Horror in the Hills Halloween Party | Saturday, Oct. 30 & Sunday, Oct. 31, $20–$25 (12 and under free) | Shakori Hills Community Arts Center, Pittsboro 

Ari Picker’s favorite part of our interview was when I told him some of the musical references I heard on his new album, Dante High II, a frothy and exhilarating pastiche of the guitar and synth music of classic rock radio through a modern indie sheen.

To me, “Deeper Love” sounded like a blend of Porches, which Picker had never heard, and Tears for Fears, which he ranks with Depeche Mode as an analog-production ideal. But really, he copied the idea of the stormy opening soundscape from the first Black Sabbath record and filched the beat from former Eagle Don Henley’s soft-rock hit “The Boys of Summer.”

“Victims of Victims,” meanwhile, sounded like the stylish French band Phoenix—which Picker admires but doesn’t especially follow—covering Blue Öyster Cult, if mainly just because of that cowbell.

“I was trying to do a David Bowie ‘Rebel Rebel’ kind of thing,” he says, sitting in his home studio in Pittsboro with the analog gear that makes Dante High’s new album feel more live than its software-leaning debut: a Yamaha DX7 synth here, a modded Oberheim DMX drum machine there. “Or something Stones-y, where the progression doesn’t change. Can you carry a song that way? That was the exercise.”

“Worthless Dreamer,” I thought, sounded a lot like The Outfield’s “Your Love”—a song that rips off The Police so hard you might assume it’s theirs—as produced by the horror icon John Carpenter.

It’s natural to consider Dante High in cinematic terms, and not just for its saturated wide-screen colors and sound effects. The name itself implies some purgatory between eighties teen comedy and The Divine Comedy, an impression bolstered by the two albums’ sequel titling.

“You got that one,” Picker says of the Carpenter crib, though the slasher-movie ostinato is also basically a slowed-down version of the synth line from Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration.”

“I’m not opposed to stealing at all, if it’s obvious and fun,” he adds. It is.

Some musicians wouldn’t warm to the suggestion that their songs were collections of citations, but you get the sense that Picker could play this game all day quite happily, unraveling each strand in a finely woven tapestry of the popular music of his youth.

Certainly, he prefers it to discussing his more recent past in Lost in the Trees, the orchestral indie-pop band that rose from Chapel Hill’s Trekky Records to LA’s Anti- for a four-record run that earned Picker a full-time living and a national following, while illustrating both the industry advantages and the personal toll of painful musical autobiography.

In significant ways, Dante High is about leaving all of that behind.

Still, it forms the backdrop for how a new single by a small-town band that has played about ten shows in four years could earn more than 25,000 Spotify streams in one day, as “Deeper Love” just did.

Usually, those rare local shows are special events at skate parks or skating rinks, not standard nightclub dates, and that tradition of quality over quantity continues in Dante High’s Halloween bash at Shakori Hills. With guests like bassist Will Hackney and saxophonist Daniel Chambo joining core members like drummer Pete Lewis, guitarist Thomas Costello, and keyboardist Emma Nadeau, Picker headlines a weekend of music, arty and spooky happenings, and camping. Expect to hear the new music, which is on Bandcamp now, but not to bring it home. This is the beginning of a soft rollout, as Picker, it seems, works out a rather novel and bespoke way to be a rock star.

“I am trying to be the biggest local band in the world,” he says, laughing. It’s a striking idea and one that he specifically might just be able to pull off. They say you have to go big or go home. But why can’t that “or” be an “and”?

When I said I loved the little wolf howls on “Carphone,” which turned out to be an homage to sample-happy rock bands like Pink Floyd, I didn’t know Picker was going to show up for his INDY photo shoot in a werewolf costume. A secret connection? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s almost Halloween, and Ari Picker just likes being someone else.

After Lost in the Trees, which released its final album in 2014, Picker was disillusioned with the music industry and the strain of artistic subsistence.

He turned his energy to building his house in Pittsboro, which he didn’t know how to do when he started. He used what he learned to build up his own small construction business. He got married and had two kids.

