop. And if you thought you knew The Griswolds, think again.
High Times For Low Lives is the Australian four-piece's explosive coming out party, an amalgam of electro RnB rock intersecting with the slinky indie they're known best for from 2014's debut Be Impressive. Thematically following the process of a relationship decline, the ups and downs of following dreams, and how these moments showcase life at its fullest, High Times for Low Lives is an immersive thematic experience, as well as a sonic evolution of The Griswolds.
The band - singer Chris Whitehall, guitarist/keyboardist Daniel Duque-Perez, bassist Tim John and drummer Lachlan West - teamed up with Grammy Award-winning producer Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Sleigh Bells, fun. and more) at his Los Angeles studio and strikingly evolved their musical personality. Their relentlessly catchy tropical indie-rock is now draped in swathes of funk, RnB, hip-hop and electro, with echoes of Michael Jackson, The Weeknd, Prince, Tame Impala and Kendrick Lamar abounding in its dancefloor-ready pop.
"Reality's a plane / And we're not on it…"
The result is an album that's playful, ominous, twisted, exuberant and turbulent, and impossible to categorise. Simply, it's a thoroughly modern record that defies convention, taking listeners on an exhilarating genre-shifting ride amid an outpouring of self-recrimination and reflection.
That cycle of emotional turmoil came after the roaring success of debut album Be Impressive (whose plaudits include #2 Billboard New Alternative Charts, #7 Heatseekers Charts, #5 iTunes Alternative Charts, sold over 25k copies, scored over 30 million US album streams and saw the band tour extensively and play massive festivals the world over) and the nomadic, ripe-for-debauchery life that came with constantly being on the road, proving that sometimes, the sacrifices you make to follow your dreams have unintended consequences.
"This is high times for low lives / It must be hard / To just be yourself"
But in writing the album, the band took a bracingly isolated approach. They returned to Australia in August 2015 and locked themselves away in the remote wilderness two hours north of Sydney, in a house with no internet nor cell service, effectively cutting them off from civilisation, and leaving them alone with their thoughts in beautiful surroundings.
"The house was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and backed on to a mountain," recalls Chris. "Every day I'd wake up, climb that mountain and just be alone with my thoughts; then go for a swim and work on songs. It's really weird but refreshing to be cut off from the rest of society that way; all we did was write, create, hang out, and listen to records like Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly, and Currents by Tame Impala."
As the writing progressed across three stints in late 2015, the immersive sonic layers and diversity of High Times For Low Lives reflected the band members getting out of their comfort zone and simply deciding that, when it came to album number two, there would be no regrets. "We could've made Be Impressive 2.0," asserts Chris, "but there's no challenge in that. From the moment we wrote the first song for the album, "Birthday", we had a vision for what this band could sound like: and that was anything we wanted it to, no matter how out there."
As Daniel explains, the band spent a lot of time "digging back in time and revisiting the greats and trying to block out current trends unless they were undeniably creative or ground breaking. George Clinton, James Brown, Dr. Dre, Michael Jackson, Prince, Al Green, a lot of soul and Motown but also contemporaries like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Tame Impala. The fun was in learning about music we've never done before that everyone we knew at the time was saying we couldn't do because of who we are or because of where we are from. I don't feel like music should have those kinds of barriers and cages: music should remain artistic and speak to what's in the artists heart, soul and mind."
Out there it is; led off by the punchy, rambunctious indie-pop of lead single "Out Of My Head", "You Don't Love Me" and "Looking For Love" that fuse 2016 electronic flavours and the smooth RnB funk of Michael Jackson together in memorable fashion. "Feels So Right" is a smooth dancefloor killer, while the emotive fingerprints of artists like The Weeknd are all over "Hate That I Don't Hate You". And the off-kilter tropical afro-beat funk of "Get Into My Heart" will leave you singing along and wanting more. Everywhere you turn, there's another layer to get lost in.
"Sonically," explains Daniel, "I wanted to take us to a new world, to be hard to properly classify or pigeon hole. I was full of confidence and self-belief that it was possible to make a new path, our own path, our own sound, I felt like we had no limits: shoot for the stars and even if you miss you still might land on a cloud. Set the rule book on fire, and treat music with confidence again."
And working with Andrew Dawson - a long-time Kanye compadre, and whom Chris calls "a genius" - was "a dream come true," says Daniel. "He's made records for our idols and to sit in a room with him and create was an absolute privilege. It's like writing a script and Christopher Nolan decides he wants to direct your film."
"I'm a single guy / ‘Cos love is hell…"
Then there's the fact that that High Times For Low Lives is thematically built around an intensely personal narrative for Chris: it's just one more striking and absorbing aspect to the album. As a result, thematically High Times For Low Lives is more than aptly titled, with the album cycling through the demise of relationships: bad behaviour, heartbreak, falling in love again, and more heartbreak. It's at times funny, heartbreaking and, above all, jaw-droppingly honest.
"Every song is a puzzle piece that paints a bigger picture," says Chris. "It's a collection of stories and confessions about us, our lives over the last two years. It's about the high times, literally living the dream that we always wanted to live, this crazy ‘rock star' fantasy that we dreamed of since we were children."
"The perception of that life," he continues, "is that everything is always perfect and amazing, but it can honestly be really wearying sometimes on the road. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness often lead to some poor decisions, you get sucked into drinking and drugs and empty relationships. The result of that is the toll that that has taken on our relationships with loved ones, family, friends and girlfriends."
"Like, a lot of this doesn't really cast me in a great light," Chris laughs, "in fact, a lot of it is the opposite. It's detailing the sacrifice you sometimes have to make to your relationships when you're trying to do what you love."
"I never miss you / I just don't wanna be alone"
In the end, High Times For Low Lives is a record that's built on The Griswolds challenging themselves to evolve their sonic palette while dealing with tattered lives and in shredded emotional states. It stands as a unique statement on the cutting edge of pop music in 2016.