Highly Suspect’s Johnny Stevens Wants to Judge Philly’s Chicken Wings, Rock Our Faces Off

Featured Image provided courtesy of the Artist

Rock On Philly recently had the chance to talk to Johnny Stevens from Highly Suspect, a three-piece band hailing from Brooklyn, NY. We had the chance to discuss everything from their new album to music videos to touring. Highly Suspect will be playing the Underground Arts on August 1st here in Philadelphia. They are not to be missed! (Get tickets here)

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Photo by Mandy Corey

Rock On Philly: What is your composition process like? Who composes the majority of the music?
Johnny Stevens: There is no set writing process. It’s always different. I wrote all of the lyrics on this particular album with the exception of the song “Lost,” which Rich [Meyer] wrote. All of my lyrics are based on real life events that I’ve endured. Some of them are pretty painful, but it’s therapeutic to let them go. As for the instrumentation, a lot of times I’ll have the melody and basic chord structure out together and then bring it to the studio with the guys and we’ll play it until the rest of the instruments start finding their place, but it’s not always that way. Sometimes we just jam out together with no intended direction and a song will form. “Bath Salts” might be the most unique as far as musical composition because the drum beat came first and then Rich and I built around it. Ryan [Meyer] just had this sick Bonham groove that he had been playing and we decided we had to put a melody on it.

ROP: Which song off of Mister Asylum is your personal favorite and why?
JS: Don’t do that to me!! [Laughs] I guess that changes daily. Today, it’s “Vanity.” I think it’s gonna be the sleeper favorite for a lot of fans. It’s different, doesn’t follow a standard song format but instead has more of a part A and part B thing going on. Halfway through the song, the whole vibe and tone change and it turns into something really wide. When I listen to that song, it doesn’t sound like I’m listening to us. Instead it sounds like I’m listening to a band I just discovered that I know I’m really going to like. I’m also really proud of the line “My love it lays, under the corner stone that the builder threw away.” That’s a straight reference to Bob Marley‘s line “The stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone” which lends a double meaning when paired with my lyric. If the stone that the builder refused becomes the head cornerstone, it means that ironically the underdog wins even though the builder refused it. The refused stone is now the strongest as it is supporting the whole structure. So, if my love lays under that stone, then it’s under the most solid foundation, meaning it’s very real. Nerd alert.

ROP: Did the move from Cape Cod to Brooklyn influence your music?
JS: Well that was certainly part of it. And it worked. We moved for 3 reasons.

  1. We hit a plateau as a band on Cape Cod. Filling up bar rooms while playing covers is great, and, bo,y did we have fun. But, that’s it. That’s as far as your project is gonna go on Cape. At best, maybe some record exec would be on vacation during the summer and catch your set while they sip on a piña colada and really enjoy it. But then, they wake up with a hangover and go back to New York or L.A. and, chances are, they have enough acts to see coming through their city that are playing at actual music venues. They aren’t gonna be calling up the kids that did an okay rendition of a Bob Seger song when they heard them at a clam shack on vacation. We needed to move somewhere that the industry could take notice. Could have been Nashville, Austin, L.A., Chicago, Phoenix, or even St. Louis. But we chose New York. Biggest risk/biggest reward.
  2. We needed musical inspiration first hand. In New York, you can feel the beat of the city. There is culture all around you to soak in like a sponge. History. People from all over the world come here with all different races, religions, genders. You see extreme wealth, extreme poverty. All of it is inspiring. And beyond that we can see live shows from just about every band on the planet. Everyone comes through New York. So, we were able to study music up close and personal. It didn’t take long to realize that a lot of bands that hail from Brooklyn were really just kind of soft and hipster-y. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it’s been a long time since something like the Strokes came ripping out, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New York Dolls, Ramones. When we moved here, no one had that edge. Now though, interestingly enough, there are a lot of bands around here that stepped it up. I have really great hopes for the near future of rock coming out of New York.
  3. It’s New York. Enough said. It’s honestly just fun as [expletive] to live in the center of the universe.

ROP: The music videos for “Lydia” and “Bath Salts” are both equally chilling and fit their songs well. Can you describe the planning process for both of them?
JS: Thanks! We try our best to avoid the typical “guys on stage in a band playing their instruments and looking tough.” It’s just been done. We are really big fans of art in general and cinema is one major part of the art world as far as we’re concerned. With the album we tried to make an audio movie. Transcend the basic song-song-song approach and instead make a bigger piece of art that incorporates strong visuals with everything from the physical artwork, to the title, the lyrics, and the videos that go along with it. We see ourselves as artists, not just musicians. So far we have made a couple of short horror films basically. “Bath Salts” was all us and it’s a weird nightmarish take on what actually happened to inspire the song in the first place. We filmed it for 500 dollars and had to spend an extra 100 for the contact lenses. We wrote the script and our friend/director James Northrup helped us plan the shots. It was filmed in our apartment and on the block we live on so we didn’t have to rent out a studio. It’s super D.I.Y. but, for 6 bills, we’re pretty proud of it.

“Lydia” took forever to find the right concept. We had two goals. We wanted to do something no one has ever done and we wanted to keep it insanely simple while still evoking a feeling. The song is very real to me and so not just any old story would do. After failing to come up with the right concepts we accepted treatments from directors all over the country. Pier Productions told us about having a freediver in a pool held down by ropes and suggested one single shot that would make the viewer squirm with anxiety. We were sold and flew out to LA and watched it happen in person. There is zero smoke and mirrors in that video and we are gonna release a behind the scenes video that was filmed wide angle on a GoPro to prove it. Marina Kazankova is a beast.

ROP: You just recently announced a summer tour—what do you enjoy the most about touring?
JS: It’s gonna sound so cliché but truthfully it’s being on the stage. There is no greater high than when the lights go out and I hit that first note on the guitar and the crowd starts yelling. I lose myself on that stage. For that 45 minutes or hour or even 20 minutes there is nothing else. There is just me and my two best fucking friends hanging out with a sea of people that are all on one wavelength together. It gives me the chills just thinking about it.

My second favorite part is being in towns I’ve never been in before and judging that town by their chicken wings.

ROP: You’re coming to Philly on August 1st! Have you guys ever been/what was your experience like?
JS: We’ve been to Philly but we’ve never played in Philly weirdly enough. Come to think of it that’s really strange. I do know that Rich and Ryan’s cousin is an award winning chef that won a few of those Iron Chef things on TV and she lives in Philly. So, she’ll probably know where the best chicken wings are which means you’ll probably be off the hook when it comes to me judging you on your chicken wings. Lucky you, Philly. Lucky you. Thanks for reaching out! Can’t wait for August 1st!

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