In 2018, Dante High’s self-titled debut was Picker’s unexpected return to music as a lamb in wolf’s clothes. The vision first started to form when he recorded with Josh Kimbrough’s new-wave rock band, Teardrop Canyon, which would have been called Joshy K instead if Picker had his way.

“I was like, it’s got to be a name, you’ve got to be able to create this persona to hide behind, because it’s like a theatrical performance,” Picker recalls. “And he didn’t go for it.”

Still, that idea found its place when Picker named his band Dante High, an uninhibited and confident persona compared to the tremulous one of his orch-pop days. One inspiration was the metalhead jocks of small towns like Pittsboro before the internet, the mulleted mavericks Picker regarded with awe in high school. Another was the music he heard constantly on construction crews, from Judas Priest and Huey Lewis to The Misfits.

“When I quit music full-time, music just became more fun,” he says. “I went back to what got me into it in the first place, listening to eighties and nineties radio as a fan more than an artist.”

Fatherhood also exerted an influence, as Picker found himself awash in Disney ballads both old and new.

“There’s this kind of stripped-down emotion, like, love!—110 percent, not complicated,” he says. “Coming from indie pop or rock or whatever, everything’s got to be shrouded in this hip thing. But I wanted raw emotion and fist-pumping good times.”

Dante High II took shape over a year and a half. Picker set out to make “a direct sequel” to the naïve and hedonistic first record, but it came out darker than he intended.

“I wanted to write a working man’s record, a party record, like, ‘It’s Friday, let’s get some beers!’” he says. “Instead, it’s like, ‘I hate my boss, I need to go on vacation.’ I think there’s this constant buzz in the back of my mind of everybody working themselves to death.”

The theme is overt on “Love the Job, Hate the Commute,” but it also reverberates through “Deeper Love.” (In its video, Picker appears in various states of shirtless meatheaded-ness, all somehow adorable.) When it’s suggested that it’s interesting for someone who’s happily self-employed to start singing about work angst now, he smiles and muses, “It is interesting, isn’t it,” either just considering it or playing it close.

“I do feel a lot of dignity in construction work, which is nice because I think musicians feel this constant dread about whether they’re successful and how they’re going to sustain,” he says. “When I built the house I live in, it was about as hard as making a record, but nobody’s going to come and review it, and it’s not going to just disappear.”

On that sturdy foundation, Picker can build endeavors like Horror in the Hills, an album-release-show-turned-festival that also features Skylar Gudasz, Shirlette Ammons, Canine Heart Sounds, and more. Most of the music is on Saturday, but the weekend is stuffed with “haunted shenanigans and art installations” wrangled by Caitlin Wells and the kinds of sundry activities generally called family fun.

It’s some hoopla for the second album by a band that’s never left the state, but it’s just right for one whose course seems tilted toward beautifully produced songs, lavish shows, and high-concept concert films instead of the old-school PR-and-touring grind.

And if Dante High II’s good times are shot through with darker threads than Picker had planned, perhaps it’s just a sort of afterimage, a delayed reaction. Some dreams, and their attendant fears, take time to fade, even as better realities arise in their place.

“I’ll run little visuals in my head. Like, with ‘Addicted to the News,’ I’ll see a big concert, and the band’s playing the song, and all of a sudden a phone’s ringing, and I run backstage, and it’s my boss,” Picker says, as if storyboarding his next video in real time.. “He’s like, ‘Where are you, why aren’t you at work?’ So I leave the concert through the back door and drive to work, and all of a sudden the whole dream of being a rock star is gone and you’re in the daily grind.

“The whole ‘love the job, hate the commute’ thing is about artists, but instead I’m talking about people driving to work and getting stuck in traffic,” he adds. “That was a long period of my life that was painful to let go, but I’m so much happier now. So maybe that’s what it is—I’m happy but reflecting on that process.”

And the good times roll on. 

Additional interviewing contributed by Michaela Dwyer.

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