“I have a feeling it’s all going to kick off”: High Vis are soundtracking a time of crisis
The band’s frontman Graham Sayle talks class tension, mental health struggles and nepotism in the UK music scene.
If you’ve ever found yourself at a hardcore or punk gig you’ll know that what can appear to be macho, aggressive and even violent, is often supportive and welcoming at heart. The chaos can attract people who are having a hard time, who are angry at the world. The mosh pit provides a safe(ish) space for them to let it all out.
High Vis know all about the tough times, and they recognise the need to vent. “There’s a lot to be angry about, isn’t there?” singer Graham Sayle says in his warm scouse accent.
Coming up through the UK hardcore scene, Graham fronted the celebrated and intense hardcore bands Dirty Money and Tremors, who featured High Vis bassist Rob Moss and drummer Edward ‘Ski’ Harper. They were at the heart of the underground scene, where bands from Newcastle to Brighton were linked by DIY tours, with gigs being put on for as cheap as possible and bands sleeping on fans’ sofas. Through the ‘00s and early ‘10s, that scene was Graham’s whole life.
After Tremors called it a day in 2012, Ski started playing around with some new sounds. From the band’s inception five years ago, High Vis set out to draw from different musical and emotional palettes. The clenched-fist rage was still there on their 2019 debut album No Sense No Feeling, but there was more introspection, as well as melody, reverb and a baggy swagger.
High Vis’s new album Blending is their most impressive yet, with reverberations of PiL, Joy Division and even the Stone Roses, delivered with an energy which feels fresh and authentic.
Graham Sayle was born in Merseyside in 1986 under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. That year saw male unemployment in Liverpool at 25 per cent, with youth unemployment reaching 90 per cent in some parts of the city. A few years prior, senior Conservative ministers had told Thatcher to abandon the area, spend no more money there and leave it to the fate of a ‘managed decline’. By 1990 unemployment peaked, which led to a period of regeneration in and around the city throughout Graham’s formative years.
At the age of 18, Graham headed south. “When I moved to London I saw how different peoples’ lives are,” he remembers, frowning in thought. “In a mile radius there’s, you know, absolute poverty and ultimate privilege. So you try and find your place in the world and try to understand that where you are now isn’t where you were before. Exploring a lot of that stuff helped make the new record.”
Studying fine art at Goldsmiths from 2005 – 2007, Graham soon realised that a lot of the students around him were privately educated. “I struggled through [uni], felt inadequate, didn’t really make any work. It was a weird time.” When he left, he felt lost and angry, channelling it all into Dirty Money. The opening lyrics of their moshpit-fuelling anthem Dead Man’s Shoes give an insight into where his head was at: “Fuck the world, this is the end of the line /I’ve given up believing it’s all gonna turn out fine.”
In recent years, Graham’s been focused on making peace with himself. He recently quit booze “to try and get to a point where I feel better about myself”. He’s also strikingly productive – aside from fronting High Vis, he works a day job as DT teacher at a secondary and he’s built a following with his side hustle making furniture, creating bespoke artful pieces with concrete.
With the release of Blending in the horizon, I sat down with Graham to talk about masculinity, austerity, empathy and music.
Hi Graham, nice to meet you. I’ve been a fan of your music since Dirty Money. Listening back to that now, it feels like that was a period of purging.
In Dirty Money and Tremors I was just an angry child, essentially. I didn’t really know where to direct it and I found hardcore. During that time things happened in my life that reinforced my feelings of anger. My mate was killed in Liverpool. I’d moved to London to go to uni and did the band as an outlet. I was stuck in an angry rut. When you’re that angry you don’t really understand yourself, or why you’re angry. In London I felt quite alien. The bands were an outlet for those feelings that I couldn’t really control.
What made you step away from hardcore and into the High Vis sound?
Ski [Tremors and High Vis drummer] was doing a lot of post-punk stuff in his bedroom. I loved what he was doing. He just throws himself into everything. He’s the most committed musician, but with no boundaries on his interests or taste or genre. He asked me to come and sing and I was just baffled by it. I never really listened to that goth‑y post-punk stuff. I just loved that Ski was making it because he’s a lad that’s got a mad UK garage collection in his room and wears a trackie!
Growing up you have all these ideas of who people are by the way they dress and way they present to the world, but Ski really broke loads of that stuff down for me. I always thought that I’m not the type of person that listens to that stuff because I don’t dress that way. But then life is alright when you stop boxing everything off, isn’t it?
The High Vis album, No Sense No Feeling, still had a lot of anger in it.
That was just a fucking miserable time, really. I like that record but it hasn’t got any hope in it. I wasn’t really exploring any feelings. It was just – “this is how I feel” with no solution.
Ski started training as a therapist and he told me I should go to therapy, you know, to try to deal with stuff. I found a lot of things difficult because of my background. All the things you have to deal with growing up in shitty, rundown towns in the north. My brother’s disabled so I grew up trying to protect him, successfully and unsuccessfully, from bullies and being taken advantage of and being manipulated and whatnot.
What are you referring to in the song Blending when you sing “I’ve created my reality, and there’s no escaping”?
That’s about understanding who you are on the inside and being comfortable with that. It’s about finding understanding and acceptance in who you are and not being concerned with how you are perceived by other people, necessarily.
Blending is the name of the album too. Do those themes run through all the lyrics?
