It happened in Brooklyn. In 2011, the members of Highly Suspect arrived in the borough from their native Cape Cod, MA. The next four years became a whirlwind of sex, drugs, and more rock ‘n’ roll than most people could ever handle. Then again, Johnny Stevens [vocals, guitar] and twin brothers Rich [bass, vocals] and Ryan Meyer [drums] aren’t “most people.” Those chemically-soaked nights, hazier mornings, broken relationships, and cathartic realizations leave residue across Highly Suspect’s full-length debut album, Mister Asylum [300 Entertainment], and it’s inebriating in the best way possible.
The boys moved into a studio apartment with “no electricity yet,” getting a cheap rate as Rich promised to add an elevated loft with five bedrooms. He made good on his promise and even launched his own contracting company that would fuel the band’s exploits for the foreseeable future. As they slowly but surely made a name for themselves locally, Johnny cataloged experiences in the moment, either putting pen to paper in his notebook or using his phone’s memos.
“This album is a collection of everything that happened from the time I moved to Brooklyn onward,” says Johnny. “I met Lydia the first week we were here. She was the only girl in the building. It was Lydia and her roommates and us. She kicked everything off for me. The album is a reflection of our experiences. Shit, New York is the dream. On Cape Cod, I’d wake up at five in the morning, work out, surf, and smoke a ton of weed. In New York, you’re staying up until five in the morning, and the weed is now cocaine. It’s a nocturnal life and a totally different thing. I lived it pretty fucking hard and had to write about it.”
“It all felt meant to be in a weird way,” adds Rich. “We moved into the first building we looked at, and there was this plane flying overhead that said, ‘Last Chance.’ There were homeless people everywhere and a broken down minivan. We weren’t on Cape Cod anymore.”
While busking in the subway, Johnny caught a woman’s attention who introduced the band to producer Joel Hamilton [Black Keys, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello]. After hitting it off with the band, and interested to hear more, he hooked the band up with some studio time, recording their new EP as a passion project.
“We didn’t have a genre or aesthetic we were going for,” explains Ryan. “We simply wrote what we liked. It was really natural, and Joel captured that on our first EP.”
Their D.I.Y. music video for the drowsy, dirty, and dirge-y blues rocker “Bath Salts”—which Johnny penned after “overdosing on a huge combination of shit”—drummed up a major buzz online and attracted the band’s current management. They cut another independent EP with Gojira singer and guitarist Joseph Duplantier behind the board. Continuing to slug it out live, they eventually caught the attention of 300 Entertainment in 2014 who signed the trio as its flagship rock outfit.
Following the signing, Highly Suspect entered Studio G in Brooklyn with Hamilton and cut Mister Asylum to tape. They tapped into something real, rigid, and raw that instantly resonated.
Upon release, the record debuted at #22 on the Billboard Top 200, selling over 9,100 copies and making it one of the “top three biggest selling rock debuts by a new act in 2015.” Rolling Stone,Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, The Fader, and more praised the group, and they shared stages with the likes of Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, Deftones, Eagles of Death Metal, My Morning Jacket, Grizzly Bear and more and lit up festivals such as Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo.
The infectious grit and grime of songs like the single “Lydia” heralded the band’s presence. Ryan and Rich lock into a creeping rhythmic stomp as Johnny’s eternally haunted vocals transfix.
“It’s about my ex-girlfriend,” Johnny continues. “It displays what it feels like to know you’re ending something good because you have other things to do. Lydia and I were very much in love, but our lives were leading us in different directions. There was nothing wrong with her. We would’ve been holding each other back. We were in our early twenties in New York City, trying to do important things and follow our dreams. I pushed her away, and she pushed me away.”
The swaggering riffs of “Mom” belie a darkness as Johnny address his mother who “has some personal issues she could never deal with that wound up taking her out of my life as a baby.”
“23” rolls from thick guitars into a hypnotic chant just before a howling lead. He remarks, “We left when I was 23-years-old. We’re saying, ‘Fuck it and fuck you if you don’t want to get behind what we’re doing.’ It’s an empowering song about getting up and out of your home town and making something happen.”
Meanwhile, Rich penned the upbeat “Lost,” which veers between a bombastic drum beat into a magnetic refrain. Rich says, “It’s one of those relationships where you love each other, but it’s just not going to work out. I think everyone’s been there.”
In many ways, Highly Suspect’s wonderful danger stands encapsulated in the name of the album, Mister Asylum.
“Asylum can be a place of safety, and it can also be a place that’s scary, like a mental institution,” Johnny leaves off. “Mister Asylum embodies both of those things all at once—safety and craziness. It’s organization and chaos. It’s Yin and Yang. It’s losing your mind and finding yourself. That’s us. When people listen to our music, I want them to feel like they’re not alone in their thoughts. At the same time, we’re just regular dudes. We want to meet everyone and have a good time when we play.”