Slam Dunk Festival adds 15 more bands and reveals stage splits
PVRIS, The Maine, Scene Queen, Higher Power and more added to this year’s Slam Dunk Festival.
Higher Power know that you can’t keep a good dog down. Challenged to brainstorm a photoshoot that captures where they are as people and a band, the Leeds collective opt not for flashy fashion nor an outlandish high concept, but something altogether more ruff’n’ready. Who better to encapsulate these lads’ can-do spirit and passion for open-hearted adventure, they ask, than their shaggy four-legged friends?
Frontman Jimmy Wizard introduces us to seven-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Harley: a best bud who stays curled at his feet for the duration of our interview. His drummer brother Alex cuddles Chihuahuas Milo and Mia. Guitarist Max Harper ruffles the hair of crossbreed Rex, rescued from a “crackhead” on the street. Bassist Ethan Wilkinson doesn’t have a pooch of his own, but he and his girlfriend (K! photographer Nat Wood) are enthusiastic surrogates: the gang’s go-to sitters if someone’s got a hot date or is heading out of town.
“Our dogs are like extensions of our personalities,” Jimmy grins. “They’re such a big part of our lives, they bring us so much joy – they even keep us alive at points. I could never die before Harley and leave him in this world alone. I’m reckless at the best of times – I’ve got a motorbike and a dirt bike, I love dangerous things – but he’s the reason I’ve not blindly overtaken this or that vehicle over the years; he’s why I stopped doing graffiti, climbing up the outside of buildings and shit.”
Every lyrical idea that’s gone into Higher Power, the singer pivots, has come from one of his and Harley’s long morning strolls. While formulating sublime second album 27 Miles Underwater, prior to its January 2020 release, he was fascinated by the ‘Seven Year Theory’ that every cell in the human body is reborn in septennial cycles, and inspired by the idea that he and his bandmates were at the culmination of one such metamorphosis. In the 23 months since, he’s been facing up to a wave of far less theoretical change.
Lockdown happened, of course. “We were just on the cusp of something,” Jimmy sighs, almost reluctantly. “That was taken from us, but you can’t focus on it too much or you’ll be angry and bitter, and you’ll struggle to move forward.” Quietly, long-time guitarist and co-songwriter Louis Hardy decided to leave the band, too. “It was very out of nowhere, like, ‘Oh, wait, what?!’” the frontman shrugs, alluding to an “identity crisis” but ultimately refusing to speculate on his friend’s reasons for calling it a day.
Instead, Jimmy emphasises how the resultant self-examination galvanised Higher Power’s remaining members. With a full album’s worth of material banked before Louis’ departure, the option was there to recruit a replacement and reunite with esteemed producer Gil Norton. Rather, they chose to start again, returning as a four-piece to The Stationhouse studio in Leeds for a reunion with James ‘Atko’ Atkinson who’d overseen 2015’s self-titled demo and Space To Breathe EP.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how quickly things can be stripped away,” Jimmy gestures. “We’d lost everything: touring, the ability to work closely with our label, even a member of the band. This was about asking, ‘What can we do? What have we got? Just the four of us.’ We wanted to explore this situation we’re in and get back to just doing things ourselves and with our friends.”
The deeper the soul-searching went, the more fuel they found. Here were four individuals whose love for their band had been tested and stubbornly endured, whose success being snatched away had only stoked their dogged determination. Louis might’ve had his grounds for leaving, but his exit only tightened the ones left behind.
“Whether we’re on tour or in the studio, it feels like we’re exactly where we’re meant to be, doing exactly what we’re meant to do,” Jimmy stresses. “It doesn’t matter if it brings in any money. It doesn’t matter if it allows time for a relationship. It doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic. It doesn’t even matter that we’re spending months at a time away from our dogs. If we were going to let anything stop us, it would’ve been back at the point where it was like, ‘Aw fuck, we’re going to have to quit our jobs to do this next tour.’
“We do this because we need to. It’s like we’re addicted!”
Getting back onstage was a sorely needed fix. Scrabbling against the silence and solitude of lockdown, Higher Power managed two shows in the final three-quarters of 2020: a socially distanced affair at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club and a skeleton-staffed K! Pit performance at Blondies in London. Last month, they returned to Brudenell for the final date of their long-overdue 10-date UK headline tour, coming full-circle in ear-splitting style, validating a set of songs they’d had on ice for close to two years.
The bloodied face of one punter in Brighton sticks out in the frontman’s memory. Ignoring a smashed nose and burst lip, said kid screamed back every lyric, buckled over the front of the stage. After months starved of connection, it was everything.
“I put my emotions in songs because that’s the only way I know to reach out,” Jimmy offers. “You’re so vulnerable up there. Unless I want to sing about boring shit, or just to be angry, I’ve had to learn to set my insecurities aside and really put myself out there. When you have people singing back to you, it’s like having a conversation. Even to have just had one kid screaming along would have been amazing, but to see all these rooms full of people coming down the front? That shit blows my mind!”
