HIGHLY SUSPECT: “There is no certain crowd I really care about, what I’m here to do is make art that feels right”

A conversation with front man Johnny Stevens

HIGHLY SUSPECT: “There is no certain crowd I really care about, what I’m here to do is make art that feels right”

By Yasmin Brown

Dec 17, 2019 11:00

If you’re a fan of Highly Suspect, you’ll have heard the acronym ‘MCID’. It makes its way into lyrics, appears in the live shows, on merchandise, and if you look closely, you'll see it tattooed on the band, too. That’s why, to have named their third album after this motto is kind of a big deal. It sends a message to the fans that - because this is an acronym that seems to define this band - this is the album that feels more Highly Suspect than ever.

When asked why they chose to give this particular record the name ‘MCID’, front man Johnny Stevens explains that “it was just time”, and that the way that album came together – “with our friends and the fans that have been behind us” – was just as integral in its naming as that content. Without even being asked, Stevens notes that he’s reluctant to go into its meaning in yet another interview, stating bluntly that “if you know, you know”, and it only takes a quick Twitter search to see just how right he is; it seems that fans across the board have clung to MCID as much as the band. It was a combination of these factors – friends, circumstance, fans – that made the decision so easy, and whereas “sometimes it takes just like, days or weeks to come up with an album title, all of a sudden we kind of – pretty much at once – agreed in seconds this should be called ‘MCID’”. 

It doesn’t take much research to uncover that this stands for ‘My Crew Is Dope’, a motto that has followed the band pretty much since their inception, over the years extending from the band and their friends to the fans. While its actual meaning is barely tangible, authenticity certainly comes into it, and so it’s apt that this album in particular should be given the privilege of being released under this name. To Stevens, authenticity in your art is “the most” important factor, and while it’s an approach that might not instantly earn you glory or recognition, using Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ as an example, he notes that people will generally come around to see it for the genius that it is. In the case of Beastie Boys, “they actually wound up getting, you know, dropped from their label because of it and 10 years later it became one of the most revered albums of all times”. 

It’s a bold association, whether he realises it or not, but ultimately, Stevens does what he wants, how he wants. He’s “not here to try to impress a certain crowd”, but instead is determined to continue to “make art that feels right” and “that’s it”. He doesn’t care about being hated, because “some of the biggest artists in the world are the most hated” and while many artists may claim that they don’t care what people think in order to falsely present themselves as authentic, you only have to listen to ‘MCID’ once to know that in this particular case, we’re being told the truth. From Gojira to Young Thug to Connor Mason of Nothing But Thieves to Tee Grizzley, there’s no stone left unturned, and even Stevens himself can be found rapping on the record for the very first time. 

While his rapping may be new to the fans, hip-hop is really nothing new to Stevens, who has been “been rapping longer than [he’s] been doing rock n roll, just no one knows that”. Being born in 1986 on the east coast of America meant that he was always right in the heart of it, so it’s unsurprising that it’s his favourite genre of music (if there is such a thing anymore). This long lasting relationship with hip-hop explains why it seems to come so naturally to Stevens, and why it’s been at the heart of their shows “forever, even when [they] played in bars 10 years ago”. It might be a shock to some, but it’s certainly not new to Highly Suspect or to the fans that have been attending shows since the band has existed. 

HIGHLY SUSPECT: “There is no certain crowd I really care about, what I’m here to do is make art that feels right”

Stevens makes it abundantly clear that the negative opinions of both critics and fans surrounding this new sonc avenue mean nothing to him. When asked what he might say to such people his response is that he’d say “nothing. Absolutely nothing. [He has] no time for them” other than to say, “Have a wonderful day”. The fact is that Stevens knew when creating this album that the “rock n roll purists would have an issue with some of the sonic branding of this album” and sees that fact as anything but his problem. The drastic jump in genre from track to track isn’t something you’d find on any other album but, Johnny notes, it is something you’ll find at festivals, and that’s exactly how he describes this album – it’s “a miniature festival”. 

While you’d be hard-pressed to find an album that’s as eclectic as ‘MCID’ elsewhere, the rise of streaming has meant that our playlists are full of variety, allowing us to tap into far more genres than ever before. We no longer have to save our pennies to put towards our favourite artists’ new records because the entire world of music is open to us for £9.99 a month, and as well as influencing our tastes, it’s influencing how artists write, too, making music more exciting than ever. Despite Stevens’ view on American rock circa 2004 (we’ll get to this), he’s adamant that “there is so much good art out there” and that “it’s been a while since [he] heard something that made [him] cringe.” Pulling influence from multiple genres is a commonality by now, as are playlists made up of everything from metalcore to hip hop to pop to indie. In hindsight, we may well find that Highly Suspect are well ahead of the curve with ‘MCID’, as our music melds into one, and Stevens is unsure “if genres even exist anymore”. 

Even if it “pays shit”, he still loves it, and his resignation to the financial element of this streaming era is both sad and admirable, as he accepts that to make any kind of decent living as a musician requires “getting your hands in some side of the business department. That’s what it is” because “the artist isn’t designed to win”. Whether Stevens and his bandmates have dipped a toe in the business side of the industry, he doesn’t say, but either way it’s clear that making music that means something is more important than anything.

