Music

Highly Suspect Will Rock Coachella—But Don't Call Them a Rock Band

Rock might not be the first genre that comes to mind when you think about Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, known for leaning of late toward hip-hop, R&B, dance—you get the picture. And rock band Highly Suspect—hitting the famed festival's stage in Indio, Calif., for the first time on Saturday—is fine if it stays that way. 

“Modern rock is cheesy as fuck,” frontman Johnny Stevens bluntly tells Playboy. “Rock, to me, is the essence of exposing one’s soul through lyrics, sounds and lifestyle, and I find it more in other genres like rap and electronic music than I find it in modern rock. If you’re just emulating your heroes, I have no time for it. Good luck to the genre called rock.” 

You might not guess it from that statement, but Highly Suspect unquestionably plays what you would refer to as, well, rock. In 2009, Stevens, along with brothers Rich and Ryan Meyer, formed the band, currently based in Brooklyn by way of Cape Cod, Mass. The group may remind listeners of early-'90s grunge—think Nirvana and Alice in Chains—but Stevens isn't impressed by the current rock trend of bands that closely imitate their forebears.

“Variety is the spice of life,” he said. “We were born in the '80s, so unlike the artists that were born in generations before us, we've had the opportunity to hear many different styles of music. I see a lot of bands that just try to imitate the look and sounds of what a rocker was in a different era. It’s not real. That’s why we don't just sound like some tribute band to Led Zeppelin. I want passion from its true source in all art—not just a cheap imitation.” 
I still struggle to maintain happiness every day. People have this grand illusion that once you reach a certain level of fame, everything is all gravy, but it’s not true.
Regardless of how you define it, Highly Suspect's sound is clearly working for them, having already racked up three Grammy nominations and multiple gold-certified tunes. "My Name Is Human"—the lead single off their latest album, 2016's The Boy Who Died Wolf—was their first No. 1 hit and topped the Billboard mainstream-rock chart for eight weeks.

Does this mean that the band can call itself a success? Stevens isn't sure. “I guess to anyone else, those accolades would seem like the markings of success,” Stevens explains. “[To us, our first show already] meant we were real. It meant that we did it, that we were a band.”

Stevens doesn't expect a band's trophy case to be its sole source of satisfaction. “I still struggle to maintain happiness every day,” the tattoo-covered singer reveals. “I feel like people have this grand illusion that once you reach a certain level of fame, everything is all gravy, but it’s not true. If there is one thing I know, it’s that success must not be measured in dollars.” That said, he is quite ready for the day when he has “a fuck-ton more money.” 
Highly Suspect's fans have learned by now that its singer is not one to keep his mouth shut. The always-outspoken Stevens is extremely vocal on social media about controversial topics, and is not one to play to all sides to help goose ticket sales. 
“I'm never going to be some artist that stays silent because of fear, and neither will Richie or Ryan,” Stevens says. “If someone isn't gonna buy a ticket to our shows because we think that the justice system is immeasurably crueler to minorities and it pisses us off, or that women should decide for themselves whether or not they want to keep the baby, or that gay people fucking rule and deserve every single right that a straight person does—and if you don't want to support us because we stand up for our beliefs—that’s fully cool with us.” 

The band's views aren't just espoused via social media. On their song “Viper Strike," from sophomore release Wolf, Stevens sings, “Guns don't kill people. White people kill black people with guns. Is it hard to hear?” And another passage: “I see you're clutching that cross pretty hard, though. A lot of those motherfuckers are gay, like in a ‘hide your kids’ kind of way. And Jesus wasn't even white on his whitest days.” 

This song is one of many in which Highly Suspect calls attention to societal injustices against the underrepresented. Similarly, their live shows have become known for spontaneous interludes during which the guys weigh in on everything from the current political climate of our country, to women’s rights, to religious hypocrisy. If Highly Suspect has an opinion, they will not hesitate to yell it from the stage.
Modern rock is cheesy as fuck. Good luck to the genre called rock.
“As far as we're concerned, we never expected to get where we are anyway,” Stevens reasons. “We certainly didn't get here by avoiding reality.”

Does the band feel a bit out of place at Coachella, as rock success stories increasingly become few and far between? Quite the contrary, with Highly Suspect excited by the event's unpredictability, and seeing this as their kind of festival. (And no, they're not miffed to be performing opposite Beyoncé.) Plus, fans need not worry that the high-profile spotlight will mean their performance will follow any kind of script: “It just feels fake to plan shit too much,” Stevens promises. He adds, “We're a live band. We will feel the energy of the audience, and decide what happens next. We are gonna wing it.”

After Coachella, the band will begin planning its next phase. Stevens knows he is on this planet for creating art in its various forms, whether it be music, books, video games or even dabbling in marine biology. There will be new Highly Suspect music in the future, yes, but now is time for a break.

“We would like to make a new Highly Suspect project, and it will be different than anything we've done before,” the singer says. “We have been on the road since we started this band nine years ago, with the exception of, like, four-week breaks to make albums.”

Sometimes, Stevens is riddled with anxiety, worry, fear. But when asked what mark he wants to leave on the world, he simply replies, “A question mark.” 
Highly Suspect's latest album is The Boy Who Died Wolf. For more information about the Playboy Social Club event taking place during Coachella, click here.

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