In Liverpool the word blending essentially means you’re looking good. When I was younger people would said, “ahh lad, you’re blending.” So it’s about your own personal optics, how you present yourself to the world. What I was thinking about at the time was how I loved metal growing up and I’d be wearing a Guns N Roses t shirt and some kid would come up to up to me and punch me in the side of my head and call me a fucking goth. You end up subduing who you want to be for survival, and that’s fucking depressing.
Speaking of depressing; I can hear a lot of ’80s post-punk in your new album. The UK now feels like it’s in a similar depressing state as Thatcher’s Britain in the ’80s, with the strikes, the austerity…
Yeah. I have a feeling it’s all going to kick off, and rightly so. It’s a sorry state of affairs, innit? I live in London. So living in London, you don’t really know what’s going on in the country until you go out and go up north and you realise there’s no unification amongst people, amongst classes. To be working class or to be on benefits, you’re vilified. It’s a sad state of affairs when we live in a country where we can’t and don’t support those who are most vulnerable. It’s such a horrible reflection on this country. All of the north is so neglected. There’s a lot to be angry about, isn’t there?
It feels like there are themes around masculinity on this album too. Talk For Hours, especially.
That song is very much about men and talking. That moment in an evening where men start opening up, to an extent. Well, not opening up, but spewing out their histories and struggles. It feels like a sort of exorcism but nobody’s necessarily listening to each other. I stopped drinking a while back to try and get to a point where I feel better about myself. I’ve been in these scenarios where I’m listening to people, and hearing people suffering, essentially, and never really coming to any resolution. These cycles just repeating themselves. It’s about trying to be there for people and understand what they’ve been through.
You also namecheck the graffiti artist TOX03 in that song too. Is that a scene you take inspiration from?
When I first moved to London, I saw that somebody had written that all over. Nowhere was untouched. It was the beginning of my life down here and I met some people involved in that scene. I saw the characters, the personalities and the attitude. It made me realise that everything is human-sized. People in positions of power can’t control everything. You can make a mark and they can’t control it. I’ve always thought that was amazing. I remember seeing a documentary about TOX and it cracked me up. London has such a rich history of people writing their nicknames everywhere, and I think it’s amazing.
Outside of High Vis, you make furniture out of concrete. Can you tell me about your approach to that?
I’ve always loved concrete and brutalist architecture. I started making some surfaces and ended up just sort of falling into this role as, like, an accidental furniture designer. It is stuff I’ve always liked; minimal design, sort of modernist stuff. I like that concrete is such a cheap material, and I’m elevating it to a desirable, high-end sort of furniture finish. It’s become a bit of a hustle, really. I’m at a stage now where I make half of my income from furniture.
It’s a tough world for artists and musicians in the UK right now. It feels like the odds are stacked against them.
Yeah. There’s a secret ingredient in a lot of musician’s and artist’s trajectories, and that is either parental support, inheritance or nepotism. Other people just have to work harder. With High Vis, we have no money. We are minus thousands of quid, and I don’t see it being any other way. I work two jobs, Ski’s a counsellor and a taxi driver. We’re not striving for success, we do High Vis because we have to do it. Within this society to feel like you have a creative output, you just have to go out and do this stuff.
Coming from the hardcore scene, how does it feel to be playing to different kinds of crowds? Turnstile are another band from similar beginnings that get attention from outside of hardcore.
I think it’s boss. I’ve never been burdened with aspiration, you know. I don’t crave to be successful, I just want to have something to do, essentially!
I think what Tursntile have done and are doing is translating that energy from hardcore, but in a way that’s doesn’t separate people. This thing of ours; this music and scene is amazing and shaped all of us. It’s been the most important thing in most of our lives and there’s a lot of power in using that and sharing it and being less closed-off. It’s a great thing to see – new people finding it. There are reasons why people gatekeep hardcore but, you know, everyone can exist. Everyone can eat, you just don’t have to sit at the same table, know what I mean?
How does Blending make you feel when you listen back to it?
I’m proud of this thing we made together. It’s quite a feat, really. We’re five very difficult, complex characters each with their own issues and we’ve created something that is, you know, reasonably melodic!
I put a lot of myself into this album. It’s like a fucking self-help album! A lot of it is me trying to understand myself and forgive. A lot of it is about shame and just trying to deal with that stuff. Trying to work out; why? Where do we inherit this shame from? How do we get rid of it?
From speaking to other people within my social circle it feels like we’ve got a disproportionate amount of people who have taken their lives, either passively through overdoses or, actively through suicide. I don’t want to fucking preach to anyone, but it helps me to talk about these things.
What are your hopes for the band going forward?
I’d love to be able to feel like I wasn’t just juggling 50,000 things at once. To be able to just do something I love is an alien idea to me. I work in a school to have a salary, to be able to afford rent and all that stuff. I hope one day to be able to go on tour, and in between that just make stuff. To be creative, try new things and, you know, put something positive out there into the world.
Does your hope extend to the rest of the country in getting through these difficult times?
I’m definitely hopeful. It’s not something that can be overturned overnight in a revolutionary manner, I don’t think. I think we need a shift towards understanding that we’re a collective of people, and understanding everyone’s situation.
I also think taking from those who have fucking loads and giving it to people who have fucking nowt might work a little bit better, because things are off. These little collective happenings, like at punk shows when you realise that nobody is any different. The people on stage are no different to the people in the crowds. These things that you see in smaller scenes ripple into society, hopefully.