Apocalypse Underground: Cheap High on their turbulent origins, creative evolution, and debut LP

Music, Off The Vine

By Nick Ubels

If you catch Mission’s Cheap High at one of their six fall shows, you’ll be struck by how well everything locks into place. Justin Goyer’s shimmering guitar lines float between his brother Derek’s bass parts while Carlos Mendonca’s unmistakable growl cuts in like a prowling lion. It helps that he ranges across the stage in the same manner, ready to strike at any moment. Holding it all together is the sturdy, almost punishing rhythm emanating from his brother Nic, slouched casually behind the kit.

In spite of their seemingly tossed-off style, the band’s music, aesthetic, and stage presence are seriously considered, revised, and well developed.

Forged from the ashes of TRI 5 and TLC, Cheap High quickly established themselves as a distinct presence in the Fraser Valley’s flourishing post-punk scene. Three years later, the band is preparing to release their debut full-length LP, Subterranean Suburbia.

I stopped by their garage to drink Cariboo, listen to The Smiths, and dive deep into the history of Cheap High with Derek, Carlos, and Nic.

What are the origins of Cheap High?

Nic: It’s actually a good story. Derek and Justin, the guitar player, they used to play in TRI 5. They had a surf-y, Ty Segall-style sound. Super loud and upbeat. They played together and they lived together, the three of them. Their living room was a jam room and then there was this tiny corner of two couches and a TV.

Derek: Me and my brother played in a band with our friend Anthony, and over time, it just got a little heated. We were in a band for two years and lived together. It was me, Justin, and Anthony and the house.

Nic: They were so tight and had this super good bond, but it was too much, too soon or something.

Derek: We practiced too much and then we just kind of fell apart slowly between certain issues. And then I became friends with Nic.

Nic: I was playing with TLC [Tables Ladders & Chairs!].

Derek: So he was in a band that kind of was slowing down, not really playing shows. No one said that they weren’t a band anymore, but they hadn’t had any shows in a month or two.

Carlos: Still haven’t said that.

Derek: Me and Justin decided we kind of still felt like practicing all the time and we weren’t even talking with Anthony at the time. So Justin and I started hanging out with Nic on Tuesdays. We would go out to Mission and practice. There were ideas that Justin had that we didn’t feel like showing Anthony because we knew it was just too heated.

Carlos: But you guys were practicing and it was almost behind the back of Anthony. It was, like, in cognito, nobody fucking knows.

Nic: They were trying to be super low key so Anthony wouldn’t know.

Derek: We wouldn’t bring our guitars or amps.

Nic: Straight-up cheating.

Derek: It was shady shit. I’m not impressed with myself.

Nic: And then he showed up one day. Anthony got off work one day and just showed up with a six pack and he fucking was pissed. It was in this back room, you’ve got to walk through the back gate and come around and he was like, “So what, are we fucking done?! Are you serious?!” It was a full-on break up and I’m sitting there.

Carlos: And I’m on the couch.

Nic: And Carlos hadn’t even been playing with us at that point. We were practicing and Carlos was just at home. And the practice room was also where you could sit out and smoke.
He had just started playing guitar and playing with Corey [Myers]. That’s the guy who records all our stuff. I play with him in Loans, he plays guitar, and Damn Fine Cop was the first band.

Carlos: Anyway…

Derek: Carlos lived with his parents so we’re practicing there every Tuesday and he’s just sitting there, practice after practice.

Nic: He knows the songs now and he was writing little screenplays and shit like that so it’s like, dude, you’re sitting here, you’re writing, you’re pretty much at band practice as a vocalist without being at band practice. We’re having beers with him, we’re hanging out.

Derek: And then we’re like, wait. Me and Justin are brothers. You motherfuckers are brothers.

Nic: This would just be perfect.

Carlos: They asked me and I was just like: yep.

Derek: Never sang before. We didn’t even know if he could sing.

“We would practice in the thick of summer, shirts off, just sweating, and Carlos was wearing a fucking life jacket and a sailor’s hat. He’s standing on the table, touching the roof.”

Nic: Those were such funny practices. It was such a hot summer. I think it was three years ago. It was so fuckin’ hot, man, it was just terrible. We would practice in the thick of summer, shirts off, just sweating, and Carlos was wearing a fucking life jacket and a sailor’s hat. He’s standing on the table, touching the roof.

Derek: We knew he was our guy. We knew he was our guy.

Nic: And then, that winter, Derek bought Justin a Jazz Chorus, a Roland JC-120.

Carlos: And the sound was set.

Derek: All of sudden it was like listening to more Cure, Flock of Seagulls, XTC, and it was like an ultra ‘80s guitar amp makes it sound like what I like. I bought it for him for Christmas and hid it in my apartment. Four hundred and fifty bucks. I gave it to him and the sound of our band is based on that guitar amp. If that blew up, if that fell off a trailer, we have to go to Craigslist and use one of those for the next show.

