Five Questions with Hi-Alta

Band photo by Ben Mason

Following the split of local electronic outfit Sonmi, two of that band’s members, Dave Mathes (drums, synths and production) and Nigel Gilmer (bass, synths and production) formed Hi-Alta. The duo describes its sound as “analog synths, bleeding-edge beats, found sounds, and live drum/bass goodness.”

They’ll play a Sunday, Sept. 29 show at The Emerald Lounge. Splynter also performs; Chrome Sparks headlines. 9 p.m., $7.

Xpress: Hi-Alta is a duo with two of Sonmi’s members — how is the new band different from Sonmi, and what parts of Sonmi’s sound did you maintain or build off of with Hi-Alta?

David Mathes: Because we are a completely new project and not carrying any Sonmi material forward, we really have started from a new place within ourselves. We have been finding a new sound, or rather, letting it find us. We are bringing together our ideals but we’re also stepping out of the way and allowing a new sound to manifest independent of our ideals. Since we were the rhythm section of Sonmi, Hi-Alta certainly has a heavy rhythmic element, and in general the project sounds more electronic, with less of an influence of a post-rock style. We definitely draw heavily from the hands-on approach of Sonmi, but we are also a little less interested in solely making experimental electronic music, and are more inclined to conceptualize ahead of time before we begin to compose. We definitely still have an affinity for analog gear, so you’ll hear that in the Hi-Alta sound as well.

What does the format of a duo allow that a full band did not allow? As a duo project, Hi-Alta has half the personnel that Sonmi did as a four piece band. This reduction can make production and composing simpler, and flow faster and more cohesively. At the same time, a duo can make an engaging performance more challenging. The value that we place on live instrumentation has certainly carried over from Sonmi. Having as much physical control and visceral expression as possible in every moment of a song’s performance on stage means a lot to us because we are as much musicians as we are producers. This has given us even more of a focus on how we execute our music in a way that is challenging, but fun.

You’re already at work on a Hi-Alta EP. Can you tell us a little bit about that project — what’s the writing process like, how many songs will there be and is there a narrative or a theme? Since releasing the Sonmi record, our engineering skills and ear for sonic quality continue to grow and vastly improve. We understand so much more about sound design and how to utilize our gear. We are delving into sound design as we never have before, which means we take even more care on every facet of the music. We quite enjoy the process of running audio through hardware compressors, tube amps, synth filters, etc. just to achieve an original quality. It’s something about the space that those tools create that really help gel differing sounds together. It is important to us to be the creators of every sound we use, as opposed to using pre-fabricated, commercially available sounds.

This EP is our first journey into what new sounds and emotional space we want to speak through the music. The narrative is still coming together but it certainly deals with the challenge of personally and collectively sustained strength, perseverance and integrity amidst an intense and dismal environment. The EP will be five tracks long, or around 25-30 minutes of music.

Our writing process is more fractured than it was with Sonmi. Sometimes we will work solely on sounds, regardless of structure or composition, and then others will be strictly compositional-based with a focus on melody, harmony and song structure. And yes, I mean song structure. We’re delving into writing vocals for the first time in both of our musical careers. 

You recently posted a Marley Carroll Remix of Sonmi’s song “Future 26.” Do remixes allow you to hear your own work differently? Who would you like to have remix a Hi-Alta track? We really loved what Marley did with that! Marley is also a really good friend to us all and we deeply respect his work and his integrity in relation to his art. Remixes are all so interesting because you can really tell which parts are resonating with other artists. It really does help to hear our art differently, and to see what other sort of spaces could exist within. We do have other Sonmi remixes that we plan to release in the future as well, so keep an eye out for that. Apart from all of our talented producer-friends here in Asheville, we’d really love to have a Warp Records artist like Bibio or Clark remix one of our tracks. Those artists are a big influence on our sound design process, and they’re always very dynamic and musical in their own works. Fat chance of that happening, but we’d still like to think it could. 

You’ve been chosen to play the local showcase at Mountain Oasis. How do you see the showcases dovetailing with the rest of the festival? Having performed (with Sonmi) at Moogfest, what’s the experience like to be a local band at such a highly-regarded festival? The showcase is conveniently located close to the Civic Center at the Emerald Lounge, so it’s easy for festival attendees to make it down to see the local stage. Also, people not going to Mountain Oasis who still want to be a part of the festival can cheaply get into the local showcase as well.  It’s a really good way to involve the local scene in an official capacity. In years past, it’s been an awesome turn-out, and people have been just as stoked to support the local scene as they are their favorite headlining artists. If it’s one thing we love about Asheville, it’s the openness and willingness of the audience to experience something they haven’t before. We really feel both humbled and respected to be offered the opportunity to play at Mountain Oasis. Especially being a newer project, it’s something we were not expecting. Not to mention the fact that we get to go to all-access areas at the festival. It’s an amazing networking opportunity to say the least.

Tell us about your upcoming show with Chrome Sparks — have you played with Jeremy Malvin before, and how are you inspired by his music? What can we expect from your set at that show? We’ve never played with Jeremy before, but since we got offered the show we’ve been jamming some stuff on his Soundcloud pretty regularly. He’s really good at synth layering and having unique sounding percussive bits. That’s the stuff we resonate with most in regards to his music. We also have a similar musical background, having studied music academically and having percussion as our primary instrument set. We’re excited to be able to meet and hang with him. 

As far as our set, we have a new tune ready to drop with brand new sounds that we’re really excited about. It’s the most versatile track we’ve done to date, and it fits in nicely with what we’ve composed already. It will be a high energy set, with both of us constantly switching between synths, drums, bass and MPC-style sampling and electronic beats. 

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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