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The Highest Order get real about sexism, gender and decolonizing country music

Andrea Warner

Simone Schmidt and Simone TB have had a busy few weeks since the release of th eir band the Highest Order's new record, Still Holding, last month. An after-hours party in a rave space kicked off their album launch in Toronto and since then, they've been making their way cross-country to the west coast, touring in support of an album that's as secretly subversive as it is wildly trippy and full of ramble. A cowpoke blissing out in the summer sun, stories spilling out from their subconscious like a deep undercurrent in a rive, inhaling and exhaling winding narratives about things like sexism, racism and decolonization, while the surface meanders, pleasant and languid, almost joyful.

Considering the band members' backgrounds, it makes sense that the Highest Order has, seemingly, quietly, arrived out of nowhere to blow up the music industry in its unique, anti-corporate, DIY way. You might be familiar with lead singer-songwriter and guitarist Schmidt's previous alt-country outfit, One Hundred Dollars (which also included the Highest Order's lead guitarist and occasional singer Paul Mortimer and bassist Kyle Porter). Or, perhaps you recognize Schmidt's distinctive voice (a little Joplin, a little Dylan) and its warm ramble from her solo project, Fiver. You may have also seen drummer TB kicking it with a variety of Toronto bands, including garage-pop act Fake Palms. 

This is all to say that the Highest Order are essentially an underground supergroup, so no wonder the band's live show is as thrilling as their musicianship. At one of their recent Vancouver shows, people were turning to each other left and right and asking, "Who are these people?" in genuine awe. After all, the opening band isn't supposed to almost upstage the headliner, right? But it was close.

Radio 3 invited the Highest Order in to talk about Still Holding, but things got very real right away with Schmidt and TB opening up about their lifelong experiences with sexism in music, gender and gender fluidity, racism and what it means to them to dismantle Canada's settler mentality. 

How long have you guys been playing together?

Simone TB: This band has been five years and then before that, a little bit, about a year before that.

Simone Schmidt: I came across Simone TB at a bar called Sneaky Dees and she was playing with a band called Tropics and she was just a shit-kicker and I thought, ‘That’s incredible to see this young drummer’ — and I know that we don’t like to say this, but the reality is that when I started playing music, there weren’t really many women playing music and so it was very rare to see another young, female musician and it was weird to see a drummer at that. So I was very stoked on her playing and also just this way in which society lumped us into the same identity due to the bodies we were born with. (Laughs) I approached her and we had the same name and then I asked her and her band to play this fundraiser we were doing for Tyendinaga-Mohawk territory legal fees and Shawn Brant. He was being charged and we were raising money for Indigenous sovereignty and we were like, okay, let’s get to know each other and she just really, really blew my brains! But actually, she was too young to be in the bar! (Laughs) She was using fake IDs!

STB: I’m a child.

SS: I was in 100 Dollars which was a pretty big band and Dave Clarke, the drummer, had a child and so he couldn’t come on tour in fall 2011, so we brought Simone on tour. It was my first time touring with anybody female-bodied, and everything changed for me. I was like, ‘I’m never going back.’

STB: I ruined your life. (Laughter) I’ve never left you alone since I was 18 years old. It’s like Dave had a kid and then so did you, you got jealous (laughs).

Some of the people with me at the show leaned over and whispered, ‘Oh my god, I’m so excited to see a woman drummer.’ That’s still weirdly something to celebrate. It’s nice that they celebrate it, but it’s weird that we have to.

STB: It’s an interesting thing and that’s totally it. It’s weird that it needs to be mentioned, but it’s not lost on me that it still needs to be mentioned. My life has been playing music. I’ve been playing drums since I was five or six. I haven’t ever done anything else. And so my whole life is shaped by this comment in this weird way, of total surprise. It’s fun at first, being totally a wild card for people, and that’s still the case, but it gets to the point of, ‘When is this going to not be a thing anymore?’ Who knows. The female drummer thing is weird. People don’t expect you to be good. You get this almost sympathetic, “At least you’re doin’ it! Right on!’ and that’s so gross. And it goes across the board in all music. I work at a music shop and people are like, ‘What do you play? Keyboards? Bass? Do you sing?’ No. I don’t do any of that really. It’s always a surprise. And nobody leaves room for wondering whether you’re good or not. It’s so gross to me. Music is genderless, obviously, because you use your ears, not your eyes and if you can’t figure that out, ugh.

SS: Can I interrupt?

STB: Of course.

