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Tower of Babel

Skateboarding was the reason Winston Hightower and I were talking over the phone. Lost in the translation of bad reception in my living room, I then realized we weren’t speaking in person at the end of an exhausted workday simply because of an injury—on a skateboard. Like rattling bedroom pop laments on anything that possesses a record button, that activity is more instinctual for Hightower than forced. Accidents are bound to happen.

See, since high school at Columbus Alternative, Hightower’s self-proclaimed “weirdo” personality was default. There has never been an awkward phase. Making music, skating, playing house shows in an infinite number of hardcore bands—that was just as much of a curriculum as sports or chess club were for “normal” teens. At 23 though, with the December release of Too Close to Home (on Superdreamer Records)—a now mythic tape that taps into a primal joy and faded yearning that is central to Hightower’s true voice—he’s become a sonic polyglot. The list of punk bands he’s either started or participated in—Tastes Kinda Like Sad, Splashin’ Safari, Yuze Boys, Making Friends, Minority Threat—would make any local veteran blush, but in the current realm of house show bands (i.e. the sub rosa zeitgeist), projects like this are as ephemeral as trading cards and comic books. That’s not to say that any firecracker experience Hightower gleaned in the trenches (add busking at Global Gallery to his experiential CV) provided a bedrock that informs the slapdash naiveté of his solo work.

“I love punk music and I love the camaraderie of playing in those bands,” says Hightower. “It was that sense of community that made me indulge in it so much, but after a while it became really repetitive and I decided to take a break from it. While I had that break, I wasn’t playing anything. I started listening to the music I listened to before I found punk, which was funk and classic rock. And I suppose that was what was influencing me when I started recording again in my bedroom.”

Even given that introspection, it’s refreshingly daunting to try and pin Too Close to Home or the just released Expiration Date to a particular genre. Sure, the guitars shift in and out of a woozy ’70s FM alternate reality and Sebadoh’s alternative nation, yet a song as infectious as “In Denial,” is also cracked in all the proper ways. Hightower discovered Zappa at 13, he’s a die-hard R. Stevie Moore fanatic (who has recently returned the adoration on Facebook), and a herald for the original Columbus-based madcaps from the early ’80s and beyond (Rep, Jay, House, Shep, Squid) buoy his work in local fringe lore. There are shades of Daniel Johnston, Alexander Spence, and Tiny Tim, but the true spiritual guide, or drive, for Hightower was his father, the late L.B. Hightower.

“When I first started recording Too Close to Home my dad was, by then, really sick and he died during the process,” remembers Hightower. “After that I fell into this huge nostalgia trip and started looking through old photographs. It was obviously a life-changing experience, but it truly guided me to start making weird art.”

L.B. was a “mild jingle writer” for urban radio, and at one point produced a beat for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. His love of Parliament and Led Zeppelin rubbed off on his son, but it was his sonic tinkering in his basement studio that has formed the most lasting legacy. The themes of familial longing and the lo-fi crackle inherent in Hightower’s songs come directly from the vintage equipment once used by his dad.

“It was always a thing that when (my father) passed away I would inherit all of his recording gear, because he’s always been sick,” says Hightower. “That allowed me to finally make the music I always wanted to make.”

As his Bandcamp page suggests, Winston Hightower is “just a person,” swimming through that water to arrive at a place of personal expression that is as loose and entertaining as it is exorcising for the artist. In a deft balance to these howling echoes, he’s continued to move forward with Minority Threat, a hardcore outfit putting politics and race relations at the forefront, but also a group of “heavy metal professionals” whose monster chops teach Hightower a technical element he says has been missing. “Earnest” would be too cheap a word to describe how Hightower is progressing, “humble” too soft. There’s a confidence in his voice that’s beyond his years, and where once he’s always played as part of a whole with a full-band behind him, HYTWR, he’s bound to become the absolute center of attention.

For music and more information visit winstonhigtower.com.

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