The Highest Order get real
by Mark Teo
July 9, 2013
Simone Schmidt doesn't want the Highest Order to be compared to her previous work in One Hundred Dollars.
When talking to Simone Schmidt about the Highest Order, her wonderful new psychedelic country band, she makes one thing explicitly clear—she doesn’t want the project to be compared to her previous work in One Hundred Dollars. It’s a fair request, but it’s problematic, for a couple of reasons: First, both projects share members (guitarist Paul Mortimer and bassist Kyle Porter, with drummer Simone TB). Second, the now-defunct One Hundred Dollars were—without mincing words—fucking brilliant, with Schmidt using classic-country storytelling techniques to address modern struggle (in the first-person, she narrated stories about Afghan soldiers, Alberta oil workers, and Ontario migrant workers with such plainclothes realism, you could nearly smell the sweat).
But we’ll also take Schmidt’s point: As heart-breakingly good as One Hundred Dollars were, The Highest Order’s debut LP, the woozily hypnotic If It’s Real, is just as gratifying—but there are clear differences between the projects. “We approached this project with intent,” says Schmidt. “When you work with the same group of people, you begin to understand their gifts and ambitions. We learned from our work in other units that there has to be a clear understanding of who does what. And for the Highest Order, we wanted Paul’s guitar to direct the sonics, but we’re all making decisions collaboratively.”
Accordingly, the Highest Order is Schmidt, Mortimer and co.’s most sonically adventurous record to date. Unlike One Hundred Dollars or Schmidt’s solo project, Fiver, the quartet isn’t based around classic country: Tremolo-dusted guitar leads and piles of reverb haunt If It’s Real’s songs. Schmidt’s once-raspy vocals are now a rich baritone, hidden beneath the layers of sound; and the rhythm section, led by Tropics and Slim Twig member TB, adds loads of punched-up muscle. It’s a sound the band hoped to preserve on wax; If It’s Real, for its depth, was essentially a live recording, captured by celebrated producer Jeff McMurrich at his Toronto studio, 6 Nassau.
The Highest Order also stumbled upon their aesthetic down the street from McMurrich’s studio: The band initially assembled in the basement of a music store—Paul’s Boutique, the former jamspace of the Constantines, and steps from the bar where Mortimer works—to jam out old country tunes. Those eventually ballooned into If It’s Real.
“I write all the time,” says Schmidt. “And I had a lot of songs that didn’t fit the way One Hundred Dollars was working… A lot of those songs were traditional, 1-4-5 country, and I didn’t want to make another throwback country record; I don’t have any interest in the old style of Willie Nelson or Lee Hazlewood. I’m not interested in revisiting nostalgia from the ‘50s. With One Hundred Dollars, I would take a classic country theme [like the gambler, the cheater, or the traveller] and update it. To flip things with The Highest Order, we rearranged songs musically, and screwed around with [less] explicit lyrics.”
Take their cover of Charlie Rich’s country standard, “Lonely Weekends,” which the Highest Order twist, chop, and bury under a part-ominious, part-soothing haze. (Though Schmidt cautions us not to read too much into the mood of the album: “We’re not practicing cognitive behavioural therapy with our music,” she laughs.)
For all the talk of the Highest Order’s atmospherics, Schmidt’s trademark characters aren’t completely missing from their music: Many of her stories are there, but they’re abstract. “Chain Mail” is about entrapment, whether by work or relationships; “Offer Still Stands” is Schmidt’s stand against slut shaming. “200 Pounds,” on the other hand, is a story about a woman murdering her rapist.
So, maybe you can take the girl out of One Hundred Dollars, but you can’t take… well, you get the gist. “But I didn’t think of any concept for the album,” Schmidt insists. “I didn’t try to write the whole thing from a feminist perspective—that wasn’t my M.O. But that’s what comes through when I write.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 Issue of AUX Magazine.
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