SS: I feel like there’s this double thing going on. If you’re a person with a female body in music that’s presenting feminine, then you’re supposed to look a certain way. So you can’t be fat and you can’t not wear makeup and you can’t be all these things that we are and so the triage is basically, from the music industry, are you a normatively beautiful babe? Then you’ll have a career. Which we all know has nothing to do with whether you can play. So then the illusion that there aren’t many women in the world who can kick the shit out of the drums or who can shred is just that: an illusion. And you can’t really win. We get paid less so we can’t keep doing it and we don’t fit into the boys’ club and you make men uncomfortable simply by being a woman in a space that they treasure as for men, as theirs. Many of us don’t want to make those compromises and will persist and keep working in inhospitable environments. It’s this weird thing, because I don’t think there are fewer — well, there are fewer, but I don’t think there’s a dirth of female talent. It’s just who actually gets to survive in the industry.

STB: ‘For a girl’ is a sentence you hear a lot. It’s putting no expectation on people who feel like they need to surpass a certain skill level or need to keep practicing before they play live. It’s turned into a novelty, but no! Everybody should practice way more.

SS: The bar should be higher for musicianship and I feel like with social media, look is more important than it’s ever been. The situation is just off the hook and I feel like people are developing brands and not bands.

STB: 100 per cent.

SS: So what comes with that is reinforcing normativity in terms of attractiveness to the exclusion of people who don’t conform. It’s a weird time. I think there are more women playing in bands but I don’t think all the bands are particularly good, but you can’t really articulate that nuanced opinion.

In almost every situation where gender comes into play, there’s the emotional labour of having to explain these things, to survive these things, rise above all these things.

STB: The work’s on you.

Yes! There’s so much extra work — like, very few men have to justify their existence in music or their entitlement to a place. That’s a huge factor for artists because it’s already such an emotionally invested area of work.

STB: The fact that female artist is a term and male artist is not says it all.

SS: And I never talk about this with the media but I feel like things are getting more hospitable. But if you’re gender fluid, that becomes the whole talking point of your identity. I’ve gone many years writing records that were clearly written from the perspectives of different genders and exercising my gender fluidity through my art practice and not wanting to have to make that a central focus of my identity because it’s ‘freakish’ or because the media doesn’t want to have to contend with the artistic content of the work. There’s no real room to be who I am without it being the only thing that I am.

What you talked about before with “brand versus band,” that also sometimes seems like the way people listen to music, too.

SS: We’ve had the privilege of seeing up close what the mechanics of the music industry is here [Toronto]. We know why certain bands are doing well and why we’re not.

In money terms?

SS: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s a reflection of my skill or the meaning of the work. I think if I was far away from it, I wouldn’t know and it would get me down more. But I know what it is and I don’t care. I understand what that record deal looks like, I understand what it is to hang out at that club. There’s an exclusive club called Soho House. If you’re interesting in schilling for corporations or not writing about something that would position you in contradiction to that, you can make money in that way, but it’s not what I’m writing so you can’t fudge it.

STB: Also, music is a marathon. If you want to survive your lifespan doing the thing you love, you have to acknowledge it not as everything has to happen immediately or as fast as possible, because you will instantly lose the ground beneath your feet. I see it happen all the time with people I’m either around or love. Completely reasonable people get completely sideways, like, ‘Oh, this other band, they’re doing this already!’ But, how do you feel about the music that you’re making? Is that fulfilling what your actual need as a person is? Great. Then make a better one. And after that, make a better record, and another better record and stop looking at the people around you and wondering why you’re not moving at the same pace. Do your own thing. It’s difficult to watch people diving headfirst or being brainwashed by what they’ve been told to measure success as.

SS: In that sense, there’s a real advantage to living in Toronto. If I was competitive or ambitious, I could get all torn up looking at it [from afar], but because I’m there, I know what it actually looks like. But then you tour and it’s so cool to see subculture re-emerge at this time.

Let’s talk about the record.

STB: Hmm, how relevant!

SS: You’re the first person to ask us about the record!

Are you serious?

STB: Yeah.

SS: It’s cool. But thank you.

People don’t talk much about the actual music anymore. Sigh.

STB: It’s the best. It’s the only reason. It’s so cool.

It is so cool. You’re on the other side of it, a few weeks past its release, what’s the biggest gulf between keeping it for yourself and sharing it with the world?

