Dante High

Saturday, Oct. 13, 9 p.m., $10

The Pinhook, Durham


Ari Picker wants to make the musical equivalent of instant coffee. This may come as a surprise to those who followed his former projects, like Lost in the Trees, which is more like the musical equivalent of a rare and delicate jasmine tea. While Lost in the Trees was known for its folksy introspection and choral arrangements, Picker’s current band, the eighties-inflected electropop Dante High, deals in the visceral. One gets the sense that their lyrics are meant to be sung along to, not analyzed.

The transition may come as a surprise to some, but Picker has been building to this point for years. In 2015, a few months after Lost in the Trees’ farewell show, Picker demurred about the touring life of a musician, saying, “I don’t know where I sit anymore, but all I know is I can’t tour anymore. I’ve lost my mind.”  He joked, “Maybe I’ll be a carpenter.”

Three and a half years later, we follow up with the Berklee College of Music graduate in Pittsboro, his hometown, where he has moved back and started working in construction. Over email, we talked about how the “dirty jobs” and remembrance of a “romanticized version of [his] youth” inspired the formation of Dante High, the ease of holding down an arpeggiated button on a Juno 60, and the new genre of his music he calls “parking lot soul.”

INDY: It seems like every time someone writes about you, it’s about how your current project is nothing like your last project. After the ornate and intimate A Church That Fits Our Needs, you composed Lion and the Lamb, a Rilke-inspired concert performance. How would you describe the transition from working in Lost in the Trees to Dante High?

Ari Picker: It all started when I moved back to my hometown, Pittsboro, and started working in construction. I spent a lot of time doing dirty jobs like tearing out old attics, throwing asbestos into trash bags, and rewiring crawl spaces. We’d listen to the Misfits all day, lots of Huey Lewis, and this new age album called Deep Breakfast. At night, I’d drive the truck down country roads and think about growing up in this small town, the bonfires in the woods, breaking into abandoned trailer parks, all the ghost stories, the car crashes, the girls, the funerals. When I got back into the studio, all that just kinda bled together and formed this idea of Dante High.  Some sort of romanticized version of my youth and the kids of Pittsboro.

What drove you to work in construction, as opposed to other jobs you could work in Pittsboro?

I had to build something that actually physically existed. You can spend just as much time making a record as you can building a house. But at the end of the process the record vanishes. A house is there forever. I highly recommend that everyone try to build their own house. Avoiding a mortgage is the first step to being an adult anarchist.

What motivates you to move from these sort of classical arrangements to this electro-pop sound? What does a new genre make possible in your music?

Writing classical arrangements is hard. Holding down an arpeggiated button on a Juno 60 is easy.  All I wanted to do was to sing at the top of my lungs. I’d play a lil bass run and Drummer Pete [Lewis] would play a beat. The songs would just come. It was like instant coffee—tastes like crap but certainly slaps you in the face. Then, Guitar Player Joah [Tunnell] would come over, and I’d say, “Can you sing this high harmony?” Joah would sing it and I’d be like, “Dude that’s a high part… Can you sing a higher part?” No matter how high the part, Joah could hit the notes. Fucking incredible, man. Anything is possible.  

How do you make a piece of music? Can you walk me through how you write a song like “Parking Lot Soul”?

I don’t think I really have any control over what music I make. I just show up in a certain mood and pick ideas out of the void. Honestly, I can’t remember writing “Parking Lot Soul.” But I do remember listening to it after it was done and thinking, “Man, this is something else!” An energy came out that I had never experienced before. That song spawned the rest of the songs off the album. If you ask me what genre of music we play, it’d be called Parking Lot Soul.

How has your approach to music changed from Lost in the Trees to Dante High?

It’s a complete 180. I put no thought into Dante High, it’s all instinct.  It’s like being blindfolded and shoved into the trunk of a stranger’s car. You’re in the dark, reaching out for someone’s hand, but you don’t know whose hand you’re going to get. It’s terrifying, but equally exhilarating.  We’ve got two rules with this band. It’s gotta be hyper romantic, and it must avoid 88-90 BPM. That tempo is crap, you can’t slow dance to it, you can’t fast dance to it. It must be avoided.