For Highly Suspect, making hip-hop is nothing new.
Before the rock trio released “16” and “Upperdrugs” on Friday (Aug. 16) — the band’s first new music since 2016’s The Boy Who Died Wolf — frontman Johnny Stevens chatted about his crew’s musical change in direction with Billboard over the phone. “I’ve been doing hip-hop longer than I’ve been doing rock, and no one knows that because the rock band is what’s been successful,” Stevens says with equal parts frustration and relief.
Rock doesn’t hold the same appeal as it used to for Stevens. “There’s so little that I hear that I don’t like now, it’s interesting. The only thing I don’t like is rock. Is that crazy?” Stevens says. He acknowledges that, with streaming and the Internet, today’s musical landscape is shifting dramatically, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, Highly Suspect is looking to be a part of it.
The band’s third album is called MCID and not so coincidentally, its lead single “16” is completely guitar-free. To play with genre fusion even more, the record will feature rappers Young Thug and Tee Grizzley, as well as rock bands Gojira and Nothing But Thieves.
Billboard talked to Stevens about the story behind the “16,” breaking genre barriers and his band’s new album.
It’s been a couple years since you released The Boy Who Died Wolf — what have you been up to?
After 2016, we toured that album pretty extensively — in a bunch of different countries and America as well. Towards the end of that cycle I broke my foot really badly and I wasn’t able to walk all winter or spring, so I just spent that time writing a new album. It was a blessing in disguise because I don’t know when I would’ve found the time to sit down and write. I was really loving the tour life and it all came to a crashing halt. It’s a pretty good thing that we had to slow down. Other than that, living as best I can.
What changed musically for you during that time?
Everything. The musical landscape has changed dramatically and there’s just so much available to listen to, thanks to streaming services and the Internet in general. There’s just so much good music out there and as a band we got bored of our own guitar, drum and bass thing. We put so much more work into this album and didn’t worry about how we’d recreate it live — in the past we worried a lot about that. This time we were like, “Fuck that, let’s just make stuff that is sonically sick and big. Let’s use every instrument that we’d like to use and worry about how we’re going to figure it out live later.” Now when we go to play live we’re going to bring more people on stage with us, because we’re not octopuses — we don’t have eight hands. Stylistically, a lot has changed.
You mentioned all the great music that’s been coming out, and that reminded me of a playlist of yours that had artists like Ariana Grande and Bring Me The Horizon.
That’s just shit that we like. There’s so little that I hear that I don’t like now, it’s interesting. The only thing I don’t like is rock. Is that crazy? It’s always kind of been the case. We enjoy playing rock and we make what feels and sounds good to us, but you’re definitely going to hear influence from everything that’s out right now on this album. I love everything that’s happening; I love Billie Eilish and Anderson .Paak. We really wanted to push the envelope and not just be a rock band. I probably wouldn’t have made another album if we were going to stick with rock. There’s rock on the album, and that’s our brand, but I was too bored. I had to do something different — we all did.
What encouraged you to bring in hip-hop?
I’ve been doing hip-hop longer than I’ve been doing rock, and no one knows that because the rock band is what’s been successful. It’s my favorite form of music and we finally decided to incorporate it into a recorded album. I didn’t want to half-ass it, so it’s not like a rock band that plays hip-hop beats on Ableton. We did it the correct way and produced our own beats and made real hip-hop songs. I don’t want to get that corny sounding shit. The hip-hop in the song is full blast and I’m stoked that the world is finally going to know that this is something we’ve been wanting to do in the public eye and never got to do.
The story told on “16″ about that child not being yours is really dark. Was that hard for you to write?
I’ve wanted to write the song for a very long time — that shit all happened 10 years ago — but I was never able to put it into words concisely in a way that worked. It was hard in that I couldn’t portray the story properly, but I never forced it. For whatever reason, the story itself finally came out correctly and now I’m really stoked on it. I think we did a good job.
What made you revisit something that happened so long ago?
It’s therapeutic. One often looks back on their past, whether it be with regret or fondness or both, and for me, I’ve gone through a lot of heavy shit. I have to write about what I go through. I’m not the type of writer that can write about stuff that’s made up. I don’t connect with other music that isn’t realistic, unless it’s some club banger and I’m fucked up on a beach at a club at night. But for me, I gotta get it off of my chest. It really helps me initially and then it becomes a bitch. Like I’m probably going to regret writing the song at some point in my life.
I fully can’t stand playing “Lydia” anymore but I know that I have to because the fans love it. But at some point I’ll regret writing it and it’ll interfere with my actual life and I’ll have to perform it and revisit that memory nightly. It’s interesting — it’s so helpful to get this stuff out and know that your story is heard and that you’re helping other people who may have gone through a similar thing, but then the flip side is that you’re kind of stuck with it once it’s out there. It’s not a complaint, it’s just a fact.
What’s the story behind “Upperdrugs”?
That’s the song that probably sounds the most like our older stuff out of everything on this album. It was one of the first things we wrote for this album and it was kind of like shaking off the cobwebs after not being creative for a while. The song is pretty self-explanatory, lyrically, but I think it’s just a really good rock song. It’s really fun to play. The reason we’re putting it out at the same time as “16” is because “16” is such a different sound for us and people who do know who we are might have a difficult time digesting it at first.
We want people to know that this album still has some of our roots on it… But also if you don’t like what you hear, that’s fine, I really don’t care. [Laughs.] “Upperdrugs” is the smoothest transition between the last album and this new album. Get ready for a ride.
What’s one thing that you hope listeners will take away from the new album?
I hope there are people out there who are inspired to do whatever the fuck they want. I don’t think anyone would have allowed this album to come out 10 years ago. I don’t think anyone in the industry would have helped finance it. It’s messy and chaotic and people would’ve just thought we don’t have an identity because there’s so much versatility going on sonically. Because of streaming and festivals and you can go see Brockhampton and then Florence and the Machine — there’s so many different things going on — people have a lot of tastes. And I hope this inspires anybody who wants to do something that they’re told that they can’t do — I hope that it shows that they can. Because we just did. And it doesn’t have to be musical.
What’s one thing you hope to accomplish musically that you haven’t yet?
I hope that people see what I’ve just done with hip-hop and the beats and the sounds. I co-produced this album and I would like to be able to produce for other artists and make songs that I don’t have to perform necessarily. I just got my own studio in NYC now. I’ll always play live, but I want to start writing for other people more often than I do now.