Performed with good friend Joe Williams filling in on second guitar, those shows had one foot in the past: a last hurrah for Higher Power 1.0. Fresh music is the way forward. Brand new single Fall From Grace – coming this Friday, and the first of several planned as Higher Power build back towards an album – delivers just that.
“We’re not really internet people,” Jimmy grins, genuinely thrilled. “We don’t really keep fans updated on social media like a lot of other bands do. But we wanted to show everyone where we’re at as a band right now: even though we’re a member down, this is what we’ve been working on, and we’re stoked!”
228 seconds of epic, woozy riffage that feels as indebted to Deftones, Finch and Smashing Pumpkins (specifically Mayonnaise from Live In Chicago 1999, according to Jimmy) as it is to Britrock contemporaries like Press to MECO, Puppy and Dinosaur Pile-Up, this is the first fruit of those Stationhouse sessions and a tantalising look at the path ahead.
The singer self-effacingly admits that the sweeping, ‘woah-oh’-loaded composition is partially an adaption to his limitations in stepping up on guitar (“I can’t be playing anything too riffy. I’d love to be up to some Trivium or Robb Flynn-type shit but, right now, that’s not something I bring to the table”), but with more dynamic vocals and a “chunky headphones” sound, the track feels nothing like a backwards step. Jimmy smiles at the observation. “The goal with Higher Power has always been to keep growing. It’s about trying to bring that bigger sound and more elements without overcomplicating things.”
Fall From Grace refuses to look back in anger, doubling down on the need for conciliation and discourse at a time when everyone in society seems ready to tear each other from their assumed “state of grace”.
Drawing on a “romantic” falling out in the band’s own social circle, it was Jimmy’s first attempt at a surface-level narrative. “Two people in a friend group hook up after a break-up. You get the people saying, ‘They’re both adults, they’re free, let them do what they want!’ Then you get the others saying, ‘No, that’s a betrayal!’ No-one’s really right or wrong.”
Jimmy raises a mug from which he’s been serendipitously sipping, decorated by Friends’ Rachel and Ross arguing the immortal line ‘We were on a break!’ to illustrate his point.
“In life, it happens all the time.”
Scratching beneath the surface, however, and the song is saying something even more profound.
“From COVID to the internet age of people getting ‘cancelled’, no-one really knows what’s wrong or right now. We’re being constantly boxed-in. You’re pro-vax or anti-vax. You’re a racist because you’re not posting about BLM. Everyone is trying to pin each other as something that they’re not.
“Sometimes, you can’t control those things. You only control how you react to them.”
Jimmy Wizard doesn’t label Higher Power as hardcore. In fact, he prefers not to label his band at all. He knows they don’t sound anything like the archetypical bruisers most fans associate with the tag. And frankly, he doesn’t care. With the whole world championing them as Britain’s genre kingpins, however, it’s something of an elephant in the room. So how exactly did these misfits with a sound closer to Alice In Chains and Jane’s Addiction than, say, Madball or Youth Of Today become leaders of the scene?
Starting at the very beginning, Jimmy describes an “unorthodox” upbringing in the long shadow of Her Majesty’s Prison Aylesbury. His single mother routinely worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse in the joint. His father was “big personality”, but largely out of the picture. His nan led a proud “alternative” lifestyle. Immediately beyond his four walls lay only the grey anonymity of Little Britain. “I didn’t know what falafel was until I was 16,” he says, lamenting the lack of diversity with a wry grin. “There was one Chinese family in the village over from me – and they ran a fucking fish and chip shop!”
Punk rock provided a much-needed splash of colour.
Big names like Rancid and Pennywise lit the way. Jimmy’s formative shows were hodgepodge mixed bills and ska-punk showcases around the boom of Household Name and Moon Ska records. With a cool aunt drip-feeding CDs from the likes of Less Than Jake, Foo Fighters and Green Day, and his mother showing her love by granting him the freedom to find his own way, it was less about teenage rebellion than pulling his thread from the countercultural weave.
Hardcore was a more black-and-white world of hard moral declarations. Having witnessed his dad’s destructive relationship with the bottle, a “resentment” for drinking culture led Jimmy to the stern straight-edge of acts like Minor Threat and Chain Of Strength. “When I was a teenager, it was perfect: a productive DIY world full of energy and innocence; less, ‘Let’s get fucked up!’ and more, ‘Let’s organise a benefit!’ It was never really that I wanted to mosh and hurt people. It was about being around like minds.”
Transitioning into his 30s, Jimmy has come to understand that the ties that bind can too easily become shackles to hold you back. The frontman is no longer straight-edge. He’s left behind the bitterness in which so many peers seemed stuck. Today, the “me-against the-world” mentality has been switched for empathy, understanding and open arms.
“I lived that angry life, and I feel like I missed out on so much,” he reflects. “The more you experience, the more perspective you get, the richer your life becomes. The bigger that perspective, the smaller your problems seem, the more easily you can navigate them. When I was younger, I couldn’t comprehend why my dad was drinking and couldn’t hold down his marriage and kids. Now I’m older and I’ve had responsibility and real jobs, I’m like, ‘No wonder people drink!’”