What can you tell me about your label, Dipstick Records? Your LP is the first release. Who’s the one who’s doing that?

Nic: Taylor Novak. I’ve known him for years, he’s a few years older than me. In high school I didn’t know him that well.

Carlos: Older skate kid.

Derek: The kind of guy who’s a great bass player but never plays in any bands.

Derek: Shy dude.

Nic: Went off to Vancouver Film School and there’s been this few years that people are doing this and that in life and checking in with him it’s like, holy shit, he went to Vancouver Film School, he works for the City, he wants to start his own record label. We were talking about the 12 inch route and he was like, “Yeah, I want to put it out” and we were like “Cool”. So we took a long time to record and then we were like, “Do you still want to do that?” We asked him five, six months later, “Was that serious?”

Derek: Because everyone talks about putting out records. And it was like, yo, he’s asking us?

Nic: We feel so fucking privileged because there’s so many bands we play around with that don’t have that shit happening. It’s like, it seems so weird, why us? I mean, I love our band, and I love the music we write, and I’m really proud of the record and everything we do, but I feel like there’s so many people like that.

Carlos: If it wasn’t for Taylor, we would still be struggling to get this record out.

What was the process like for recording your LP?

Carlos: Long. We started on my birthday of 2014, tracking drums November 20, 2014.

Derek: As far as recording style goes, no click, barely any hearback on headphones, no bed track. Single-recorded, split-up. It’s pretty much recorded the stupidest way you can record. Corey wouldn’t do it that way now.

Nic: Carlos didn’t have vocals written for a lot of the songs when we recorded.

Carlos: Or I wasn’t proud of a lot of them. There’s not a single song I didn’t change lyrics on from the original.

What’s your creative process like?

Nic: Justin, our guitar player who’s not here–

Derek: He’s always been the riff daddy ever since he started playing guitar.

Nic: He writes most of the guitar stuff and we just work away around that and Carlos writes the song ideas.

Carlos: Writes for a long fucking time.

Derek: He’ll show up with, “I’ve got these two or three new riffs. I got this order of them, but what do you guys think?” Totally open. And we’ll do it, be like, “oh, that does sound cool”. We all put it together.

Nic: He’s open to tweaking, but he just comes up with riffs that would make sense for the band.

Derek: Carlos is all lyrical content. We don’t have like, one paragraph is Nic’s, one paragraph is Carlos’, the rest is Justin’s writing. It’s nothing like that. Some bands are like that.

Carlos: I was surprised to hear that in Girl Band, the vocalist doesn’t actually write his own vocals.

Nic: They’re called Girl Band and I don’t know if they’re being losers. It’s a bad band name regardless, because it’s like, are you being a dick? What’s the angle?

“We feel so fucking privileged because there’s so many bands we play around with that don’t have that shit happening.”

What’s the intent?

Nic: Yeah, they’re a super rad band, but where does that come from? Honestly, just in the context of a band name that gets put on posters and thrown around.

Carlos: And these are all guys.

Nic: Yeah, it’s just like fuck, what is that? And their performance is so serious and very focused. There’s no fucking, oh aren’t we a couple goofs being Girl Band? It’s just this great band, powerhouse fucking band. They’d play with a band like Metz or something. But fuck, that band name sucks. Big time. I just, I hate it. And I have no defense for it if anyone asks. it’s just like: a shitty band name.

Carlos: It’s like shitlord fuckerman. What is that? They could be the best band ever, but.

Nic: Diarrhea Planet. It’s a band. What the fuck? I won’t listen to it.

Derek: I can’t wear that shirt.

Nic: I can’t even fucking Google “Diarrhea Planet” even if they’re the best band.

Carlos: But what were we talking about?

Writing music.

Carlos: Always tangents…

When you’re writing lyrics, because that seems like that’s completely your domain, what’s the journey like going from first draft to several drafts to the finished song?

Carlos: The way the writing process works is there’s a big heap of paper. Where I write most of my lyrics is at work, because it’s depressing and monotonous, right? And reading the paper, I just get these tidbits in my head, and I’m like, oh that would be good for this, so I have this piece of paper with ten lines for separate songs with separate kind of ideas.

Derek: When he’s practicing, he’s got all these things he has to lay out from all these different note pads.

Carlos: There’s always an idea. Right when I hear a song, I have an idea of what I want it to be. So then I have the umbrella of what I want it to be with all these songs. I start writing stream of consciousness lyrics and then I start cut-and-pasting them with appropriate umbrellas they’re supposed to go under. Then, after that, it’s like what’s the context? What makes sense? And what goes where?