SS: We’re always working on different stuff, so on a creative level, this record hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind. I write perpetually, so to make a record is to find a collection of songs that is going to go together, so we made it in this really disparate way where we were getting together three or four days at a time over the course of two and a half years. It was the first time I’ve made a record without having some great map for it or know exactly how it would be. We really leaned into the collaborative nature of this ensemble... When we were writing the record, I kind of remember now that we’re touring it, we had left the intention of being really fluid in the live interpretation of it. What that means is, we left a lot of space in the song where we can jam out in a way we haven’t done in the past. Each night we play is really different. I feel very grateful for having left that room within the record and within the songs. I really feel the songs aren’t joyful by any means. The music might really camouflage what is really going on in the record. There’s a song about immigration detention that happens in Canada, and the subtext to everything is that we’re always living on stolen land, which is pretty clear in the poetry if you pay attention to it. There’s always this dramatic way that people want to write about the reality, but we all live our lives so blase, so in a lot of ways, the main feelings that I’m talking about are — you know, the split in the paradigm we’re living in, to just keep going and rock out and exist without the imperative to change and be satisfied with what you’re getting, and at the same time, know that the things you’re getting, it’s not right. Trying to open up the question marks that people either intuitively feel or implicitly feel. Settler mentality isn’t really ever defined as such, but it’s important at this point in time that people start leaning into those question marks. Those question marks are revealed as constant and painful, even in moments of joy. In the past, maybe, I’ve written songs that are explicitly much more songs of protest or with clear narratives, but these songs are more leaning into the split in the paradigm. Does that make sense?

A lot of people when faced with those kinds of questions feel really burdened with the heaviness and then push it aside. It’s really important that we do grapple with it as opposed to ignoring it forever.

SS: And also to hold it as this thing that you do on one specific time that’s sanctioned for it. It’s so important. I’ve been really trying to integrate the mentality of being a settler for people who have the same beliefs as me. You can’t not be a patriate in the Canadian media and I think that’s a real problem, so trying to show not the beauty, like in terms of this is great, but to exist is beautiful and brings tears to my eyes and wanting to stop pretending we can only leave it to experts to talk about. That we don’t have to be fragmented when talking about settler colonialism. There’s such an imperative on Indigenous and black and people of colour to talk about politics, and white settlers, we’re supposed to be just partying on the side and, like, ‘Cool, buy a beer!’ This doesn’t work for me.

STB: When do we get to live in a post-ignorant society? Never? Like, why not now? I’m happy to keep talking about it and calling it as it is. It’s interesting being a Canadian who plays music and you’re automatically a Canadian musician and maybe you don’t identify with the colony or with all the stereotypes that are laid on everything. Make noise. Talk about it. Let people get mad at you and commiserate with their own anger and frustration and come out educated from being a jerk. Get people wound up. People should be wound up. Being docile and just letting it happen, it’s over, man.

SS: Traditionally in rock ’n’ roll, people were singing about all kinds of things, but definitely there were always movements and talking about politics.

STB: Real things. And the rebel imagery gets used all the time but nobody’s saying anything and you can’t have one without the other. Well, you can do what you want, but you shouldn’t. Educate yourself. Don’t call yourself a rock’n’roll rebel and then toe the line and be this tattooed, nice-haired — instead of doing your hair, read a book or something. Ugh. It’s insane. It frustrates me.

SS: It’s hard. You have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission come out and everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s the new answer, here’s what we’re going to do.’ And nobody’s really thinking about how the settler psyche isn’t yet ready to actually contend with the notion of giving up land. Decolonization is not a metaphor. It’s true. So I see it as knowing that our fans are predominantly white people coming to listen to rock’n’roll, how do we reassert the reality of how we experience it... Trying to write about that stuff is hard, because you don’t really feel like it’s read in the thing, but then there are people who do hear it. I don’t really believe in music much as an agent of political change but I do believe it can let the depth of people’s disturbance and discomfort feel affirmed, to know that you’re not the only one who feels incredibly uncomfortable... The settler mentality is something we’ve yet to contend with in this country. The beautiful Black Lives Matter — they just stopped Pride yesterday. You do your solidarity work in quiet. As a white person, I can’t be like, ‘Look at this thing!’ but as a white artist, knowing that there are entire populations of people listening to country music who are happy to spout racist, sexist stuff constantly and being proud of being frontiersmen? That’s a big problem for me.

STB: History as an excuse is disgusting.

SS: So, how do I contend with that and try to turn it around and identify that mentality as part of a violence that’s ongoing? And not just a throwback to the glorification of violence, but a violence that’s ongoing.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

More to explore:
Listen to more from the Highest Order on their artist page
Listen to the Radio 3 stream
Twin River discuss Patti Smith, heartbreak and its new record, Passing Shade