Nowadays, Jimmy’s music reflects that mindset, maintaining hardcore’s energy but letting go of its rigidity and brutalist tendencies. “I don’t want to write music for people to hurt each other to anymore. Really, I don’t think Higher Power ever did. Hardcore was there for me when I needed it, but now I’ve progressed. I don’t need those labels anymore. I don’t have anything to prove.”
Additionally, Jimmy isn’t the only personality behind his songs. The frontman comments that his brother Alex – who’d shared much of the same youthful experience, but never a band before Higher Power – would balk at his “hippy” ideals. Ethan is still the indie-rock enthusiast who learned bass to be in this band. Max connected through grassroots label Neutral Words, but worships Iron Maiden and comes from a family of bikers.
“Higher Power is just an amalgamation of four people who are comfortable with who they are, wanting to write the music that’s coming out of them,” Jimmy concludes. “We all like hardcore. We’ll listen to Knuckleduster and One King Down. But we’ll listen to Alkaline Trio, Arctic Monkeys and Alanis Morrissette as well… We’ve always wanted this band to have an openness. And, partly, that means being open to interpretation. If people want to interpret this as hardcore, that’s cool. If people interpret us as shit, that’s fine, too.”
Of course, it’s not just Higher Power who’re making labels obsolete. Stateside, big names like Code Orange and Turnstile are encroaching on indie and industrial with ear-catching results. Closer to home, the broader New Wave Of British Hardcore has been ploughing its own grittier outsider path. Fast-rising Londoners Chubby And The Gang sound more like Sham 69 than Sick Of It All. Their Big Smoke brethren High Vis are more Joy Division than Discharge. Even Leeds’ own tribe of heavier-end outfits like Big Cheese, Static Dress and The Flex owe as much to the world of alternative metal as that of punk.
Jimmy enjoys Higher Power being seen as figureheads for that classy current crop, not out of any sense of superiority, but because he’s one of them. Hell, he played with Chubby (real name: Charlie Manning-Walker) in now-defunct hardcore outfit Abolition. In Shrapnel, he shared stages with The Gang’s guitarist Tom 'Razor' Hardwick, who also fronts Big Cheese. High Vis mainman Graham Sayle was a key influence as part of Dirty Money when Jimmy was coming up – a debt the Higher Power man is happy to repay in hype. Static Dress were main support on that recent UK run. The Flex are the reason he relocated up the M1 to Leeds in the first place.
“We are all the same generation of people,” he enthuses. “Chubby and I have been best friends for like 12 years. We’ve been to Ukraine together and had a bouncer pull a grenade on us. Me and Razor nearly died in a crash together when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. We’ve all gone on to be these very different individuals, but we all come from the same family.”
Every bit as important as shared experience is their openness to new ones. There’s nothing “super-cliquey” about how these bands operate, and absolutely no gatekeeping of new fans. As much as they still enjoy sharing stages, seeing one of their number make it onto even bigger platforms – as Higher Power will with Wrexham pop-punks Neck Deep in the new year – is only ever mutually beneficial.
“Maybe it’s just a right place, right time, right people thing,” Jimmy says. “Maybe it’s just because we’re so open and accepting as a group that more fans are being welcomed in: people who like the super-fast stuff but don’t like beatdowns, people who love the energy of hardcore but prefer the sound of pop-punk. Maybe it’s just that we’re all a bit older now. We’ve spent years in smaller bands figuring things out. Maybe we’ve just gotten smarter: being more productive and writing better songs.”
In the end, the values that bind Jimmy to this 'scene' are the same as those that drew him here in the first place: community, camaraderie, escape from the everyday. “There’s never too much of an ulterior motive in this scene, beyond being into the music and the message, the ideas and the emotion.”
As we take our leave, Jimmy paints a scene that’s stuck with him since childhood. Turning up at school with Dr. Martens and a glowing mohawk, a teacher cornered the youngster and labelled him a “freak” to his face. It’s a tag he’s applied to himself and his fans with pride ever since. And, if he’s going to use his scene-leading steer for anything, it’ll be to protect hardcore as a space for future generations of disaffected outsiders.
“I’m not against the mainstream, but this music isn’t mainstream. It isn’t understood by the general public and it becomes a place for people who aren’t understood themselves. I push the ‘freak’ thing because there was a point where hardcore got too cool. There were a lot of Supreme hats and streetwear and smart-looking people. I am a dirty freak. I’m a skater kid. I have holes in my clothes, and I want to dye my hair and get tattoos and piercings. I want people to know that I’m into music for the disaffected. This is a weird thing that we do. Most other genres are spectator sports but punk and hardcore are about having a physical reaction to the music. We’re jumping on each other, we’re moshing and running from side to side. When those people who act cool at hardcore shows go home, they’re nerds obsessed with this thing that won’t make any money and doesn’t matter in the ‘real’ world.
“So who are we kidding? Why are we playing it so safe?! We are freaks. We are weirdos. Let’s embrace it!”
Higher Power's new single Fall From Grace is out this Friday. Catch them on tour with Neck Deep in January 2022.
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