The new ones are totally everywhere. These are bizarro lyrics for me. I don’t think the lyrics beforehand weren’t already bizarro, but these ones are very absurd. I’m 1000 per cent satisfied with everything on this album. Love it. Love Subterranean Suburbia, everything fits under that moniker, everything’s great, but those are old songs already to all of us. These new songs, we’ve been playing a lot of them live lately with Shane [Hoy], new guitar accompaniment with us, right? And the new songs are slower, heavier. There’s no real cheery moments. They’re eerie. So one of the songs is about, it’s all kind of paranoid, it’d be like the journal entries of a total paranoid person, like conspiracy artist. That’s direction for that. Subterranean Suburbia is almost the same thing, but not so bizarre.

That’s the process. Lots of cut and paste, not literal cut and paste, but I have a stack of paper this big that I go through all the time and I fold shit together which belongs together and maybe, I’ll have a cigarette pack, the top of a cigarette pack with a little bit of scratch of writing and I’ll be like, “That is the fucking one that ties it all together” and I’ll lose it, too. I always lose shit, go around the jam room, like there it is. It’s lots of paper everywhere and sometimes I’ll not even know the context of what I’m referring to. I’ll scratch it on a receipt in the back of a supermarket line and I’ll be like what the hell?

To dig a little bit deeper into Subterranean Suburbia, you were saying the new stuff leans into that paranoid mindset. To me, the record also feels like it’s channeling a lot of frustration or dissatisfaction, maybe anxiety into this cathartic expression. Does that make sense?

Carlos: It totally does. There’s a lot of frustration. We were talking about even just the name Subterranean Suburbia, it’s a sci fi reference to me, but I reference everything in our modern world right now into a fucking sci fi. It’s a little too terrifyingly Philip K. Dick. That’s what, for Subterranean Suburbia, it’s kind of about one person and a lot of people simultaneously with this existential angst about where and what we are.

Subterranean Suburbia is kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing. It came from a movie, A Boy and His Dog, and in this dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, the rich elite live underground. They live in a suburbia, literally subterranean and I just think, yeah, that’s totally possible and a lot of that stems from the angst of what it is to be a person and trying to swallow what’s going on around. Not trying to be cynical or anything, just a realist about it. There’s tons of people locking themselves in. This is not a thing that happens, where people talk to each other, face-to-face. People like to think that they’re for something, even empty Facebook likes and stuff like that. There’s a lot of people with opinions and not a lot of people doing anything about it, right? Subterranean Suburbia is, thinking of all the songs, just the perfect theme to it all. And it’s frustration and it’s confusion, as well. I would say those are the two words most likely to sum it up to.

The record sounds great. I’m really stoked on it.

Nic: Thanks.

Derek: I’ve played music with Justin for four years and never heard it mastered. So everything about this recording is a huge leap farther than anything I’ve done recording-wise.

“I reference everything in our modern world right now into a fucking sci fi. It’s a little too terrifyingly Philip K. Dick.”

Nic: Me, too. Aesthetically, and everything, I’m way critical. I see the shit that works and I’ve always been really intrigued by following a lot of music, and music that I care about, and music that I really like the sound of. And I don’t ever want to replicate their sound. I never want to go into a song trying to say let’s do a fucking this song or let’s do a song like these guys. It’s always, lets do a song like we would do if we were sitting in a room making a new song together. Never anything otherwise.

Carlos: What I think you were trying to get at is how visually driven we’ve been since we’ve started.

Nic: I have a keen idea.

Carlos: First thing we released, who names a two-song EP? We did: Ego Wholesale. I sent a friend of ours a picture of this weird thing, of what does Ego Wholesale mean to you? This is a picture I like, come up with art for it. It’s always been visual. This one, visually, Jake [Holmes] and I talked about it for months, almost a year, about what we’re doing. We’ve always been visual fucking people.

Nic: The whole social media thing, the nature of things has been don’t say something unless you have something to say. There’s no point in blah blah blahing on social media or in person. Especially on social media, it becomes tired.

Carlos: Superfluous posts. We’ve been taking some cool fucking pictures. I don’t know if you follow us on Facebook at all, but in preparation, we’ve been doing little photo shoots to underline Subterranean Suburbia.

Nic: There’s one photo of Justin with cans of fruit hanging off of a tree.

Carlos: Lyrics off of a new song about low hanging canned fruit.

Nic: The least paranoid ramble of the new stuff.

Carlos: Yeah, that’s definitely the least paranoid, talking about espionage.

Well, canned fruit? That’s like bunker food, man.

Carlos: That’s exactly it.

Nic: That’s the true Subterranean Suburbia: canned fruit growing underground.

Black tri-dot

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cheap High’s debut LP, Subterranean Suburbia, is out September 30 on Dipstick Records. They will be playing six shows with Blessed, starting with Captain’s Cabin in Mission on September 30 and 333 in Vancouver on October 1 before heading east towards Winnipeg. Along the way, they will be playing several house parties. As Nic reminds me, “a good house show is a house party.”

Images from Cheap High Facebook.