As for how ‘MCID’’s collaborations came about – and as with almost everything Stevens has to say today – there’s a story. For Connor Mason and Gojira, it was borne out of long term friendships. With Gojira in the end, it was simply a case of rolling a joint “and that was that”, while Mason’s part was completed remotely and was so impressive that Stevens had to re-sing his own part before he was happy to put it out there. Young Thug, however, is a collaboration that’s been four years in the making. After Stevens was rejected in Young Thug’s own studio, Stevens responded on the spot by taking “took a 12 inch bowie knife out of my bag and stabbed it into a wooden table, stole his bottle of Patron”, and told him to remember him. “And here we are.” You could accuse Stevens of many things, but lacking passion is not one of them.

While there is a strong focus on the hip-hop elements that have made their way into this record, Stevens seems astounded by the fact that they’ve crossed boundaries into other genres, too, finding it “so funny that people put so much pressure on this whole, ‘Oh there’s hip hop on the album’”, when “there’s also some of the hardest stuff [they’ve] ever played – some of the softest stuff”. Ultimately, though, one of the main reasons Highly Suspect has moved away from ‘rock’, is a direct result of what he sees as American rock music getting “fucked up”, becoming a “caricature of itself” and making him “want to puke”. He doesn’t go too much into this, wanting to steer clear of becoming too negative, but it’s clear that the era of so-called rock that existed specifically in America (he’s careful to note that rock music in England has been consistently high quality) from 2004 is looked at with absolute disdain as he concludes his tangent by pinning it down to “butt rock” and “punk rock”, leaving us to decide who may fall under each category. 

Stevens is right to mention the softer tracks, too. To ignore ‘Arizona’ – which sees guitarist Richard Meyer take centre stage as vocalist – or even ‘Fly’, is to do the record a disservice. Tracks such as ‘Fly’ in particular allow Stevens the most catharsis, but can also cause the most pain once the dust has settled, especially if they become a fan favourite. Releasing such tracks is “beautiful but it’s tough”, and in that sense, it’s Stevens’ main outlet. “Some people go to therapists, I go to bar rooms and write on napkins. Um, some people paint, some people box, some people run. You know – some people turn to drugs. There’s always an outlet and from my end, it’s writing.”

And in the same way that all of these outlets have their limits when it comes to effectiveness, so too does writing for Stevens. He describes it as “a little glimpse and then it becomes a prison again because then you have to perform things that maybe you don’t feel the same way about for a while”. He cites 2015’s release ‘Lydia’ as the greatest example of this, it’s a song he hates playing, but will “do it because [he knows] that it makes so many other people happy, you know, so there’s the balance”. And it is a balance. Just a few hours later when Stevens plays this particular song at Oslo in Hackney, stretching it out well beyond the original four minutes through the use of crowd interaction, you’d never for a second guess that he was having anything other than a great time. Ultimately he accepts that this is a song fans love, and that fans will complain about its absence on a setlist without ever considering why that may be, and since “they’re the ones paying the bills, they’re the ones that’re, you know, there for us”, and if it helps people, that fact “makes [him] feel good so [he] swallows… and it’s worth it”. 

While ‘Lydia’ is an example of a track that may have been written when the feelings were most raw, Highly Suspect’s latest single ‘16’ took 10 years to write, and while it may have been “time” to name an album after the band’s motto, this song is reaching our ears now because Stevens was “finally was able to uh, fit my feelings into a four minute song”. The song tells a classic story of young love: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl gets pregnant. Boy finds out the baby isn’t his. Through the colour of the baby’s skin.

So maybe not that ‘classic’ after all.

It’s the kind of pain that you can only even begin to imagine, and while Stevens had been wanting to write about it for a while, it’s only now that he’s been able to do so “efficiently and thoroughly”. And he’s pleased that in the end it did take so long, “because the initial pain from that situation’s gone – literally – like life is wildly different than it was 10 years ago so… I’m good”. And perhaps it’s this that will see the song have longevity not only for the fans – with a song as incredible as this, that’s almost inevitable – but for the band, too. It was written in a more rational and stable time of Stevens’ life, and so we can only hope the performance will continue to be as enjoyable for years to come. 

As for what we can hope for in the immediate future, Stevens is still on the road to recovery from a broken foot that had him immobile for a while, “so it’s nice just to get up and out for a minute and feel alive again” after a “really, really tough year” of putting on weight and having to lose it all again (“Still have 20 [pounds] to go”). It was partly this injury that led to the show the band put on this very evening at Oslo in Hackney, where they’ll play to 375 of their biggest fans (“I think I’m playing in a fucking bar room”) – a taster of what’s to come with the full UK tour they’re set to embark on in March. 

“We just wanted to do something fun for the end of the year for ourselves before Christmas and kind of remind people that, oh yeah, we’re still around, it’s been a while.”

It has been a while, yeah, but if the evening’s performance is anything to go by, this has been anything but an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation for the fans. ‘MCID’ has been more of a success than anyone could have imagined – even more so, probably, because it’s the most real this band has ever been. We’re very excited to see where Highly Suspect goes from here. 

YASMIN BROWN