Six years has already gone so fast for an act like High Tension. From gaining ARIA-nominations to opening the main stage at Download Festival, the Collingwood-based sludge punk outfit have already gained so much from two full-lengths. But, now with their third LP ‘Purge’ set to be released this June, High Tension will be expanding their brand even further with a stronger and even fiery approach. We spoke with vocalist Karina Utomo, who talked about her and the band’s evolution between their debut leading up to ‘Purge’, the influence on her lyrical stance revolving around her personal life and her home country of Indonesia, the recruitment of two new and highly endowed members, and of course, the inception of their latest effort.
“I think it’s been an incredible process for us” she begins. “It’s been very collaborative, and having Mike (Deslandes) as the primary songwriter in the band has been really significant for us in terms of being able to execute the direction we wanted to be heading in. We met (Lauren) Hammel when we were shooting the Bully film clip. She is such a joy to be around and she was making me laugh the entire time. Matt (Weston) had seen Hammel play in another band prior to the video. When Damian moved to Perth and left the band, we approached a couple of different people and Hammel was the one for us. Even Dan McKay, who for a very short time was in High Tension said “If I was to get someone to replace me, I would get Hammel”, and that’s a lot coming from someone like Dan who is such an incredible drummer. Hammel is such an amazing musician!”
Guitarist Mike Deslandes, who also fronts the post-doom metal group YLVA was also assigned to recording and production duties, which has played a big role in his time in the music industry. With that, Utomo felt that it was an advantage to the recording process, and that it gave them more artistic freedom as a band.
“It was a total bonus” she says. “I felt like we had more control over what we were going to sound like. We could achieve the things we wanted to achieve really easily, because Mike knew how to do it from a production stance. And also in terms of the song writing process, he’s seeing things from a producer’s perspective, which meant there was more focus and clarity in the way we see things.”
After six years of being together, Utomo has seen the significant change in the band between ‘Death Beat‘ and ‘Purge’. One of which has to do with her well-developed vocal range, as well as the new direction they drove themselves towards when it came to preparing songs for the new record.
“I feel like we’ve had time on our sound. I think in terms of the “was this the evolution that I had expected”, I think it was always the intention to be heading into this realm to produce heavier songs and be more brutal. I feel like for this album, I’ve had more advantages in terms of having the experience of writing the two previous albums, touring and working on my voice. I definitely feel think there are things that I can do now that I couldn’t do previously. So, that made a big difference to the approach in this album, as well. So, we were a bit more experimental in the way we recorded and wrote these songs. There were more opportunities to demo entire songs with vocals and throw it in the bin. Having that more of a protest and a clearer direction felt inevitable for us to be doing it in this new process. Because we had a shakeup of songwriters, we just did things differently.”
While composing music together as a band is considered a team effort, it’s become just as important for everyone in High Tension to write in their own time. Considering that lots of things in their personal life can interfere with their music life, Utomo has expressed how obliged she is for having musicians and friends that have conjoint approaches between each other and their downtime outside of the studio and rehearsal space, and that it has made the musicianship between themselves as strong as ever.
“I’m really grateful we’re in a band where each member collaborates and gives each other space and understanding, so it’s never a chore to work and make songs together. Each one of us understand there are more important priorities outside of the band. We were able to do the things we were passionate about in a nice, supportive environment. I feel very lucky in that sense. Having Hammel in the band, the two of us are in the same light and have very similar anxieties. So, the way that we prepare ourselves for a show or the hurdles that we had during recording felt really therapeutic. It’s just nice to have her around and work through things together.”
Utomo’s upbringing in Indonesia has also play a significant part in her lyrics for a long time, and has become more present in the latest record. When it came to the trauma surrounding her country and moving to Australia, she has reconciled her past with somewhat of a storytelling side to her work as a vocalist, while not making it so transparent.
“It can be really difficult for me to talk about what the songs are about and that’s why it’s so great to sing these songs in a particular way. It’s less confronting for me because it’s not like “here are my lyrics and you can hear exactly what I’m singing about”, and I really love having that guise which suits the music. So, it’s a perfect world for me. I guess the main points of reference that come into the lyrical world of High Tension are trauma and why it’s important to address that; why I’ve delved into that particular trauma that’s happened with Indonesia’s history. I guess I’m reflecting on things like the impact of colonialism, how that means and how that’s affected my experience of growing up in Indonesia, and moving to Australia to reflect on that now. I also grew up learning a lot about Islam and I learned the alphabet at the same time as I learned how to read Arabic so I could read the Quran. There’s a lot of reflection on things like that and the supernatural, as well.”
From what can be seen on the cover of ‘Purge’ is a snake breaking out of its skin, which was painted by none other than Loretta Lizzio. According to Utomo, Lizzio already got Karina’s seal of approval from the very first draft of the artwork, after listening back to the demos of the album. The title and the cover’s interpretation is based on the experiences that Utomo and co. had been experiencing in and out of the band, which just so happens to be quite fitting for High Tension.
“Before we decided that ‘Purge’ was going to be the title, I pitched the idea to the rest of the band and they liked it as a title. Everyone was into it, so when it came to the album artwork, we sent the demos to Loretta Lizzio so she had a deep understanding of what it was she was painting for. The idea was a snake breaking away from its skin and a reset, I guess. It was really unbelievable that she nailed it when she sent us the first draft of the drawing and it’s an oil painting that she’s made. I think it also suits this cycle of the band where I honestly feel like we’ve pressed the reset button. I wouldn’t say it’s an entirely new direction, but I feel like in my mind and my heart that we were always heading in that direction, but it’s very different to the previous albums. The title doesn’t just belong to the personal references of what I wrote for the album. I think it suits the band in this particular phase. I didn’t come up with the snake purging the skin idea, but the years that I referenced the most was the year of the snake which was kinda creepy to realise later” she laughs.
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