Located in an unassuming space near the Sears building on Cleveland, High/Low Recordings — home base of two of Memphis' most consistently enjoyable bands, The Bulletproof Vests and The Third Man — is emerging as one of the area's most vital music-production resources. Toby Vest, co-leader and frontman of both the Bulletproof Vests and the Third Man alongside his brother Jake, is the studio's primary engineer, and his interest in recording was an impetus for High/Low's founding two years ago.
"After mixing the last Third Man record, I got the idea that maybe we could do this ourselves," Vest says. "Originally, we thought we'd just record our own stuff, but then I did Jeffrey James & the Haul's second record, and it took off from there."
The space is shared with three other local music businesses, including Rocket Science Audio studio, which presents some obvious difficulties with scheduling. However, there's no competition, Vest asserts. And he's quick to point out that the communal environment has its advantages.
"It's great to have other people around who know about music and equipment when something goes wrong, or we need to borrow an extra mic, or a shaker, or whatever we might need. We help each other out as much as we can."
In a very short time, High/Low has emerged as a popular recording destination for musicians "in the know" (the studio advertises solely via word of mouth and has no website, business phone, etc.), working with high-profile local acts including the New Mary Jane, Richard James & the Special Riders, Holly Cole, Oracle & the Mountain, 10 High & the Trashed Romeos, and the Burning Sands. But the focus remains churning out new Bulletproof Vests and Third Man material.
To that end, the Bulletproof Vests will unveil a 7" vinyl single this week, the follow-up to last year's critically acclaimed full-length debut, Attack! The single pairs Jake Vest's infectious A-side rocker "(Don't) Throw My Love Away" with his brother Toby's equally strong "Shadow Child," a Bulletproof Vests live-set favorite. Both cuts were co-produced with friend and sometime Ardent producer/engineer Adam Hill.
"Adam has become vital to the way we sound," Jake Vest says. "He helped us realize what we wanted to do in the studio. The finished product sounds exactly the way we wanted it to." "He's practically the sixth member of the band," Toby adds.
In fact, Hill will join the band onstage at the record-release show this Saturday at the Hi-Tone.
"I feel very lucky that they seem to be into what I do and trust me enough to listen to my input," Hill says. "These guys are so talented that they practically need three bands to get all their material out."
Indeed, the Vests' other band, the Third Man, has been in the studio since January.
"The Third Man is just a recording project at this point," Toby says. "There's no intent to take it further. We were always better in the studio than live anyway."
So how does one differentiate between the two projects? Both bands share members, as well as certain melodic sensibilities. But while the Bulletproof Vests tend toward visceral, straight-ahead rock and pop hooks, the Third Man veers in the direction of atmospherics and more complicated musical arrangements.
"Basically, if you can dance to it or play it at a party, it's a Bulletproof Vests song," jokes keyboardist Dirk Kitterlin, a member of both groups. "If it has minor chords and is moody, it's the Third Man. Do not play the Third Man at a party."
Despite being so prolific, the Vests and their cohorts show no signs of slowing down. Sessions for the new Bulletproof Vests single (also available as a free download) yielded 15 new songs, which the band plans to release down the road. And they will continue to produce for other artists and tour regionally. The key to their continued success, according to Kitterlin, is staying proactive: "Some bands, it seems like they are waiting to get handed a basket of golden eggs. There are opportunities out there. You just have to take them. Nobody is going to swoop in and do it for you."
The Bulletproof Vests
With John Paul Keith &
the One Four Fives
Hi-Tone Café, Saturday, May 15th
10 p.m., $7 cover